Facts About Tibetan: Dialects, Script and Register

Tibetan actually refers to a group of languages spoken all over the Himalayan Massif in South Asia. All of these languages evolved from Old Tibetan, but since then they have diversified significantly. Classical Tibetan, however, is still homogenized and used for Buddhist literature and other art.

Over six million people speak a Tibetan language across the Tibetan Plateau, the Himalayas, and other countries like India and Pakistan. Learning a little about these languages unlocks a whole world that Anglophones might not otherwise get to experience. The following facts are a primer to use as your way in!

A Few Facts about Tibetan

1. There are well over 200 Tibetan languages, which can be split into 25 major language dialects and 12 minor language dialects.

Some of these are mutually intelligible, while others are not. 

Major Language Dialects

Language DialectAreaNative Speakers
Central Tibetan (basis of Standard / Lhasa Tibetan)India, Nepal, China, Tibetan Autonomous Region (Official Language)More than 1.2 million
Khams TibetanBhutan, Tibetan Autonomous Region, Amdo, Qinghai, Sichuan, YunnanMore than 1.4 million
Amdo TibetanQinghai, Gansu, Tibet Autonomous Region, Sichuan, AmdoMore than 1.8 million
Choni / ThewoGansu, SichuanMore than 150,000
Ladakhi / BodhiIndia (Ladakh), ChinaMore than 110,000
BaltiPakistan, IndiaMore than 379,000
PurgiIndia, PakistanMore than 94,000
Lahuli-Spiti / Western Innovative TibetanNorthern India (Himachal Pradesh)More than 20,000 speakers
DzongkhaBhutan (official language)More than 640,000
Sikkimese / Sikkimese Tibetan / Bhutia / Drenjongké)Sikkim, Nepal (Mechi Zone), BhutanMore than 70,000
SherpaNepal, Sikkim, TibetMore than 170,000
Kyirong–KagateNepal, ChinaMore than 16,000

2. Tibetan languages are written in one of two Indic scripts

The Tibetan script has 30 basic letters, all consonants with implied vowels. Meanwhile, the Devanagari script has 33 consonants and 14 vowels.

3. Classical Tibetan is the official written language of Tibetan Buddhism

It was mostly used in the 11th to 19th centuries, though people still learn to read it globally for the sake of translating important Buddhist texts.

4. Though children are generally taught in Standard Tibetan (or a regional variant) right through primary and middle school, Tibetan secondary schools are taught in Chinese.

In Tibetan schools in India, meanwhile, middle and secondary education is mandatorily taught in English. During tertiary education, students have more options as to their language of instruction.

5. There are three major registers in Standard (Lhasa) Tibetan

These are:

  • Phal-skad (“demotic language”), used in vernacular and between friends and family.
  • Zhe-sa (“respectful and polite speech”), used in formal situations and with strangers
  • Chos-skad (“religious/book language”), used in scriptures and classical literature

6. Tibetan nouns don’t have grammatical gender

They are also not marked for number. However, certain words exist to distinguish natural gender (see English: cock/hen), and suffixes can also be applied to clarify gender. Only animate objects are ever marked for number, and even then only in plural form as there is no definite form.

7. There are 21 common personal pronouns in Standard Tibetan, varying for person, number, and politeness

PersonPronounGenderFormalityNumber
1st personNgaAnyN/ASingle (self)
Nga-gnyisDual (self + one other)
Nga-tshoPlural (self + others)
2nd personRangStandardSingle (addressee)
Rang-gnyisDual (addressee + one other)
Rang-tshoPlural (addressee + others)
Khyed-rangPoliteSingle
Khyed-rang-gnyisDual (addressee + one other)
Khyed-rang-tshoPlural (addressee + others)
KhyodRudeSingle
Khyod-gnyisPlural (addressee + one other)
Khyod-tshoRudePlural (addressee + others)
3rd personKhongStandardSingle (another person)
Khong-gnyisStandardDual (two other people)
Khong-tshoStandardPlural (three or more other people)
Kho-(rang)MaleFamiliarSingle (another male)
Kho-(rang)-gnyisDual (two other males; one male + one female)
Kho-(rang)-tshoPlural (at least one other male + multiple others)
Mo-(rang)FemaleSingle (another female)
Mo-(rang)-gnyisDual (two females)
Mo-(rang)-tshoPlural (more than two females)

8. Tibetan languages are some of 400 or so languages descended from the Sino-Tibetan group

Other major languages include:

  • Sinitic (Chinese languages)
  • Lolo-Burmese
  • Kuki-Chin (including Indian languages)

9. Though Classic Tibetan was not a tonal language like many of its neighboring languages (especially Chinese languages), several modern Tibetan languages have adopted tonal shifts

Tonal languages mean that the same word ostensibly spelled and pronounced the same way can mean something completely different depending on the tonal emphasis.

10. Tibetan languages are agglutinative (generally)

These are languages which are made up of several morphemes strung together without alterations to create different words and meanings. Other agglutinative languages include:

  • Finnish
  • Estonian
  • Hungarian
  • Bantu languages
  • Several Native American languages
  • Esperanto
  • Fictional “Newspeak”

11. Tibetan Braille is based on German Braille with some differences

Though Tibetan uses the same alphabet-script as Burmese Dzongka, the Braille used is very different. The Dzongka Braille is much closer to common international Braille.

12. Tibetan literature has crossed regional borders, often produced in several other countries.

Some countries include: the strait between Tibet to Mongolia, Russia, and present-day Bhutan, Nepal, India, and Pakistan. Nowadays, the term belongs to any literature produced by Tibetan people or about authentic Tibetan culture and is sometimes written in Chinese or English.

Final Thoughts

Tibetan languages are spoken by millions of people conversationally worldwide, and thousands if not millions more have a working knowledge due to the spread and popularity of Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibetan languages are a rich vein of knowledge for those interested in all global history and our worldwide culture.

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