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Tibetan language

The Tibetan language, called Bod-skad in the native tongue, is spoken by 1,066,200 Tibetan people (Zang) (1990) in Tibet, concentrating in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. It belongs to the Tibeto-Burman[?] branch of the Sino-Tibetan[?] linguistic family, which means that it is a distant relative of the Chinese languages.

Table of contents


  • P'al-skcfd: The vernacular speech.
  • Rje-sa ("polite respectful speech"): the formal spoken style.
  • Ch'os-skad ("book language"): the literary style in which the scriptures and other classical works are written.

The difference between P'al-skcfd and Ch'os-skad can be compared to that of Vernacular Chinese and Classical Chinese.

Dialects It is not a uniform speech, but comprises several dialectal groups:

  • Gtsang (Tsang): lingua franca.
  • Dbus
    • Old name: the western dialects
    • Distribution: traditionally Ladak, Lahul, Baltistan and Purig
  • Mngahris (Ngari)
    • Old name: the eastern dialects
    • Distribution: Khams
  • Other sub-dialects:
    • Farther east the Takpa of Tawang in the eastern Assam Himalayas appears to form a transition between the central and the Sifan of dialects on the Chinese frontier, which includes the Minyak, Sungpan, Lifan and Tochu dialects.
    • On the north bordering on Turkestan the dialect of the nomadic Hor-pa tribes is much mixed with Turkic ingredients.
Writing Main article: Tibetan written language

Tibetan is written with a Sanskrit-like script, see Tibetan written language for details.

Grammar By means of agglutination, the Tibetan language has developed a considerable grammatical system and is now agglutinating rather than isolating. Agglomerations of consonants are often met with as initials, giving the appearance of telescoped words -- an appearance which historical etymology often confirms. Many of these initial consonants are silent in the Gtsang dialects, or have been resolved into a simpler one of another character. The language is much ruled by laws of euphony[?], which have been strictly formulated by native grammarians.

  • Among the initials, five -- g, d, b, m, 'h -- 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.
  • Post-positions -- pa or be 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 cases of nouns are indicated by suffixes, which vary their initials according to the final of the nouns.

The plural is denoted when required by, adding one of several words of plurality. 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 [[pronoun]s, as well as an indefinite article[?], which is also the numeral for "one." The personal pronouns are replaced by various terms of respect when speaking to or before superiors, and there are many words besides which are only employed in ceremonial language.

The verb, which is properly a kind of noun or participle, has no element of person, and denotes the conditions of tense and mood by an external and internal inflexion[?], or the addition of auxiliary verbs and suffixes when the stem is not susceptible of inflexion, so that instead of saying "I go", a Tibetan says what would literally be translated as "my going". The conditions which approximate most closely to our present, perfect, future and imperative are marked either by aspiration of the initial, or by one of the five prefix consonants according to the rules of euphony.

As to the internal vowel, a or e in the present tends to become o in the imperative, the e changing to a in the past and future; i and u are less liable to change. A final s is also occasionally added.

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. 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.

The sentential order is SOV:

  • the substantive > the adjective > the verb
  • the object and the adverb > the verb
  • the genitive > the noun on which it depends
This contrasts with the order in the isolating Chinese, where the order is subject, verb, object. An active or causal verb requires before it the instrumental instead of the nominative case, which goes only before a neuter or intransitive verb. Evolution of Styles The chief differences between the classical language of the Tibetan translators of the 9th century and the vernacular, as well as the language of native words, existed in vocabulary, phraseology and grammatical structure, and arose from the influence of the translated texts.

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 edict at Lhasa, there was relatively little difference between the spoken and the written language. Soon afterwards, when the language was extended to the western valleys, many of the prefixed and most of the important consonants vanished from the spoken words. The ye-tag and ra-tag (the y and r subscript), and the s after vowels and consonants, were still in force.

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.

Phonetics In the bilingual inscriptions, Tibetan and Chinese, set up at Lhasa in 822, the silent letters were pronounced:

  • Tibetan spudgyal, now pugyal, is rendered suh-pot-ye in Chinese symbols;
  • khri, now Ii, is kieh-li;
  • hbrong is puh-iung;
  • snyan is sheh-njoh and su-njoh;
  • srong is su-lun, su-lung and si-lung.
(Note: the above Chinese Romanizations are pre-Wade-Giles and seems to be pre-modern Mandarin or based on another dialect.)


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

Western linguists who arrived at Tibet around the 18th century include:

  • Hungarian 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. Ant. Georgi of Rimini (17111797) in his Alphabetum libetanum (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.

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