Dzongkha, The National Language of Bhutan

Dzongkha was decreed as the national language of the kingdom of Bhutan by the Third Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuk in the year 1961. It is the native language of eight of the twenty districts of Bhutan, viz. ཐིམ་ཕུག་ Thimphu, སྤུ་ན་ཁ་ Punakha, སྤ་རོ་ Paro, དབང་འདུས་ཕོ་བྲང་ Wangdiphodrang, སྒར་ས་ Gasa, ཧཱ་ Ha, དར་དཀར་ནང་ D'agana and ཆུ་ཁ་ Chukha in western Bhutan, but Dzongkha is spoken as a lingua franca throughout the country.

Dzongkha means the ཁ་ kha 'language' spoken in the རྫོང་ dzong 'fortress'. These dzongs dominate the mountainous landscape of the Bhutan from east to west and have traditionally been both centres of military and political power as well as centres of learning. More specifically, Dzongkha is the cultivated form of the native language of the western Bhutan, the inhabitants of which as well as their language have traditionally been known as སྔ་ལོང་ 'Ngalong. A popular folk etymology for the term is that it means 'the first to rise' to the teachings of Buddhism in the land. Although the 'Ngalong were amongst the first in Bhutan to be converted to the teachings of the Buddha, the term 'Ngalong probably derives from སྔན་ལུང་ 'Ngenlung 'ancient region'.

Dzongkha is said to have an old literary tradition in the sense that Classical Tibetan or Chöke is to Dzongkha as Latin is to Portuguese, and the process of vernacularisation currently in progress in Bhutan has numerous parallels with the linguistic situation in the mediaeval Romace world. Just as Latin used to exercise and continues to exercise great influence on the vocabulary of the Romance languages and even English (e.g., video, multilateral, disinfectant, international, credit), so too Chöke, the language of learning and liturgy, continues to strongly influence modern spoken and written Dzongkha.

The Thirty Letters of the Dzongkha alphabet is known as གསལ་བྱེད་གསུམ་བཅུ་ Selj'e Sumcu. The script used in writing Dzongkha is the same as that used for Tibetan and is known as the 'Uchen script. This script was devised on the basis of the Gupta or Northern Brahmi script used for Sankrit in the middle of the seventh century and is traditionally attributed to Thönmi or Thumi Sambotra, a minister of the Tibetan King Songtse Gampo.
There are four vowel symbols in the 'Uchen script, as shown below:

Vowel Symbol Sound Value Dzongkha Name Roman Dzongkha
i གི་གུ་ g'ikhu
u ཞབས་ཀྱུ་ zh'apju
e འགྲེང་པོ་ drengbo
o ན་རོ་ nâro, naro

The name of the vowel symbol ན་རོ་ as a noun by itself is pronounced nâro. In spelling out loud in Dzongkha, the word serves as a postposition rather than as a noun and is pronounced naro, with a short vowel. When no vowel is indicated, the vowel in a syllable is automatically a.
This is illustrated by the following example.

ཀུ ku (ku) ཀུ་
ཕི phi (phi) ཕི་
ya (ya) ཡ་
ཨོ o ('o) ཨོ་
སེ se (se) སེ

In the 'Uchen script, consonants representing glides are written as diacritics above or below another consonant symbol to represent consonant clusters which were pronounced as such in Old Tibetan.
The letter ར་ r, when it comes before another consonant, is written as a diacritic above the consonant it precedes, except before the letter ཉ་ ny, where it retains its full form.
རྒ་ rga (ga) རྒ་
རྙ་ rña ('nya) རྙ་

When ར་ r comes immediately after another consonant, it is written as a diacritic known as ྲ rata below the consonant which it follows.
བྲ་ bra (dr'a) བྲ་
ཀྲོ་ kro (tro) ཀྲ ཀྲོ་
When ཡ་ y comes immediately after another consonant, it is written as a diacritic known as ྱ yata below the consonant which it follows.
ཀྱ་ kya (ca) ཀྱ་
ཕྱོ་ phyo (pcho, cho) ཕྱ ཕྱོ་
When ཝ་ w comes immediately after another consonant, it is written as a diacritic known as ྭ waz'ur below the consonant which it follows.
ཀྭ་ kwa ཀྭ་
གྲྭ་ grwa (dr'a, dra) གྲ གྲྭ་
Marks of punctuation include the triangle dot which serves to separate syllables, called a ཚག་ tshâ. The Dzongkha equivalent to a comma, semicolon and full stop is a ཤད་ shê, which looks like this: །. Two of these, ཤད་གཉིས་ shê 'nyi, are used at the end of the paragraphs, proverbs and significant quotations, especiall in Chöke.
The 'Uchen letters in printed or uncial writing is known as ཚུགསམ་ tshûm. Dzongkha alphabet are also written in different ways namely མགྱོགས་ཚུགསམ་ jôtshum, Bhutanese formal longhand and མགྱོགས་ཡིག་ jôyi, Bhutanese cursive longhand.
Dzongkha is a tone language with two distinctive tones, a high register and a low register tone.

                                       Dzongkha Syllable Onsets Marked For Tone
High Low
velar nasal 'nga རྔ་ nga ང་
palatal nasal 'nya རྙ་ nya ཉ་
dental nasal 'na རྣ་ na ན་
bilabial nasal 'ma རྨ་ ma མ་
palatal glide 'ya དབྱའ་ ya ཡ་
voiced lateral 'la རླ་ la ལ་
labiovelar glide 'wa དབའ་ wa ཝ་

front closed unrounded 'i ཨི་ i འི་
front closed rounded 'ü ཨུས་ ü འུས་
back closed rounded 'u ཨུ་ u འུ་
front half-open unrounded 'e ཨེ་ e འེ་
front half-open rounded 'ö ཨོས་ ö འོས་
back half-open unrounded 'o ཨོ་ o འོ་
front open 'ä ཨས་ ä འས་
back open 'a ཨ་ a འ་

There are Dzongkha syllable onsets not marked for tone, example:

high register low register
unvoiced aspirated voiced devoiced
velar plosive ka ཀ་ kha ཁ་ ga རྒ་ g'a ག་
palatal affricate ca ཅ་ cha ཆ་ ja རྗ་ j'a ཇ་
dental plosive ta ཏ་ tha ཐ་ da རྡ་ d'a ད་
retroflex plosive tra ཀྲ་ thra ཁྲ་ dra སྒྲ་ dr'a གྲ་
bilabial plosive pa པ་ pha ཕ་ ba རྦ་ b'a བ་
alveolar affricate tsa ཙ་ tsha ཚ་ dza ཛ་
bilabial palatal affricate pca པྱ་ pcha ཕྱ་ bja སྦྱ་ bj'a བྱ་
palatal sibilant sha ཤ་ zha གཞ་ zh'a ཞ་
alveolar sibilant sa ས་ za གཟ་ z'a ཟ་
apical continuant hra ཧྲ་ ra ར་
lateral continuant lha ལྷ་
voiceless aspirate ha ཧ་

Given above is brief introduction to Dzongkha, the national language of the Kingdom of Bhutan, predominantly Buddhist country which lies in the eastern Himalayas. We have also mentioned about the Dzongkha Scripts and tried to explain some of the basic phonology of Dzongkha.