choose a language or topic »|Sunday, October 23, 2016
You are here: Home » Editors Picks » Tibetic languages
  • Follow Us!

Tibetic languages 

Bkra shis bde legs – Welcome

Tibetic languages are comprised of a group of mutually unintelligible languages spoken by Tibetan people in eastern Central Asia. The areas where Tibetic languages are spoken include the Tibet Autonomous Region and the QinghaiSichuanGansu provinces of of the People’s Republic of China, and parts of the Indian subcontinent that include Baltistan, Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan.There are also large exile communities in Europe, Taiwan, and the United States. Classical Tibetan is an important literary language used in Buddhist literature and in the practice of Buddhism worldwide. This common literary tradition helped bind Tibetan communities divided by geography, history, and dialectal differences. It is estimated that some 8 million people speak Tibetic languages worldwide. 


Standard Tibetan, along with Mandarin Chinese, is an official language of the Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China. Some schools in Tibet teach all subjects in Chinese, especially in areas where most students are ethnic Chinese. There are also schools where Standard Tibetan is taught through the 6th grade to children who speak Chinese and their local Tibetan dialect. Finally, there are schools in which instruction is entirely in Tibetan and where Chinese is taught as a second language. Standard Tibetan is also used as a lingua franca allowing speakers from different dialect areas to communicate with each other. 


Making a clear distinction between languages versus dialects is extremely difficult, especially in mountainous areas with isolated linguistic groups. This is clearly the case with Tibetic languages. In general, the varieties spoken in central Tibet and nearby areas are considered Tibetan dialects, while other varieties such as DzongkhaSikkimeseSherpa, and Ladakhi, are considered to be closely-related but separate languages. Classification of Tibetic languages is by no means an easy task, and one that shows some disagreement among researchers.

Ethnologue divides the varieties of Tibetan into several major groups. Each group is comprised of several branches each of which, in turn includes numerous sub-varieties.

Dialects Branches within dialect group
Central ÜTsang (13)
Southern (9)
Western (3)


Standard Tibetan is based on the Central dialect spoken around Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.


Sound system

The description below is based on Standard Tibetan.

Standard Tibetan has eight vowel phonemes, i.e., sounds that distinguish the meaning of otherwise identical words. These are given below.

  • /ɛ/ = e in bet
  • /y/ = similar to second vowel in statue
  • /ø/ has no equivalent in English
  • /ɛ/ = e in bet


The consonant system of Tibetan has several distinguishing features:

  • There is a contrast between plain (unaspirated) and, aspirated voiceless stops and affricates, but no contrast between voiceless and voiced ones, e.g., /p/ and /pʰ/ but not /p/ and /b/.
  • Tibetan has retroflex consonants which are produced with the tongue curled so that its underside comes in contact with the roof of the mouth. Retroflex consonants are particularly common in neighboring Indo-Aryan languages.
  • There is a contrast between a lateral approximant /l/ and a voiceless lateral fricative /ɬ/.


Stops plain
Fricatives voiceless
Affricates plain
Approximants Central  w ɹ  j
Laterals voiceless


voiced l
  • /ʔ/ = sound between the vowels in oh-oh
  • /c/, /cʰ/, /ɕ, /ʂ, /tɕ/, /tʂ/, /tsʰ/, /tɕʰ/, /tʂʰ/, /ɬ/
  • /ʂ/, /tʃ/, /tʃʰ/ have no equivalents in English
  • /ɲ/ = first n in canyon
  • /ŋ/ = ng in song


Tibetan is a tonal language. This means that every syllable in Tibetan has a pitch that is an integral part of the pronunciation of that syllable.There are two to four tones, depending on the variety. Some varieties, particularly in the central region, have tones, but eastern and western dialects lack them. The Lhasa dialect has two tones: high and low. In monosyllabic words, 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.


Literary Tibetan and, to a lesser extent the spoken language, show some degree of agglutination. In an agglutinative language, affixes with their own meaning are added one after another to an unchanged root to express grammatical relations. In addition, Tibetan has three registers that differ in grammar and vocabulary. These are:

  • colloquial spoken language
  • formal spoken language
  • classical written language


Tibetan nouns have the following features:

  • The classical written language has nine cases: absolutive (unmarked morphologically), genitiveinstrumentallocativeallativeterminativecomitativeablative, and elative. Particles are attached to entire noun phrases, not to individual nouns.
  • There are masculine and feminine markers for animate nouns but not for inanimate ones.
  • Plural can be optionally marked in count and collective nouns by different postpositional particles.
  • There is an indefinite and definite marker.
  • There are no classifiers, as in other Sino-Tibetan languages such as Chinese and Burmese.



  • Verbs are not inflected for person or number.
  • There are four separate stems: present, past, future, and imperative. The future stem is not a true future, but expresses necessity or obligation. Stems are distinguished by vowel changes and/or suffixes and prefixes.
  • Tibetan verbs fall into two main classes: volitional and non-volitional. Volitional verbs denote actions under the speaker’s control, e.g., make, while non-volitional verbs represent processes not under the speaker’s control, e.g., recover. Non-volitional verbs lack an imperative stem.
  • There is a complex system of honorific and polite verbal forms Thus, many verbs have a different form to express the superior status of the agent of the action.


Word order
The typical word order in Tibetan is Subject-Object-Verb. Modifiers typically precede the noun they modify, while demonstratives and numerals follow the noun.


Tibetan is rich in Buddhist terms, but is lacking words for dealing with many aspects of modern life such as administration, politics, technology, and science. Tibetan spoken in the People’s Republic of China has borrowed many words from Chinese.

Below are a few common phrases in Tibetan in romanization.

Hello Tashi-delek
Goodbye Ga ler phebs
Thank you Thugs rje che
Yes Rey
No Ma-rey
Man Mi
Woman Skyes dman
Sun Nyi ma
Moon Zla ba
Water Chu


Below are the Tibetan numerals 1-9 in romanization and in the native script.



Tibetan has been written in its own distinctive script since the 7th century. The script is derived from the Brahmi script of India and was originally developed to translate Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into Tibetan. The Tibetan alphabet contains 30 consonants and 4 vowels. It is a syllabic alphabet, like many of the alphabets of India and Southeast Asia. Each consonant has an inherent vowel /a/ which can be suppressed or replaced with other vowels by using a variety of diacritical marks that can appear above or below the consonant. Syllables are separated by a dot.

The most widely used forms of Tibetan script are generally divided into “headed” (“white”) and “headless” (“black”).

  • In the “headed” script, each letter is written separately from the adjacent letters, except for diacritics. This script is used for publishing and in religious texts. It is the easiest to read and the slowest to write.
  • In the “headless” script, letters flow into each other. It is typically used for handwritten documents. It is good for quick writing, but is more difficult to read.


Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights written in the Tibetan “headed” script.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.


The most commonly used romanization system for Tibetan is Wylie transliteration. The original Wylie romanization system could not transliterate all Tibetan texts. The Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library (THDL) at the University of Virginia has developed the Extended Wylie Tibetan System (EWTS) that helps to overcome some of the problems with the original Wylie system.

Did You Know?

Did you know that these English words came from Tibetan?

Buddhist priest of Mongolia or Tibet, from Tibetan blama ‘chief, high priest’, with silent [b].
from Tibetan ‘dweller in an eastern country’
‘wild ox of central Asia’, from Tibetan g-yag ‘male yak’
from Sherpa yeh-teh ‘small manlike animal’



Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Tibetan?
There is no data on the difficulty level of Tibetan for speakers of English.

One Response to Tibetic languages

  1. Chit

    I have often wondered how this will all play out. For the last fifty years it’s been such a catch-as-can prhctwoak, completely unlike when the dharma was translated into Tibet (and China if I’m not mistaken) under royal patronage, more or less at once and with a few main overseers and standardized term translations.To even have the entire kangyur translated homogeneously would be such a boon. A generation later it may need to be reworked, lots of footnotes, etc., but the point is to provide a platform, resource for the oral tradition right?


Add a Comment