Sunday, November 30, 2008

Another one bites the dust

How many times have you heard that the Chinese character for crisis consists of the combination of the characters for danger and opportunity? Well, I came across this link recently. It effectively blows apart this particular folk etymology.
Folk etymologies play a significant role in Buddhism, particularly in the Tibetan tradition. The written Tibetan language was essentially created in 8th century for the purpose of translating Sanskrit texts into Tibetan. Written Tibetan is a direct import of an 8th century Bengalese alphabet, as you can see from the display of alphabets over the centuries in one of the Calcutta museums. 
More significantly, Tibetan Buddhist vocabulary was based on the folk etymologies of Buddhist technical terms in Sanskrit. This development endowed Tibetan with a power to express Buddhist ideas comparable to the power of a high-level programming language to express complex computer commands in succinct form. At the same time, Tibetan technical terms were completely divorced from the true etymological roots of the Sanskrit terms.
A good example is the word bhagavan, usually translated as lord. The original Sanskrit is derived from the root bhaga, which is also the root of the word vagina. The root means source, womb, matrix, etc. However, in Tibetan, the three syllables are given the symbolic meanings of conquer, possess, and transcend, conquering the reactive emotions, possessing the qualities of awakening, and transcending ordinary experience. No doubt this was the how the word was explained to the compilers of the first Tibetan dictionaries.
Of course, this development creates wonderful complications for present-day translators: do you rely on the original Sanskrit meaning(s) or the Tibetan symbolic meanings?