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Tibetan language


The Tibetan language, called Poe-Skey in the native tongue, is spoken by approximately 5-7 million Tibetan people in the Tibetan Plateau. There are also approximately 150,000 exile speakers. 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
1 Styles
2 Dialects
3 Writing
4 Grammar
5 Evolution of Styles
6 Phonetics
7 Studies


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


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


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


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. 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 pronouns, 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:

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 dentalss, 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.


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

See also: Languages of China