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Dzongkha, the National language of Bhutan

Sandwiched between two big nations lies the small kingdom of Bhutan. There are twenty different districts in the country, and each region either has its own language that finds its roots in Tibeto-Burman or has its own unique dialect.

Bhutanese newspaper in Dzongkha. Courtesy:

The national language of Bhutan is referred to as "Dzongkha". The term is a combination of the words "fortress" and "language," and as such, signifies "the language of the fortress". The larger Tibeto-Burman or Sino-Tibetan family of languages includes Dzongkha, which belongs to the Central Bodish group. The Ngalongkha, or language of the Ngalong, which is the term given to the dialects that are spoken in the western valleys, is the language's modern name. Initially, this name was only applied to a portion of the Shar district, but through time, it spread to include the entire western region of Bhutan, from the Pelela Pass to Haa. Due to the fact that political offices were mostly located in areas where Ngalongkha was spoken, it soon became the official language of Bhutan after the country's unification.

Trongsa was the only major city that did not belong to the Ngalongkha-speaking region in medieval Bhutan. It later became the official and national language of the country. It shares many similarities and some linguistic similarities with Sikkimese as well as other Bhutanese languages such as Chocha Ngacha, Brokpa, Brokkat, and Lakha. Presently, there are a few native speakers in the area of Kalimpong, an Indian town that was formerly located in Bhutan but is now in Sikkim and North Bengal.

A word in Dzongkha can have two meanings as it is a two-toned language. It is written from left to right and uses Tibetan alphabets. It has the same basic subject-object-verb structure for sentence construction as Tibeto-Burman languages. Bhutanese people frequently write in Uchen (script for official papers and books) and Joyig (script for casual writing). Although most Bhutanese today cannot read Umé script and connect it with Tibetans, ancient manuscripts kept in Bhutan's temples appear to show that Bhutanese wrote a great deal in a variety of Umé scripts in the past.

Language map Bhutan. Photo: Public domain

Modern Dzongkha, based on these dialects but devoid of regional accents or variances, is, the primary dialect used in government communication and the media. Meanwhile, English is used as the second language in such institutions and platforms. In monastic institutions, instruction is still given in both traditional Tibetan and Dzongkha, and all schoolchildren learn Dzongkha for about an hour each day. Since they frequently write in traditional Tibetan, monastic academics are the primary users of written Dzongkha.

In Dzongkha, Bhutan is known as "Drukyul" (which translates to "the land of the Thunder Dragon"). Tibet has a long-standing connection to the dragon. After being compelled by rival rulers to flee his kingdom in Kham, the Tibetan saint Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal came to Bhutan and named the country "Drukyul". People who live in Drukyul are known as "Drukpa" much like the nation. Use of the term "Druk" has progressively decreased as the nation has come to be known as the "Kingdom of Bhutan."

Dzongkha alphabets

Some basic Dzongkha phrases and words:

Although the national language of Bhutan is Dzongkha, a fun fact about Bhutanese schools is that most of the subjects in schools are taught in English, such as science, history, geography, and even mathematics. This is probably why many young people in Bhutan are able to communicate in English as well as in Dzongkha, sometimes even better than in their native language. However, with the growing popularity of English in the nation, the national language has also slowly deteriorated. The Dzongkha Development Commission was formed as a means to promote and keep Dzongkha alive. In fact, they initiated several attempts to combat language-related issues, such as "Dzongjug", which is an assessment tool to determine the Dzongkha language skills of a person. The question then at hand is whether these solutions will bring positive changes or be ineffective. Nevertheless, Dzongkha will always be one of the most interesting South-East Asian languages among many other ethnic varieties in Asia.

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