Sunday, May 9, 2010

TIE-bet! Hey maybe they have TIE food?

Mispronouncing Tibet as "TIE-bet" is a classic sign of ignorance about Tibet, to the point of being a joke in many circles. I can't remember the first time I heard someone say "TIE-bet", but I remember being conscious of the ridiculous mispronunciation many years back. I was at an SFT workshop playing out a protest scenario where I was trying to enter an official meeting venue (to disrupt it, of course) while noisy protesters yelled outside. When security stopped me despite my business attire, without even thinking I blurted out something like "Damn free TIE-bet hippies, I can't even get to my office on time because of them!"

So a couple days ago in a coffee shop in Dharamsala, I overheard some young white women talking and couldn't help but notice that one of them pronounced Tibet as "TIE-bet" when speaking to the proprietor of the business, a Tibetan woman. I didn't catch any more of their conversation, but the incident got me thinking back to all the times I'd heard "TIE-bet" in the past and wondering how it's taken by Tibetans. Being that Tibet was a name created by foreign people, maybe mispronouncing it isn't as offensive as mispronouncing personal names or titles. Or maybe it is. I've lost track of how many times a person, usually a young white male, came up to me and insisted on saying "TIE-bet" while I was doing advocacy work (tabling, handing out flyers, etc.) for Tibet.

The word insisted is key here. While there have been times, like in the coffee shop the other day, when I only heard "TIE-bet" spoken a single time, I have never had an experience where the speaker apologized or switched to saying "Tibet" after being corrected. The power dynamic in situations like this is usually that we (myself and whomever I'm working with at the time) are trying to make a case for Tibet and encourage people we meet to be interested, receptive, and supportive, so there's a perceived need for us not to directly correct those who say "TIE-bet". It's uncomfortable for me and I imagine it's a lot more uncomfortable for many of the Tibetans I've faced the situation alongside. Whenever this happens, myself and others I've observed make sure to say "Tibet", correctly and clearly, again and again, in the hopes of giving the person we're talking with a hint. And it's NEVER worked.

I don't think it's just a matter of people being unable to interpret a subtle hint. I think what's going on here is a really troubling power game. The person who insists on saying "TIE-bet" is doing it because, in their mind, they're right. They've already made up their mind about Tibet - and I don't just mean the pronunciation of the "i". Sometimes they listen and nod. Usually they make dismissive comments. On occasion, they consider themselves pro-Tibet and have specific ideas on how the Tibet issue should be resolved, whose approach is right and whose approach is wrong, etc. When they do, it's not based on any real facts or knowledge, but rather ideologies and -isms (anti-Communism, libertarianism, pacifism, white man's burden, ...).

The real message in saying "TIE-bet" to someone who's already corrected you by saying "Tibet" is "I'm right and you're wrong." And I'm particularly offended when I see white people saying "TIE-bet" to Tibetans because, to me, it comes across as "I'm more of an authority on your country than you are, despite that I can't say its name right."

It's almost laughable that these people prove their ignorance by not even knowing how to say the name of the place correctly, then feel entitled to have strong opinions on its future. But it's not funny, it's frustrating and insulting. And I don't doubt that, in at least many of the cases, it's intentionally so.

Readers, do you have stories about people insisting on saying "TIE-bet" to your face? Is my interpretation of it off-base?


  1. A thought that came to my mind after writing this - is it about asserting power over another person's identity? (especially when it's TIE-betan versus Tibetan as opposed to TIE-bet versus Tibet) Is there a relation to the white tendency to question whether someone is "really black", or to the homophobic tendency to insist on saying "homosexual" when a person self-identifies as "gay" or "queer"?

  2. It seems to me that most of the time that I have heard Tie-bet was when I was living in Kentucky where pronunciations differed from my Northern accent, so I am wondering if these folks who are saying Tie-bet are from the Southern or Appalachian states, because I doubt anyone else would use that pronunciation. Southerns generally are proud of their way of speaking and any corrections to their pronunciation might cause them to take slight offense for they could feel that one is targeting their them for there accents or area of origin.

    Also on FB, someone made a comment as to the pronunciation Tibetian, this I have mostly heard from Indians and maybe other non-native English speakers, but I think that the extra I comes really from a Hinglish creation, Tibti is the word Hindi-speakers use for Tibetan and to make it sound like English one gets the extra I to form Tibetian.

  3. Hi, Kangpa Tshapo. I've actually run into the Tie bet pronunciation across the board. Just the other day I was talking to a guy from California, he kept using it again and again, despite me emphasizing TIH bet. Also, I heard a British woman using it recently, both non southern.

    I wouldn't be surprised if it has a greater predominance in the south for the reason you mentioned, which is a very different reason, but I've also definitely hit this frequently with non Southerners/Appalachians.

    Same with Tibetian, I've hit a shockingly high number of Americans who say it that way. The Hinglish thing I get, but I have to wonder where the americans--IN America--Are picking that one up.

    As for it being a Hinglish thing, well, Tibet isn't a Tibetan word anyway, so from that standpoint I don't have a real issue with it. That's me at least.

  4. "Tibetian" might result from confusion at having seen the French word Tibétain, along with -ian nationalities like Italian, Romanian, Iranian, Canadian, Brazilian, etc. Or even just the whole -ian pattern by itself. Honestly I don't think I've ever heard "Tibetian" spoken, just seen it written.

  5. Why not just correct people?

    If you show that they don't know what they are talking about, then the people really worth talking to will be interested, and maybe learn something.

    And if they get offended, and go off all huffy and puffy, then they probably weren't worth conversing with, were they?


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