Tibetan language, Tibetic (or Bodic) language belonging to the
Tibeto-Burman group of the Sino-Tibetan language family; it is spoken in Tibet, Bhutan,
Nepal, and in parts of northern India (including Sikkim). The language is usually divided
by scholars into four dialect groups: Central, Southern, Northern (in northern Tibet), and
Western (in western Tibet). The widely used dialect of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet,
belongs to the Central group, while the Southern group is found primarily in Sikkim,
Bhutan, and Nepal. The Western dialects are more conservative in their sound systems,
having best preserved the initial consonant clusters and the final stops (sounds formed
with complete closure in the vocal tract) of Old Tibetan and having less development of
tones than the other dialects.
Tibetan is written in a very conservative script of Indian origin, its present form having
been used since the 9th century. The orthography reflects the pronunciation of the
language as it was in about the 7th century and therefore does not adequately represent
present-day standard Tibetan pronunciation.
The Tibetan and Burmese languages are related, although
they are mutually unintelligible in their modern forms. Spoken Tibetan has developed a
pattern of regional dialects and subdialects, which can be mutually understood. The
dialect of Lhasa is used as a lingua franca. There are two social levels of speech--zhe-sa
(honorific) and phal-skad (ordinary); their use depends upon the relative social status
between the speaker and the listener. Chinese has been imposed on the Tibetans since the
Tibetan is written in a script derived from that of Indian
Gupta in about AD 600. It has a syllabary of 30 consonants and five vowels; six additional
symbols are used in writing Sanskrit words. The script itself has four variations--dbu-can
(primarily for Buddhist textbooks), dbu-med and 'Khyug-yig (for general use), and
'bru-tsha (for decorative writing).
Learn The Language
A Tibetan greeting
Kusu dewo?........ how are you?
The Tibetan alphabet is derived from the ancient Brahmi script - so one can see
similarities to the Indian alphabets. There are actually two different styles of the
Tibetan script. The one presented here is dbu can (u-chen) or headed writing. This
is most commonly found in print - that is in newspapers, books, etc. and electronic
format. Here are the consonants called gsal byed (sal je). If you noticed, each
Tibetan term I've already presented is written, and then something ap pears in
parentheses. First is the Wylie transcription - this is, just a representation of the
Tibetan letters in the Roman (English) script. Then in parentheses is how it is pronounced
in the standard (Lhasa) dialect. Such a difference appears between the two since many of
the Tibetan letters are used to mark tone. So, I suggest learning the Wylie transcription
scheme so you can write transcribed words in the native Tibetan. Then, learn the
pronunciation so you can actually speak the langu age. For the following chart, the Wylie
transcription appears, then the Lhasa pronunciation appears in parentheses. A slash
indicates that either symbol could be used.
Here are the vowels or dbyangs (yang). Each letter above has an inherent
"a" pronounced like "but." In order to change this vowel to
another sound, a mark is placed above or below the consonant. A vowel written alone uses
either the Tibetan letter a or 'a - the difference in transcription symbol
is only to represent a different letter form. I is pronounced like "fit."
E is pronounced like "May." U is pronounced like "foo
One will frequently find consonant stacks - that is letters on
top of each other. Some letters take special forms when being stacked. Here are those
special forms attached to the letter k for the sake of example.
Some characters always form these stacks even
if they do not have a special form. Three are called rango, lango, and sango. These mean
that the letters ra, la, and sa are superscribed (or on top of) another letter. The
subscribed forms are wata, yata, rata, lata, and hata. Here are examples are all of these
attached to "g" - combinations of more than one of these are also given.
Remember, whenever you see these letter combinations with any other letter, a stack will
1 - g; 2 - gw; 3 - gy; 4 - gr; 5 - gh; 6 - gl;
7 - rg; 8 - lg; 9 - sg; 10 - grw; 11 - rgw; 12 - rgy; 13 - sgy; 14 - sgr
The Tibetan alphabet was created also with the idea for using it to write Sanskrit words.
So, extended letters were created to account for the letters not found in the Tibetan
alphabet. These are pretty easy to figure out - they are not really a part of the alphabet
- you should be at least familiar with them although they appear infrequently. "T,
TH, D, N, and SH" are retroflex consonants. "H" is a visarga and pronounced
like a breathy "h". "M" is an anusvAra and represents nasalization.
The others represent Sanskrit long vowels.
The Tibetan number system works exactly like ours.
An "h" after a letter like th represents extra air blown out or
aspiration - do not pronounce like "they." Same goes with ph - do
not pronounce like "phone."
The letter ng is pronounced like in "sing"
but not really with a "g" sound at the end. This is important to learn to
pronounce - especially since the word for "I" is nga.
The letters are in groups going across - first are the
gutturals - said from the back of the throat.
The second group is the palatals - the tongue presses flat
against the roof of the mouth.
The third is the dentals - the tongue touches the back of
The fourth is the labials - the lips come together before
Piecing it all together
Try figuring out the above.
If you got - "oM ma Ni padme hUM" - then you are
probably a genius. This is a very hard phrase to read because it is really Sanskrit.
Notice, a nasalization circle over the o vowel sign. Notice a retroflex N.
Notice the consonant stack of dm. Notice the Sanskrit long vowel U. And
finally notice the nasalization sign over the h. You probably also noticed little
dots - this little dot is called a tsheg (tsek). This little dot separates
syllables. T his may seem unnecessary at this point, but when you start looking at Tibetan
words, it will become invaluable. Also, you may have noticed the vertical line at the end
of the phrase. This is called a (shey) and it is the closest form of punctuation to a
period. Actually, it is probably the only punctuation besides a tsek you will ever see.
When Tibetan is transcribed, a tsek most frequently simply becomes a space. Sometimes a
dash is used so one can tell how the words are separated.
Let's proceed with learning some Tibetan phrases.
1. "Where are you going?" is a common greeting.
2. Kah-leh phe is said to the person leaving, or if both people are leaving.
3. Kah-leh shu is said to the person remaining behind.
4. These phrases are not commonly spoken and should not be used as freely as
they are in English.
For some transcription practice, transcribe the phrases above (using the
standard Wylie method). Remember to transcribe a tseg simply as a space. Please check the
Conjuncts section to review the rules for forming stacks. Most syllables will only contain
one vowel so some letters will not have an attached vowel. For an example, here is the
answer to number one:
1 - bkra shis bde legs/
Now write down the transcription for all the other phrases. Check your work - here are the
2 - khyed rang sku gzugs bde po yin pas/
3 - lags yin/ nga gzugs po bde po yin/
4 - bzhugs ro gas gnang/
5 - khyed rang ga par phebs kas/
6 - ga ler phebs/
7 - ga ler bzhugs/
8 - mjal yong/
9 - do dgong mjal yong/
10 - sang nyin mjal yong/
11 - gzim 'jag gnang dgos/
12 - kong dags/
13 - thu ci che/
14 - bod rang btsan/