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Number of Speakers: According to different accounts, from 3 to 7 million speakers.

Key Dialects: Lhasa, Classical

Geographical Center: Tibetan Autonomous Region of the Chinese People’s Republic.

Tibetan is spoken by several million people in the Tibetan Autonomous Region of the Chinese People’s Republic, the Chinese provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan, as well as the neighboring countries Bhutan (around 4,000 speakers), India (over 124,000 speakers), and Nepal (around 60,000 speakers). Written Tibetan is used as the religious language in the countries where Tibetan Lamaistic Buddhism is practiced (e.g. in Mongolia). Tibetan communities also exist in Taiwan, Norway, Switzerland and the United States of America.

The classification of the languages spoken in Southern and South-Eastern Asia is still a matter of debate, and different handbooks will present different classifications. For examples, there have been attempts made to connect the languages of the Himalayas with such language families as Indo-European and even with Na-Dene, but the commonly accepted classifications are more modest.

According to the prevailing view, Tibetan belongs to the Tibeto-Burman branch of the large Sino-Tibetan family. Some scholars add Thai-Kadai (or Kam-Thai) and Miao-Yao languages to this family, but the genetic relationship of these language groups to Sino-Tibetan is only hypothetical. According to the Ethnologue database, the genetic affiliation of Tibetan is as follows: Sino-Tibetan > Tibeto-Burman > Himalayish > Tibeto-Kanauri > Tibetic > Tibetan. Other classifications exist, too, in which Tibetic is affiliated with the Bhotic (Bhotish) group. Other members of the Tibetic group are the various Tshangla, Dhimal, Tamang and Memba languages/dialects.

The numerous dialects of Tibetan have been classified in different ways by different scholars. According to Beckwith, the Tibetan dialects fall into five groups based on their geographical location: Northeastern, Eastern, Southern, Central, Western. Kun Chang’s scheme consists of three groups: 1. Lhasa, Shigatse, Mngari, Sharpa. 2. Chamdo, Sdedge, Mbathang. 3. Blabrang, Cone, Apa. The Ethnologue database assumes five groups: Central, Eastern, Southern, Western and Northern, to which three unclassified dialects are added. In Lyovin’s classification there are nine groups: Central, Southern, Southwestern, Western, Northern, Northeastern, Eastern, Extreme Eastern, Southeastern. Many of the languages classified as “Tibetan dialects”, quite possibly are separate languages. The Lhasa dialect, which is the dialect of intertribal communication, belongs to the Central group.

Many speakers of the various Tibetan dialects live in very inaccessible settlements of the Himalayan mountains, making it difficult to study their language. From the modern dialects, the Lhasa dialect has been studied best of all. Several peripheral dialects of Tibetan have been studied to a very little extent only. In many cases it is difficult to decide whether the languages spoken by different tribes are separate languages or dialects of one language.

There are two varieties of Tibetan script. One variety, which is the most widespread, is called dbu.can (u-chen), or headed script. The other variety, called (u-me) or headless script, is used very seldom. The origin of dbu.can goes back to the 7th century A.D., when Buddhism spread to Tibet and it became necessary to create a native script in order to write down the translations of the Buddhist texts. King Srong.brTSan.sGam.po ordered a group of Tibetan scholars to create a writing system suitable for Tibetan. The dbu.can script was created on the base of Indic Brahmi (Gupta) alphabet. According to some accounts, the author of dbu.can was Thon.mi Sambhota, a minister of the king Srong.brTSan.sGam.po. The order of the letters in the alphabet remained as in Brahmi, although the letters denoting Indic voiced aspirates were left out, since Tibetan did not have such sounds.

The alphabet consists of 30 letters used to denote Tibetan consonants with additional symbols to denote the retroflex consonants that occurred in Sanskrit loanwords. Each consonant’s sign reflects the appropriate consonant plus the vowel ‘a’. The remaining vowels are superscribed (i, e, o) or subscribed (u). In complex syllables (i.e. the syllables that contain more than one consonant) certain consonants are subfixed, superfixed, prefixed or suffixed to the main (or syllable initial) consonant, according to what group they belong to. Words are written horizontally from left to right. Syllable boundaries are marked by dots, and this is sometimes practiced also in translitteration of Tibetan with Latin script, cf. “sKad.yig.rig.gNas” ‘linguistics’. Sometimes hyphens are used instead of dots, cf. “sKad-yig-rig-gNas”. Alternatively, it is possible to leave spaces between the syllables, cf. “sKad yig rig gNas”. The capital letters denote syllable initial consonants, and the lower case letters stand for affixes. Sometimes also the syllable initial consonants are written in lower case letters, cf. “skad.yig.rig.nas”.

The phonetic inventory of the various Tibetan dialects is different due to their individual development. Classical Tibetan had 25 consonants, 6 affricates and 5 vowels. The stops and the affricates could be voiced, voiceless and voiceless aspirated. The fricatives had a voicing distinction. In modern Lhasa dialect the voiced non-sonorant consonants and the affricates were devoiced. To the original 5 vowel system another seven have been added. Vowels can be short, long, nasalized and glottalized. In Classical Tibetan syllables could be simple, i.e. containing a vowel and one or no consonants, or complex. The complex syllables could have long consonant clusters, cf. “sBrul” ‘snake’. In most of the Tibetan dialects the clusters have been simplified or eliminated, cf. Lhasa “tsy” ‘id.’ Due to simplification of consonant clusters, most of the dialects have developed tones. The most innovative dialects (including Lhasa) have up to four tones. Some peripheral (Northern and Western) dialects that have preserved the archaic features better still have no tones. The dialects that have tones also have vowel harmony. The tones are not marked in the script, but they can be deduced from the consonants that the syllable consists of. Different consonants, added to the base syllable, can make the tone of that syllable high, low or falling. Compound words can have more than one tone.

Classical Tibetan was predominantly isolating, but modern Tibetan has more features of an agglutinative language. Tibetan is of ergative type. The noun can be said to have the category of case, wherein the so-called “cases” are formed with the help of syntactic particles attached to the final member of the noun phrase. There is no category of gender, but certain particles can denote natural gender, e.g. “rgyal.po” ‘king’ vs. “” ‘queen’. The category of natural gender is also expressed in demonstrative pronouns. Tibetan has two interchangeable plural markers/particles, “tsho” and “rNams”, but their use is not compulsory. Adjectives have degrees of comparison, but otherwise are invariable. The verb has the categories of tense, mood and voice. Most of the verbs have four different stems: present, past, future and imperative. The different tenses are expressed in three ways which can be expressed through the use of different tense stems, appropriate auxiliary verbs, or both. depending on whether or not the particular verb has different tense stems. There are four moods (indicative, imperative, prohibitive and optative), and they are expressed through usage of appropriate stems and particles. Different persons may require different auxiliary verbs. Tibetan has the indefinite article “-ci(g)” which derives from the numeral “gCig” ‘1’. The demonstrative pronouns “hdi” ‘this’ and “de” ‘that’ may be used as the definite article.

Tibetan is an SOV language. The negative particle always immediately precedes the notional (i.e. non-auxiliary) verb. The various syntactic particles, used to denote “cases”, “moods”, etc. are put at the end of the appropriate syntactic phrase.

Most Tibetan words have two forms: honorific and non-honorific. The two can be quite different. Honorific agreement has to be kept throughout the sentence.

Tibetan has quite a few borrowings from other languages, mostly Sanskrit and Chinese.

The importance of the Lhasa dialect of Tibetan started rising after the establishment of the capital in Lhasa by king Srong.brTSan.sGam.po in the 7th century. Yet Classical Tibetan, which is considerably different from Lhasa Tibetan, remains the standard for the written language. Tibetan is used throughout Tibet, but the dominating (and the official) language of the region is Chinese. Education in Tibetan is available in a very small number of schools (mostly primary schools, run by local societies). In general the language of education is Chinese. According to official Chinese sources, in 1995 there were 3,950 primary schools in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (over 258,000 students), 89 middle schools (over 33,000 students), and 4 institutions of higher education (around 3,700 students). The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, situated in Dharamsala (India), confirms these numbers, but there is a disagreement about accessibility of education for Tibetan students. Post-primary education is conducted in Chinese. In 1994, there were 27,500 Tibetan students enrolled in primary and secondary schools outside of Tibet. Around 1,300 Tibetan students enrolled in institutions of higher education outside of Tibet. There are around 20 Tibetan newspapers in China.

Nearly nothing is known about the prehistory of Tibetans. It is believed that the Tibetan tribes came to the Tibetan plateau after the break-up of the Tibeto-Burman proto-language several centuries before the beginning of the present era. It believed that the proto-home of Tibetans was to the North-East of their current homeland. The written history begins in the 6th century AD, when the Yarlung dynasty came to power. Buddhism was introduced ca. 600 by king Srong.brTSan.sGam.po. From the end of the 6th century until the 9th century Tibetan was a vast and powerful kingdom, reaching as far to the South as the Bay of Bengal. During this time the Tibetan writing system was developed and the major collections of Buddhist texts, Kanjur (bKa’.’gyur) and Tanjur (bsTan.’gyur), were translated from Sanskrit to Tibetan. After the 9th century it was divided by inner conflicts, but regained its unity and influence in the beginning of the 13th century, after Genghiz Khan established the Mongolian empire and adopted Tibetan (Lamaistic) Buddhism. During this period the Tibetan language spread as far as to Mongolia, where it was used as the language of the cult. After the fall of the Golden Horde, the influence of Tibet diminished again, and until the beginning of the 20th century, when it regained independence for approximately30 years, Tibet was mostly dominated by China. In 1949 Tibet was invaded by China and today remains as an autonomous region within the Chinese People’s Republic.

Asher, R. E. (Editor-in-Chief). 1994. “The Encyclopedia of Languages and Linguistics”. Vol. 9. Pergamon Press, Oxford – New York – Seoul – Tokyo.

Beckwith, Christopher I. 2001. “Tibetan”. In “Facts about the World’s Languages: An Encyclopaedia of the World’s Major Languages, Past and Present”. Edited by Jane Garry and Carl Rubino. The H. N. Wilson Company, New York and Dublin.

Bright, William (Editor-in-Chief). 1992. “International Encyclopaedia of Linguistics”. Vol. 1. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York.

______1992. “International Encyclopaedia of Linguistics”. Vol. 4. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York. Campbell, G. L. 2000. “Compendium of the World's Languages”. Vol. 2. Ladakhi to Zuni. Second edition. First published 1991. Routledge, London and New York.

Goldstein, Melvyn C.; Ngawangthondup Narkyid. 1999. “English–Tibetan Dictionary of Modern Tibetan”. First published 1984, Berkeley. Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Dharamsala.

Grimes, Barbara F. (ed.). 1992. “Ethnologue: Languages of the World”. 12th edition. First edition 1951. Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc. Dallas, Texas.

Jarceva, V. N. (Editor-in-Chief). 1998. “Jazykoznanije. Bol’šoj enciklopedičeskij slovar’”. Naučnoje izdatel’stvo “Bol’šaja russkaja enciklopedija”. 1-oje izdanije 1990. Moskva.

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