Classical Tibetan

Last updated
Classical Tibetan
Region Tibet, North Nepal
Era11th–19th centuries
Early form
Tibetan script
Language codes
ISO 639-3 xct
Glottolog clas1254 [1]

Classical Tibetan refers to the language of any text written in Tibetic after the Old Tibetan period. Though it extends from the 12th century until the modern day, [2] it particularly refers to the language of early canonical texts translated from other languages, especially Sanskrit. The phonology implied by Classical Tibetan orthography is very similar to the phonology of Old Tibetan, but the grammar varies greatly depending on period and geographic origin of the author. Such variation is an under-researched topic.


In 816, during the reign of King Sadnalegs, literary Tibetan underwent a thorough reform aimed at standardizing the language and vocabulary of the translations being made from Indian texts, which was one of the main influences for literary standards in what is now called Classical Tibetan. [3]


Structure of the noun phrase

Nominalizing suffixes pa or ba and ma are required by the noun or adjective that is to be singled out;

The plural is denoted, when required, by adding the morpheme nams-rnams}}; when the collective nature of the plurality is stressed the morpheme -dag is instead used. These two morphemes combine readily (e.g. namsrnams-dag}} 'a group with several members', and namsdag-rnams'}} 'several groups'). [4]


The classical written language has ten cases. [5]

Case morphology is affixed to entire noun phrases, not to individual words (i.e. Gruppenflexion).

Traditional Tibetan grammarians do not distinguish case markers in this manner, but rather distribute these case morphemes (excluding -dang and -bas) into the eight cases of Sanskrit.


There are personal, demonstrative, interrogative and reflexive pronouns, as well as an indefinite article, which is plainly related to the numeral for "one."

Personal pronouns

As an example of the pronominal system of classical Tibetan, the Milarepa rnam thar exhibits the following personal pronouns. [6]

First personང་ ngaངེད་ nged
First + Secondརང་རེ་ rang-re
Second personཁྱོད་ khyodཁྱེད་ khyed
Third personཁོ་ khoཁོང་ khong

Like in French, the plural (ཁྱེད་ khyed) can be used a polite singular. [6]


Verbs do not inflect for person or number. Morphologically there are up to four separate stem forms, which the Tibetan grammarians, influenced by Sanskrit grammatical terminology, call the "present" (lta-da), "past" ('das-pa), "future" (ma-'ongs-pa), and "imperative" (skul-tshigs), although the precise semantics of these stems is still controversial. The so-called future stem is not a true future, but conveys the sense of necessity or obligation.

The majority of Tibetan verbs fall into one of two categories, those that express implicitly or explicitly the involvement of an agent, marked in a sentence by the instrumental particle (kyis etc) and those that express an action that does not involve an agent. Tibetan grammarians refer to these categories as tha-dad-pa and tha-mi-dad-pa respectively. Although these two categories often seem to overlap with the English[ citation needed ] grammatical concepts of transitive and intransitive, most modern writers on Tibetan grammar have adopted the terms "voluntary" and "involuntary", based on native Tibetan descriptions.[ citation needed ] Most involuntary verbs lack an imperative stem.


Many verbs exhibit stem ablaut among the four stem forms, thus a or e in the present tends to become o in the imperative byed, byas, bya, byos ('to do'), an e in the present changes to a in the past and future (len, blangs, blang, longs 'to take'); in some verbs a present in i changes to u in the other stems ('dzin, bzung, gzung, zung 'to take'). Additionally, the stems of verbs are also distinguished by the addition of various prefixes and suffixes, thus sgrub (present), bsgrubs (past), bsgrub (future), 'sgrubs (imperative). Though the final -s suffix, when used, is quite regular for the past and imperative, the specific prefixes to be used with any given verb are less predictable; while there is a clear pattern of b- for a past stem and g- for a future stem, this usage is not consistent. [7]

doབྱེད་ byedབྱས་ byasབྱ་ byaབྱོས་ byos
takeལེན་ lenབླངས་ blangsབླང་ blangལོངས་ longs
takeའཛིན་ 'dzinབཟུངས་ bzungsགཟུང་ gzungཟུངས་ zungs
accomplishསྒྲུབ་ sgrubབསྒྲུབས་ bsgrubsབསྒྲུབ་ bsgrubསྒྲུབས་ sgrubs

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 both in the classical language and in the modern dialects.


Verbs are negated by two prepositional particles: mi and ma. Mi is used with present and future stems. The particle ma is used with the past stem; prohibitions do not employ the imperative stem, rather the present stem is negated with ma. There is also a negative stative verb med 'there is not, there does not exist', the counterpart to the stative verb yod 'there is, there exists'


As with nouns, Tibetan also has a complex system of honorific and polite verbal forms. Thus, many verbs for everyday actions have a completely different form to express the superior status, whether actual or out of courtesy, of the agent of the action, thus lta 'see', hon. gzigs; byed 'do', hon. mdzad. Where a specific honorific verb stem does not exist, the same effect is brought about by compounding a standard verbal stem with an appropriate general honorific stem such as mdzad.

See also

Related Research Articles

A lexeme is a unit of lexical meaning that underlies a set of words that are related through inflection. It is a basic abstract unit of meaning, a unit of morphological analysis in linguistics that roughly corresponds to a set of forms taken by a single root word. For example, in English, run, runs, ran and running are forms of the same lexeme, which can be represented as RUN.

Morpheme Smallest unit of morphology, or grammar in a language

A morpheme is the smallest meaningful unit in a language. A morpheme is not identical to a word. The main difference between them is that a morpheme sometimes does not stand alone, but a word, by definition, always stands alone. The linguistics field of study dedicated to morphemes is called morphology. When a morpheme stands by itself, it is considered as a root because it has a meaning of its own. When it depends on another morpheme to express an idea, it is an affix because it has a grammatical function. Every word is composed of one or more morphemes.

Fusional languages or inflected languages are a type of synthetic language, distinguished from agglutinative languages by their tendency to use a single inflectional morpheme to denote multiple grammatical, syntactic, or semantic features. For example, the Spanish verb comer has the first-person singular preterite tense form comí ; the single suffix represents both the features of first-person singular agreement and preterite tense, instead of having a separate affix for each feature.

A synthetic language uses inflection or agglutination to express syntactic relationships within a sentence. Inflection is the addition of morphemes to a root word that assigns grammatical property to that word, while agglutination is the combination of two or more morphemes into one word. The information added by morphemes can include indications of a word's grammatical category, such as whether a word is the subject or object in the sentence. Morphology can be either relational or derivational.

In linguistics, apophony is any sound change within a word that indicates grammatical information.

Yakkha is a language spoken in parts of Nepal, Darjeeling district and Sikkim. The Yakkha-speaking villages are located to the East of the Arun river, in the southern part of the Sankhuwasabha district and in the northern part of the Dhankuta district of Nepal. About 14,000 people still speak the language, out of 17,003 ethnic Yakkha in Nepal. Genealogically, Yakkha belongs to the Eastern Kiranti languages and is in one subgroup with several Limbu languages, e.g. Belhare, Athpare, Chintang and Chulung. Ethnically however, the Yakkha people perceive themselves as distinct from the other Kiranti groups such as Limbu.

The grammar of Classical Nahuatl is agglutinative, head-marking, and makes extensive use of compounding, noun incorporation and derivation. That is, it can add many different prefixes and suffixes to a root until very long words are formed. Very long verbal forms or nouns created by incorporation, and accumulation of prefixes are common in literary works. New words can thus be easily created.

Maidu language Extinct Maiduan language of northeastern California, US

Maidu, also Northeastern Maidu or Mountain Maidu, is an extinct Maiduan language spoken by Maidu peoples traditionally in the mountains east and south of Lassen Peak in the American River and Feather River river drainages. These river regions include such valleys in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains of California as: Indian Valley, American Valley, Butte Valley, and Big Meadows. Maidu may also refer to the related Konkow and Nisenan languages.

Tübatulabal is an extinct Uto-Aztecan language, traditionally spoken in Kern County, California, United States. It is the traditional language of the Tübatulabal, who have now shifted to English. The language originally had three main dialects: Bakalanchi, Pakanapul and Palegawan.

Tibetan grammar describes the morphology, syntax and other grammatical features of Standard Tibetan, a Sino-Tibetan language. Standard Tibetan is typologically an ergative–absolutive language. Nouns are generally unmarked for grammatical number, but are marked for case. Adjectives are never marked and appear after the noun. Demonstratives also come after the noun but these are marked for number. Verbs are possibly the most complicated part of Tibetan grammar in terms of morphology. The dialect described here is the colloquial language of Central Tibet, especially Lhasa and the surrounding area, but the spelling used reflects classical Tibetan, not the colloquial pronunciation.

Vedic Sanskrit is the Indo-Aryan language used in the religious hymns known as the Vedas, composed from the early-to-mid 2nd millennium through to the mid 1st millennium, BCE. It was a spoken language during that period. Its grammar differs in certain respects from the grammar of the later Classical Sanskrit.

The Nukak language is a language of uncertain classification, perhaps part of the macrofamily Puinave-Maku. It is very closed with Kakwa.

Palden Sherab Buddhist monk and scholar

Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche, called Khen Rinpoche, is a teacher, a scholar, a lama, and a Dzogchen master in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. He was considered by Penor Rinpoche to be one of the most learned Nyingma scholars alive.

The Nhangu language (Nhaŋu), also Yan-nhaŋu (Jarnango) is an Australian Aboriginal language spoken by the Yan-nhaŋu people, inhabitants of the Crocodile Islands off the coast of Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory of Australia. The Yan-nhaŋu language belongs to the Yolŋu Matha language group of the Yolŋu people of Arnhem Land in northern Australia. The varieties of the two moieties are (a) Gorlpa and (b) Yan-nhangu.

Marra is an Australian Aboriginal language, traditionally spoken on an area of the Gulf of Carpentaria coast in the Northern Territory around the Roper, Towns and Limmen Bight Rivers. Marra is now an endangered language. The most recent survey was in 1991; at that time, there were only 15 speakers, all elderly. Most Marra people now speak Kriol as their main language. The remaining elderly Marra speakers live in the Aboriginal communities of Ngukurr, Numbulwar, Borroloola and Minyerri.

Yolmo language Sino-Tibetan language

Yolmo (Hyolmo) or Helambu Sherpa, is a Tibeto-Burman language of the Hyolmo people of Nepal. Yolmo is spoken predominantly in the Helambu and Melamchi valleys in northern Nuwakot District and northwestern Sindhupalchowk District. Dialects are also spoken by smaller populations in Lamjung District and Ilam District and also in Ramecchap District. It is very similar to Kyirong Tibetan and less similar to Standard Tibetan and Sherpa. There are approximately 10,000 Yolmo speakers, although some dialects have larger populations than others.

Mehek is a Tama language spoken by about 6300 people in a somewhat mountainous area along the southern base of the Torricelli Mountains in northwestern Papua New Guinea. Mehek is spoken in six villages of Sandaun Province: Nuku, Yiminum, Mansuku, Yifkindu, Wilwil, and Kafle. Mehek is most closely related to Pahi, with 51% lexical similarity, and spoken approximately 20 kilometers to the southwest. Mehek is a fairly typical Papuan language, being verb-final, having a relatively simple phonology, and agglutinative morphology. There is very little published information about Mehek. The literacy rate in Tok Pisin, spoken by nearly everyone, is 50-75%. Mehek is not written, so there is no literacy in Mehek. Tok Pisin is primarily used in the schools, with 50% children attending. There is also a sign language used by the large number of deaf people in the Mehek community.

The Sabanê language is one of the three major groups of languages spoken in the Nambikwara family. The groups of people who speak this language were located in the extreme north of the Nambikwara territory in the Rondônia and Mato Grosso states of western Brazil, between the Tenente Marques River and Juruena River. Today, most members of the group are found in the Pyreneus de Souza Indigenous Territory in the state of Rondonia.

Arabic verbs, like the verbs in other Semitic languages, and the entire vocabulary in those languages, are based on a set of two to five consonants called a root. The root communicates the basic meaning of the verb, e.g. كتب k-t-b 'write', قرء q-r-ʾ 'read', أكل ʾ-k-l 'eat'. Changes to the vowels in between the consonants, along with prefixes or suffixes, specify grammatical functions such as person, gender, number, tense, mood, and voice. There is a rough parallel to the variation in English among the words "writing", "rewrote" and "unwritten", where the basic consonant stem (WR-T) is constant but the vowels, prefixes and suffixes change to show different grammatical forms.

Pawo Tsuglag Threngwa Tibetan historian

Pawo Tsuglag Threngwa, the second Nenang Pawo, was a Tibetan historian of the Karma Kagyu. He was a disciple of Mikyö Dorje, 8th Karmapa Lama. He was the author of the famous mkhas pa'i dga' ston, A Scholar's Feast, addressing history of Buddhism in India and its spread in Tibet, as well as the history of Tibet.

Of Tsuklak Trengwa's many students, his chief disciples included the Ninth Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje, the Fifth Zhamar Konchok Yenlag, and the Third Tsurpu Gyeltsab, Drakpa Peljor.


  1. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Classical Tibetan". Glottolog 3.0 . Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. Tournadre, Nicolas (2003). Manual of Standard Tibetan (MST). Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, p. 27.
  3. Hodge, Stephen (1993). An Introduction to Classical Tibetan ("Revised" ed.). Warminster: Aris & Phillips. pp. vii. ISBN   0856685488.
  4. Hahn 2003
  5. Hill 2012
  6. 1 2 Hill 2007
  7. Hill 2010

Further reading