Friday, May 21, 2010

Judging Tibetans over etymology

A lot of fuss is made over the Tibetan word kyemey (also pronounced jyemey, depending on one's dialect), meaning wife or woman. Tendor has written on the topic recently (in Tibetan), and I just ran across 2007 post on Tibet Talk that addresses it too. There's a degree of debate as to the etymology of the word and likewise its spelling (it appears in several variants in many dictionaries), but the vast majority of Tibetans I've spoken with about it believe it means “low birth” in the sense that being born female is inferior to being born male.

I'm no proponent of the word kyemey, especially since there are unambiguously non-offensive words that enjoy much more widespread usage in contemporary Tibet. It actually makes me angry every time I hear it, and I'm 100% behind some of my Tibetan friends who are pushing to abolish the word. But what angers me even more is western people judging Tibetan society based on a word like kyemey and its likely etymology.

Let's step back and look in the mirror for a second. At English. The term husband is purportedly derived from Old Norse words meaning “house holder” or “master of the house”, but it's clear from the related word husbandry that there's a further notion of a benevolent lord looking over and managing something seen as unable to care for itself (the environment, livestock, or... one's spouse). As for the word wife, I've seen claims that it's connected to words for “veil”, “shame”, and a lot of other things supposedly-liberal people would be, well, ashamed of.

If Tibetans are to be judged for a word that reflects, in most people's minds, a sexist idea that women are inferior by birth, why aren't these same westerners judging their own peoples for the same sorts of sexist artifacts in their own languages? (And English is definitely not alone!) And why do westerners (even well-meaning “supporters”) behave so as to shame Tibetans about their own language as if offensive words were somehow a uniquely Tibetan thing?


  1. 2 more from English:
    Lord comes from "Hlaf-weard" or "Guardian of the bread"
    Lady comes from "Hlaf-dige" or "Kneeder of the bread"

    Judging a culture by its etymologies is like judging a person by their great-grandparent. Yeah, you may learn a bit about their history and influences, but you'll learn nothing about who they are.

  2. English has a whole chockload. thanks for pointing out these two, they are great ones.


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