Tibetan people's first names
There are many ways to identify ourselves and other people. Nowadays, people define themselves first by names. Most of the times, when we talk about names, we talk about the names that our parents gave us when we were born. Yet, each culture has its own way of naming children. Tibetan culture has a specific way of naming children, which differs a lot from those in the west. Let's explore what we know about given names in Tibet.
First, you should know that family names exist but they are no longer commonly used. For the vast majority, people refer to each other by their first names. That’s why we will focus on first names only. Also, first names are quite fun!
In Central Tibet people have two first names, each with two syllables. For example, Tsering Yangchen (ཚེ་རིང་དབྱངས་ཅན།) is a woman’s name given in Lhasa area. Dawa Tsering (ཟླ་བ་ཚེ་རིང་།) is a man’s name also given in Lhasa area.
In the Amdo and Kham areas, the rules may differ. For example if you see a three syllable name, it might belong to an Amdo person. As usual, we will focus on Central Tibet, and more particularly on the Lhasa region.
Does that name belong to a man or a woman?
So, people in Central Tibet have two first names. The first of these names is generally gender-neutral.
Sometimes, it directly indicates a gender. The second of the two names generally indicates the gender of the person. For example, Pema Dolkar (པད་མ་སྒྲོལ་དཀར།) is a woman’s name, because even though the first name Pema (པད་མ།) is gender-neutral, the second name Dolkar (སྒྲོལ་དཀར།) is an exclusively female name. However Pema Wangchuk (པད་མ་དབང་ཕྱུག) is a man’s name because Wangchuk (དབང་ཕྱུག) is a man’s name.
Among gender-neutral names, you have for instance Pema (པད་མ།), Dawa (ཟླ་བ།), Pasang (པ་སངས།), Karma (ཀརྨ), Dechen (བདེ་ཆེན།) and Sonam (བསོད་ནམས།).
Among typically female names, you have Wangmo (དབང་མོ།), Yudron (གཡུ་སྒྲོན།), Lhamo (ལྷ་མོ།), Chokyi (ཆོས་སྐྱིད།), Dekyi (བདེ་སྐྱིད།) and Yangchen (དབྱངས་ཅན།).
Among typically male names, you have Jamyang (འཇམ་དབྱངས།), Jigme (འཇེགས་མེད།), Dorjee (རྡོ་རྗེ།), Phuntsok (ཕན་ཚོགས།), Wangyal (དབང་རྒྱལ།) and Wangdak (དབང་གྲགས།).
The tricky thing is that some names, while usually gender-neutral when used as a first name, can indicate gender is used as a second name. For example, Tsering (ཚེ་རིང་།) is primarily a gender-neutral name. Women can be called Tsering Yudron (ཚེ་རིང་གཡུ་སྒྲོན།), as Tsering (ཚེ་རིང་།) is neutral and Yudron (གཡུ་སྒྲོན།) is a woman’s name. However if Tsering (ཚེ་རིང་།) is in the second position, then it indicates a male name. For example, Dawa Tsering (ཟླ་བ་ཚེ་རིང་།) and Pema Tsering (པད་མ་ཚེ་རིང་།) are male names.
However if the first of the two names is female and the second one is Tsering (ཚེ་རིང་།), the person is a woman... That gets confusing, right? A bit of practice and you can get used to it!
These indications may help you figure out if a name is a woman’s or a man’s. However, this is simply empirical research. This is clearly not an irrefutable truth. There are exceptions to these general indications. You can definitely find names that do not follow these rules.
How do parents choose their children’s name?
Besides choosing names preferentially (like in the west), the second way is that parents may ask a Buddhist monk or Buddhist high figure to give the child a name.
What do Tibetan names mean?
If a Buddhist monk or high figure names a child, the name will most likely have a religious significance.
Moreover, the Buddhist monk or high figure usually gives a name that has a strong connection with his religious tradition.
However, if parents give their child a name themselves, the name can have many different significations. This is the fun part.
Some names are of religious influence, either Buddhist or Bön (the “old religion of Tibet” that existed prior to Buddhism in Tibet).
However, usually parents give a name that reflects their hope for their child. The name “Tsering” (ཚེ་རིང་།), that you have seen several times now, means “Long life”. The name “Sherap” (ཤེས་རབ།) means “Wisdom”. The name “Jigme” (འཇེགས་མེད།) means “No fear”. The interesting thing is that sometimes, names are given in certain regions in particular. As we mentioned earlier, Tsering Yangchen (ཚེ་རིང་དབྱངས་ཅན།) sounds quite “Lhasa”. In the same way, the name “Phentok” (ཕན་ཐོགས།) looks very Shigaste (a city in the western part of Central Tibet). That way, if you meet a person called “Phentok” (ཕན་ཐོགས།), you can impress her or him by asking if she or he is originally from Shigaste.
Then, parents might give to their child as a first name the name of the day of the week she or he was born on. Children might then be called Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday. In Tibetan, those names would be Dawa (ཟླ་བ།), Mingmar (མིག་དམར།), Lhakpa (ལྷག་པ།), Purbu (ཕུར་བུ།), Pasang (པ་སངས།), Penba (སྤེན་པ།) or Nyima (ཉི་མ།). Then the parents add a second name to it. For instance, we told you earlier that Dawa Tsering (ཟླ་བ་ཚེ་རིང་།) was a common name in Lhasa. Well the first part means “Monday”.
Also, parents might give their children a name based on a very specific wish they have. Some parents think that they already have enough children and that they want that child to be the last one. They might call their child Chungdak (ཆུང་བདག), which can be translated as “Junior” or “Little one”. They may also call the child Chokpa (ཆོག་པ།), which literally means “It is enough”…
If parents have lost children before, they sometimes give a strange name to their children. Indeed, it is said that by giving the new child a strange or an ugly name, the latest child would avoid the bad fortune that his deceased older siblings experienced. This way, some children may be named “Dog shit” (in Tibetan “Khyi Kyak” ཁྱི་སྐྱགས།) or “Pig shit” (in Tibetan “Phak Kyak” ཕག་སྐྱགས།).
Also, if a child gets very sick, parents might give her or him a new name, hoping that bad fortune will disappear with the old name.
But then of course, parents might choose names just because they sound particularly nice.
Are there nicknames?
Do you think two first names with two syllables each is just too long? Well some Tibetans think the same.
Some people contract their two first names into just one. They take the first syllable of the first name and mash it with the first syllable of the second name. For example, Tashi Dorjee (བཀྲ་བཤིས་རྡོ་རྗེ།) becomes TaDo (བཀྲ་རྡོ།). Tsering Yangchen (ཚེ་རིང་དབྱངས་ཅན།) becomes Tseyang (ཚེ་དབྱངས།). Phuntsok Wangyal (ཕུན་ཚོགས་དབང་རྒྱལ།) becomes PhuWang (ཕུ་དབང།). However, not all Tibetans do that. Some might refuse to contract it because it sounds strange or inconvenient to pronounce.
Other people just use the first or the second name. Someone called Nyima Wangdu (ཉི་མ་དབང་སྡུད།) might be called only Nyima (ཉི་མ།). Someone called Tsering Yangchen (ཚེ་རིང་དབྱངས་ཅན།) can choose to be called Yangchen (དབྱངས་ཅན།) only.
And there are people whom consider that using both names together sounds much better and will not take any nicknames.
We hope that you enjoyed this article!
It was definitely a lot of information to take in. Do you have questions about this process of giving names or surnames? If yes, feel free to post a comment, so that everybody can benefit from the question and answer. If you are too shy, as always, our private mailbox is open to you ☺
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Special thanks to Thomas Pan who proofread this article! (who is also very modest too, we are not implying that he is not ☺)