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Standard Tibetan
Lhasa Tibetan
Native toLhasa
RegionTibet Autonomous Region, Kham
Native speakers
(1.2 million cited 1990 census)[1]
Early forms
Official status
Official language in
Regulated byCommittee for the Standardisation of the Tibetan Language[a]
Language codes
tib (B)
bod (T)
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Lhasa Tibetan[b] (Tibetan: , Wylie: Lha-sa'i skad, THL: Lhaséké, ZYPY: Lasägä), or Standard Tibetan, is the Tibetan dialect spoken by educated people of Lhasa, the capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China.[2] It is an official language of the Tibet Autonomous Region.[3]

In the traditional "three-branched" classification of Tibetic languages, the Lhasa dialect belongs to the Central Tibetan branch (the other two being Khams Tibetan and Amdo Tibetan).[4] In terms of mutual intelligibility, Khams could communicate at a basic level with Lhasa Tibetan, while Amdo could not.[4] Both Lhasa Tibetan and Khams Tibetan evolved to become tonal and do not preserve the word-initial consonant clusters, which makes them very far from Classical Tibetan, especially when compared to the more conservative Amdo Tibetan.[5][6]


Like many languages, Lhasa 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 {or book} language"): the literary style in which the scriptures and other classical works are written.[7]


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 at a Temple in McLeod Ganj
Pejas, scriptures of Tibetan Buddhism, at a library in Dharamsala, India

Unlike many other languages of East Asia and especially Chinese, another Sino-Tibetan language, there are no numeral auxiliaries or measure words used in counting in Tibetan although words expressive of a collective or integral are often used after the tens, sometimes after a smaller number.[8]

In scientific and astrological works, the numerals, as in Vedic Sanskrit, are expressed by symbolical words.[8]

Tibetan Numerals ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?
Devanagari numerals ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?
Bengali numerals ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?
Arabic numerals 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

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. It is also helpful in reconstructing Proto Sino-Tibetan and Old Chinese.

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:

Three additional vowels are sometimes described as significantly distinct: [?] or [?], which is normally an allophone of /a/; [?], which is normally an allophone of /o/; and [] (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 [p] and pad (borrowing from Sanskrit padma, lotus) is pronounced [p], but the compound word, zhabs pad is pronounced [p]. This process can result in minimal pairs involving sounds that are otherwise allophones.

Sources vary on whether the [] phone (resulting from /e/ in a closed syllable) and the [?] phone (resulting from /a/ through the i-mutation) are distinct or basically identical.

Phonemic vowel length exists in Lhasa Tibetan but in a restricted set of circumstances. Assimilation of Classical Tibetan's suffixes, normally 'i (), at the end of a word produces a long vowel in Lhasa Tibetan; the 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 /?/ each have nasalized forms: /?/, /?/, /?/, /ø?/, and //, respectively, which historically 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 [?]; for instance, the word kham (Tibetan: , "piece") is pronounced [k?ám] with a high flat tone, whereas the word Khams (Tibetan: ?, "the Kham region") is pronounced [k?âm] with a high falling tone.

In polysyllabic words, tone is not important except in the first syllable. This means that from the point of view of phonological typology, Tibetan could more accurately be described as a pitch-accent language than a true tone language, in which all syllables in a word can carry their own tone.


The unaspirated stops /p/, /t/, /c/, and /k/ typically become voiced in the low tone and are pronounced [b], [d], [?], and [?], respectively. The sounds are regarded as allophones. Similarly, the aspirated stops [p?], [t?], [c?], and [k?] are typically lightly aspirated in the low tone. The dialect of the upper social strata in Lhasa does not use voiced stops in the low tone.

  1. The alveolar trill ([r]) is in complementary distribution of the alveolar approximant [?]; therefore, both are treated as one phoneme.
  2. The voiceless alveolar lateral approximant [l?] resembles the voiceless alveolar lateral fricative [?] found in languages such as Welsh and Zulu and is sometimes transcribed ⟨?⟩.
  3. The consonants /m/, /?/, /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). However, /k/ is not pronounced in the final position of a word except in very formal speech. Also, syllable-final /r/ and /l/ are often not clearly pronounced but realized as a lengthening of the preceding vowel. The phonemic glottal stop /?/ appears only at the end of words in the place of /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 but is now pronounced [p?ø] in the Lhasa dialect.

Verbal system

The Lhasa Tibetan verbal system distinguishes four tenses and three evidential moods.[9]

Future Present Past Perfect
Personal V-gi-yin V-gi-yod V-pa-yin / byu? V-yod
Factual V-gi-red V-gi-yod-pa-red V-pa-red V-yod-pa-red
Testimonial ------- V-gi-?dug V-so? V-b?ag

The three moods may all occur with all three grammatical persons, though early descriptions associated the personal modal category with European first-person agreement.[10]

Counting system

Lhasa Tibetan has a base-10 counting system.[11] The basic units of the counting system of Lhasa Tibetan is given in the table below in both the Tibetan script and a Romanisation for those unfamiliar with Written Tibetan.



















?? chig 1 nyishu tsa ji 21 zhi kya 400
nyi 2 ? nyishu tsa nyi 22 nyi kya 500
sum 3 ? nyishu tsa sum 23 ? drug kya 600
? zhi 4 nyishu tsa zhi 24 ? dün kya 700
nga 5 nyishu tsa nga 25 kyed kya 800
drug 6 ? nyishu tsa drug 26 ku kya 900
dün 7 ? nyishu tsa dün 27 chig tong 1000
gyed 8 nyishu tsa gyed 28 khri 10,000
? gu 9 nyishu tsa gu 29
? chu 10 sum cu 30 sum cu so chig 31
chugchig 11 ? ship cu 40 ship cu she chig 41
chunyi 12 ngap cu 50 ? ngap cu nga chig 51
choksum 13 ? trug cu 60 trug cu re chig 61
chushi 14 ? dün cu 70 ? dün cu dhon chig 71
? chonga 15 gyed cu 80 ? gyed cu gya chig 81
chudrug 16 ? gup cu 90 gup cu go chig 91
chubdun 17 kya 100 kya tang chig 101
? chobgyed 18 kya tang ngap cu 150
chudgu 19 nyi kya 200
? nyishu 20 sum kya 300
? bum 100,000
saya 1,000,000

(1 Million)

che wa 10,000,000
tung chur 100,000,000[12]
ter bum 1,000,000,000

(1 Billion)


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,[13]
    • 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.[13]
  • The Hungarian Sándor K?rösi 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,[7] 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.[14]
  • 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 thibétaine.[14]
  • Ant. Schiefner of St Petersburg in 1849 his series of translations and researches.[14]
  • 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
  • Japanese linguist Kitamura Hajime published a grammar and dictionary of Lhasa Tibetan

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. In April 2020, classroom instruction was switched from Tibetan to Mandarin Chinese in Ngaba, Sichuan.[15] Students who continue on to tertiary education have the option of studying humanistic disciplines in Tibetan at a number of minority colleges in China.[16] That contrasts with Tibetan schools in Dharamsala, India, where the Ministry of Human Resource Development curriculum requires academic subjects to be taught in English from middle school.[17] Literacy and enrollment rates continue to be the main concern of the Chinese government. Much 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, a UK MP, released a statement to mark International Mother Language Day claiming, "The Chinese government are following a deliberate policy of extinguishing all that is Tibetan, including their own language in their own country" and he asserted a right for Tibetans to express themselves "in their mother tongue".[18] However, 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."[19]

Some scholars also question such claims 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 policies... claims that primary schools in Tibet teach Mandarin are in error. Tibetan was the main language of instruction in 98% of TAR primary schools in 1996; today, Mandarin 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."[20]

Recently, the Yushul Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture Intermediate People's Court sentenced Tashi Wangchuk to five years in prison on 22 May 2018. Part of the evidence used in court was a New York Times video entitled, "Tashi Wangchuk: A Tibetan's Journey for Justice" by Jonah M. Kessel. The accompanying text states, "To his surprise, he could not find one, even though nearly everyone living in this market town on the Tibetan plateau here is Tibetan. Officials had also ordered other monasteries and a private school in the area not to teach the language to laypeople. And public schools had dropped true bilingual education in Chinese and Tibetan, teaching Tibetan only in a single class, like a foreign language, if they taught it at all. 'This directly harms the culture of Tibetans,' said Mr. Tashi, 30, a shopkeeper who is trying to file a lawsuit to compel the authorities to provide more Tibetan education. 'Our people's culture is fading and being wiped out.'"[21]

Two branches of Tibetan spoken in parts of the Kashmir region are under severe threat. 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, it 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.

Machine translation software and applications

An incomplete list of machine translation software or applications that can translate Tibetan language from/to a variety of other languages.

  • - Zangyitong, a mobile app for translating between Tibetan and Chinese.[22]
  • - A Beta-version WeChat Mini Program that translate between Tibetan language to/from Chinese. (invitation from WeChat users only)
  • - A WeChat Mini Program that translate between Tibetan language to/from Chinese.[23]
  • THL Tibetan to English Translation Tool - A webpage that annotates Tibetan text various English meanings and translations, with 10+ dictionaries integrated.[24] A downloadable version is also available.[25]
  • ()? - A demonstrative website (slow in response) translating Tibetan to Chinese, developed by Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. It works well on Tibetan text from official Chinese News websites.[26]
  • Panlex - A multilingual translation website with a few Tibetan words.[27]

See also


  1. ^ Tibetan: , Wylie: bod yig brda tshad ldan du sgyur ba'i las don u yon lhan khang gis bsgrigs; Chinese:
  2. ^
    • The name "Lhasa Tibetan" is the preferred name, as in Chapter 19: Lhasa Tibetan, The Sino-Tibetan Languages, 2nd edition (2017), edited by Graham Thurgood and Randy J. LaPolla.
    • It is sometimes referred to by learners as "Standard Tibetan" (Tibetan: , Wylie: Bod skad, THL: Böké, ZYPY: Pögä, IPA: [p?ø?k]; also Tibetan: , Wylie: Bod yig, THL: Böyik, ZYPY: Pöyig[])


  1. ^ Lhasa Tibetan at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ DeLancey, Scott (2017). "Chapter 19: Lhasa Tibetan". In Graham Thurgood and Randy J. LaPolla (ed.). The Sino-Tibetan Languages, 2nd edition. ISBN 9780367570453.
  3. ^ "Fifty Years of Democratic Reform in Tibet". Official Chinese government site. 2009-03-02.
  4. ^ a b Gelek, Konchok (2017). "Variation, contact, and change in language: Varieties in Yul shul (northern Khams)". International Journal of the Sociology of Language (245): 91-92.
  5. ^ Makley, Charlene; Dede, Keith; Hua, Kan; Wang, Qingshan (1999). "The Amdo Dialect of Labrang" (PDF). Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area. 22.1: 101. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-03-05.
  6. ^ Reynolds, Jermay J. (2012). Language variation and change in an Amdo Tibetan village: Gender, education and resistance (PDF) (PhD thesis). Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of Georgetown University. p. 19-21. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2017-08-12.
  7. ^ a b Waddell & de_Lacouperie 1911, p. 919.
  8. ^ a b Waddell & de_Lacouperie 1911, p. 920.
  9. ^ Hill, Nathan W. (2013). "?dug as a testimonial marker in Classical and Old Tibetan". Himalayan Linguistics. 12 (1): 2.
  10. ^ Hill, Nathan W. (2013). "Contextual semantics of 'Lhasa' Tibetan evidentials". SKASE Journal of Theoretical Linguistics. 10 (3): 47-54.
  11. ^ Tournadre, Nicolas; Dorje, Sangda (2003). Manual of Standard Tibetan: Language and civilization. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1559391898. OCLC 53477676.
  12. ^ lywa (2015-04-02). "Tibetan Numbers". Retrieved .
  13. ^ a b Waddell & de_Lacouperie 1911, p. 920, note 1.
  14. ^ a b c Waddell & de_Lacouperie 1911, p. 920, note 2.
  15. ^ Lobe Socktsang, Richard Finney. (9 April 2020). "Classroom Instruction Switch From Tibetan to Chinese in Ngaba Sparks Worry, Anger". Translated by Dorjee Damdul. Retrieved 2020.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  16. ^ Postiglione, Jiao and Gyatso. "Education in Rural Tibet: Development, Problems and Adaptations". China: An International Journal. Volume 3, Number 1, March 2005, pp. 1-23
  17. ^ Maslak, Mary Ann. "School as a site of Tibetan ethnic identity construction in India". China: An International Journal. Volume 60, Number 1, February 2008, pp. 85-106
  18. ^ "Report reveals determined Chinese assault on Tibetan language". Press Release - 21st February 2008. Free Tibet. Retrieved 2010.
  19. ^ Elliot Sperling, "Exile and Dissent: The Historical and Cultural Context", in TIBET SINCE 1950: SILENCE, PRISON, OR EXILE 31-36 (Melissa Harris & Sydney Jones eds., 2000).
  20. ^ Sautman, B. 2003. "Cultural Genocide and Tibet," Texas Journal of International Law 38:2:173-246
  21. ^ Wong, Edward (28 November 2015). "Tibetans Fight to Salvage Fading Culture in China". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved .
  22. ^ """-". Retrieved .
  23. ^ "". 2019-04-30. Retrieved .
  24. ^ "The Tibetan and Himalayan Library". Retrieved .
  25. ^ "The Tibetan and Himalayan Library". Retrieved .
  26. ^ "". Retrieved .
  27. ^ "PanLex Translator". Retrieved .

Further reading

External links

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