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Switch-reference in the Ye shes rgyas pa'i mdo

  • ZACK BEER (a1)


This paper seeks to contribute to understanding of the dynamics of reference relation and subordination in Tibetan grammar. As a way of shedding light on this complex topic, it examines a translated sūtra, the Ye shes rgyas pa'i mdo, which contains numerous stories relating interactions and conversations between a variety of characters. A close reading of several representative passages of this text reveals some of the systematic structures of subordination. Despite not being outlined as a principle in traditional Tibetan grammars, subordination is seen here to be clearly reinforced by, and at times entirely encoded in, the use of the converb –nas to express coreference, and in the verbal noun and converb structures –pa dang and -pa las to connote cross-reference. The paper thus aims to show how attention to the functioning of subordinating structures serves the reader in the interpretation of complex passages where such structures at times provide the only key to the attribution of agency.



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1 Andersen points out that another type of zero realisation, which he terms “ellipsis,” is not affected by, and works across, these boundaries. See Andersen, Paul Kent, “Zero-Anaphora and Related Phenomena in Classical Tibetan”, Studies in Language, 11, 2 (1987), pp. 286-296.

2 Ibid., p. 291.

3 Abel Zadoks, “Switch Evidence in Old Tibetan: Between Switch Reference and Evidentiality”, Paper presented at the 9th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Leiden University, 2000. I did not attend this unpublished talk and have no handout from it. However, Zadoks summarised his findings in a later talk, from which I have the handout: see Abel Zadoks, “The Tibetan Connection: Switch Evidence and Direct-Inverse Marking from Old to Middle Tibetan”, Paper presented at the 8th Himalayan Languages Symposium, Bern University, 2002. Here Zadoks specifically contrasts V-pa-dang “discontinuity” and V-nas “continuity”.

4 Oddly, Haller includes Zadoks, “The Tibetan Connection” in the bibliography of his Themchen grammar: see Felix Haller, Dialekt und Erzählungen von Themchen: sprachwissenschaftliche Beschreibung eines Nomadendialektes aus Nord-Amdo. Beiträge zur tibetischen Erzählforschung 14 (Bonn, 2004), p. 442, but forgets his debt to Zadoks in his more recent paper specifically on switch-reference: see Haller, Felix, “Switch-Reference in Tibetan”, Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman, 32, 2 (2009), pp. 45-70.

5 Haller, “Switch-Reference in Tibetan”, p. 54.

6 Ibid., p. 51.

7 The full title of this text, extant only in Tibetan, is Bcom ldandas kyi ye shes rgyas pa'i mdo sde rin po che mtha’ yas pa mthar phyin pa (D 99), translated by Prajñāvarma and Ye shes snying po (circa 8th century). It was first noted by Csoma de Kőrös in his 1836 catalogue of the Bka’ ‘gyur; he summarised the gist of its plotline as follows: “Sha'kya, addressing Mangalyana, (who again asks him several times) tells the stories of several individuals in very remote ages, and applies them all to himself; and says that it was he himself who acted or reasoned thus at that time. Among these stories occur many praises and hymns addressed to Tathāgatas—there are descriptions on the conduct of the wise—on the miseries of life—the desire of happiness—offerings, sacrifices, adoration—that there is no reality in all things”. See de Kőrös, Csoma, “Analysis of the Sher-chin—P'hal-Ch'hen—Dkon-séks—Do-dé— Nyáng-dás—and Gyut”, Asiatic Researches, 20 (1836), pp. 393-552; here pp. 427-428.

8 D 99: vol. 47, 231b.1-231b.2. All citations are from the Derge edition of the Bka’ ‘gyur.

9 Ibid., 138b.7.

10 Ibid., 143b-144a.1.

11 Ibid., 231b.2-231b.3.

12 See two articles by Hill: Hill, Nathan W., “Tibetan -las, -nas, and -bas”, Cahiers de Linguistique—Asie Orientale, 41 (2010), pp. 3-38; and Hill, Nathan W., “The Converb -las in Old Tibetan”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 73, 2 (2010), pp. 245-260.

13 D 99: vol. 47, 146b.5-146b.6.

14 We have already seen this use of -nas in example 4.

15 D 99: vol. 47, 214a.7-214b.1.

16 Ibid., 136b.6-136b.7.

17 Haller, “Switch-Reference in Tibetan, p. 58.”

18 D 99: vol. 47, 145b4-145b5.

19 Ibid., 130a.7.

20 Ibid., 124a.6.

21 Ibid., 124b.4-124b.5.

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Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society
  • ISSN: 1356-1863
  • EISSN: 1474-0591
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-the-royal-asiatic-society
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