Tibetic languages

Last updated on 23 September 2017

The Tibetic languages (Tibetan: བོད་སྐད།) are a cluster of Sino-Tibetan languages spoken primarily by Tibetan peoples, who live across a wide area of eastern Central Asia bordering the Indian subcontinent, including the Tibetan Plateau and the northern Indian subcontinent in Baltistan, Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan. Classical Tibetan is a major regional literary language, particularly for its use in Buddhist literature.

The Central Tibetan language (the dialects of Ü-Tsang, including Lhasa), Khams Tibetan, and Amdo Tibetan are generally considered to be dialects of a single language, especially since they all share the same literary language, while Dzongkha, Sikkimese, Sherpa, Ladakhi, and Balti are generally considered to be separate languages.

The Tibetic languages are spoken by some 8 million or more people. With the worldwide spread of Tibetan Buddhism, the Tibetan language has spread into the western world and can be found in many Buddhist publications and prayer materials; with some western students learning the language for translation of Tibetan texts. Outside of Lhasa itself, Lhasa Tibetan is spoken by approximately 200,000 exile speakers who have moved from modern-day Tibet to India and other countries. Tibetan is also spoken by groups of ethnic minorities in Tibet who have lived in close proximity to Tibetans for centuries, but nevertheless retain their own languages and cultures.

Although some of the Qiang peoples of Kham are classified by China as ethnic Tibetans, Qiangic languages are not Tibetic, but rather form their own branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family.

Classical Tibetan was not a tonal language, but some varieties such as Central and Khams Tibetan have developed tone registers. Amdo and Ladakhi-Balti are without tone. Tibetic morphology can generally be described as agglutinative.

Tibet provinces.png


Nicolas Tournadre (2008) describes the language situation of Tibetan as follows:

Based on my 20 years of field work throughout the Tibetan language area and on the existing literature, I estimate that there are 220 'Tibetan dialects' derived from Old Tibetan and nowadays spread across 5 countries: China, India, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan [which] may be classed within 25 dialect groups, i.e. groups which do not allow mutual intelligibility. The notion of ‘dialect group’ is equivalent to the notion of language but does not entail any standardization. Thus if we set aside the notion of standardization, I believe it would be more appropriate to speak of 25 languages derived from Old Tibetan. This is not only a terminological issue but it gives an entirely different perception of the range of variation. When we refer to 25 languages, we make clear that we are dealing with a family comparable in size to the Romance family which has 19 groups of dialects.[2]

The 25 languages include a dozen major dialect clusters:

Central Tibetan (Ü-Tsang), Khams (Chamdo, Sichuan, Qinghai, Yunnan), Amdo (Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan), Choni (Gansu, Sichuan), Ladakhi (Jammu and Kashmir), Balti (Pakistan), Burig (Jammu and Kashmir), Lahuli–Spiti (Himachal Pradesh), Dzongkha (Bhutan), Sikkimese, Sherpa (Nepal, Tibet), Kyirong-Kagate (Nepal, Tibet)

and another dozen minor clusters or single dialects, mostly spoken by a few hundred to a few thousand people:

Jirel (Nepal), Chocangaca (Bhutan), Lakha (Bhutan), Brokkat (Bhutan), Brokpa (Bhutan), Groma (Tibet), Zhongu (Sichuan), Gserpa (Sichuan), Khalong (Sichuan), Dongwang (Yunnan), Zitsadegu (Sichuan) and Drugchu (Gansu).

In addition, there is Baima, which retains an apparent Qiangic substratum, and has multiple layers of borrowing from Amdo, Khams, and Zhongu, but does not correspond to any established branch of Tibetic.[3] The more divergent dialects such as this are spoken in the north and east near the Qiangic and Rgyalrongic languages, and some, such as Khalong, may also be due to language shift.

The Tibetic languages used for broadcasting within China are Standard Tibetan (based on the Ü dialect of Lhasa and used as a lingua franca throughout Ü-Tsang), Khams and Amdo.


Tournadre (2005, 2008)

Tournadre (2005)[4] classifies the Tibetic languages as follows:

The other languages (Thewo-Chone, Zhongu, Khalong, Dongwang, Gserpa, Zitsadegu, Drugchu, Baima) are not mutually intelligible, but are not known well enough to classify.

Tournadre (2013) adds Tseku and Khamba to Khams, and groups Thewo-Chone, Zhongu, Baima as an Eastern branch of Tibetic.

Bradley (1997)

According to Bradley,[5] the languages cluster as follows (dialect information from the Tibetan Dialects Project at the University of Bern):


Some classifications group Khams and Amdo together as Eastern Tibetan (not to be confused with East Bodish, whose speakers are not ethnically Tibetan). Some, like Tournadre, break up Central Tibetan. Phrases such as 'Central Tibetan' and 'Central Bodish' may or may not be synonymous: Southern (Central) Tibetan can be found as Southern Bodish, for example; 'Central Tibetan' may mean dBus or all tonal lects apart from Khams; 'Western Bodish' may be used for the non-tonal western lects while 'Western Tibetan' is used for the tonal lects, or 'Bodish' may even be used for other branches of the Tibeto-Kanauri languages.

Writing systems

Most Tibetic languages are written in one of two Indic scripts. Standard Tibetan and most other Tibetic languages are written in the Tibetan script with a historically conservative orthography (see below) that helps unify the Tibetan-language area. Some other Tibetan languages (in India and Nepal) are written in the related Devanagari script, which is also used to write Hindi, Nepali and many other languages. However, some Ladakhi and Balti speakers write with the Urdu script; this occurs almost exclusively in Pakistan. The Tibetan script fell out of use in Pakistani Baltistan hundreds of years ago upon the region's adoption of Islam. However, increased concern among Balti people for the preservation of their language and traditions, especially in the face of strong Punjabi cultural influence throughout Pakistan, has fostered renewed interest in reviving the Tibetan script and using it alongside the Arabic-Persian script. Many shops in Baltistan's capital Skardu in Pakistan's "Northern Areas" region have begun supplementing signs written in the Arabic-Persian script with signs written in the Tibetan script. Baltis see this initiative not as separatist but rather as part of an attempt to preserve the cultural aspects of their region which has shared a close history with neighbors like Kashmiris and Punjabis since the arrival of Islam in the region many centuries ago.

Historical phonology

Old Tibetan phonology is rather accurately rendered by the script. The finals were pronounced devoiced although they are written as voiced, the prefix letters assimilated their voicing to the root letters. The graphic combinations hr and lh represent voiceless and not necessarily aspirate correspondences to r and l respectively. The letter ' was pronounced as a voiced guttural fricative before vowels but as homorganic prenasalization before consonants. Whether the gigu verso had phonetic meaning or not remains controversial.

For instance, Srongbtsan Sgampo would have been pronounced [sroŋpʦan zɡampo] (now pronounced [sɔ́ŋʦɛ̃ ɡʌ̀mpo] in Lhasa Tibetan) and 'babs would have been pronounced [mbaps] (pronounced [bapˤ] in Lhasa Tibetan).

Already in the 9th century the process of cluster simplification, devoicing and tonogenesis had begun in the central dialects can be shown with Tibetan words transliterated in other languages, particularly Middle Chinese but also Uyghur.

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 Tibetan–Chinese treaty of 821–822 found in front of Lhasa's Jokhang, the complex initial clusters had already been reduced, and the process of tonogenesis was likely well underway.

The next change took place in Tsang (Gtsang) dialects: The ra-tags were altered into retroflex consonants, and the ya-tags became palatals.

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 Ü and Tsang. In Ü, the vowel sounds a, o, u have now mostly umlauted to ä, ö, ü when followed by the coronal sounds i, d, s, l and n. The same holds for Tsang with the exception of l which merely lengthens the vowel. 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.


  1. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Old–Modern Tibetan". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. ^ Tournadre N. (2008), "Arguments against the Concept of ‘Conjunct’/‘Disjunct’ in Tibetan" in Chomolangma, Demawend und Kasbek. Festschrift für Roland Bielmeier zu seinem 65. Geburtstag. B. Huber, M. Volkart, P. Widmer, P. Schwieger, (Eds), Vol 1. p. 281–308. http://tournadre.nicolas.free.fr/fichiers/2008-Conjunct.pdf
  3. ^ Katia Chirkova, 2008, "On the position of Báimǎ within Tibetan", in Lubotsky et al (eds), Evidence and Counter-Evidence, vol. 2.
  4. ^ *N. Tournadre (2005) "L'aire linguistique tibétaine et ses divers dialectes." Lalies, 2005, n°25, p. 7–56 [1]
  5. ^ Bradley (1997)

Further reading

  • Beyer, Stephan V. (1992). The Classical Tibetan Language. SUNY Press. ISBN 0-7914-1099-4.
  • Denwood, Philip (1999). Tibetan. John Benjamins Publishing. ISBN 90-272-3803-0.
  • Denwood, Philip (2007). "The Language History of Tibetan". In Roland Bielmeier, Felix Haller. Linguistics of the Himalayas and beyond. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 47–70. ISBN 3-11-019828-2.
  • van Driem, George (2001). Languages of the Himalayas: An Ethnolinguistic Handbook of the Greater Himalayan Region containing an Introduction to the Symbiotic Theory of Language. Brill. ISBN 9004103902.
  • AHP43 Amdo Tibetan Language

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