Tibetan language

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Tibetan ()
Spoken in: Tibet, India
Region: Kashmir
Total speakers: 6,150,000
Ranking: Not in top 100
Genetic classification: Sino-Tibetan languages

 Tibeto-Burman languages
  Himalayish languages
   Tibeto-Kanauri languages

Official status
Official language of: Tibet
Regulated by: -
Language codes
ISO 639-1bo
ISO 639-2tib/bod
See also: LanguageList of languages

The Tibetan language is typically classified as member of the Tibeto-Burman which in turn is thought by some to be a branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Many dialects particularly in the central region have developed tones, but eastern dialects such as Amdo and western such as Balti do not have phonemic tone. Tibetan morphology could generally be described as agglutinative. It is spoken by approximately 6 million Tibetan people across the Tibetan Plateau as well as by approximately 150,000 exile speakers, although many of the dialects are not mutually intelligible.



  • P'al-skad (Phal-skad): the vernacular speech.
  • Rje-sa (She-sa) ("polite respectful speech"): the formal spoken style, particularly prominent in Lhasa.
  • Ch'os-skad (Chos-skad) ("religious language"): the literary style in which the scriptures and other classical works are written.


Tibetan is comprised of several dialect groups:

  • Central dialects
    • Distribution: Tibetan Autonomous Region
      • (Tibetan: དབུས, Wylie: Dbus)
        • Lhasa (Tibetan: ལྷ་ས་, Wylie: Lha Sa)
      • Tsang (Tibetan: གཙང་, Wylie: Gtsang)
        • Shigatse (Tibetan: གཞིས་ཀ་རྩེ་, Wylie: Gzhi ka rtse)
  • Amdo (Tibetan: ཨ་མདོ་, Wylie: A mdo)
  • Other Dialects
    • Distribution: Bhutan
      • Dzongkha (Tibetan/Dzongkha: རྫོང་ཁ་, Wylie: Rdzong Kha), the national language of Bhutan
    • Distribution: Nepal
      • Sherpa (Tibetan: ཤར་པ་, Wylie: Shar Pa)
      • Mustang (the dialect is called Lo Kay: Tibetan: ལོ་སྐད་, Wylie: Lo Skad)


  • Tibetan is an ergative language. Sentential grammatical units have SOV word order:
    • the substantive > the adjective > the verb
    • the object and the adverb > the verb
    • the genitive > the noun on which it depends

the Noun

  • The classical written language has nine cases: the absolutive, (unmarked morphologically), the genitive (-gi, -gyi, -kyi, -'i, -yi), the ergative/instrumental (-gi, -gyi, -kyi, -'i, -yi), the locative (-na), allative (-la), terminative ( -ru, -su, -tu, -du, -r), comitative (-dang), the ablative (-nas), and the elative (-las). Case morphology is affixed to entire noun phrases, not to individual words.
  • Nominalizing suffixes -- pa or ba and ma -- are required by the noun (substantive or adjective) that is to be singled out;
  • po or bo (masculine) and mo (feminine) are used for distinction of gender or for emphasis.

The plural is denoted when required by adding the morpheme (-rnams), when the collective nature of the plurality is stressed the morpheme (-dag) is instead used. These two morphemes combine readily (i.e. rnams-dag 'a group with several members', and dag-rnams 'several groups'). When several words are connected in a sentence they seldom require more than one case element, and that comes last.

There are personal, demonstrative, interrogative and reflexive pronouns, as well as an indefinite article, which is plainly related to the numeral for "one."

the Verb

The verb does not inflect for person or number. Morphologically there are up to four separate stem forms called by the Tibetan grammarians present (lda-ta), past ('das-pa), future (ma-'ongs-pa), and imperative (skul-tshigs), although the precise semantics of these stems is still controversial. Most verbs which describe uncontrollable action lack an imperative.

Many verbs exhibit stem ablaut among the four stem forms, thus a or e in the present tends to become o in the imperative (byed, byas, bya, byos 'to do'), an e in the present changes to a in the past and future (len, blang, blang, - 'to take'); in some verbs a present in i changes to u in the other stems ('dzin, bzung, gzung, - 'to take').

A final -s is often added to the past and imperative.

Only a limited number of verbs are capable of four changes; some cannot assume more than three, some two, and many only one. This relative deficiency is made up by the addition of auxiliaries or suffixes in the modern dialects.


There are no numeral auxiliaries or segregatives used in counting, as in many languages of East Asia, though words expressive of a collective or integral are often used after the tens, sometimes after a smaller number.

In scientific and astrological works, the numerals, as in Sanskrit, are expressed by symbolical words.

Writing system

Tibetan is written with a Sanskrit-derived script — see Tibetan script for details.

Wylie transliteration is the most common system of romanization used by Western scholars in rendering written Tibetan using the Latin alphabet (such as employed on much of this page).

  • Among the initials, five -- ག g, ད d, བ b, མ m, འ ' -- are regarded as prefixes, and are called so for all purposes, though they belong sometimes to the stem. As a rule, none of these letters can be placed before any of the same organic class. The language is much ruled by laws of euphony, which have been strictly formulated by native grammarians.

Phonological History

The concurrence of the evidence indicated above enables us to form the following outline of the evolution of Tibetan. In the 9th century, as shown by the bilingual Tibeto-Chinese treaty of 821-822 found in front of Lhasa's Jokhang, the complex initial clusters had already been reduced, and the process of tonogenesis was likely well underway.

The next change took place in Gtsang dialects: The ra-tags were altered into cerebral dentals, and the ya-tags became ?.

Later on the superscribed letters and finals d and s disappeared, except in the east and west. It was at this stage that the language spread in Lahul and Spiti, where the superscribed letters were silent, the d and g finals were hardly heard, and as, os, us were ai, oi, ui. The words introduced from Tibet into the border languages at that time differ greatly from those introduced at an earlier period.

The other changes are more recent and restricted to U and Tsang. The vowel sounds ai, oi, ui have become , , iZ; and a, o, u before the finals d and n are now a, , . The medials have become aspirate tenues with a low intonation, which also marks the words having a simple initial consonant; while the former aspirates and the complex initials simplified in speech are uttered with a high tone, shrill and rapidly. An inhabitant of Lhasa, for example, finds the distinction between s and z, or between s andz, not in the consonant, but in the tone, pronouncing s and s with a high note and l and l with a low one.


Old Tibetan phonology is rather accurately rendered by the script, with the exception that the distinction between aspirate and unaspirate voiceless stops was likely subphonemic. The finals were pronounced devoiced although they are written as voiced, the 'prefix' letters assimilated their voicing to the 'root' letters. The graphic combinations hr and lh represent voiceless and not necessarily aspirate correspondences to r and l respectively. The letter ' was pronouced as a voiced velar fricative before vowels and -w but as homorganic prenasalization before consonants. Whether the gigu verso had phonetic meaning or not remains controversial.

e.g. Srong rtsan Sgam po would have been pronouced [sroŋrtsan zgampo] and 'babs would have been pronounced [mbaps]

Already in the 9th century the process of cluster simplification, devoicing and tonogenisis had begun in the central dialects can be shown with Tibetan words transliterated in other languages, particularly Middle Chinese but also Uighur.


Since at least around the 7th century when the Chinese came into contact with the Tibetans, phonetics and grammar of Tibetan have been studied and documented. Tibetans also studied their own language, mostly for translation purpose for diplomacy (with India and China) or religion (from Buddhism).

Western linguists who arrived at Tibet in the 18th and 19th century include:

  • Hungarian Alexander Csoma de Krs (1784-1842) published the first Tibetan-European language dictionary (Classical Tibetan and English in this case) and grammar.
  • H. A. Jeaschke of the Moravian mission which was established in Ladak in 1857: modern Tibetan
  • The Capuchin friars who were settled in Lhasa for a quarter of a century from 1719
    • Francisco Orazio della Penna, well known from his accurate description of Tibet
    • Cassian di Macerata sent home materials which were utilized by the Augustine friar Aug. Antonio Georgi of Rimini (1711-1797) in his Alphabetum Tibetanum (Rome, 1762, 4t0), a ponderous and confused compilation, which may be still referred to, but with great caution.
  • At St Petersburg, J. J. Schmidt published his Grammatik der tibetischen Sprache in 1839 and his Tibetisch-deutsches Worterbuch in 1841, but neither of these works justified the great pretensions of the author, whose access to Mongolian sources had enabled him to enrich the results of his labours with a certain amount of information unknown to his predecessors.
    • His Tibetische Studien (1851-1868) is a valuable collection of documents and observations.
  • In France, P. E. Foucaux published in 1847 a translation from the Rgya tcher rot-pa, the Tibetan version of the Lalita Vistara, and in 1858 a Grammaire thibitaine
  • Ant. Schiefner of St Petersburg in 1849 his series of translations and researches.

A good bibliography of Tibetan linguistic research is available here [1] (http://www.southasiabibliography.de/Bibliography/Tibeto-Burman/Tibetan/tibetan.html)

See also: Languages of China, Qomolangma

External links



  • Manual of Standard Tibetan (http://www.snowlionpub.com/search.php?isbn=MASTTI), Nicolas Tournadre and Sangda Dorje, December 2003, Paperback, 644 pages, ISBN 1559391898
  • Tibetan-English Dictionary (With Sanskrit Synonyms), Sarat Chandra Das, Motilal Banarsidass Pub, January 1, 2000, Paperback, 1353 pages, ISBN 8120817133

de:Tibetische Sprache eo:Tibeta lingvo fr:Tibtain ja:チベット語 bo:༘བད༌སྐད། pl:Język tybetański sv:Tibetanska ru:Тибетский язык zh-cn:藏语 sv:Tibetanska


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