Tibetic languages

Last updated
Central Bodish
Ethnicity Tibetans, Sikkimese, Ladakhis, Bhutanese, Sherpa, Jirel, Purigpa, Balti, Yolmo
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
Linguistic classification Sino-Tibetan
Early forms
Glottolog oldm1245
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). [1] According to Tournadre (2014), there are 50 languages, which split into over 200 dialects or could be group into 8 dialect continua. [1] 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. [2] 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.


After applying the linguistic comparative method to the database of comparative linguistic data developed by Laurent Sagart in 2019 to identify sound correspondences and establish cognates, phylogenetic methods are used to infer relationships among these languages and estimate the age of their origin and homeland. The origin and spread of the Sino-Tibetan language family.png
After applying the linguistic comparative method to the database of comparative linguistic data developed by Laurent Sagart in 2019 to identify sound correspondences and establish cognates, phylogenetic methods are used to infer relationships among these languages and estimate the age of their origin and homeland.

Marius Zemp (2018) [4] 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 descendts from Old Tibetan (7-9th century), 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 etc. [1]


Ethnolinguistic map of Tibet "TIBETO-BURMAN" GROUPS 1967 map with group key, "COMMUNIST CHINA ETHNOLINGUISTIC GROUPS" by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Directorate of Intelligence, Office of Basic Geographic Intelligence, 1967 (cropped).jpg
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. [5]

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

Tournadre (2014)

Tournadre (2014) [1] 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. [6] 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)

Tournadre (2005) [8] 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, [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.

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 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

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). [1] 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).

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. [1]

*ty-, *ly-, *sy- were not palatalized in Pre-Tibetic, but underwent palatalization in Proto-Tibetic (Tournadre 2014: 113-114). [1] 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.

GlossPre-TibeticProto-Tibetic Classical Literary Tibetan
one*g(ǝ)-tyik*g(ǝ)-tɕ(h)ikgcig / gchig གཅིག་ / གཆིག (Old Tibetan)
big*tye*tɕ(h)eche ཆེ་ (Old Tibetan)
ten*b(ǝ)-tyu*b(ǝ)-tɕubcu / bchu བཅུ་ / བཆུ་ (Old Tibetan)
what*tyi*tɕ(h)ici / chi ཅི་ / ཆི་ (Old Tibetan)
flesh*sya*ɕasha ཤ་
know*syes*ɕesshes ཤེས་
wood*sying*ɕiŋshing ཤིང་
to cut (past stem)*b(ǝ)-tsyat*b(ǝ)-tɕatbcad བཅད་
spittle*m(ǝ)-tsyil-ma*m(ǝ)-tɕ(h)il-mamchil-ma མཆིལ་མ་
liver*m(ǝ)-tsin-pa*m(ǝ)-tɕ(h)in-pamchin-pa མཆིན་པ
four*b(ǝ)-lyi*b(ǝ)ʑibzhi བཞི་
field*lying*ʑiŋzhing ཞིང་
flea*ldi*ldʑilji ལྗི་, 'ji ་འཇི་
iron*s(ǝ)-lak(s) > *l-sak(s) > *l-tsyak(s)*ltɕakslcags ལྕགས་
arrow*mdamda' མདའ་
to suppress*bnans*mnansmnand (Old Tibetan)
to listen*bnyan*nyanmnyand
eye*d(ǝ)myikdmyig དམྱིག་ (Old Tibetan); mig
flower*mentokmen-tog མེན་ཏོག (Old Tibetan); ་me-tog

Comparisons of Numerals

The Numerals in different Tibetan/Tibetic languages are: [10]


The numbers include the tonelevel. For the middle or eastern languages:

'10'ʨu tʰamʧɔːmbaɸʧuʧurʧurčuʧuʧú

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tibetan script</span> Writing system used to write certain Tibetic languages

The Tibetan script is a segmental writing system (abugida) of Indic origin used to write certain Tibetic languages, including Tibetan, Dzongkha, Sikkimese, Ladakhi, Jirel and 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. This writing system is used across the Himalayas, and Tibet.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tibetan people</span> East Asian ethnic group native to Tibet

The Tibetan people are an East Asian ethnic group native to Tibet. Their current population is estimated to be around 6.7 million. In addition to the majority living in Tibet Autonomous Region of China, significant numbers of Tibetans live in the Chinese provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan, as well as in India, Nepal and Bhutan.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dzongkha</span> Sino-Tibetan language spoken in Bhutan

Dzongkha is a Sino-Tibetan language spoken by over half a million people in Bhutan; it is the country's sole official and national language. The Tibetan script is used to write Dzongkha.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ladakhi language</span> Tibetic language spoken in Ladakh, India

The Ladakhi language is a Tibetic language spoken in Ladakh, a region administered by India as a union territory. 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.

Purgi language Sino-Tibetan language spoken in India and Pakistan

Purgi is a Tibetic language closely related to the Balti language. Balti is a Tibetic language spoken in parts of Indian administered Ladakh and the Baltistan region of Pakistan administered Gilgit-Baltistan.

Tshangla 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 alongside Dzongkha; it is also spoken in Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh 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. Khams is one of the three branches of the traditional classification of Tibetic languages. In terms of mutual intelligibility, Khams could communicate at a basic level with the Ü-Tsang branch.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lhasa Tibetan</span> Standard dialect of Tibetan, spoken in Lhasa

Lhasa Tibetan, or Standard Tibetan, is the Tibetan dialect spoken by educated people of Lhasa, the capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China. It is an official language of the Tibet Autonomous Region.

This is a list of topics related to Tibet.

Baima is a language spoken by 10,000 Baima people, of Tibetan ethnicity, 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.

Bodish, named for the Tibetan ethnonym Bod, is a proposed grouping consisting of the Tibetic languages and associated Sino-Tibetan languages spoken in Tibet, North India, Nepal, Bhutan, and North Pakistan. It has not been demonstrated that all these languages form a clade, characterized by shared innovations, within Sino-Tibetan.

Amdo Tibetan is the Tibetic language spoken in Amdo. It has two dialects, the farmer dialect and the nomad dialect.

Central Tibetan, also known as Dbus, Ü or Ü-Tsang, is the most widely spoken Tibetic language and the basis of Standard Tibetan.

The Lahuli–Spiti or Western Innovative Tibetan languages are a subgroup of the Tibetic languages spoken in the Lahaul and Spiti region of Himachal Pradesh, India. They are more closely related to Standard Tibetan than to the neighboring Ladakhi–Balti languages spoken further north.

The first portion of the Bible, the Gospel of John, in a Tibetic language was translated by Moravian Church missionaries William Heyde, Edward Pagel, and Heinrich August Jäschke, and later Dr. August Francke. It was printed in 1862 at Kyelang capital of Lahul in Kashmir. The whole New Testament was printed in 1885 in Ladakh. Another version was translated in 1903. So as not to have the problem of various dialectal differences it was translated into classical Tibetan, but this was not understood by most people. Yoseb Gergen, a Tibetan Christian translated the entire Bible, complete in 1935. This version was translated into a dialect of Tibetan Gergen had accidentally stumbled across, and which was understandable by all Tibetans. It was finally published in 1948. This is known in India as the Tibetan OV Bible. Eliya Tsetan Phuntshog published a New Testament in 1970. There is currently a project going on to translate the Bible into the East Tibetan dialect.

Zhongu (Zhonggu) Tibetan is a Tibetic language of Sichuan, China, once considered a dialect of Khams. It is spoken in Songpan County.

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.

Basum is a divergent Bodish language spoken by about 2,500 people in Gongbo'gyamda County 工布江达县, Nyingtri Prefecture, Tibet, China. Basum is spoken by 13.5% of the population of Gongbo'gyamda County. Glottolog lists Basum as unclassified within Bodish.

Mugom-Karmarong language Sino-Tibetan language of western Nepal.

Mugom-Karmarong is the Sino-Tibetan language variety of the Tibetan people of Mugu district in Nepal. This language variety represents two dialects Mugom and Karmarong, which are spoken by distinct ethnicities and are separate language in the perceptions of these groups. Based on census data taken in 2011, the total population of Mugom-Karmarong is estimated to be about 7,500 speakers.

Humla Tibetan language Sino-Tibetan language of western Nepal.

Humla Tibetan, also known as Humla Bhotiya, and Humli Tamang, is the Sino-Tibetan language of the Tibetan people of Humla district in Nepal.


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  2. 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)
  3. Sagart et al. (2019), pp. 10319–10320.
  4. Zemp, Marius. 2018. On the origins of Tibetan. Proceedings of the 51st International Conference on Sino-Tibetan Languages and Linguistics (2018). Kyoto: Kyoto University.
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  6. 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. p. 282–283. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-20.
  7. Sun, Jackson T.-S. 2021. Gser-Rdo: A New Tibetic Language Across the Rngaba-Dkarmdzes Border .
  8. N. Tournadre (2005) "L'aire linguistique tibétaine et ses divers dialectes." Lalies, 2005, n°25, p. 7–56
  9. Bradley (1997)
  10. "Bodish Numerals (E. Chan)". Archived from the original on 2012-03-05.

Further reading