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The Tibetan alphabet is an abugida of Indic origin used to write the Tibetan language as well as the Dzongkha language, Denzongkha, Ladakhi language and sometimes the Balti language. The printed form of the alphabet is called uchen script (Tibetan: དབུ་ཅན་, Wylie: dbu-can; "with a head") while the hand-written cursive form used in everyday writing is called umê (Tibetan: དབུ་མེད་, Wylie: dbu-med; "headless").

The alphabet is very closely linked to a broad ethnic Tibetan identity. Besides Tibet, it has also been used for Tibetan languages in Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan.[1] The Tibetan alphabet is ancestral to the Limbu alphabet, the Lepcha alphabet,[2] and the multilingual 'Phags-pa script.[2]


The creation of the Tibetan alphabet is attributed to Thonmi Sambhota of the mid-7th century. Tradition holds that Thonmi Sambhota, a minister of Songtsen Gampo (569-649), was sent to India to study the art of writing, and upon his return introduced the alphabet. The form of the letters is based on an Indic alphabet of that period.[3]

Three orthographic standardizations were developed. The most important, an official orthography aimed to facilitate the translation of Buddhist scriptures, emerged during the early 9th century. Standard orthography has not altered since then, while the spoken language has changed by, for example, losing complex consonant clusters. As a result, in all modern Tibetan dialects, in particular in the Standard Tibetan of Lhasa, there is a great divergence between spelling (which reflects the 9th-century[contradictory] spoken Tibetan) and pronunciation. This divergence is the basis of an argument in favour of spelling reform, to write Tibetan "as it is pronounced", for example, writing "Kagyu" instead of "Bka'-rgyud". In contrast, the pronunciation of the Balti, Ladakhi and Burig languages adheres more closely to the archaic spelling.


The Tibetan alphabet

The Tibetan alphabet has 30 consonants, sometimes known as radicals, which are the basis of the script.[2]

ka /ká/ kha /kʰá/ ga /kà, kʰà/ nga /ŋà/
ca /tʃá/ cha /tʃʰá/ ja /tʃà/ nya /ɲà/
ta /tá/ tha /tʰá/ da /tà, tʰà/ na /nà/
pa /pá/ pha /pʰá/ ba /pà, pʰà/ ma /mà/
tsa /tsá/ tsha /tsʰá/ dza /tsà/ wa /wà/ (not originally part of the alphabet)[4]
zha /ʃà/[5] za /sà/ 'a /hà/[6]
ya /jà/ ra /rà/ la /là/
sha /ʃá/[5] sa /sá/ ha /há/[7]
a /á/

As in other Indic scripts, each consonant letter assumes an inherent /a/. However, a unique aspect of the Tibetan script is that the consonants can be written either as radicals, or they can be written in other forms, such as superscripts and subscripts. The superscript position above a radical is reserved for the consonants r, l, and s, while the subscript position under a radical is for the consonants y, r, l, and w.

To understand how this works, one can look at the radical "ka" and see what happens when it becomes "kra" or "rka". In both cases, the symbol for "ka" is used, but when the r is in the middle of the consonant and vowel, it is added as a subscript. On the other hand, when the r comes before the consonant and vowel, it is added as a superscript.[2] R actually changes form when it is above most other consonants; thus རྐ rka. However, an exception to this is the cluster རྙ rnya. Similarly, the consonants w, r, and y change form when they are beneath other consonants; thus ཀྭ kwa; ཀྲ kra; ཀྱ kya.

Besides being written as subscripts and superscripts, some consonants can also be placed in prescript, postscript, or post-postscript positions. For instance, the consonants g, d, b, m, and ’a ("’a chung") can be used in the prescript position to the left of other radicals, while the position after a radical (the postscript position), can be held by the ten consonants g, n, b, d, m, ’a, r, n̄, s, and l. The third position, the post-postscript position, is solely for the consonants d and s.[2]

The vowels used in the alphabet are a, i, u, e, and o. While the vowel a is included in each consonant or radical, the other vowels are indicated by marks; thus ka, ཀི ki, ཀུ ku, ཀེ ke, ཀོ ko. The vowels i, e, and o are placed above consonants as diacritics, while the vowel u is placed underneath consonants.[2] Old Tibetan included a gigu 'verso' of uncertain meaning. There is no distinction between long and short vowels in written Tibetan, except in loanwords, especially transcribed from the Sanskrit.

In the Tibetan script, the syllables are written from left to right.[8] Syllables are separated by a tseg (); since many Tibetan words are monosyllabic, this mark often functions almost as a space. Spaces are not used to divide words.

Although some Tibetan dialects are tonal, the language had no tone at the time of the script's invention, and there are no dedicated glyphs for tone. However, since tones were developed from segmental features, they can usually be correctly predicted by the archaic spelling of Tibetan words.

As in other Indic scripts, clustered consonants are often stacked vertically. Unfortunately, some fonts and applications do not support this behavior for Tibetan, so these examples may not display properly; you might have to download a font such as Tibetan Machine Uni.

Transliteration of Sanskrit[edit]


Devanagari IAST Tibetan Dependent vowel signs   Devanagari IAST Tibetan Dependent vowel signs
a   au ཨཽ
ā ཨཱ རྀ
i ཨི རཱྀ
ī ཨཱི ལྀ
u ཨུ ལཱྀ
ū ཨཱུ अं aṃ ཨཾ
e ཨེ अँ ཨྃ
ai ཨཻ अः aḥ ཨཿ ཿ
o ཨོ  


Devanagari IAST Tibetan   Devanagari IAST Tibetan
ka da
kha dha དྷ
ga na
gha གྷ pa
ṅa pha
ca ba
cha bha བྷ
ja ma
jha ཛྷ ya
ña ra
ṭa la
ṭha va
ḍa śa
ḍha ཌྷ ṣa
ṇa sa
ta ha
tha क्ष kṣa ཀྵ

The Sanskrit "cerebral" (retroflex) consonants ट ठ ड ण ष (ṭa, ṭha, ḍa, ṇa, ṣa) are represented by the reversing the letters ཏ ཐ ད ན ཤ (ta, tha, da, na, sha) to give ཊ ཋ ཌ ཎ ཥ (Ta, Tha, Da, Na, Sa).

It is a classic rule to transliterate च छ ज झ (ca cha ja jha) to ཙ ཚ ཛ ཛྷ (tsa tsha dza dzha), respectively. Nowadays, ཅ ཆ ཇ ཇྷ (ca cha ja jha) can also be used.


  1. ^ Chamberlain 2008
  2. ^ a b c d e f Daniels, Peter T. and William Bright. The World’s Writing Systems. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  3. ^ Which specific Indic script inspired the Tibetan alphabet remains controversial. Recent study suggests Tibetan script was based on an adaption from Khotan of the Indian Brahmi and Gupta scripts taught to Thonmi Sambhota in Kashmir (Berzin, Alexander. A Survey of Tibetan History - Reading Notes Taken by Alexander Berzin from Tsepon, W. D. Shakabpa, Tibet: A Political History. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1967:
  4. ^ Old Tibetan had no letter w, which was instead a digraph for 'w.
  5. ^ a b In the case of zh and sh the h signifies palatalization.
  6. ^ The h or apostrophe (’) usually signifies aspiration.
  7. ^ The single letter h represents a voiceless glottal fricative.
  8. ^ Asher, R. E. ed. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Tarrytown, N. Y.: Pergamon Press, 1994. 10 vol.


  • Asher, R. E. ed. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Tarrytown, NY: Pergamon Press, 1994. 10 vol.
  • Beyer, Stephan V. (1993). The Classical Tibetan Language. Reprinted by Delhi: Sri Satguru.
  • Chamberlain, Bradford Lynn. 2008. Script Selection for Tibetan-related Languages in Multiscriptal Environments. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 192:117–132.
  • Csoma de Kőrös, Alexander. (1983). A Grammar of the Tibetan Language. Reprinted by Delhi: Sri Satguru.
  • Csoma de Kőrös, Alexander (1980–1982). Sanskrit-Tibetan-English Vocabulary. 2 vols. Reprinted by Delhi: Sri Satguru.
  • Daniels, Peter T. and William Bright. The World’s Writing Systems. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Das, Sarat Chandra: “The Sacred and Ornamental Characters of Tibet”. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol. 57 (1888), pp. 41–48 and 9 plates.
  • Das, Sarat Chandra. (1996). An Introduction to the Grammar of the Tibetan Language. Reprinted by Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
  • Jäschke, Heinrich August. (1989). Tibetan Grammar. Corrected by Sunil Gupta. Reprinted by Delhi: Sri Satguru.