Tibetan refers to a group of languages spoken primarily by Tibetan peoples who live across a wide area of eastern Central Asia bordering South Asia, as well as by overseas Tibetan communities around the world. Several forms of Tibetan are also spoken by various peoples of northern Pakistan and India in areas like Baltistan and Ladakh, which are both in or around Kashmir. Its classical written form is a major regional literary language, particularly its use in Buddhist literature.
Tibetan is typically classified as a Tibeto-Burman language. Spoken Tibetan includes dozens of regional dialects and sub-dialects which, in many cases, are not mutually intelligible. Moreover, the boundaries between Tibetan and other Himalayan languages are sometimes unclear. In general, the dialects of central Tibet (including Lhasa), Kham, Amdo, and some smaller nearby areas are considered Tibetan dialects, while other forms, particularly Dzongkha, Sikkimese, Sherpa, and Ladakhi, are considered for political reasons by their speakers to be separate languages.
Ultimately, taking into consideration this wider understanding of Tibetan dialects and forms, what we might call "greater Tibetan" is spoken by approximately 6 million people across the Tibetan Plateau. Lhasa Tibetan is spoken by approximately 150,000 exile speakers who have moved from modern-day Tibet to India and other countries. Tibetan is also spoken by groups of ethnic minorities Tibet who have lived in close proximity to Tibetans for centuries, but nevertheless retain their own languages and cultures. Although the Qiangic peoples of Kham are classified by the Chinese government as ethnic Tibetans, Qiangic languages are generally not considered to be dialects of Tibetan, but rather form their own separate branch of Sino-Tibetan.
Although Classical Tibetan apparently was not a tonal language, some dialects have developed tones. This is particularly true in the Central and Kham dialects, while the Amdo dialect and some in the west remain without tones. Tibetan morphology can generally be described as agglutinative, although Classical Tibetan was largely analytic.
The following is a dialect chart:
Case morphology is affixed to entire noun phrases, not to individual words.
The plural is denoted when required by adding the morpheme (-rnams), when the collective nature of the plurality is stressed the morpheme (-dag) is instead used. These two morphemes combine readily (i.e. rnams-dag 'a group with several members', and dag-rnams 'several groups'). When several words are connected in a sentence they seldom require more than one case element, and that comes last.
The majority of Tibetan verbs fall into one of two categories, those which express implicitly or explicitly the involvement of an agent, marked in a sentence by the instrumental particle (kyis etc) and those expressing an action which does not involve an agent. Tibetan grammarians refer to these categories as tha-dad-pa and tha-mi-dad-pa respectively. Although these two categories often seem to overlap with the English grammatical concepts of transitive and intransitive, most modern writers on Tibetan grammar have adopted the terms "voluntary" and "involuntary", based on native Tibetan descriptions. Most involuntary verbs lack an imperative stem.
Many verbs exhibit stem ablaut among the four stem forms, thus a or e in the present tends to become o in the imperative byed, byas, bya, byos 'to do'), an e in the present changes to a in the past and future (len, blangs, blang, longs 'to take'); in some verbs a present in i changes to u in the other stems ('dzin, bzung, gzung, zung 'to take'). Additionally, the stems of verbs are also distinguished by the addition of various prefixes and suffixes, thus sgrub (present) bsgrubs (past), bsgrub (future) sgrubs (imperative). Though the final -s suffix, when used, is quite regular for the past and imperative, the specific prefixes to be used with any given verb are less predictable, though there is a clear pattern of b- for a past stem and g- for a future stem, but this usage is not consistent.
Only a limited number of verbs are capable of four changes; some cannot assume more than three, some two, and many only one. This relative deficiency is made up by the addition of auxiliaries or suffixes both in the classical language and in the modern dialects.
Verbs are negated by two prepositional particles: mi and ma. Mi is used with present and future stems. The particle ma is used with the past stem, and with the imperative in Classical Tibetan, although in modern Tibetan, prohibitions do not employ the imperative stem, rather the present stem is negated with ma due to the collapse of the four part verbal system in many cases. There is also a negative stative verb med 'there is not, there does not exist', the counterpart to the stative verb yod 'there is, there exists'
As with nouns, Tibetan also has a complex system of honorific and polite verbal forms, paralleling those found in Japanese. Thus, many verbs for everyday actions have a completely different form to express the superior status, whether actual or out of courtesy, of the agent of the action, thus lta 'see', hon. gzigs; byed 'do', hon. mdzad. Where a specific honorific verb stem does not exist, the same effect is brought about by compounding a standard verbal stem with an appropriate general honorific stem such as mdzad.
For instance, Srong rtsan Sgam po would have been pronounced (now pronounced in Lhasa Tibetan) and 'babs would have been pronounced [mbaps] (pronounced [bapˤ] in Lhasa Tibetan).
Already in the 9th century the process of cluster simplification, devoicing and tonogenesis had begun in the central dialects can be shown with Tibetan words transliterated in other languages, particularly Middle Chinese but also Uyghur.
The concurrence of the evidence indicated above enables us to form the following outline of the evolution of Tibetan. In the 9th century, as shown by the bilingual Tibeto-Chinese treaty of 821–822 found in front of Lhasa's Jokhang, the complex initial clusters had already been reduced, and the process of tonogenesis was likely well underway.
The next change took place in Tsang (Gtsang) dialects: The ra-tags were altered into retroflex consonants, and the ya-tags became palatals.
Later on the superscribed letters and finals d and s disappeared, except in the east and west. It was at this stage that the language spread in Lahul and Spiti, where the superscribed letters were silent, the d and g finals were hardly heard, and as, os, us were ai, oi, ui. The words introduced from Tibet into the border languages at that time differ greatly from those introduced at an earlier period.
The other changes are more recent and restricted to Ü and Tsang. In Ü, the vowel sounds a, o, u have now mostly umlauted to ä, ö, ü when followed by the coronal sounds i, d, s, l and n. The same holds for Tsang with the exception of l which merely lengthens the vowel. The medials have become aspirate tenues with a low intonation, which also marks the words having a simple initial consonant; while the former aspirates and the complex initials simplified in speech are uttered with a high tone, shrill and rapidly.
The following summarizes the sound system of the dialect of Tibetan spoken in Lhasa, which is the most influential variety of the spoken language
|Front, unrounded||Front, rounded||Back, rounded|
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 [e]. These sounds normally occur in closed syllables; because Tibetan does not allow geminated consonants, there are cases where one syllable ends with the same sound as the one following it, with the result 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 (contraction of padma, lotus) is pronounced [pɛʔ], but the compound word, zhabs pad is pronounced [ɕʌpɛʔ]. This process can result in minimal pairs between sounds that are otherwise allophones.
Sources vary on whether the [ɛ̈] phoneme (resulting from [e] in a closed syllable) and the [ɛ] phoneme (resulting from [a] through the i-mutation) are distinct or basically identical.
Phonemic vowel length exists in Lhasa Tibetan, but appears in restricted set of circumstances. Assimilation of Classical Tibetan's suffixed vowels—normally ‘i (འི་)—at the end of a word produces a long vowel in Lhasa Tibetan; this feature is sometimes omitted in phonetic transcriptions. In normal spoken pronunciation, a lengthened 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. Historically, this results from a syllable-final [n], such as [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, 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 ("piece") is pronounced [kʰám] with a high flat tone, while the word Khams ("the Kham region") is pronounced [kʰâm] with a high falling tone.
In polysyllabic words, tone is only important in the first syllable.
Western linguists who arrived at Tibet in the 18th and 19th century include:
A good bibliography of Tibetan linguistic research is available.
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". Whilst playing lip service to protecting the Tibetan language, the Chinese government seems intent on subverting and eventually eliminating the use of the Tibetan mother tongue. The Chinese authorities occupying Tibet are making life impossible for Tibetans who are not fluent in Mandarin Chinese by passing laws to minimise teaching of Tibetan in schools and by replacing Tibetan language with Chinese language in many spheres of public life.
Some scholars have questioned this claim, however, as over 87% of Tibetans continue to reside in rural areas where Chinese is rarely if ever spoken. 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 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.