Tibetic languages

From Bharatpedia, an open encyclopedia
Information red.svg
Scan the QR code to donate via UPI
Dear reader, We need your support to keep the flame of knowledge burning bright! Our hosting server bill is due on June 1st, and without your help, Bharatpedia faces the risk of shutdown. We've come a long way together in exploring and celebrating our rich heritage. Now, let's unite to ensure Bharatpedia continues to be a beacon of knowledge for generations to come. Every contribution, big or small, makes a difference. Together, let's preserve and share the essence of Bharat.

Thank you for being part of the Bharatpedia family!
Please scan the QR code on the right to donate.



transparency: ₹0 raised out of ₹100,000 (0 supporter)

Central Bodish
EthnicityTibetan people, and other Tibetic-speaking peoples such as Bhutanese
China (Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, Yunnan); India (Ladakh, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam); Pakistan (Gilgit-Baltistan); Nepal; Bhutan
Native speakers
6 million (2014)[1]
Linguistic classificationSino-Tibetan
Early forms
Tibet provinces.png
Division of Tibetic Cultural Areas

The Tibetic languages form a well-defined group of languages descended from Old Tibetan (7th to 9th centuries).[2] According to Tournadre (2014), there are 50 languages, which split into over 200 dialects or could be grouped into 8 dialect continua.[2] These languages are spoken in the Tibetan Plateau and in the Himalayas in Gilgit-Baltistan, Aksai Chin, Ladakh, Nepal, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Bhutan. Classical Tibetan is the major literary language, particularly for its use in Buddhist literature.

Tibetan languages are spoken by some 6 million people, not all of whom are Tibetans.[1] 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 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 (see Gyalrongic languages; Gyalrong people are identified as 'Tibetan' in China), the Qiangic languages are not Tibetan, but rather form their own branch of the Tibeto-Burman language family.

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


Marius Zemp (2018)[3] hypothesizes that Tibetan originated as a pidgin with the West Himalayish language Zhangzhung as its superstratum, and Rgyalrongic as its substratum (both languages are part of the broader Sino-Tibetan family). Similarly, Tamangic also has a West Himalayish superstratum, but its substratum is derived from a different Sino-Tibetan branch.

Only a few language clusters in the world are derived from a common language which is identical to or closely related to an old literary language. This small group includes the Tibetic languages, as descendents from Old Tibetan (7th–9th centuries), but also the Romance languages with Latin, the Arabic languages (or "dialects") with Classical Arabic, the Sinitic languages with Middle Chinese, the modern Indic languages with Vedic Sanskrit.[2]


Ethnolinguistic map of Tibet

The more divergent languages are spoken in the north and east, likely due to language contact with the Qiangic, Rgyalrongic languages. The divergence exhibited in Khalong may also be due to language shift. 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.[4]

The two major Tibetic languages used for broadcasting within China are Standard Tibetan and Amdo Tibetan.

Tournadre (2014)[edit]

Tournadre (2014)[2] classifies the Tibetic languages as eight geolinguistic continua, consisting of 50 languages and over 200 dialects. This is an updated version of his work in 2008.[5] The Eastern and Southeastern branches have lower internal mutual intelligibility, but it is more limited in the Northwestern branch and between certain southern and northern Khams dialects. These continua are spread across five countries with one exception, this being Sangdam, a Khams dialect in Kachin, Myanmar.

Tournadre (2005, 2008)[edit]

Tournadre (2005)[7] 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. mDungnag, a Tibetan language spoken in Gansu, is also divergent and is not mutually intelligible with either Khams or Amdo.[8]

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

Bradley (1997)[edit]

According to Bradley,[9] 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.

Lexical similarity[edit]

Amdo Tibetan has 70% lexical similarity with Central Tibetan and Khams Tibetan, while Khams Tibetan has 80% lexical similarity with Central Tibetan.[10]

Writing systems[edit]

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 Perso-Arabic script. Many shops in Baltistan's capital Skardu in Pakistan's "Northern Areas" region have begun supplementing signs written in the Perso-Arabic 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 neighbours like Kashmiris and Punjabis since the arrival of Islam in the region many centuries ago.

Historical phonology[edit]

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][dubious ] 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.



Proto-Tibetic, the hypothetical proto-language ancestral to the Tibetic languages, has been reconstructed by Tournadre (2014).[2] Proto-Tibetic is similar to, but not identical to, written Classical Literary Tibetan. The following phonological features are characteristic of Proto-Tibetic (Tournadre 2014: 113).

  • The prefixes *s(ǝ)-, *d(ǝ)-/g(ǝ)-, *m(ǝ)-, and *b(ǝ)-, which have been retained from Proto-Tibeto-Burman. *s(ǝ)- is primarily used with animals and body parts, as well as *d(ǝ)-/*g(ǝ)- and *m(ǝ)-/*r(ǝ)-.
  • Palatalization of dental and alveolar consonants before y (/j/).
  • Consonant change from lateral to dental position after /m/ (e.g., *ml > *md).
  • Distinctive aspirated initial stops. This phenomenon is attested by alternating aspirated and non-aspirated consonants in Old Tibetan orthography. Examples include gcig ~ gchig (གཅིག་ ~ གཆིག་) 'one'; phyin-chad ~ phyin-cad (ཕྱིན་ཆད་ ~ ཕྱིན་ཅད་) 'from now on'; ci ~ chi (ཅི་ ~ ཆི་) 'what'; and cu ~ chu (ཅུ་ ~ ཆུ་) 'water'.

Reconstructed Proto-Tibetic forms from Tournadre (2014) include:

  • *g(ǝ)-tɕik 'one'
  • *g(ǝ)-nyis 'two'
  • *g(ǝ)-su- 'three'
  • *b(ǝ)-ʑi 'four'
  • *l(ǝ)-ŋa 'five'
  • *d(ǝ)-ruk 'six'
  • *b(ǝ)-dun 'seven'
  • *b(ǝ)-rgyat 'eight'
  • *d(ǝ)-gu 'nine'
  • *b(ǝ)-tɕu 'ten'
  • *s(ǝ)-dik-pa 'scorpion'
  • *s(ǝ)-bal 'frog'
  • *s(ǝ)-tak 'tiger'
  • *s(ǝ)-b-rul 'snake'
  • *s(ǝ)-pra 'monkey'
  • *s(ǝ)-kra 'hair'
  • *s(ǝ)-nyiŋ 'heart'
  • *s(ǝ)-na 'nose'
  • *d(ǝ)-myik 'eye'
  • *m(ǝ)-go 'head'
  • *r(ǝ)-na 'ear'


Pre-Tibetic is a hypothetical pre-formation stage of Proto-Tibetic.[2]

*ty-, *ly-, *sy- were not palatalized in Pre-Tibetic, but underwent palatalization in Proto-Tibetic (Tournadre 2014: 113-114).[2] Posited sound changes from Pre-Tibetic to Proto-Tibetic include *ty- > *tɕ-, *sy- > *ɕ-, *tsy- > *tɕ-, and *ly- > *ʑ-. However, Tournadre (2014: 114) notes that many Bodish languages such as Basum, Tamang, and Kurtöp (East Bodish) have not undergone these changes (e.g., Bake (Basum) ti 'what' vs. Proto-Tibetic *tɕ(h)i and Bake 'one' vs. Proto-Tibetic *g(ǝ)-tɕ(h)ik; Kurtöp Hla: 'iron' and Bumthap lak 'iron' vs. Proto-Tibetic *ltɕaks).

Some Pre-Tibetic reconstructions, along with reconstructed Proto-Tibetic forms and orthographic Classical Literary Tibetan, from Tournadre (2014: 114-116) are listed below.

Gloss Pre-Tibetic Proto-Tibetic Classical Literary Tibetan
one *g(ǝ)-tyik *g(ǝ)-tɕ(h)ik gcig / gchig གཅིག་ / གཆིག (Old Tibetan)
big *tye *tɕ(h)e che ཆེ་ (Old Tibetan)
ten *b(ǝ)-tyu *b(ǝ)-tɕu bcu / bchu བཅུ་ / བཆུ་ (Old Tibetan)
what *tyi *tɕ(h)i ci / chi ཅི་ / ཆི་ (Old Tibetan)
flesh *sya *ɕa sha ཤ་
know *syes *ɕes shes ཤེས་
wood *sying *ɕiŋ shing ཤིང་
to cut (past stem) *b(ǝ)-tsyat *b(ǝ)-tɕat bcad བཅད་
spittle *m(ǝ)-tsyil-ma *m(ǝ)-tɕ(h)il-ma mchil-ma མཆིལ་མ་
liver *m(ǝ)-tsin-pa *m(ǝ)-tɕ(h)in-pa mchin-pa མཆིན་པ
four *b(ǝ)-lyi *b(ǝ)ʑi bzhi བཞི་
field *lying *ʑiŋ zhing ཞིང་
flea *ldi *ldʑi lji ལྗི་, 'ji ་འཇི་
iron *s(ǝ)-lak(s) > *l-sak(s) > *l-tsyak(s) *ltɕaks lcags ལྕགས་
arrow *mda mda' མདའ་
to suppress *bnans *mnans mnand (Old Tibetan)
to listen *bnyan *nyan mnyand
eye *d(ǝ)myik dmyig དམྱིག་ (Old Tibetan); mig
flower *mentok men-tog མེན་ཏོག (Old Tibetan); ་me-tog

Comparison of numerals[edit]

The numerals in different Tibetan/Tibetic languages are:[11]

Lhasa Cheng
Dolpo Jirel Mugom Sherpa Yohlmo
'1' ʨiʔ53 ʨi53 ʂik dokpoi ʧɪk ʦɪk55 ʨīː xʨɨx ʨi55 *xʨik
'2' ȵi55 ȵi55 ɲiː ŋi ŋi ŋi55 ɲìː ɦȵi ɲɯ53 *gnis
'3' sum55 sɔ̃53 sum sum sum sum55 sūm sɘm 53 *xsum
'4' ɕi13 ɣɯ31 ɕi̤ː si ɕi ʣi55 ʑì̤ ɦʑɘ ʐə33 *βʑi
'5' ŋa53 ɴɐ53 ŋa ŋa ŋá ŋɑ55 ŋɑ̀ ɦŋa ŋɑ53 *ɬŋɑ
'6' tʂʰuʔ13 tʂu31 ʈṳk tʰuk duk ɖʊk11 ʈṳ̀ː tʂəx tʂo33 *dɽuk
'7' tỹ15 dɛ̃24 ty̤n duin dun dɪn55 t̪ì̤n ɦdɘn 33 *βdun
'8' ɕɛʔ13 dʑe31 ce̤ʔ get ket 55 cē̤ː ɦdʑʲɛ ʑe33 *βɽgjat
'9' ku13 ɡɯ31 kṳ gu gu gu55 kṳ̀ ɦgɘ 33 *dgu
'10' ʨu53 ʨɯ53 tɕu ʦutʰambaː ʧú ʦi55tʰɑm11ba11 ʨʉ̄ ʨɘ ʨə55 *ɸʨu

For the Central or Eastern Tibetic languages:

GLOSS Dzongkha-Lakha Balti-Ladakhi Spiti
Dzongkha Sikkimese Balti Changthang Ladakhi Purik Zangskari
'1' ʨí ʧi ʧik ʧik ʧik ʧik ʧiʔ ʧík
'2' ɲí ni ɲis ɲis ɲis ɲis ɲiː ɲiː
'3' súm súm xsum sum sum sum sum súm
'4' ʃi̤ ʒe βʒi zi zi ʒi ʒi ʒì
'5' ŋə ŋa ɣɑ ŋa ʂŋa ʂŋə ŋa ŋá
'6' dʑo tʰu truk ɖruk ʈuk ʈuk ʈuʔ ʈùk
'7' ty̤n βdun dun rdun rdun ðun dùn
'8' kæ̤ βgyʌt gʲat rgʲat rgyət ʝət ɟèt
'9' kṳ go rgu gu rgu rgu ɣu
'10' ʨu tʰam ʧɔːmba ɸʧu ʧu rʧu rču ʧu ʧú


  • Sagart, Laurent; Jacques, Guillaume; Lai, Yunfan; Ryder, Robin; Thouzeau, Valentin; Greenhill, Simon J.; List, Johann-Mattis (2019), "Dated language phylogenies shed light on the history of Sino-Tibetan", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116 (21): 10317–10322, doi:10.1073/pnas.1817972116, PMC 6534992, PMID 31061123.
  1. 1.0 1.1 Tournadre, Nicolas (2014). "The Tibetic languages and their classification". In Owen-Smith, Thomas; Hill, Nathan W. (eds.). Trans-Himalayan Linguistics: Historical and Descriptive Linguistics of the Himalayan Area. De Gruyter. pp. 103–129. ISBN 978-3-11-031074-0. (preprint)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Tournadre, Nicolas. 2014. "The Tibetic languages and their classification." In Trans-Himalayan linguistics, historical and descriptive linguistics of the Himalayan area. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  3. Zemp, Marius. 2018. On the origins of Tibetan. Proceedings of the 51st International Conference on Sino-Tibetan Languages and Linguistics (2018). Kyoto: Kyoto University.
  4. Katia Chirkova, 2008, "On the position of Báimǎ within Tibetan", in Lubotsky et al. (eds), Evidence and Counter-Evidence, vol. 2.
  5. Tournadre, Nicolas (2008). "Arguments against the Concept of 'Conjunct'/'Disjunct' in Tibetan" (PDF). In B. Huber; M. Volkart; P. Widmer; P. Schwieger (eds.). Chomolangma, Demawend und Kasbek: Festschrift für Roland Bielmeier zu Seinem 65. Geburtstag, Vol. 1. Halle: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies. pp. 282–283. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-20.
  6. Sun, Jackson T.-S. 2021. Gser-Rdo: A New Tibetic Language Across the Rngaba-Dkarmdzes Border.
  7. N. Tournadre (2005) "L'aire linguistique tibétaine et ses divers dialectes." Lalies, 2005, n°25, p. 7–56 [1]
  8. Shao, Mingyuan 邵明园 (2018). Hexi Zoulang binwei Zangyu Dongnahua yanjiu 河西走廊濒危藏语东纳话研究 [Study on the mDungnag dialect, an endangered Tibetan language in Hexi Corridor]. Guangzhou: Zhongshan University Publishing House 中山大学出版社.
  9. Bradley (1997)
  10. "China". Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Nineteenth Edition. 2016. Archived from the original on 2016-09-09.
  11. "Bodish Numerals (Eugene Chan)". Archived from the original on 2012-03-05.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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 (eds.). Linguistics of the Himalayas and beyond. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 47–70. ISBN 978-3-11-019828-7.
  • 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

External links[edit]

Template:Tibetan language Template:Tibet related articles