Lhasa Tibetan

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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 byTomi e cigan
Language codes
ISO 639-1bo
ISO 639-2tib (B)
bod (T)
ISO 639-3bod
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Lhasa Tibetan[a] (Tibetan: ལྷ་སའི་སྐད་, 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[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

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:

Vowel phonemes of Standard Tibetan
Front Back
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 Tibetan but 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; 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 /ɛ/ each have nasalized forms: /ĩ/, /ỹ/, /ẽ/, /ø̃/, and /ɛ̃/, 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 [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. 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.


Consonant phonemes of Standard Tibetan
Bilabial Alveolar Retroflex (Alveolo-)
Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Stop p t ʈʰ ~ ʈʂʰ ʈ ~ ʈʂ c k ʔ
Affricate tsʰ ts tɕʰ
Fricative s ʂ ɕ h
Approximant w ~ ɥ ɹ̥ ɹ j
Lateral l ʎ
  1. In the low tone, the unaspirated /p, t, c, k/ are voiced [b, d, ɟ, ɡ], whereas the aspirated stops /pʰ, tʰ, cʰ, kʰ/ lose some of their aspiration. Thus, in this context, the main distinction between /p, t, c, k/ and /pʰ, tʰ, cʰ, kʰ/ is voicing. The dialect of the 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, both 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). 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 /ʔ/ 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 [pʰø̀ʔ] in the Lhasa dialect.

Verbal system[edit]

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 / byuṅ V-yod
Factual V-gi-red V-gi-yod-pa-red V-pa-red V-yod-pa-red
Testimonial ------- V-gi-ḥdug V-soṅ V-bźag

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[edit]

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.



















གཅིག chig 1 ཉི་ཤུ་རྩ་གཅིག་ nyishu tsa ji 21 བཞི་བརྒྱ་ zhi kya 400
གཉིས་ nyi 2 ཉི་ཤུ་རྩགཉིས་ nyishu tsa nyi 22 ལྔ་བརྒྱ་ nyi kya 500
གསུམ་ sum 3 ཉི་ཤུ་རྩགསུམ་ nyishu tsa sum 23 དྲུག་བརྒྱ་ drug kya 600
བཞི་ zhi 4 ཉི་ཤུ་རྩབཞི་ nyishu tsa zhi 24 བདུན་བརྒྱ་ dün kya 700
ལྔ་ nga 5 ཉི་ཤུ་རྩ་ལྔ་ nyishu tsa nga 25 བརྒྱད་བརྒྱ་ kyed kya 800
དྲུག་ drug 6 ཉི་ཤུ་རྩདྲུག་ nyishu tsa drug 26 དགུ་བརྒྱ་ ku kya 900
བདུན་ dün 7 ཉི་ཤུ་རྩབདུན་ nyishu tsa dün 27 ཆིག་སྟོང་ chig tong 1000
བརྒྱད་ gyed 8 ཉི་ཤུ་རྩབརྒྱད་ nyishu tsa gyed 28 ཁྲི khri 10,000
དགུ་ gu 9 ཉི་ཤུ་རྩདགུ་ nyishu tsa gu 29
བཅུ་ chu 10 སུམ་ཅུ sum cu 30 སུམ་ཅུ་སོ་གཅིག sum cu so chig 31
བཅུ་གཅིག་ chugchig 11 བཞི་བཅུ ship cu 40 བཞི་ཅུ་ཞེ་གཅིག ship cu she chig 41
བཅུ་གཉིས་ chunyi 12 ལྔ་བཅུ ngap cu 50 ལྔ་བཅུ་ང་གཅིག ngap cu nga chig 51
བཅུ་གསུམ་ choksum 13 དྲུག་ཅུ trug cu 60 དྲུག་ཅུ་རེ་གཅིག trug cu re chig 61
བཅུ་བཞི་ chushi 14 བདུན་ཅུ dün cu 70 བདུན་ཅུ་དོན་གཅིག dün cu dhon chig 71
བཅོ་ལྔ་ chonga 15 བརྒྱད་ཅུ gyed cu 80 བརྒྱད་ཅུ་གྱ་གཅིག gyed cu gya chig 81
བཅུ་དྲུག་ chudrug 16 དགུ་བཅུ gup cu 90 དགུ་བཅུ་གོ་གཅིག gup cu go chig 91
བཅུ་བདུན་ chubdun 17 བརྒྱ་ kya 100 བརྒྱ་དང་གཅིག kya tang chig 101
བཅོ་བརྒྱད་ chobgyed 18 རྒྱ་དང་ལྔ་བཅུ་ kya tang ngap cu 150
བཅུ་དགུ་ chudgu 19 ཉིས་བརྒྱ་ nyi kya 200
ཉི་ཤུ།་ nyishu 20 སུམ་བརྒྱ་ sum kya 300
འབུམ bum 100,000
ས་ཡ saya 1,000,000

(1 Million)

བྱེ་བ che wa 10,000,000
དུང་ཕྱུར tung chur 100,000,000[12]
ཐེར་འབུམ 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 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,[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[edit]

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.[citation needed]

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, "When officials forced an informal school run by monks near here to stop offering language classes for laypeople, Tashi Wangchuk looked for a place where his two teenage nieces could continue studying Tibetan. 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.[citation needed] 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[edit]

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

  • 藏译通 - Zangyitong, a mobile app for translating between Tibetan and Chinese.[22]
  • 青海弥陀翻译 – A Beta-version WeChat Mini Program that translate between Tibetan language to/from Chinese. (invitation from WeChat users only)
  • 腾讯民汉翻译 – 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]
  • 中国社科院 藏汉(口语)机器翻译 - 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[edit]


  1. ^
    • 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: བོད་སྐད་, Wylie: Bod skad, THL: Böké, ZYPY: Pögä, IPA: [pʰø̀k˭ɛʔ]; also Tibetan: བོད་ཡིག་, Wylie: Bod yig, THL: Böyik, ZYPY: Pöyig[citation needed])


  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). "ḥdug 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". www.lamayeshe.com. Retrieved 2020-06-30.
  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 12 April 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 7 February 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 2019-03-19.
  22. ^ "藏语翻译软件应用"藏译通"上线-新华网". Xinhuanet.com. Retrieved 2020-01-17.
  23. ^ "腾讯推出民汉翻译小程序". New.qq.com. 2019-04-30. Retrieved 2020-01-17.
  24. ^ "The Tibetan and Himalayan Library". Thlib.org. Retrieved 2020-01-17.
  25. ^ "The Tibetan and Himalayan Library". Thlib.org. Retrieved 2020-01-17.
  26. ^ "藏语自然语言处理展示台". Tibetan.iea.cass.cn:8081. Retrieved 2020-01-17.
  27. ^ "PanLex Translator". Translate.panlex.org. Retrieved 2020-01-17.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]