The Tibetan Language

Tibetan is a language spoken by six million people throughout the Tibetan plateau of Central Asia, bordering on South Asia, an area equivalent to the size of Western Europe. This includes areas currently governed by China, the traditional regions of Kham, Amdo and U-Tsang as well as Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan; Ladakh and the Baltistan area of Northern Pakistan and India; Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan. There are 150,000 exile speakers around the world. Tibetan belongs to the Tibeto-Burman language group, a sub-family of the Sino-Tibetan family.

Spoken Tibetan comprises a very large number of dialects. The principle ones in Tibet are Kham, Amdo, and U-Tsang or Lhasa dialects. The dialect of Tibet's capital city, Lhasa, now also known as Central or Standard Tibetan, serves as a lingua franca, and also forms the basis for the exile dialect. A standardised version of the language is gradually evolving. The boundaries between dialects classed as Tibetan and those not included are not always clear. For example Dzongkha (a dialect of Bhutan), Sikkimese, Sherpa and Ladhakhi, are considered to be separate. Not all dialects included in the class of Tibetan are mutually intelligible. However the written form is the same everywhere.


Myth surrounds the emergence of Tibetan as a literary language in the seventh century A.D./C.E. At that time the Tibetan people were principally a nomadic and warring people and Tibet was in a period of imperial expansion. The Emperor Songtsen Gampo sealed his conquests of the neighbouring principalities by taking a Nepalese and a Chinese wife. His wives brought with them gifts including Buddhist artworks from Nepal and ink and paper from China. Songtsen Gampo adopted their Buddhist faith and sought to propagate it throughout Tibet. He sent a talented minister, Thonme Sambhota to the acknowledged “noble country”, India, where Buddhism originated and at that time flourished, in the world's first universities. Thonme was charged with studying Buddhism in depth so that it could take root in Tibet. He undertook the development of a new script, based on the Devanagari script and an eight-volume grammar based on Sanskrit. Later, in the ninth century, the first Sanskrit-Tibetan dictionary was created. Publication of texts began using woodblock printing, which had come from China. The method still exists in some monasteries today.

The Tibetan language flourished and expanded hand in hand with the literature of Buddhism. Buddhist literature, known as Dharma was translated into Tibetan. This entailed the creation of a new Tibetan language and has been described as “one of the most significant cultural achievements in world history” (Manual of Standard Tibetan Nicolas Tournadre and Sangda Dorje). For centuries until the Chinese invasion of 1949-1950 the monastic system was the custodian of Tibetan literary culture, but also of the Buddhist tradition, as any translations of texts from Sanskrit and Chinese were the only ones to survive after the originals were lost.


Tibetan has a vast body of literature, lay and religious, both Buddhist and Bonpo, which is the indigenous shamanic religion pre-dating Buddhism. Much Tibetan literature remains un-translated, though now there are many dedicated scholars working to preserve and translate the literature. Tibetan has been described as manifesting “a striking originality, a world rich in symbolism and a poetic tradition of remarkable beauty” (The Beauty of The Tibetan Language David Curtis Tibetan Language Institute).The Epic of Gesar, celebrated throughout Central Asia and rivalling Gilgamesh as one of the greatest in the world, is written in Tibetan. Modern Tibetan literature, is alive and well, particularly in poems and novels.

Tibetan Script

The Tibetan script is a segmented writing system in which each letter represents a consonant accompanied by a specific vowel. The vowel /a/ is inherent in the consonant, unless it is modified by the one of the other four vowel symbols (diacritics) which are attached above or below it, to form consonant clusters. There are seven different types of affixes and learning to read and write the alphabet is one of the biggest initial challenges of learning Tibetan.

At first sight, Tibetan on the page may appear to be completely unpronounceable. This is when it appears in transliterated form, rather than phonetics. The Wylie system is still the preferred system for accurately conveying the spelling of Tibetan in the original. Phonetic transcriptions aim to guide the reader towards correct pronunciation, but they convey only an impression, and there is no standard system.

Tibetan syntax is quite straightforward, although very different from European. For example, Tibetan verbs distinguish between intentional and unintentional actions. Tibetan is typified by ergative constructions, in which it is the agent, not the object that is marked.

Word order is Subject Object Verb
Nga Dorje yin I'm Dorje.
Di teb re This is a book.
Verbs do not vary in case, gender or person. Nouns have the same base form, even though they are modified.

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