Sunday, September 23, 2012

           This post is dedicated to the ever-loving memory of our friend and colleague, Martha Ham.  Martha died Thursday afternoon in Mongar Hospital, after fighting extensive infections which resulted in septicemia.  Her family in Canada consented to a traditional Bhutanese cremation, which brought friends, students, and associates together to witness an honouring sendoff to a woman who approached life face-first.  Among her gifts and accomplishments, Martha was a world traveller, a teacher, and an inspiration to those who love playing with language!  We BCFers are working on a glossary of 'Marthaisms', but in the meantime, I'd like to offer this collection of Dzonglish and Bhutanese English in memory of Martha. 


We love you for being truly
Martha Rosemary Ham

This picture was taken during our BCF teachers’ retreat, on July 3rd, 2012.  We were in the Bumthang District, visiting a sacred place called Membarthso.  This is a beautiful spot where the Tang River channels through a hole in the rock , forming deep, swirling pools.  This is where Pema Lingpa, the sacred treasure revealer, plunged back into the treacherous current with a butter lamp to prove that his powers would prevent the flame from going out.  On this day Martha sat on a rock here above that spot, contemplating the deep secrets of her surroundings.


Dzonglish and Bhutanese English

A. First, here’s a glossary of Bhutanese English, bound to be helpful for those native English speakers travelling to Bhutan who will discover they perhaps don’t really know their own language after all.  Brits, Kiwis, and Aussies will recognize many, but don't assume the same meaning for all of them.

Blessing = religious event at a monastery where people throng to receive words as well as blessed food, water, rice, necklaces, etc. from a Lama and his entourage
bunking = skipping out (of class, of school, of a meeting, etc.)
butter lamp = small bowl holding liquefied palm oil and a wick for an altar (not butter)
butter lamps being prepared for our school puja
dustbin = garbage can, trash can, you know...
duster = chalk brush
flask = tall thermos for liquids
geometry = the tin box used to keep school supplies
geyser = large hot-water heater (pronounced like the old guy)
go out = verb used to request leave to visit the toilet ("Sir may I go out?")
holy water = certain mountain spring water, considered to be not merely potable, but having strong healing powers
hotpot or water boiler = electric hot-water dispenser
K5 = His Majesty the fifth King of Bhutan, grandson to K3
knife = if it’s not in the kitchen, then we’re talking about a narrow-bladed machete used for trimming cane, chopping meat, cutting firewood, gardening, anything!
la   a polite, semi-formal suffix to add to words or phrases, as in “Thank you la”
maize = cob corn
Mobil = engine oil, the stuff you add to the engine
ox = bull or a steer
roaming = wandering, hanging out in public; a no-no for school children, and secret past-time of teens
Rupee = Nultrim (even though it’s not)
shifting = moving house
slippers = flipflops, used to be called thongs, when it was still safe to go to dance recitals
spade = hand tool, sort of a cross between a pickaxe and an adze, if you know what those are…
staying = living, as in your dwelling
tiffin or hotcase = insulated food container
traffic = circular concrete barrier forming intersection

B. Next, some Dzongkha words to learn in their original, as there’s no good translation:

arra = refined moonshine, pulled out from cupboards and offered ceremoniously to guests; sometimes contains a species of caterpillar with parasitic growths, considered to have high medicinal value
(Ah, that should read: Tara's bukhari.)
Ashi = Queen / Queen Mother
bukhari = sheet metal wood stove, ubiquitous wherever it gets cold enough; used for houses, restaurants, workshops, saff rooms...
dal = lentils as well as the thin lentil soup that accompanies so many meals
eazay = Bhutanese version of ketchup, I suppose, condiment made with cillies
gho = traditional male dress
kabney = ceremonial white shawl worn over gho by men on special/formal occasions
kera = colourful belt holding national dress together
kira = traditional female dress
khuru = a dart game played outside, with 25 m between wooden targets
lagay = white cuffs for the gho
momo = often translated as dumpling, but it deserves more: small steamed, crescent-shaped savory pastries containing veggies and cheese, or meat, served with eazay
Puja = really, a portable Blessing, done for a variety of reasons
rachu = ceremonial colourful scarf worn over kira
toego = jacket worn over the kira; also white shirt worn under the gho, replaces need for lagay
Tshechu = religious festival held at a monastery, sometimes lasts for days
wonju = inner shirt worn over kira

C. And now, a Pronunciation guide to help you decipher Dzonglish.

THE WORD                          NOTES                                 SUGGESTED PRONUNCIATION
beer :          I would never drink one, but they are beautiful animals:            “bear”
box :          reddish, bushy-tailed dog-like omnivore, smaller than a wolf      "fox"
Lhamo :    prepare your tongue for an “L” but stop there and say:               “hamo”
Phub :       first off, do a real “p”, but blow the “h” though it; when 
                 you get to the “b”, stop before you actually pronounce it.  
                Sort of like a shortened, windy poop, but not as dangerous.
Phuntsho :                               forget the “h’s”:                                                 “puntso”
risks :                                       first ‘s’ is silent:                                                  “ricks” 
                (No kidding, I’ve checked this with a number of people.)
salon :                        rhymes with balloon, as in a drinking 
                                        establishment with scissors:                                        “salon
Thinley :                          imagide you’b godda cold:                                        “tealay”
Tshering :                        sort of like a wet phone, but 
                                         roll your “r” like an Italian:                                        “sring”
walley/balley :                     Bumthang is an example:                                       “valley” 
wixen :                     maybe inspired by waxy candle wicks:                             “vixen”
Wangchuk :                         finishes like a train:                                         “Wangchoo”

Iman, Dave, (Ashley), Tara, Martha, Martin

Rain curtains open
See your rainbow box go
Martha to the sky.

We love you, Martha.


  1. Though I haven't seen Martha since Bishop's, She will be missed!

  2. My heart is broken. Martha was laughter and joy! I would very much like to connect with the couple from Saltspring. I live in Sooke and I would like to talk to you when you return to the Gulf Islands. Sheila Thomas Barrett

  3. I can be reached at Sheila

    1. Sheila, we return to Canada in January, when I start teaching at the Middle School on Saltspring again. We'll do some sort of photographic debrief in our community, so maybe you could be part of that!

  4. My Prayer: Martha, you have been a close friend for a long time. You gave me my nickname over 40 years ago at the ski hill. I am a better man for knowing you. You supported me in my recovery. Martha, you are absent from your body but very present in spirit here at home. I will see you when God wills. May God comfort and bring understanding to John, Peter, Robert and families ... In loving memory and tribute to dear Martha ….. "Legs"