Tibetan Language — Wikipedia article

བོད་སྐད་ bod skad
Spoken in: Tibet, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan 
Region: Tibet, Kashmir, Baltistan
Total speakers: 6,150,000
Language family: Sino-Tibetan
Official status
Official language in: Tibet Autonomous Region
Regulated by: Committee for the Standardisation of the Tibetan Language (བོད་ཡིག་བརྡ་ཚད་ལྡན་དུ་སྒྱུར་བའི་ལ ས་དོན་ཨུ་ཡོན་ལྷན་ཁང་གིས་བསྒྲིགས / 藏语术语标准化工作委员会)
Language codes
ISO 639-1: bo
ISO 639-2: tib (B)  bod (T)
ISO 639-3: variously:
bod — Central Tibetan
adx — Amdo Tibetan
khg — Khams Tibetan

The Tibetan language is spoken primarily by the Tibetan people who live across a wide area of eastern Central Asia bordering South Asia, as well as by overseas Tibetan communities all over the world. Several forms of Tibetan are also spoken by various peoples of northern Pakistan and India in areas like Baltistan and Ladakh, which are both in or around Kashmir. Its classical written form is a major regional literary language; particularly its use in Buddhist literature.

Tibetan is typically classified as a Tibeto-Burman language. Spoken Tibetan includes numerous regional varieties which, in many cases, are not mutually intelligible. Moreover, the boundaries between Tibetan and certain other Himalayan languages are sometimes unclear. In general, the dialects of central Tibet (including Lhasa), Kham, Amdo, and some smaller nearby areas are considered Tibetan dialects, while other forms, particularly Dzongkha, Sikkimese, Sherpa, and Ladakhi, are considered for political reasons by their speakers to be separate languages. Ultimately, taking into consideration this wider understanding of Tibetan dialects and forms, what we might call “greater Tibetan” is spoken by approximately 6 million people across the Tibetan Plateau. Tibetan is also spoken by approximately 150,000 exile speakers who have moved from modern-day Tibet to India and other countries.

Although Classical Tibetan apparently was not a tonal language, some dialects have developed tones. This is particularly true in the Central and Kham dialects, while the Amdo dialect and some in the west remain without tones. Tibetan morphology can generally be described as agglutinative, although Classical Tibetan was largely analytic.





Tibetan is comprised of several dialect groups. Within Tibet Autonomous Region, China, the dominant dialects are as follows; these are also used prevalently in overseas linguistic and ethnographic studies and broadcasting:

  • Lhasa/Ü-Tsang: based on the Lhasa standard (capital of Tibet AR), it is used as a lingua franca throughout Ü-Tsang; the Tibetan overseas dialect is also based largely on it.
  • Kham
  • Amdo

The following is a dialect chart:

  • Western Archaic Tibetan: Balti dialects (Pakistan, India), Purik dialects (India), Ladakhi dialects (India)
  • Western Innovative Tibetan: Ladakhi dialects of Upper Ladakh and Zanskar (India), North West Indian Border Area dialects: Lahul, Spiti, Uttarakhand (India), Ngari dialects: Tholing (Tibet AR, China: Ngari Area)
  • Central Tibetan: Ngari dialects (Tibet AR, China: Ngari Area), Northern Nepalese Border Area dialects (Nepal), Tsang dialects (Tibet AR, China: Shigatse Area), Ü dialects (Tibet AR, China: Lhoka Area, Lhasa municipality)
  • Northern Tibetan: Ngari dialects (Gertse), dialects of Nakchu Area (Tibet AR, China), dialects of Southern Qinghai Province, China (Nangchen)
  • Southern Tibetan: dialects of Sikkim (India), Tsang dialects (Tromowa valley), dialects of Bhutan
  • Eastern Kham Tibetan: Kham dialects of Qinghai Province, Kham dialects of Chamdo Area (Tibet AR, China), Kham dialects of Sichuan Province, China, Kham dialects of Yunnan Province, China
  • Eastern Amdo Tibetan: Amdo dialects of Qinghai Province, Amdo dialects of Gansu Province, China, Amdo dialects of Sichuan Province, and so on.


  • P’al-skad (Phal-skad): the vernacular speech.
  • Zhe-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.


Syntax and word order

  • Tibetan is an ergative language. Grammatical constituents broadly have head-final word order:
    • adjectives precede nouns in Tibetan.
    • objects and adverbs precede the verb, as do adjectives in copular clauses
    • a noun marked with the genitive case precedes the noun which it modifies
    • demonstratives and numerals follow the noun they modify.


The classical written language has nine cases, although traditional Tibetan grammarians discussed only eight, based on those of Sanskrit.:

Case morphology is affixed to entire noun phrases, not to individual words.

Nominalizing suffixes — pa or ba and ma — are required by the noun 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.”


Verbs do not inflect for person or number. Morphologically there are up to four separate stem forms called by the Tibetan grammarians, influenced by Sanskrit grammatical terminology, present (lta-da), past (‘das-pa), future (ma-‘ongs-pa), and imperative (skul-tshigs), although the precise semantics of these stems is still controversial. The so-called future stem is not a true future, but conveys the sense of necessity or obligation.

The majority of Tibetan verbs fall into one of two categories, those which express implicitly or explicitly the involvement of an agent, marked in a sentence by the instrumental particle (kyis etc) and those expressing an action which does not involve an agent. Tibetan grammarians refer to these categories as tha-dad-pa and tha-mi-dad-pa respectively. Although these two categories often seem to overlap with the English grammatical concepts of transitive and intransitive, most modern writers on Tibetan grammar have adopted the terms “voluntary” and “involuntary”, based on native Tibetan descriptions. Most involuntary verbs lack an imperative stem.

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, blangs, blang, longs ‘to take’); in some verbs a present in i changes to u in the other stems (‘dzin, bzung, gzung, zung ‘to take’). Additionally, the stems of verbs are also distinguished by the addition of various prefixes and suffixes, thus sgrub (present) bsgrubs (past), bsgrub (future) sgrubs (imperative). Though the final –s suffix, when used, is quite regular for the past and imperative, the apecific prefixes to be used with any given verb are less predictable, though there is a clear pattern of b– for a past stem and g– for a future stem, but this usage is not consistent.

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 both in the classical language and in the modern dialects.

Verbs are negated by two prepositional particles: mi and ma. Mi is used with present and future stems. The particle ma is used with the past stem, and with the imperative in Classical Tibetan, although in modern Tibetan, prohibitions do not employ the imperative stem, rather the present stem is negated with ma due to the collapse of the four part verbal system in many cases. There is also a negative stative verb med ‘there is not, there does not exist’, the counterpart to the stative verb yod ‘there is, there exists’

As with nouns, Tibetan also has a complex system of honorific and polite verbal forms, paralleling that found in Japanese. Thus, many verbs for everyday actions have a completely different form to express the superior status, whether actual or out of courtesy, of the agent of the action, thus lta ‘see’, hon. gzigs; byed ‘do’, hon. mdzad. Where a specific honorific verb stem does not exist, the same effect is brought about by compounding a standard verbal stem with an appropriate general honorific stem such as mdzad.


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, although some inhabitants in the Ladakh area write it phonetically with Urdu script, based originally on the Arabic-Persian script. The Urdu or Arabic-Persian script used in parts of Ladakh is also used among Baltis in Pakistani Baltistan after the Tibetan script fell out of use hundreds of years ago upon the region’s adoption of Islam. However, the increased concern among Pakistani Baltis for the preservation of their unique local language and traditions, especially in the face of strong Panjabi cultural influence throughout Pakistan, has fostered renewed interest among some Baltis in reviving Tibetan script and using it side by side with the Arabic-Persian script. Many shops in Baltistan’s capital Skardu in Pakistan’s “Northern Areas” region have begun supplementing signs written in the Arabic-Persian script with signs written in Tibetan script. Baltis see this initiative not as separatist but rather as part of an attempt to preserve the unique cultural aspects of their region which has shared a close history with neighbors like Kashmiris and Panjabis since the arrival of Islam in the region many centuries ago.

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.

Historical phonology

Old Tibetan phonology is rather accurately rendered by the script. 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 pronounced as a voiced guttural fricative before vowels but as homorganic prenasalization before consonants. Whether the gigu verso had phonetic meaning or not remains controversial.

For instance, Srong rtsan Sgam po would have been pronounced [sroŋrtsan zgampo] (now pronounced [soŋtsɛn gampo] in Lhasa Tibetan) and ‘babs would have been pronounced [mbaps] (pronounced [bapˤ] in Lhasa Tibetan).

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

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 Tsang (Gtsang) dialects: The ra-tags were altered into retroflex consonants, and the ya-tags became palatals.

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 Ü and Tsang. In Ü, the vowel sounds a, o, u have now mostly umlauted to ä, ö, ü when followed by the coronal sounds i, d, s, l and n. The same holds for Tsang with the exception of l which merely lengthens the vowel. 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.

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


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

Phonemic vowel length exists in Lhasa Tibetan, but appears in 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 lengthened vowel is also frequently substituted for the sounds [r] and [l] when they occur at the end of a syllable. [following material is under revision, see talk page]

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.


Labial Alveolar Alveolo-palatal Retroflex Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Plosive aspirated
unaspirated p t c k ʔ
Affricate aspirated tsʰ tɕʰ ʈʂʰ
unaspirated ts ʈʂ
Fricative s ɕ ʂ h
Approximant r j w
Lateral voiceless
voiced l


  • The unaspirated stops /p/, /t/, /c/, and /k/ typically become voiced in the low tone, being pronounced as [b], [d], [ɟ], and [g], 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 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 Tibet and is now pronounced [pʰø̀ʔ] in the Lhasa dialect.


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 Körös (1784–1842) published the first Tibetan-European language dictionary (Classical Tibetan and English in this case) and grammar.
  • H. A. Jäschke 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, Isaac Jacob Schmidt published his Grammatik der tibetischen Sprache in 1839 and his Tibetisch-deutsches Wörterbuch 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 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.
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