Microsoft, Dzongkha, and “dialects”

Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan, has been relegated to the status of a dialect of Tibetan in Microsoft products. Rather than being labelled “Dzongkha” or “Bhutan-Dzongkha,” it is identified as “Tibetan – Bhutan” in the recently released beta version of Windows Vista. This is apparently an official Microsoft policy, likely aimed at appeasing China.

Microsoft has barred the use of the Bhutanese government’s official term for the Bhutanese language, Dzongkha, in any of its products, citing that the term had affiliations with the Dalai Lama. In an internal memorandum, Microsoft employees were told not to use the term Dzongkha in any Microsoft software, language lists or promotional materials since “Doing so implies affiliation with the Dalai Lama, which is not acceptable to the government of China. In this instance, replace “Dzongkha” with ‘Tibetan – Bhutan’.”

The Kingdom of Bhutan is situated in the Himalayas between India and Tibet. The state religion is the Drukpa Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism and Dzongkha is the official language. Dzongkha has a linguistic relationship to modern Tibetan in a similar way to that between Spanish and Italian.

The use of the word Dzongkha was graded by Microsoft as a ‘ship-stopper’, which means that a product may not be produced in any form until the problem is resolved. Microsoft has four levels of error severity, ship-stopper being the most severe.

Likely uses of the term may have been in Language Lists for Microsoft products, particularly the upcoming release of the next version of the Microsoft Windows operating system, Windows Vista. (Source: Microsoft Sensitive to Chinese Pressure on Bhutan Tibet Link, Tibet News. )

I didn’t know anything about Dzongkha, so I did some searching and found this:

Dzongkha is the modern Bhutanese vernacular language derived from Old Tibetan through many centuries of separate evolution on Bhutanese soil. Modern Dzongkha differs from Classical Tibetan as much as modern French does from Classical Latin. Only a few decades ago, the first attempts were undertaken to write in the vernacular in Bhutan, and the strong liturgical tradition in Bhutan has maintained the use of Classical Tibetan as the literary language to the present day. (source)

If this is accurate, the situation sounds familiar: A literary language (Classical Chinese in China, Classical Tibetan in Bhutan, Latin in Europe) continued to be used long after it was no longer spoken by the masses because over time the language had evolved in different ways in different places, becoming new languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, etc., in China; Dzongkha and Tibetan in Bhutan and Tibet; French, Spanish, Italian, etc. in Europe). But because people in different locales primarily used the same literary language rather than writing in their own [modern] languages, their mutually unintelligible languages were mislabeled “dialects.”

But even if everyone in Europe were to switch to writing in Latin or even Italian, that wouldn’t make French, Spanish, Portuguese, etc., “dialects.” Similarly, the use of Modern Standard Mandarin in China as the written language doesn’t mean that Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, Taiwanese, etc., aren’t all separate languages.

And, lest I pass over the issue of romanization, Dzongkha is written in the Tibetan script and also has an official romanization system, “Roman Dzongkha,” which makes use of all the letters of the Roman alphabet other than F, V, Q, and X. Its three diacritic marks are the apostrophe, the circumflex accent, and the diaeresis. Bhutan, however, is not expected to replace Bhutanese orthography with Roman Dzongkha.

And for Suzanne, here’s a Dzongkha keyboard.

additional source: Dzongkha: out of Windows?, Kuensel, Monday, September 26, 2005.

15 thoughts on “Microsoft, Dzongkha, and “dialects”

  1. I suspect that the claimed connection with the Dalai Lama is based on a misunderstanding. The founding teacher of the Dalai Lama’s Gelukpa lineage was Tsongkha-pa — the pronunciation of whose name is reasonably close in spoken Tibetan to the name of the Bhutanese national language, Dzongkha.

  2. The name “Dzongkha” has not the slightest association with the Dalai Lama. In fact the name “Dzongkha” originally referred to the language spoken in the dzongs or fortresses established in Bhutan in the seventeenth century by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal largely to stand up to or resist invasions by Tibetans and their Mongol allies. Dzongkha more generally refers to the mother tongue of western Bhutan which is the official national language and lingua franca of all Bhutan.

    How the language name “Dzongkha” is possibly affiliated with the Dalai Lama I can’t fathom. Stephen speculates that a confusion may have arisen as the “Dzong” (‘fortress’) in Dzongkha sounds ‘reasonably close’ to the “Tsong” (‘onion’) in Tsongkha-pa (‘man from onion country’) [a name of the founder of the of the Gelugpa (or Yellow Hat) sect of Tibetan Buddhism – a sect which never became established in Bhutan]. If this is the case it shows that Microsoft or their Chinese informants have little familiarity with the Tibetan and Bhutanese languages and are totally ignorant of Tibetan and Bhutanese history.

    Dzongkha is the official name of the Bhutanese language (recognized as such in ISO 639 and other international standards). Dzongkha is a *unique* name for the language and locale of Bhutan – a name which has no association with Tibet or the Dalai Lama. On the other hand, naming the language and locale “Tibetan-Bhutan” wrongly associates them with Tibet and, by extension, with the exiled Tibetan leader.

    (Thimphu, Bhutan)

  3. On this, Dr. George van Driem, Director of the Himalayan Languages Project, Department of Comparative Linguistics at Leiden Universiy, has now written:

    The language Dzongkha, literally “language of the fortress”, is a South Bodish language related to Dränjoke [a language of Sikkim] and, more distantly, to Tibetan. Tibetan, however, belongs to a distinct sub-branch and is a Central Bodish language. The word rDzong (pronounced Dzong) denotes the citadels which served as the centres of military power and higher learning throughout Bhutan since the mediaeval period. The word rDzong has nothing to do with the name Tsong-kha-pa, literally “man from the onion district” (1357-1419), who founded the dGe-lugs-pa (pronounced Gelukpa or Gelup) school of Tibetan Buddhism currently headed by the Dalai Lama. Such confusion could only arise in the minds of speakers of Mandarin Chinese or Tibetan who are not literate in either Tibetan or Dzongkha. Neither Mandarin Chinese nor Tibetan distinguishes
    phonologically between voiced and voiceless obstruent initials, unlike Dzongkha and, for example, English. >>

    – Chris

  4. Many thanks for the useful and informative comments. I wonder if all this will make any difference to Microsoft. I doubt it will for the Chinese government, which does not enjoy a good reputation for admitting its mistakes.

  5. Pingback: Foire aux idees Archive » Logiciels, linguistique et politique

  6. 2/11/2005


    I would like to refute the statement reported below on October 24th, 2005 in the Save Tibet article regarding the Dzongkha language.
    The justifications given in the article by Microsoft are ridiculous and inaccurate.

    As a historian of both Tibet and Bhutan, I can state that the Dzongkha language has nothing to do with the Dalai-Lamas for the following reasons :
    1- The Gelugpa religious school, to which the Dalai lamas belong, never had any religious influence in Bhutan.
    2- Prior to the Dalai Lamas assuming temporal power over Tibet in 1642 under the 5th Dalai Lama, Bhutan had emerged as a separate indfependent state. In 1616 the Drukpa Kagyu hierarch, the Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, (1594-1651) fled from Tibet, arrived in Bhutan and created a state with a unique system of government.
    3- Plus Bhutan had to fight numerous attempts of invasions by the Tibetans, including in the second part of the 17th century, by armies coming from the Dalai Lama’s government. Annually, at the great festival in Punakha, the Bhutanese celebrate the defeat of the Tibetan armies sent to conquer Bhutan. The Bhutanese state preserved its independence from the emerging Lhasa/Gelugpa government which is an important historical fact overlooked in the article.
    4- From the early 17th century until at least the mid-18th century, the relations between the two states Bhutan and Tibet were tumultuous, not to say, bad.
    This can be verified in numerous historical texts, Bhutanese as well as Tibetan.

    Therefore is nothing in the history that allows a confusion or association between the Dzongkha language and the Dalai-lamas.

    If we look at the linguistic point of view, it is true that both Tibetan and Dzongkha languages share the same alphabet and have the same roots. But this does not justify to make such an association.
    A similar example could be drawn from French, Italian and Spanish which share the same alphabet and the same roots. However would anybody think of taking off French, Spanish or Italian from a list ? Would anybody suggest that the Spanish King has rights over France or Italy ?

    The stand taken by Microsoft, if true, demonstrates a deeply disturbing ignorance of the complexity of the historical and linguistic situation in the Himalayas.

    On the other hand, calling Dzongkha “Tibetan-Bhutan” is misleading on all accounts and negating not only the fact that Dzongkha is a language but also negating the Bhutan identity as a state. It is like saying “French-Italy” or “Spanish-Italy”.

    Dr. Francoise Pommaret, Director of research, National Centre for Scientific Research, (CNRS)Paris, France.

  7. I wonder why Microsoft gave the laughable reasoning that Dzongkha is somehow related to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. As a Tibetan I know for sure that this is not so. Did any of the scholars here contact Microsoft?

    But I also do not subscribe to the theory that dzongkha is as different from Tibetan as Spanish and Italian are to each other. There is a closer relationship between Tibetan and Dzongkha. The written Dzongkha is a new invention and is not even a 100 years old. It is more like writing the dialect the way you speak it.

  8. Everything I read so far has no sourse related to Microsoft. I am sure Microsoft is not very ignorant. Most of the information about this topic can be sourced to the article in “Tibet News”. It would be wise to give the judgement after an official document from the Microsoft which states that Dzongkha cannot be accepted because its relation to HH Dalia Lama. I am sure that a good solution will come out between Bhutan and Microsoft. Lets hope for the best

  9. An update on this:

    In Windows Vista Release Candidate 1 (RC1) there is apparently now no locale or keyboard at all for Bhutan (either as “Dzongkha-Bhutan” or as “Tibetan-Bhutan”). “Tibetan-China” is supported.

    Vista does allow users to modify locales or create their own – so, if one knows enough about locales, one can create and install a locale that will appear as “Dzongkha-Bhutan”. However the fact that MS decided not to include “Dzongkha-Bhutan” is pretty cowardly.

    It’s also pretty galling in light of the fact that Microsoft initially developed support for Tibetan in their Uniscribe OpenType shaping engine for complex scripts based on information supplied to them by people working for the DDC Dzongkha Computing Project. The complex sorting / collation rules implemented by them for Tibetan also seem to have been initially developed by them based on information supplied by a member of the same project.

    This information was obviously freely supplied to Microsoft by the Bhutanese project on the understanding that Dzongkha would be supported in the next release of the Windows operating system.

    In other words they seem to have picked the brains of the Dzongkha Computing Project and then turned around and used that information to implement only Tibetan and not Dzongkha.

    IMO this is pretty shoddy.

    In Word 2007 beta there is apparently still the problem of language IDs – there Microsoft still have the language ID’s Tibetan-PRC and Tibetan-Bhutan – but no Dzongkha-Bhutan.

    In contrast Sun Microsystems seem to have had no qualms about supporting Dzongkha and a Dzongkha locale in OpenOffice 2.0.

  10. The Bhutanese should create their own characters and have monks in different colored robes. Otherwise, the cultural links with Tibetans, however much the Bhutanese deny, are obvious and will be used for political purposes.

  11. Just as the Tibetans are finding out, the Bhutanese should learn that historical facts and justness of one’s cause are not enough. Ultimately, power writes the rules and Bhutan is simply not strong enough to negate Chinese desires.

  12. Tashi wrote:

    The Bhutanese should create their own characters and have monks in different colored robes. Otherwise, the cultural links with Tibetans, however much the Bhutanese deny, are obvious and will be used for political purposes.

    Of course there is a cultural connection – just as there is between many predominantly Catholic countries in Europe and elsewhere. This doesn’t mean these countries need to invent different alphabets to write thier different languages or that Catholic priests in one country should wear different coloured robes from those in another.

    For handwriting Bhutanese do use their own variants of the Tibetan script. These are known as Jôtshum (mgyogs tshugm) and Jôyi (mgyogs yigs – which are quite different from the various kinds of Ume (dbu med) used for handwriting in Tibet. The Jôtshum and Jôyi forms of Tibetan script go back to Denma Tsemang (one of the 25 great disciples of Padmasambhava) who came from E. Bhutan.

    There are also subtle differences between the Butanese style of Uchen (dbu can) and Tibetan stlyes of Uchen (dbu can) – used for printing books etc.

    – Chris

  13. Very interesting post.

    It’s difficult to say that this is influenced by politics. Microsoft only cares about money and they usually do things their way no bothering respecting other cultures and or organizations.

    Very sad but then again…we all know what we need to do. Stop using their products ;-)

  14. Indeed ,it is very disappointing to know that Microsoft, a big company with brilliant minded people fail to understand and resolve such a small thing in their big minds,…from my point of view,..what microsoft did was entirely money oriented,…in its attempt not to peril its market in China,…for money ,..somebody just cant refuse to accept a country’s age old identity,…,..Microsoft fails to understand that there are things which are more dear and greater than money,..things which mean a lot it doesn’t at all sound rational,..especially not to me,…

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