Tibetan language: Wikis


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Standard Tibetan

bod skad
Spoken in Tibet
Total speakers between 5 and 10 million
Ranking 72
Language family Sino-Tibetan
Official status
Official language in Tibet Autonomous Region
Regulated by Committee for the Standardisation of the Tibetan Language[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-1 bo
ISO 639-2 tib (B)  bod (T)
ISO 639-3

Standard Tibetan, often called Central Tibetan (ü kä), in Tibetan script: བོད་སྐད་, is the official language of Tibet. It is based on the speech of Lhasa, an Ü-Tsang dialect of Dbus aka Ü, one of the Central Tibetan languages. Central Tibetan is in turn one of several branches of the Tibetan languages, the others being Khams (kham kä), Amdo (am kä), and Ladakhi (tö kä). The written language is based on Classical Tibetan and is highly conservative.



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


Stone tablets with prayers in Tibetan language at a Temple in McLeod Ganj

Syntax and word order


Pejas, scriptures of Tibetan Buddhism, at a library in Dharamsala, India

Unlike many other languages of East Asia, there are no numeral auxiliaries or measure words used in counting in Tibetan, although words expressive of a collective or integral are often used after the tens, and 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 an Indic script, with a historically conservative orthography that reflects Old Tibetan phonology and helps unify the Tibetan-language area.

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.

Phonology of modern Lhasa Tibetan

The following summarizes the sound system of the dialect of Tibetan spoken in Lhasa, which is the most influential variety of the spoken language


Tournadre and Sangda Dorje describe eight vowels in the standard language:

  Front, unrounded Front, rounded Back, rounded
Close [i] [y] [u]
Close-mid [e] [ø] [o]
Open-mid [ɛ]
Open [a]

Three additional vowels are sometimes described as significantly distinct: [ʌ] or [ə], which is normally an allophone of [a]; [ɔ], which is normally an allophone of [o]; and [ɛ̈] (an unrounded, centralised, mid front vowel), which is normally an allophone of [e]. These sounds normally occur in closed syllables; because Tibetan does not allow geminated consonants, there are cases where one syllable ends with the same sound as the one following it, with the result that the first is pronounced as an open syllable but retains the vowel typical of a closed syllable. For instance, zhabs (foot) is pronounced [ɕʌp] and pad (contraction of padma, lotus) is pronounced [pɛʔ], but the compound word, zhabs pad is pronounced [ɕʌpɛʔ]. This process can result in minimal pairs between sounds that are otherwise allophones.

Sources vary on whether the [ɛ̈] phoneme (resulting from [e] in a closed syllable) and the [ɛ] phoneme (resulting from [a] through the i-mutation) are distinct or basically identical.

Phonemic vowel length exists in Lhasa Tibetan, but appears in a restricted set of circumstances. Assimilation of Classical Tibetan's suffixed vowels—normally ‘i (འི་)—at the end of a word produces a long vowel in Lhasa Tibetan; this feature is sometimes omitted in phonetic transcriptions. In normal spoken pronunciation, a lengthening of the vowel is also frequently substituted for the sounds [r] and [l] when they occur at the end of a syllable.

The vowels [i], [y], [e], [ø], and [ɛ] each have nasalized forms: [ĩ], [ỹ], [ẽ], [ø̃], and [ɛ̃], respectively. Historically, this results from a syllable-final /n/, such as /in/, /en/, etc. In some unusual cases, the vowels [a], [u], and [o] may also be nasalised.


The Lhasa dialect is usually described as having two tones: high and low. However, in monosyllabic words, each tone can occur with two distinct contours. The high tone can be pronounced with either a flat or a falling contour, while the low tone can be pronounced with either a flat or rising-falling contour, the latter being a tone that rises to a medium level before falling again. It is normally safe to distinguish only between the two tones, because there are very few minimal pairs which differ only because of contour. The difference only occurs in certain words ending in the sounds [m] or [ŋ]; for instance, the word kham (Tibetan: ཁམ་, "piece") is pronounced [kʰám] with a high flat tone, while the word Khams (Tibetan: ཁམས་, "the Kham region") is pronounced [kʰâm] with a high falling tone.

In polysyllabic words, tone is only important in the first syllable.


[ká] [kʰá] [ɡà/kʰà] [ŋà]
[tɕá] [tɕʰá] [dʑà/tɕʰà] [ɲà]
[tá] [tʰá] [dà/tʰà] [nà]
[pá] [pʰá] [bà/pʰà] [mà]
[tsá] tsha [tsʰá] dza [dzà/tsʰà] वa [wà]
[ʑà/ɕà] za [zà/sà] 'a [ɦà/ʔà] [jà]
[rà] [là] [ɕá] [sá]
[há] [ʔá]
  Labial Alveolar Alveolo-palatal Retroflex Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n     ɲ ŋ  
Plosive aspirated   ʈʰ ~ ʈʂʰ  
unaspirated p t   ʈ ~ ʈʂ c k ʔ
Affricate aspirated   tsʰ tɕʰ        
unaspirated   ts        
Fricative   s ɕ ʂ     h
Approximant   ɹ     j w
Lateral voiceless            
voiced   l          


  • The unaspirated stops /p/, /t/, /c/, and /k/ typically become voiced in the low tone, being pronounced [b], [d], [ɟ], and [ɡ], respectively. These sounds are regarded as allophones. By a similar process, the aspirated stops [pʰ], [tʰ], [cʰ], and [kʰ] are typically lightly aspirated in the low tone. The dialect of upper social strata in Lhasa does not use voiced stops in the low tone.
  • The alveolar trill ([r]) is in complementary distribution of the alveolar approximant [ɹ]; therefore, they are treated as one phoneme.
  • The voiceless alveolar lateral approximant [l̥] resembles the voiceless alveolar lateral fricative [ɬ] found in languages such as Welsh and Zulu and is sometimes transcribed as <ɬ>.
  • The consonants /m/, /ŋ/, /p/, /r/, /l/, and /k/ may appear in syllable-final positions. The Classical Tibetan final /n/ is still present, but its modern pronunciation is normally realized as a nasalisation of the preceding vowel, rather than as a discrete consonant (see above). Note that /k/ is not pronounced in the final position of a word, except in highly formal speech. Also, syllable-final /r/ and /l/ are often not clearly pronounced, but instead realized as a lengthening of the preceding vowel. The phonemic glottal stop /ʔ/ appears only at the end of words in place of an /s/, /t/, or /k/ which were pronounced in Classical Tibetan but have since been elided. For instance, the word for Tibet itself was Bod in Classical Tibetan and is now pronounced [pʰø̀ʔ] in the Lhasa dialect.


Since at least around the 7th century when the Han Chinese came into contact with the Tibetans, phonetics and grammar of Tibetan have been systematically described and documented. Tibetans also developed scholarly analyses of their own language, mostly for purposes of translation, diplomacy with India and China, and religion (Tibetan Buddhism).

Indian Indologist and Linguist, Rahul Sankrityayan wrote a Tibetan grammar in Hindi. Some of his other works on Tibetan were:

  1. Tibbati Bal-Siksha - 1933
  2. Pathavali (Vol. 1,2 & 3) - 1933
  3. Tibbati Vyakaran - 1933
  4. Tibbat May Budh Dharm-1948

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

  • Hungarian Alexander Csoma de Kőrös (1784–1842) published the first Tibetan-European language dictionary (Classical Tibetan and English in this case) and grammar, Essay Towards a Dictionary, Tibetan and English.
  • H. A. Jäschke of the Moravian mission which was established in Ladak in 1857, Tibetan Grammar and A Tibetan-English Dictionary.
  • 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, Isaac Jacob Schmidt published his Grammatik der tibetischen Sprache in 1839 and his Tibetisch-deutsches Wörterbuch in 1841. His 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 rol-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.
  • Theos Bernard, a PhD scholar of religion from Columbia University, explorer and practitioner of Yoga and Tibetan Buddhism, published, after his 1936/37 trip to India and Tibet, A Simplified Grammar of the Literary Tibetan Language, 1946 . See the 'Books' section.

A good bibliography of Tibetan linguistic research is available.[2]

Possible survival threats

Chinese sources claim that in much of Tibet, primary education is conducted either primarily or entirely in the Tibetan language, and bilingual education is rarely introduced before students reach middle school. However, Chinese is the language of instruction of most Tibetan secondary schools. Students that continue on to tertiary education have the option of studying humanistic disciplines in Tibetan at a number of Minority colleges in China.[3] This contrasts with Tibetan schools in Dharamsala, India, where the Ministry of Human Resource Development curriculum requires academic subjects be taught in English beginning in middle school.[4] Literacy and enrollment rates continue to be the main concern of the Chinese government. A large proportion of the adult population in Tibet remains illiterate, and despite compulsory education policies, many parents in rural areas are unable to send their children to school.

In February 2008 Norman Baker UK MP, released a statement to mark International Mother Language Day saying "The Chinese government are following a deliberate policy of extinguishing all that is Tibetan, including their own language in their own country. It may be obvious, but Tibetan should be the official language of Tibet. The world must act. Time is running out for Tibet." The rights of Tibetans, under Article 5 of the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity are to "express themselves and to create and disseminate their work in the language of their choice, and particularly in their mother tongue", as well as being "entitled to quality education and training that fully respect their cultural identity".[5] Baker had earlier raised the issue of Tibetan culture and language in the United Kingdom parliament in June 2005.[6]

Some scholars have questioned this claim, however, as most Tibetans continue to reside in rural areas where Chinese is rarely spoken. Lhasa and other Tibetan cities have now become largely Chinese. In the Texas Journal of International Law, Barry Sautman stated that "none of the many recent studies of endangered languages deems Tibetan to be imperiled, and language maintenance among Tibetans contrasts with language loss even in the remote areas of Western states renowned for liberal policies...claims that primary schools in Tibet teach putonghua are in error. Tibetan was the main language of instruction in 98% of TAR primary schools in 1996; today, putonghua is introduced in early grades only in urban schools...Because less than four out of ten TAR Tibetans reach secondary school, primary school matters most for their cultural formation."[7]

Tibetologist Elliot Sperling has also noted that "within certain limits in the PRC does make efforts to accommodate Tibetan cultural expression" and "the cultural activity taking place all over the Tibetan plateau cannot be ignored."[8]

The most important Tibetan branch of language under threat is however the Ladakhi language of the Western Tibetan group, in the Ladakh region of India. In Leh, a slow but gradual process whereby the Tibetan vernacular is supplanted by English and Hindi and there are signs of a gradual loss of Tibetan cultural identity in the area.

See also


  1. ^ Tibetan: བོད་ཡིག་བརྡ་ཚད་ལྡན་དུ་སྒྱུར་བའི་ལ ས་དོན་ཨུ་ཡོན་ལྷན་ཁང་གིས་བསྒྲིགས.
    Chinese: 藏语术语标准化工作委员会.
  2. ^ http://www.southasiabibliography.de/Bibliography/Tibeto-Burman/Tibetan/tibetan.html
  3. ^ Postiglione,Jiao and Gyatso. "Education in Rural Tibet: Development, Problems and Adaptations". China: An International Journal. Volume 3, Number 1, March 2005, pp. 1-23
  4. ^ Maslak, Mary Ann. "School as a site of Tibetan ethnic identity construction in India". China: An International Journal. Volume 60, Number 1, February 2008, pp. 85-106
  5. ^ "Report reveals determined Chinese assault on Tibetan language". Press Release - 21st February 2008. Free Tibet. http://www.freetibet.org/newsmedia/report-reveals-determined-chinese-assault-tibetan-language. Retrieved 7 February 2010. 
  6. ^ Hansard (2005-06-28). "Tibet". http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm200506/cmhansrd/vo050628/debtext/50628-40.htm. Retrieved 7 February 2010. 
  7. ^ Sautman, B. 2003. “Cultural Genocide and Tibet,” Texas Journal of International Law 38:2:173-246
  8. ^ Elliot Sperling, "Exile and Dissent: The Historical and Cultural Context", in TIBET SINCE 1950: SILENCE, PRISON, OR EXILE 31-36 (Melissa Harris & Sydney Jones eds., 2000).


  • H A Jäschke (1865, 2004 [Compendium ed.]), A short practical grammar of the Tibetan language, with special reference to the spoken dialects, London: Hardinge Simpole, pp. 242 p., ISBN 1843820773 9781843820772 1843820714 9781843820710 . " ... contains a facsimile of the original publication in manuscript, the first printed version of 1883, and the later Addenda published with the Third Edition."--P. [4] of cover./ First edition published in Kye-Lang in Brit. Lahoul by the author, in manuscript, in 1865.
  • Nicolas Tournadre and Sangda Dorje (2003), Manual of Standard Tibetan, New York: Snow Lion Publications, ISBN 1-55939-189-8 .
  • Sarat Chandra Das (2000), Tibetan-English Dictionary (With Sanskrit Synonyms), Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 81-208-1713-3 . (Reprint of the Calcutta : Bengal Secretariat Book Depot, 1902 edition.)
  • Hodge, Stephen (2003), An Introduction to Classical Tibetan, Orchid Press, ISBN 974-524-039-7 .
  • Bernard, Theos C. (1946), A Simplified Grammar of the Literary Tibetan Language, Santa Barbara, California: Tibetan Text Society, pp. 65 .

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

External links

Standard Tibetan edition of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Simple English

The Tibetan language is a language of Tibet and parts of China, parts of Northern Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir in the Ladakh area, the Republic of India states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal, Nepal and nearly all of Bhutan. Tibetan is spoken by a lot of Buddhists in these countries. It is an old language that has been spoken for many centuries. It is also a language of China that is spoken by some people above the region of Tibet. It is spoken in other places as well as Tibet. It is a fairly popular language to the Buddhists everywhere in the world including the United States.


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