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About Tibetan Language

Standard Tibetan, often called Central Tibetan (ü kä), in Tibetan script: བོད་སྐད་, is the official language of Tibet. It is based on the speech of Lhasa, an Ü-Tsang dialect of Dbus aka Ü, one of the Central Tibetan languages. Central Tibetan is in turn one of several branches of the Tibetan languages, the others being Khams (kham kä), Amdo (am kä), and Ladakhi (tö kä). The written language is based on Classical Tibetan and is highly conservative.

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.


Pejas, scriptures of Tibetan Buddhism, at a library in Dharamsala, IndiaUnlike many other languages of East Asia, 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, and sometimes after a smaller number.

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

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).

Among the initials, five — ག g, ད d, བ b, མ m, འ ' — are regarded as prefixes, and are called so for all purposes, though they belong sometimes to the stem. As a rule, none of these letters can be placed before any of the same organic class. The language is much ruled by laws of euphony, which have been strictly formulated by native grammarians.


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, while 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 which differ only because of contour. The difference only occurs 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, while the word Khams (Tibetan: ཁམས་, "the Kham region") is pronounced [kʰâm] with a high falling tone.

Possible survival threats

Chinese sources claim that 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 saying "The Chinese government are following a deliberate policy of extinguishing all that is Tibetan, including their own language in their own country. It may be obvious, but Tibetan should be the official language of Tibet. The world must act. Time is running out for Tibet." The rights of Tibetans, under Article 5 of the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity are to "express themselves and to create and disseminate their work in the language of their choice, and particularly in their mother tongue", as well as being "entitled to quality education and training that fully respect their cultural identity". Baker had earlier raised the issue of Tibetan culture and language in the United Kingdom parliament in June 2005.

Some scholars have questioned this claim, however, as most Tibetans continue to reside in rural areas where Chinese is rarely spoken. Lhasa and other Tibetan cities have now become largely Chinese. 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."

Tibetologist Elliot Sperling has also noted that "within certain limits in the PRC does make efforts to accommodate Tibetan cultural expression" and "the cultural activity taking place all over the Tibetan plateau cannot be ignored."

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 whereby the Tibetan vernacular is supplanted by English and Hindi and there are signs of a gradual loss of Tibetan cultural identity in the area.


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