Tibetic languages

Last updated
Central Bodish
Ethnicity Tibetan people, and other Tibetic-speaking peoples such as Bhutanese and Nepalese
China (Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, Yunnan); India (Ladakh, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam); Pakistan (Gilgit-Baltistan); Nepal; Bhutan; Myanmar (Kachin State)
Native speakers
6 million (2014) [1]
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). [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, Bhutan, and the Kachin State of Myanmar. [3] 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.


Although the term "Tibetic" had been applied in various ways within the Sino-Tibetan research tradition, Nicolas Tournadre defined it as a phylum derived from Old Tibetan. [2] Following Nishi (1987) [4] and Beyer (1992), [5] he identified several lexical innovations that can be used as a diagnosis to distinguish Tibetic from the other languages of the family, such as བདུནbdun "seven". [2] [6]

The "Tibetic languages" in this sense are a substitute for the term "Tibetan languages/dialects" used in the previous literature; the distinction between "language" and "dialect" is not straightforward, and labeling varieties of Tibetic as "Tibetan dialects" could be misleading not only because those "dialects" are often mutually-unintelligible, but also the speakers of Tibetic do not necessarily consider themselves as ethnic Tibetan, as is the case with Sherpas, Ladakhis, Baltis, Lahaulas, Sikkimese and Bhutanese. [2] [7]


Marius Zemp (2018) [8] 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). However, there are many grammatical differences between the Rgyalrongic and Tibetic languages; Rgyalrongic tend to use prefixes such as *kə-, *tə-, etc., while Tibetic languages use suffixes such as -pa/-ba, -ma, -po/-bo, -mo, etc. [9]

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 descendants 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 "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. [10]

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

Tournadre & Suzuki (2023)

Tournadre & Suzuki (2023) recognize 8 geographical sections, each with about 7-14 groups of Tibetic dialects. [3] This classification is a revision of Tournadre (2014). [2]

  • Tibetic
    • South-eastern section (14 groups):
      • Nagchu (traditionally called Hor dialects)
      • Drachen/Bachen
      • Kyegu
      • Pämbar
      • Khyungpo
      • Rongdrak
      • Minyak Rabgang
      • Southern route (Markham, Bathang, Lithang)
      • Dzayül
      • Derong-nJol
      • Chagthreng
      • Pomborgang
      • Semkyi Nyida
    • Eastern section (11 groups):
    • North-eastern section (14 groups):
      • Tsho Ngönpo (or Kokonor)
      • Tsongkha
      • Labrang-Rebgong
      • Rwanak (Banak) pastoralist group
      • Ngawa
      • Arik
      • Hwari (Pari)
      • Mewa pastoralists’ group (with settlements in Kham)
      • Washül pastoralists’group (with migrations into Kham)
      • Gorkä (divergent)
      • Gyälrongo-spheric Amdo (divergent)
      • Dungnak and rTarmnyik (near Western Yughur in Gansu) (divergent)
    • Central section (8 groups):
      • Ü
      • Tsang
      • Phänpo
      • Tö pastoralists’ dialects (Drogpä Tö-kä)
      • Eastern Tö cultivators’ dialects (Sharchok Rongpä Tö-kä)
      • Western Tö cultivators’ dialects (Nubchok Rongpä Tö-kä)
      • Kongpo
      • Lhokha
    • Southern section (7 groups):
      • Dzongkha
      • Lhoke
      • Choča-ngača (also called Tsamang-Tsakhaling)
      • Brokpa (Mera Sakteng pastoralists’ dialect)
      • Dur pastoralists’ dialect
      • Lakha or Säphuk pastoralists’ dialect
      • Dromo
    • South-western section (9 groups):
    • Western section (8 groups):
      • Spiti
      • Khunu-Töt
      • Garzha
      • Pangi
      • Paldar
      • Durbuk Jangpa dialect
      • Nyoma Jangpa dialect
      • Jadang (or Dzathang) dialect
    • North-western section (7 groups):

Tournadre (2014)

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. [11] 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) [13] 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. [14]

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

Bradley (1997)

According to Bradley, [15] 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

Amdo Tibetan has 70% lexical similarity with Central Tibetan and Khams Tibetan, while Khams Tibetan has 80% lexical similarity with Central Tibetan. [16]

Geographical distribution

The Tibetic-speaking area spans six countries: China (PRC), Nepal, Pakistan, India, Bhutan, and Myanmar. [2] [17] Tibetan is also spoken in diaspora communities in Europe, North America (e.g. Little Tibet, Toronto), Asia and Australia. [18]


Within China, the great majority of Tibetic speakers are officially classified into the "Tibetan nationality" (藏族), which however includes speakers of other Trans-Himalayan languages such as Rgyalrongnic. [19] Aside from Tibet Autonomous Region, there are several autonomous prefectures for the "nationality" in Sichuan, Qinhai, Gansu, and Yunnan. [20]


Lhasa Tibetan, or more technically, Standard Tibetan (natively called སྤྱི་སྐདspyi skad) is used among post-1950s Tibetan emigrants to Nepal. [2] Other Tibetic varieties such as Sherpa, Jirel and Yolmo are spoken in districts along the China-Nepal border. [21] [22]


The national language of Bhutan is Dzongkha, a Tibetic language originally spoken in the western region. [22] Although non-Tibetic languages (Tshangla, East Bodish) are dominant in many parts of the country, Dzongkha is also widely used there as a second-language. [22] Other Tibetic varieties of Bhutan include Choča-ngača, Brokpa and Lakha. [23]


Within areas administrated by Pakistan, Balti is spoken in Gilgit-Baltistan. [22]


Within areas administrated by India, some Tibetic varieties are spoken in Ladakh, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh (Kinnaur, Lahul and Spiti), West Bengal (Darjeeling and Kalimpong), as well as Uttarakhand. [22] [24] As with Bhutan and Nepal, there reside a number of Tibetan refugees across the country, notably in Dharamshala where the headquarter of Central Tibetan Administration is located. [25]


In Myanmar, a variant of Khams Tibetan is spoken near the Hkakabo Razi, Kachin State which is adjacent to Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan and Tibet Autonomous Region. [26] Suzuki (2012) describes the phonology of the Sangdam dialect, as well as giving a brief overview of Tibetic varieties in the country.

He estimates there are about 300 Khams Tibetan speakers inhabiting at least four villages in Dazundam Village Tract, Pannandin Sub-township, Nogmong Township, Putao District, Kachin State. [27] The four villages he mentions are Tahaundam, "Shidudan" (Japanese: シドゥダン), Sandam, Madin, the second of which he provides no romanization because the placename is uncharted on the map available to him. [27] According to Suzuki's consultant, they migrated from Zayu County, Tibet more than a century ago although they still have contact with relatives living there, and there are few differences between the dialects of the four villages . [28]

Since Rawang people are the ethnic majority of the area, the Tibetans also have a command of Rawang, which is mainly used for interethnic communication; those with primary education can speak and write Burmese as well, while they are illiterate in their own language. [28]

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 [sroŋpʦanzɡampo] (now pronounced [sɔ́ŋʦɛ̃ɡʌ̀mpo] 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, as can be shown by Tibetan words transliterated into other languages, particularly Middle Chinese but also Uyghur.

The combination of the abovementioned evidence 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 pronounced ai, oi, ui. The words introduced from Tibet into the border languages at that time differ greatly from those borrowed at an earlier period.

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 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).

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.

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

Comparison of numerals

The numerals in different Tibetan/Tibetic languages are: [29]


For the Central or Eastern Tibetic languages:

'10'ʨu tʰamʧɔːmbaɸʧuʧurʧurčuʧuʧú

Related Research Articles

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The Ladakhi language is a Tibetic language spoken in the Indian union territory of Ladakh. It is the predominant language in the Buddhist-dominated district of Leh, and a minority language in the district of Kargil. Though a member of the Tibetic family, Ladakhi is not mutually intelligible with Standard Tibetan. Ladakhis and Tibetans usually communicate with each other in Hindi or English as they do not understand each other's languages clearly.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nicolas Tournadre</span> French linguist

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  18. Tournadre & Suzuki 2023, p. 78.
  19. Tournadre & Suzuki 2023, p. 62.
  20. Tournadre & Suzuki 2023, pp. 81–83.
  21. Denwood 1999, p. 34.
  22. 1 2 3 4 5 Tournadre & Suzuki 2023, p. 54.
  23. Denwood 1999, p. 36.
  24. Denwood 1999, pp. 33–34.
  25. Izzard 2015.
  26. Tournadre & Suzuki 2023, p. 50.
  27. 1 2 Suzuki 2012, p. 38.
  28. 1 2 Suzuki 2012, p. 39.
  29. "Bodish Numerals (Eugene Chan)". Archived from the original on 2012-03-05.

Further reading