Standard Tibetan

Standard Tibetan is the most widely spoken form of the Tibetic languages. It is based on the speech of Lhasa, an Ü-Tsang (Central Tibetan) dialect. For this reason, Standard Tibetan is often called Lhasa Tibetan. Tibetan is an official 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:

    • Phal-skad ("demotic language"): the vernacular speech.
    • Zhe-sa ("polite respectful speech"): the formal spoken style, particularly prominent in Lhasa.
    • Chos-skad ("religious language"): the literary style in which the scriptures and other classical works are written.


    Syntax and word order

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

    • adjectives generally follow nouns in Tibetan, unless the two are linked by a genitive particle
    • objects and adverbs precede the verb, as do adjectives in copular clauses
    • a noun marked with the genitive case precedes the noun which it modifies
    • demonstratives and numerals follow the noun they modify


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

    Unlike many other languages of East Asia, there are no numeral auxiliaries or measure words used in counting in Tibet an although words expressive of a collective or integral are often used after the tens, sometimes after a smaller number.

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

    Tibetan numerals are located at Unicode code points 0F20–0F29.

    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.

    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:

    Front Back
    unrounded rounded rounded
    Close [i] [y] [u]
    Close-mid [e] [ø] [o]
    Open-mid [ɛ]
    Open [a]

    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 Tibet an but appears 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; this 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. Historically, this 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.


    Bilabial Alveolar Alveolo-palatal Retroflex Palatal Velar Glottal
    Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
    Plosive aspirated ʈʰ ~ ʈʂʰ
    unaspirated p t ʈ ~ ʈʂ c k ʔ
    Affricate aspirated tsʰ tɕʰ
    unaspirated ts
    Fricative s ɕ ʂ h
    Approximant central voiced ɹ j w
    lateral voiceless
    voiced l


    1. The unaspirated stops /p/, /t/, /c/, and /k/ typically become voiced in the low tone, being pronounced [b], [d], [ɟ], and [ɡ], respectively. These sounds are regarded as allophones. By a similar process, the aspirated stops [pʰ], [tʰ], [cʰ], and [kʰ] are typically lightly aspirated in the low tone. The dialect of upper social strata in Lhasa does not use voiced stops in the low tone.
    2. The alveolar trill ([r]) is in complementary distribution of the alveolar approximant [ɹ]; therefore, they are treated as one phoneme.
    3. 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.
    4. 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). Note that /k/ is not pronounced in the final position of a word, except in highly formal speech. Also, syllable-final /r/ and /l/ are often not clearly pronounced, but instead realized as a lengthening of the preceding vowel. The phonemic glottal stop /ʔ/ appears only at the end of words in place of an /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 and is now pronounced [pʰø̀ʔ] in the Lhasa dialect.


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

    • The Capuchin friars who settled in Lhasa for a quarter of century from 1719:
      • Francesco della Penna, well known from his accurate description of Tibet,
      • Cassian di Macerata sent home materials which were used by the Augustine friar Aug. Antonio Georgi of Rimini (1711–1797) in his Alphabetum Tibetanum (Rome, 1762, 4t0), a ponderous and confused compilation, which may be still referred to, but with great caution.
    • The Hungarian Sándor Kőrösi Csoma (1784–1842), who published the first Tibetan–European language dictionary (Classical Tibetan and English in this case) and grammar, Essay Towards a Dictionary, Tibetan and English.
    • Heinrich August Jäschke of the Moravian mission which was established in Ladakh in 1857, Tibetan Grammar and A Tibetan–English Dictionary.
    • At St Petersburg, Isaac Jacob Schmidt published his Grammatik der tibetischen Sprache in 1839 and his Tibetisch-deutsches Wörterbuch in 1841. His access to Mongolian sources had enabled him to enrich the results of his labours with a certain amount of information unknown to his predecessors. His Tibetische Studien (1851–1868) is a valuable collection of documents and observations.
    • In France, P. E. Foucaux published in 1847 a translation from the Rgya tcher rol-pa, the Tibetan version of the Lalita Vistara, and in 1858 a Grammaire thibitaine.
    • Ant. Schiefner of St Petersburg in 1849 his series of translations and researches.
    • Theos Casimir Bernard, a PhD scholar of religion from Columbia University, explorer and practitioner of Yoga and Tibetan Buddhism, published, after his 1936/37 trip to India and Tibet, A Simplified Grammar of the Literary Tibetan Language, 1946 . See the 'Books' section.

    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. Students that continue on to tertiary education have the option of studying humanistic disciplines in Tibetan at a number of Minority colleges in China. This contrasts with Tibetan schools in Dharamsala, India, where the Ministry of Human Resource Development curriculum requires academic subjects be taught in English beginning in middle school. Literacy and enrollment rates continue to be the main concern of the Chinese government. A large proportion 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.

    In February 2008 Norman Baker UK MP, released a statement to mark International Mother Language Day claiming that "The Chinese government are following a deliberate policy of extinguishing all that is Tibetan, including their own language in their own country" and asserting a right for Tibetans to express themselves "in their mother tongue". But 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."

    Some scholars also question claims like these, 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 that primary schools in Tibet teach putonghua are in error. Tibetan was the main language of instruction in 98% of TAR primary schools in 1996; today, putonghua 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."

    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. The adjacent Balti language is also in severe danger, and unlike Ladakhi 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.

    See also