Tibetan Language

Tibetan language, belonging to the Tibeto-Burman group of the Sino-Tibetan language family, is spoken in Tibet, Qinghai, Garze and Aba Prefectures of Sichuan, Gannan Prefecture of Gansu, and Diqing Prefecture of Yunnan, as well as Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan and in parts of northern India (including Sikkim). Tibetan language is mainly divided into three dialects: Weizang dialect (Lhasa dialect), Kangba dialect (Dege dialect, Qamdo dialect), and Amdo dialect (Qinghai Tibetan region). Tibetic languages are spoken by some 6 million people.

Three Dialects of Tibetan Language

Lhasa Dialect

Lhasa 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. 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. 

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.

Kangba Dialect

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. Khams Tibetan is used alongside Standard Tibetan and Amdo Tibetan in broadcasting. Khams Tibetan is not mutually intelligible with other Tibetic languages. Like Central Tibetan, Khams Tibetan is a tonal language.

Khampa Tibetan is also spoken by about 1,000 people in two enclaves in eastern Bhutan, the descendants of pastoral yak-herding communities.

Amdo Dialect

The Amdolese language is the Tibetic language spoken by the majority of Amdolese, mainly in Qinghai and some parts of Sichuan (Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture) and Gansu (Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture). 

These three related languages share a common written script but their spoken pronunciations, vocabularies and grammars are different. These differences may have emerged due to geographical isolation of the regions of Tibet. Unlike Khams and Standard Tibetan, Amdolese language is not a tonal language. It retains many word-initial consonant clusters that have been lost in Central Tibetan.

Written Tibetan

During the 7th Century AD Songstem Gampo (569-649AD), the 33rd king of the Yarlung Dynasty of southern Tibet and the first Emperor of Tibet, sent Thonmi Sambhota, one of his ministers, to India to gather information on Buddhism. The minister then reputedly devised a script for Tibetan based on the Devanagari model and also wrote a grammar of Tibetan based on Sanskrit grammars.

The new Tibetan alphabet was used to write Tibetan translations of Buddhists texts. The first Sanskrit-Tibetan dictionary, Mahavyutpatti, appeared in the 9th century. Wood block printing, introduced from China, was used in Tibet from an early date and is still used in a few monasteries.

Tibetan literature is mainly concerned with Buddhist themes and includes works translated from Sanskrit and Chinese and original Tibetan works. There are also literary works about the Bon religion, a pre-Buddhist religion indigenous to Tibet. The most unusual genre of Tibetan literature is that of gter-ma or ‘rediscovered’ texts – reputedly the work of ancient masters which have been hidden in remote caves for many centuries.

Notable Features

  • Type of writing system: syllabic alphabet or abugida. Each letter has an inherent vowel /a/. Other vowels can be indicated using a variety of diacritics which appear above or below the main letter.
  • Direction of writing: left to right in horizontal lines.
  • Syllables are separated by a dot.
  • Consonant clusters are written with special conjunct letters.