Tibetan alphabet

Last updated on 6 September 2017

The Tibetan alphabet is an abugida used to write the Tibetic languages such as Tibetan, as well as Dzongkha, Sikkimese, Ladakhi, and sometimes Balti. The printed form of the alphabet is called uchen script while the hand-written cursive form used in everyday writing is called umê script.

The alphabet is very closely linked to a broad ethnic Tibetan identity, spanning across areas in Tibet, Bhutan, India, Nepal.[1] The Tibetan alphabet is of Indic origin and it is ancestral to the Limbu alphabet, the Lepcha alphabet,[2] and the multilingual 'Phags-pa script.[2]

Tibetan script consonants sample.svg
Tibetan script consonants sample.svg


The creation of the Tibetan alphabet is attributed to Thonmi Sambhota of the mid-7th century. Tradition holds that Thonmi Sambhota, a minister of Songtsen Gampo (569-649), was sent to India to study the art of writing, and upon his return introduced the alphabet. The form of the letters is based on an Indic alphabet of that period.[3]

Three orthographic standardizations were developed. The most important, an official orthography aimed to facilitate the translation of Buddhist scriptures, emerged during the early 9th century. Standard orthography has not altered since then, while the spoken language has changed by, for example, losing complex consonant clusters. As a result, in all modern Tibetan dialects, in particular in the Standard Tibetan of Lhasa, there is a great divergence between current spelling (which still reflects the 9th-century spoken Tibetan) and current pronunciation. This divergence is the basis of an argument in favour of spelling reform, to write Tibetan as it is pronounced, for example, writing Kagyu instead of Bka'-rgyud. In contrast, the pronunciation of the Balti, Ladakhi and Burig languages adheres more closely to the archaic spelling.


Basic alphabet

In the Tibetan script, the syllables are written from left to right. Syllables are separated by a tsek; since many Tibetan words are monosyllabic, this mark often functions almost as a space. Spaces are not used to divide words.

The Tibetan alphabet has thirty basic letters, sometimes known as "radicals", for consonants.[2] As in other Indic scripts, each consonant letter assumes an inherent vowel; in the Tibetan script it is /a/. The alphabet /a/ is also the base for dependent vowels marks.

Although some Tibetan dialects are tonal, the language had no tone at the time of the script's invention, and there are no dedicated symbols for tone. However, since tones developed from segmental features they can usually be correctly predicted by the archaic spelling of Tibetan words.

Alphabet IPA Alphabet IPA Alphabet IPA Alphabet IPA
Guttural /ka/ /kʰa/ /ga/ /ŋa/
Palatal /tʃa/ /tʃʰa/ /dʒa/ /ɲa/
Dental /ta/ /tʰa/ /da/ /na/
Labial /pa/ /pʰa/ /ba/ /ma/
Dental /tsa/ /tsʰa/ /dza/ /wa/
low /ʒa/ /za/ /'a/ /ja/
medium /ra/ /la/ /ʃa/ /sa/
high /ha/ /a/

Consonant clusters

The unique aspect of the Tibetan script is that the consonants can be written either as radicals, or they can be written in other forms, such as subscript and superscript forming consonant clusters.

To understand how this works, one can look at the radical /ka/ and see what happens when it becomes ཀྲ /kra/ or རྐ /rka/. In both cases, the symbol for /ka/ is used, but when the /ra/ is in the middle of the consonant and vowel, it is added as a subscript. On the other hand, when the /ra/ comes before the consonant and vowel, it is added as a superscript.[2] /ra/ actually changes form when it is above most other consonants; thus རྐ rka. However, an exception to this is the cluster རྙ /rnya/. Similarly, the consonants /wa/, /ra/, and /ja/ change form when they are beneath other consonants; thus ཀྭ /kwa/; ཀྲ /kra/; ཀྱ /kja/.

Besides being written as subscripts and superscripts, some consonants can also be placed in prescript, postscript, or post-postscript positions. For instance, the consonants /kʰa/, /tʰa/, /pʰa/, /ma/ and /a/ can be used in the prescript position to the left of other radicals, while the position after a radical (the postscript position), can be held by the ten consonants /kʰa/, /na/, /pʰa/, /tʰa/, /ma/, /a/, /ra/, /ŋa/, /sa/, and /la/. The third position, the post-postscript position is solely for the consonants /tʰa/ and /sa/.[2]

Head letters

The superscript position above a radical is reserved for the consonants /ra/, /la/, and /sa/.

  • When /ra/, /la/, and /sa/ are in superscript position with /ka/, /tʃa/, /ta/, /pa/ and /tsa/, there are no changes in the sound, they look and sound like:
    • རྐ /ka/, རྕ /tʃa/, རྟ /ta/, རྤ /pa/, རྩ /tsa/
    • ལྐ /ka/, ལྕ /tʃa/, ལྟ /ta/, ལྤ /pa/, ལྩ /tsa/
    • སྐ /ka/, སྕ /tʃa/, སྟ /ta/, སྤ /pa/, སྩ /tsa/
  • When /ra/, /la/, and /sa/ are in superscript position with /kʰa/, /tʃʰa/, /tʰa/, /pʰa/ and /tsʰa/, they loose their aspiration and sounds change. They look and sound like:
    • རྒ /ga/, རྗ /d͡ʒa/, རྡ /da/, རྦ /ba/, རྫ /dza/
    • ལྒ /ga/, ལྗ /d͡ʒa/, ལྡ /da/, ལྦ /ba/, ལྫ /dza/
    • སྒ /ga/, སྗ /d͡ʒa/, སྡ /da/, སྦ /ba/, སྫ /dza/
  • When /ra/, /la/, and /sa/ are in superscript position with /ŋa/, /ɲa/, /na/ and /ma/, the nasal sound gets high. They look and sound like:
    • རྔ /ŋa/, རྙ /ɲa/, རྣ /na/, རྨ /ma/
    • ལྔ /ŋa/, ལྙ /ɲa/, ལྣ /na/, ལྨ /ma/
    • སྔ /ŋa/, སྙ /ɲa/, སྣ /na/, སྨ /ma/

Sub-joined letters

The subscript position under a radical is for the consonants /ja/, /ra/, /la/, and /wa/.

Vowel marks and numerals

The vowels used in the alphabet are /a/, ཨི /i/, ཨུ /u/, ཨེ /e/, and ཨོ /o/. While the vowel /a/ is included in each consonant or radical, the other vowels are indicated by marks; thus /ka/, ཀི /ki/, ཀུ /ku/, ཀེ /ke/, ཀོ /ko/. The vowels ཨི /i/, ཨེ /e/, and ཨོ /o/ are placed above consonants as diacritics, while the vowel ཨུ /u/ is placed underneath consonants.[2] Old Tibetan included a reversed form of the mark for /i/, the gigu 'verso', of uncertain meaning. There is no distinction between long and short vowels in written Tibetan, except in loanwords, especially transcribed from the Sanskrit.

Vowel mark IPA Vowel mark IPA Vowel mark IPA Vowel mark IPA
/i/ /u/ /e/ /o/
Tibetan Numerals
Arabic Numerals 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9


Name Function
yig mgo
marks beginning of text

sbrul shad
separates sections of meaning equivalent to topics and sub-topics

bskur yig mgo
list enumerator (Dzongkha)

morpheme delimiter

full stop (marks end of a section of text)

full stop (marks end of a whole topic)

bsdus rtags

gug rtags g.yon
left bracket

gug rtags g.yas
right bracket

ang khang g.yon
left bracket used for bracketing with a roof over

ang khang g.yas
right bracket used for bracketing with a roof over

Extended use

The Tibetan alphabet, when used to write other languages such as Balti and Sanskrit, often has additional and/or modified graphemes taken from the basic Tibetan alphabet to represent different sounds.

Extended alphabet

Alphabet Used in Romanization & IPA
Balti kka /qa/
Balti rra /ɽa/
གྷ Sanskrit gha /ɡʱ/
ཛྷ Sanskrit jha /ɟʱ, d͡ʒʱ/
Sanskrit ṭa /ʈ/
Sanskrit ṭha /ʈʰ/
Sanskrit ḍa /ɖ/
ཌྷ Sanskrit ḍha /ɖʱ/
Sanskrit ṇa /ɳ/
དྷ Sanskrit dha /d̪ʱ/
བྷ Sanskrit bha /bʱ/
Sanskrit ṣa /ʂ/
ཀྵ Sanskrit kṣa /kʂ/
  • In Balti, consonants ka, ra are represented by reversing the letters ཀ ར (ka, ra) to give ཫ ཬ (ka, ra).
  • In Sanskrit, "cerebral consonants" ṭa, ṭha, ḍa, ṇa, ṣa are represented by reversing the letters ཏ ཐ ད ན ཤ (ta, tha, da, na, sha) to give ཊ ཋ ཌ ཎ ཥ (Ta, Tha, Da, Na, Sa).
  • In Sanskrit, It is a classic rule to transliterate ca, cha, ja, jha, to ཙ ཚ ཛ ཛྷ (tsa, tsha, dza, dzha), respectively. Nowadays, ཅ ཆ ཇ ཇྷ (ca, cha, ja, jha) can also be used.

Extended vowel marks and modifiers

Vowel Mark Used in Romanization & IPA
Sanskrit ā /ā/
Sanskrit ī /ī/
Sanskrit ū /ū/
Sanskrit ai /ai/
Sanskrit au /au/
Sanskrit /ṛi/
Sanskrit /ṛī/
Sanskrit /ḷi/
Sanskrit /ḷī/
Sanskrit aṃ /ṃ/
Sanskrit aṃ /ṃ/
ཿ Sanskrit aḥ /ḥ/
Name Used in Function
srog med Sanskrit suppresses the inherent vowel sound
paluta Sanskrit used for prolonging vowel sounds

Romanization and transliteration

Romanization and transliteration of the Tibetan script is the representation of the Tibetan script in the Latin script. There are various ways of Romanization and transliteration systems created in recent years, but failed to represent the true phonetic sound.[4] While the Wylie transliteration system is widely used to romanize Standard Tibetan, others include the Library of Congress system and the IPA-based transliteration (Jacques 2012).

Below is a table with Tibetan alphabets and different Romanization and transliteration system for each alphabet, listed below systems are: Wylie transliteration (W), Tibetan pinyin (TP), Dzongkha phonetic (DP), ALA-LC Romanization (A)[5] and THL Simplified Phonetic Transcription (THL).

Alphabet W TP DP A THL Alphabet W TP DP A THL Alphabet W TP DP A THL Alphabet W TP DP A THL
ka g ka ka ka kha k kha kha kha ga k kha ga ga nga ng nga nga nga
ca j ca ca cha cha q cha cha cha ja q cha ja ja nya ny nya nya nya
ta d ta ta ta tha t tha tha ta da t tha da da na n na na na
pa b pa pa pa pha p pha pha pa ba p pha ba ba ma m ma ma ma
tsa z tsa tsa tsa tsha c tsha tsha tsa dza c tsha dza dza wa w wa wa wa
zha x sha zha zha za s sa za za 'a - a 'a a ya y ya ya ya
ra r ra ra ra la l la la la sha x sha sha sha sa s sa sa sa
ha h ha ha ha a a a a a

Input method and keyboard layout


Tibetan Keyboard.png
Tibetan keyboard layout

The first version of Microsoft Windows to support the Tibetan keyboard layout is MS Windows Vista. The layout has been available in Linux since September 2007. In Ubuntu 12.04, one can install Tibetan language support through Dash / Language Support / Install/Remove Languages, the input method can be turned on from Dash / Keyboard Layout, adding Tibetan keyboard layout. The layout applies the similar layout as in Microsoft Windows.

Mac OS-X introduced Tibetan Unicode support with OS-X version 10.5 and later, now with three different keyboard layouts available: Tibetan-Wylie, Tibetan QWERTY and Tibetan-Otani.


Dzongkha Keyboard layout Main.svg
Dzongkha keyboard layout

The Dzongkha keyboard layout scheme is designed as a simple means for inputting Dzongkha text on computers. This keyboard layout was standardized by the Dzongkha Development Commission (DDC) and the Department of Information Technology (DIT) of the Royal Government of Bhutan in 2000.

It was updated in 2009 to accommodate additional characters added to the Unicode & ISO 10646 standards since the initial version. Since the arrangement of keys essentially follows the usual order of the Dzongkha and Tibetan alphabet, the layout can be quickly learned by anyone familiar with this alphabet. Subjoined (combining) consonants are entered using the Shift key.

The Dzongkha (dz) keyboard layout is included in the XFree86 distribution.


Tibetan was originally one of the scripts in the first version of the Unicode Standard in 1991, in the Unicode block U+1000–U+104F. However, in 1993, in version 1.1, it was removed (the code points it took up would later be used for the Burmese script in version 3.0). The Tibetan script was re-added in July, 1996 with the release of version 2.0.

The Unicode block for Tibetan is U+0F00–U+0FFF. It includes letters, digits and various punctuation marks and special symbols used in religious texts:

Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
U+0F3x ༿
U+0F7x ཿ
U+0FBx ྿
1.^ As of Unicode version 10.0
2.^ Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points
3.^ Unicode code points U+0F77 and U+0F79 are deprecated in Unicode 5.2 and later

See also


  1. ^ Chamberlain 2008
  2. ^ a b c d e f Daniels, Peter T. and William Bright. The World’s Writing Systems. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  3. ^ Which specific Indic script inspired the Tibetan alphabet remains controversial. Recent study suggests Tibetan script was based on an adaption from Khotan of the Indian Brahmi and Gupta scripts taught to Thonmi Sambhota in Kashmir (Berzin, Alexander. A Survey of Tibetan History - Reading Notes Taken by Alexander Berzin from Tsepon, W. D. Shakabpa, Tibet: A Political History. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1967: http://studybuddhism.com/web/en/archives/e-books/unpublished_manuscripts/survey_tibetan_history/chapter_1.html).
  4. ^ See for instance [1] [2]
  5. ^ [http://www.loc.gov/catdir/cpso/romanization/tibetan.pdf ALA-LC Romanization of Tibetan script (PDF)


  • Asher, R. E. ed. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Tarrytown, NY: Pergamon Press, 1994. 10 vol.
  • Beyer, Stephan V. (1993). The Classical Tibetan Language. Reprinted by Delhi: Sri Satguru.
  • Chamberlain, Bradford Lynn. 2008. Script Selection for Tibetan-related Languages in Multiscriptal Environments. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 192:117–132.
  • Csoma de Kőrös, Alexander. (1983). A Grammar of the Tibetan Language. Reprinted by Delhi: Sri Satguru.
  • Csoma de Kőrös, Alexander (1980–1982). Sanskrit-Tibetan-English Vocabulary. 2 vols. Reprinted by Delhi: Sri Satguru.
  • Daniels, Peter T. and William Bright. The World’s Writing Systems. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Das, Sarat Chandra: "The Sacred and Ornamental Characters of Tibet". Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol. 57 (1888), pp. 41–48 and 9 plates.
  • Das, Sarat Chandra. (1996). An Introduction to the Grammar of the Tibetan Language. Reprinted by Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
  • Jacques, Guillaume 2012. A new transcription system for Old and Classical Tibetan, Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area, 35.3:89-96.
  • Jäschke, Heinrich August. (1989). Tibetan Grammar. Corrected by Sunil Gupta. Reprinted by Delhi: Sri Satguru.

External links

This page is based on a Wikipedia article written by authors (here).
Text is available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license; additional terms may apply.
Images, videos and audio are available under their respective licenses.