Standard Tibetan

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Standard Tibetan
བོད་སྐད་, Bod skad / Böké
ལྷ་སའི་སྐད་, Lha-sa'i skad / Lhaséké
Native to Tibet (Western China), Nepal, India
Region Tibet Autonomous Region, Kham
Native speakers
(1.2 million cited 1990 census) [1]
Early forms
Tibetan alphabet
Tibetan Braille
Official status
Official language in
Flag of the People's Republic of China.svg  China (Tibet Autonomous Region)
Flag of Nepal.svg    Nepal (Upper Mustang)
Flag of India.svg  India (Ladakh)
Regulated by Committee for the Standardisation of the Tibetan Language [note 1]
Language codes
ISO 639-1 bo
ISO 639-2 tib  (B)
bod  (T)
ISO 639-3 bod
Glottolog tibe1272 [2]
Linguasphere 70-AAA-ac
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Standard Tibetan [note 2] is a widely spoken form of the Tibetic languages that has many commonalities with the speech of Lhasa, an Ü-Tsang (Central Tibetan) dialect. For this reason, Standard Tibetan is often called Lhasa Tibetan. [note 3] Tibetan is an official [note 4] language of the Tibet Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China. The written language is based on Classical Tibetan and is highly conservative.



Like many languages, Standard Tibetan has a variety of language registers:


Syntax and word order

Tibetan is an ergative language. Grammatical constituents broadly have head-final word order:


Stone tablets with prayers in Tibetan at a Temple in McLeod Ganj Stone tablets with prayers in Tibetan language at a Temple in McLeod Ganj.jpg
Stone tablets with prayers in Tibetan at a Temple in McLeod Ganj
Pejas, scriptures of Tibetan Buddhism, at a library in Dharamsala, India Pejas, scriptures of Tibetan Buddhism, at a library in Dharamsala.jpg
Pejas, scriptures of Tibetan Buddhism, at a library in Dharamsala, India

Unlike many other languages of East Asia and especially Chinese, another Sino-Tibetan language, there are no numeral auxiliaries or measure words used in counting in Tibetan although words expressive of a collective or integral are often used after the tens, sometimes after a smaller number. [3]

In scientific and astrological works, the numerals, as in Vedic Sanskrit, are expressed by symbolical words. [3]

Tibetan Numerals
Hindi numerals
Bengali numerals
Arabic numerals 0123456789

Writing system

Tibetan is written with an Indic script, with a historically conservative orthography that reflects Old Tibetan phonology and helps unify the Tibetan-language area. It is also helpful in reconstructing Proto Sino-Tibetan and Old Chinese.

Wylie transliteration is the most common system of romanization used by Western scholars in rendering written Tibetan using the Latin alphabet (such as employed on much of this page). Tibetan pinyin, however, is the official romanization system employed by the government of the People's Republic of China. Certain names may also retain irregular transcriptions, such as Chomolungma for Mount Everest.

Phonology of modern Lhasa Tibetan

The following summarizes the sound system of the dialect of Tibetan spoken in Lhasa, the most influential variety of the spoken language.


Tournadre and Sangda Dorje describe eight vowels in the standard language:

Vowel phonemes of Standard Tibetan
Front Back
Close i y u
Close-mid e ø o
Open-mid ɛ
Open ɑ

Three additional vowels are sometimes described as significantly distinct: [ʌ] or [ə], which is normally an allophone of /a/; [ɔ], which is normally an allophone of /o/; and [ɛ̈] (an unrounded, centralised, mid front vowel), which is normally an allophone of /e/. These sounds normally occur in closed syllables; because Tibetan does not allow geminated consonants, there are cases in which one syllable ends with the same sound as the one following it. The result is that the first is pronounced as an open syllable but retains the vowel typical of a closed syllable. For instance, zhabs (foot) is pronounced [ɕʌp] and pad (borrowing from Sanskrit padma, lotus) is pronounced [pɛʔ], but the compound word, zhabs pad is pronounced [ɕʌpɛʔ]. This process can result in minimal pairs involving sounds that are otherwise allophones.

Sources vary on whether the [ɛ̈] phone (resulting from /e/ in a closed syllable) and the [ɛ] phone (resulting from /a/ through the i-mutation) are distinct or basically identical.

Phonemic vowel length exists in Lhasa Tibetan but in a restricted set of circumstances. Assimilation of Classical Tibetan's suffixes, normally ‘i (འི་), at the end of a word produces a long vowel in Lhasa Tibetan; the feature is sometimes omitted in phonetic transcriptions. In normal spoken pronunciation, a lengthening of the vowel is also frequently substituted for the sounds [r] and [l] when they occur at the end of a syllable.

The vowels /i/, /y/, /e/, /ø/, and /ɛ/ each have nasalized forms: /ĩ/, /ỹ/, /ẽ/, /ø̃/, and /ɛ̃/, respectively, which historically results from /in/, /en/, etc. In some unusual cases, the vowels /a/, /u/, and /o/ may also be nasalised.


The Lhasa dialect is usually described as having two tones: high and low. However, in monosyllabic words, each tone can occur with two distinct contours. The high tone can be pronounced with either a flat or a falling contour, and the low tone can be pronounced with either a flat or rising-falling contour, the latter being a tone that rises to a medium level before falling again. It is normally safe to distinguish only between the two tones because there are very few minimal pairs that differ only because of contour. The difference occurs only in certain words ending in the sounds [m] or [ŋ]; for instance, the word kham (Tibetan : ཁམ་, "piece") is pronounced [kʰám] with a high flat tone, whereas the word Khams (Tibetan : ཁམས་, "the Kham region") is pronounced [kʰâm] with a high falling tone.

In polysyllabic words, tone is not important except in the first syllable. This means that from the point of view of phonological typology, Tibetan could more accurately be described as a pitch-accent language than a true tone language, in which all syllables in a word can carry their own tone.


Consonant phonemes of Standard Tibetan
Bilabial Alveolar Retroflex Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Stop p t ʈʰ ~ ʈʂʰ ʈ ~ ʈʂ c k ʔ
Affricate tsʰ ts tɕʰ
Fricative s ʂ ɕ h
Approximant w ~ ɥ ɹ̥ ɹ j
Lateral l ʎ

The unaspirated stops /p/, /t/, /c/, and /k/ typically become voiced in the low tone and are pronounced [b], [d], [ɟ], and [ɡ], respectively. The sounds are regarded as allophones. Similarly, the aspirated stops [pʰ], [tʰ], [cʰ], and [kʰ] are typically lightly aspirated in the low tone. The dialect of the upper social strata in Lhasa does not use voiced stops in the low tone.

  1. The alveolar trill ([r]) is in complementary distribution of the alveolar approximant [ɹ]; therefore, both are treated as one phoneme.
  2. The voiceless alveolar lateral approximant [l̥] resembles the voiceless alveolar lateral fricative [ɬ] found in languages such as Welsh and Zulu and is sometimes transcribed ɬ.
  3. The consonants /m/, /ŋ/, /p/, /r/, /l/, and /k/ may appear in syllable-final positions. The Classical Tibetan final /n/ is still present, but its modern pronunciation is normally realized as a nasalisation of the preceding vowel, rather than as a discrete consonant (see above). However, /k/ is not pronounced in the final position of a word except in very formal speech. Also, syllable-final /r/ and /l/ are often not clearly pronounced but realized as a lengthening of the preceding vowel. The phonemic glottal stop /ʔ/ appears only at the end of words in the place of /s/, /t/, or /k/, which were pronounced in Classical Tibetan but have since been elided. For instance, the word for Tibet itself was Bod in Classical Tibetan but is now pronounced [pʰø̀ʔ] in the Lhasa dialect.

Verbal system

The standard Tibetan verbal system distinguishes four tenses and three evidential moods. [4]

PersonalV-gi-yinV-gi-yodV-pa-yin / byuṅV-yod

The three moods may all occur with all three grammatical persons, though early descriptions associated the personal modal category with European first-person agreement. [5]

Counting system

Standard Tibetan has a base-10 counting system. [6] The basic units of the counting system of Standard Tibetan is given in the table below in both the Tibetan script and a Romanisation for those unfamiliar with Written Tibetan.



















གཅིགchig1ཉི་ཤུ་རྩ་གཅིག་nyishu tsa ji21བཞི་བརྒྱ་zhi kya400
གཉིས་nyi2ཉི་ཤུ་རྩགཉིས་nyishu tsa nyi22ལྔ་བརྒྱ་nyi kya500
གསུམ་sum3ཉི་ཤུ་རྩགསུམ་nyishu tsa sum23དྲུག་བརྒྱ་drug kya600
བཞི་zhi4ཉི་ཤུ་རྩབཞི་nyishu tsa zhi24བདུན་བརྒྱ་dün kya700
ལྔ་nga5ཉི་ཤུ་རྩ་ལྔ་nyishu tsa nga25བརྒྱད་བརྒྱ་kyed kya800
དྲུག་drug6ཉི་ཤུ་རྩདྲུག་nyishu tsa drug26དགུ་བརྒྱ་ku kya900
བདུན་dün7ཉི་ཤུ་རྩབདུན་nyishu tsa dün27ཆིག་སྟོང་chig tong1000
བརྒྱད་gyed8ཉི་ཤུ་རྩབརྒྱད་nyishu tsa gyed28ཁྲིkhri10,000
དགུ་gu9ཉི་ཤུ་རྩདགུ་nyishu tsa gu29
བཅུ་chu10སུམ་ཅུsum cu30སུམ་ཅུ་སོ་གཅིགsum cu so chig31
བཅུ་གཅིག་chugchig11བཞི་བཅུship cu40བཞི་ཅུ་ཞེ་གཅིགship cu she chig41
བཅུ་གཉིས་chunyi12ལྔ་བཅུngap cu50ལྔ་བཅུ་ང་གཅིགngap cu nga chig51
བཅུ་གསུམ་choksum13དྲུག་ཅུtrug cu60དྲུག་ཅུ་རེ་གཅིགtrug cu re chig61
བཅུ་བཞི་chushi14བདུན་ཅུdün cu70བདུན་ཅུ་དོན་གཅིགdün cu dhon chig71
བཅོ་ལྔ་chonga15བརྒྱད་ཅུgyed cu80བརྒྱད་ཅུ་གྱ་གཅིགgyed cu gya chig81
བཅུ་དྲུག་chudrug16དགུ་བཅུgup cu90དགུ་བཅུ་གོ་གཅིགgup cu go chig91
བཅུ་བདུན་chubdun17བརྒྱ་kya100བརྒྱ་དང་གཅིགkya tang chig101
བཅོ་བརྒྱད་chobgyed18རྒྱ་དང་ལྔ་བཅུ་kya tang ngap cu150
བཅུ་དགུ་chudgu19ཉིས་བརྒྱ་nyi kya200
ཉི་ཤུ།་nyishu20སུམ་བརྒྱ་sum kya300

(1 Million)

བྱེ་བche wa10,000,000
དུང་ཕྱུརtung chur100,000,000 [7]
ཐེར་འབུམter bum1,000,000,000

(1 Billion)


In the 18th and 19th centuries several Western linguists arrived in Tibet:

Indian indologist and linguist Rahul Sankrityayan wrote a Tibetan grammar in Hindi. Some of his other works on Tibetan were:

  1. Tibbati Bal-Siksha, 1933
  2. Pathavali (Vols. 1, 2, 3), 1933
  3. Tibbati Vyakaran, 1933
  4. Tibbat May Budh Dharm, 1948

Contemporary usage

In much of Tibet, primary education is conducted either primarily or entirely in the Tibetan language, and bilingual education is rarely introduced before students reach middle school. However, Chinese is the language of instruction of most Tibetan secondary schools. In April 2020, classroom instruction was switched from Tibetan to Mandarin Chinese in Ngaba, Sichuan. [8] Students who continue on to tertiary education have the option of studying humanistic disciplines in Tibetan at a number of minority colleges in China. [9] That contrasts with Tibetan schools in Dharamsala, India, where the Ministry of Human Resource Development curriculum requires academic subjects to be taught in English from middle school. [10] Literacy and enrollment rates continue to be the main concern of the Chinese government. Much of the adult population in Tibet remains illiterate, and despite compulsory education policies, many parents in rural areas are unable to send their children to school.[ citation needed ]

In February 2008, Norman Baker, a UK MP, released a statement to mark International Mother Language Day claiming, "The Chinese government are following a deliberate policy of extinguishing all that is Tibetan, including their own language in their own country" and he asserted a right for Tibetans to express themselves "in their mother tongue". [11] However, Tibetologist Elliot Sperling has noted that "within certain limits the PRC does make efforts to accommodate Tibetan cultural expression" and "the cultural activity taking place all over the Tibetan plateau cannot be ignored." [12]

Some scholars also question such claims because most Tibetans continue to reside in rural areas where Chinese is rarely spoken, as opposed to Lhasa and other Tibetan cities where Chinese can often be heard. In the Texas Journal of International Law, Barry Sautman stated that "none of the many recent studies of endangered languages deems Tibetan to be imperiled, and language maintenance among Tibetans contrasts with language loss even in the remote areas of Western states renowned for liberal policies... claims that primary schools in Tibet teach Mandarin are in error. Tibetan was the main language of instruction in 98% of TAR primary schools in 1996; today, Mandarin is introduced in early grades only in urban schools.... Because less than four out of ten TAR Tibetans reach secondary school, primary school matters most for their cultural formation." [13]

Recently, the Yushul Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture Intermediate People's Court sentenced Tashi Wangchuk to five years in prison on 22 May 2018. Part of the evidence used in court was a New York Times video entitled, "Tashi Wangchuk: A Tibetan’s Journey for Justice" by Jonah M. Kessel. The accompanying text states, "To his surprise, he could not find one, even though nearly everyone living in this market town on the Tibetan plateau here is Tibetan. Officials had also ordered other monasteries and a private school in the area not to teach the language to laypeople. And public schools had dropped true bilingual education in Chinese and Tibetan, teaching Tibetan only in a single class, like a foreign language, if they taught it at all. 'This directly harms the culture of Tibetans,' said Mr. Tashi, 30, a shopkeeper who is trying to file a lawsuit to compel the authorities to provide more Tibetan education. 'Our people’s culture is fading and being wiped out.'" [14]

The most important Tibetan branch of language under threat is, however, the Ladakhi language of the Western Tibetan group, in the Ladakh region of India. In Leh, a slow but gradual process is underway whereby the Tibetan vernacular is being supplanted by English and Hindi, and there are signs of a gradual loss of Tibetan cultural identity in the area.[ citation needed ] The adjacent Balti language is also in severe danger, and unlike Ladakhi, it has already been replaced by Urdu as the main language of Baltistan, particularly due to settlers speaking Urdu from other areas moving to that area.

Machine translation software and applications

An incomplete list of machine translation software or applications that can translate Tibetan language from/to a variety of other languages.

See also


  1. Tibetan: བོད་ཡིག་བརྡ་ཚད་ལྡན་དུ་སྒྱུར་བའི་ལས་དོན་ཨུ་ཡོན་ལྷན་ཁང་གིས་བསྒྲིགས་, Wylie: bod yig brda tshad ldan du sgyur ba'i las don u yon lhan khang gis bsgrigs; Chinese :藏语术语标准化工作委员会
  2. Tibetan: བོད་སྐད་, Wylie: Bod skad, THL: Böké, ZYPY: Pögä, IPA:  [pʰø̀k˭ɛʔ] ; also Tibetan: བོད་ཡིག་, Wylie: Bod yig, THL: Böyik, ZYPY: Pöyig[ citation needed ]
  3. Tibetan: ལྷ་སའི་སྐད་, Wylie: Lha-sa'i skad, THL: Lhaséké, ZYPY: Lasägä
  4. Local languages such as Tibetan have official status "according to the provisions of the self-government regulations for ethnic autonomous areas" ("What is the right of self-government of ethnic autonomous areas?" Updated August 12, 2009). With specific reference to the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), the use of Tibetan (no dialect specified, taken to mean all dialects) is given priority over the Han Chinese language ("Fifty Years of Democratic Reform in Tibet", official Chinese government site, retrieved October 15, 2010).

Related Research Articles

Tibetic languages

The Tibetic languages are a cluster of Tibeto-Burman languages descended from Old Tibetan, spoken across a wide area of eastern Central Asia bordering the Indian subcontinent, including the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas in Baltistan, Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Classical Tibetan is a major regional literary language, particularly for its use in Buddhist literature.

Tibetan script

The Tibetan script is an abugida of Indic origin used to write certain Tibetic languages, including Tibetan, Dzongkha, Sikkimese, Ladakhi, Jirel and sometimes Balti. It has also been used for some non-Tibetic languages in close cultural contact with Tibet, such as Thakali. The printed form is called uchen script while the hand-written cursive form used in everyday writing is called umê script.

Varieties of Chinese Family of local language varieties

Chinese, also known as Sinitic, is a branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family consisting of hundreds of local language varieties that are not mutually intelligible. The differences are greater than within the Romance languages, with variation particularly strong in the more mountainous southeast. The varieties are typically classified into several groups: Mandarin, Wu, Min, Xiang, Gan, Hakka and Yue, though some varieties remain unclassified. Some authors further divide Mandarin, Yue and especially Min. These groups are neither clades nor individual languages defined by mutual intelligibility, but reflect common phonological developments from Middle Chinese.


Dzongkha is a Sino-Tibetan language spoken by over half a million people in Bhutan; it is the sole official and national language of the Kingdom of Bhutan. The Tibetan alphabet is used to write Dzongkha.

Ladakhi language Tibetic language spoken in the Ladakh, India

The Ladakhi language, also called Bhoti or Bodhi, is a Tibetic language spoken in the union territory of Ladakh in northern India. It is the predominant language in the Buddhist-dominated district of Leh. Though a member of the Tibetic family, Ladakhi is not mutually intelligible with Standard Tibetan.

Lisu is a tonal Tibeto-Burman language spoken in Yunnan, Northern Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand and a small part of India. Along with Lipo, it is one of two languages of the Lisu people. Lisu has many dialects that originate from the country in which they live. Hua Lisu, Pai Lisu and Lu Shi Lisu dialects are spoken in China. Although they are mutually intelligible, some have many more loan words from other languages than others.

Tshangla, also called Sharchop, is a Sino-Tibetan language of the Bodish branch closely related to the Tibetic languages and much of its vocabulary derives from Classical Tibetan. Tshangla is primarily spoken in Eastern Bhutan and acts as a lingua franca in the country particularly among Sharchop/Tshangla communities; it is also spoken in Arunachal Pradesh, India, and Tibet. Tshangla is the principal pre-Tibetan (pre-Dzongkha) language of Bhutan.

Khams Tibetan is the Tibetic language used by the majority of the people in Kham, which is now divided between the eastern part of Tibet Autonomous Region, the southern part of Qinghai, the western part of Sichuan, and the northwestern part of Yunnan, China. It is one of the six main spoken Tibetic languages, the other five being Central Tibetan language, Amdo, Ladakhi, Dzongkha and Balti. These Tibetic languages share the same written script, but their pronunciations, vocabularies and grammars are different. These differences may have emerged due to geographical isolation of the regions of Tibet. Khams Tibetan is used alongside Standard Tibetan and Amdo Tibetan in broadcasting. Khams Tibetan is not mutually intelligible with other Tibetic languages.

The Sikkimese language, also called "Sikkimese Tibetan", "Bhutia", "Drenjongké", Dranjoke, Denjongka, Denzongpeke and Denzongke, belongs to the Southern Tibetic languages. It is spoken by the Bhutia in Sikkim, India and in parts of Mechi Zone, Nepal. The Sikkimese people refer to their own language as Drendzongké and their homeland as Drendzong.

The SASM/GNC/SRC romanization of Tibetan, commonly known as Tibetan pinyin or ZWPY, is the official transcription system for the Tibetan language in the People's Republic of China for personal names and place names. It is based on pronunciation of China National Radio's Tibetan Radio pronunciation, which is the Lhasa dialect of Standard Tibetan and reflects the pronunciation except that it does not mark tone. It has been used within China as an alternative to the Wylie transliteration for writing Tibetan in the Latin script since 1982.

Mêdog County County in Tibet, Peoples Republic of China

Mêdog, Metok, or Motuo County, also known as the Pemako, is a county as well as a traditional region of the prefecture-level city of Nyingchi in the Tibet Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China (PRC).

Baima is a language spoken by 10,000 Baima people, of Tibetan nationality, in north central Sichuan Province, and Gansu Province, China. Baima is passed on from parents to children in Baima villages. It is spoken within the home domain and is not used in any media of mass communication.

The Tibetan Communist Party was a small communist party in the Kingdom of Tibet, which functioned in secrecy under various names. The group was founded by Phuntsok Wangyal and Ngawang Kesang in 1943. It emerged from a group called the Tibetan Democratic Youth League created by Wangyal and other Tibetan students in Lhasa in 1939.

Tibet is a term for the major elevated plateau in Central Asia, north of the Himalayas. It is today mostly under the sovereignty of the People's Republic of China, primarily administered as the Tibet Autonomous Region besides adjacent parts of Qinghai, Gansu, Yunnan, and Sichuan.

The Amdo Tibetan is the Tibetic language spoken by the majority of Amdowa, mainly in Qinghai and some parts of Sichuan and Gansu.

This article summarizes the phonology of Standard Chinese.

Standard Zhuang Standard variety and register of the Zhuang Tai (Kra-Dai) language cluster

Standard Zhuang is the official standardized form of the Zhuang languages, which are a branch of the Northern Tai languages. Its pronunciation is based on that of the Yongbei Zhuang dialect of Shuangqiao, Guangxi in Wuming District, Guangxi with some influence from Fuliang, also in Wuming District, while its vocabulary is based mainly on northern dialects. The official standard covers both spoken and written Zhuang. It is the national standard of the Zhuang languages, though in Yunnan a local standard is used.

The Ersu language proper is a Qiangic language spoken in western Sichuan, China. It is the most widely spoken of the three Ersu languages. There are 13,000 speakers according to Sun (1982).

The Pemakö dialect is a dialect of the Tshangla language. It is the predominant speech in the Pemako region of the Tibet Autonomous Region and an adjoining contiguous area south of the McMahon line in Arunachal Pradesh in India. Though Tshangla is not a Tibetic language, it shares many similarities with Classical Tibetan, particularly in its vocabulary. Many Tibetan loanwords are used in Pemako, due to centuries of close contact with various Tibetan tribes in the Pemako area. Pemako Tshangla has undergone tremendous changes due to its isolation and Tibetan influence.

China Tibet Broadcasting is a broadcast network headquartered in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China. Its radio programmes were founded in 1959. Its English language audio broadcast is called Holy Tibet, broadcasts at 07:00 and 16:00 UTC every day.


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Further reading