An introduction to Tibetan Language

The Tibetan language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman group of the Sino-Tibetan language family. It is spoken by over six million people, mainly residing in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and in parts of India, Nepal, and Bhutan.

The Tibetan language is generally divided into four main dialect groups. The Central dialect or the Lhasa dialect is the most commonly spoken dialect due to it being the basis for the Standard Tibetan language. Along with Chinese, it is also the official language of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

The other dialects are: Kham dialect, Amdo dialect and Ladakhi dialect.As the name suggests these dialects are spoken by people from the regions of Kham in eastern Tibet, Amdo in the northeast part of Tibet and Ladakh in northern India. These languages share the same written scripts but pronunciations, vocabularies and grammars are different. It must be noted that even within these groups, there are further subdivisions.

The way the Tibetan language is spoken differs on the basis of the setting. In a formal setting, speakers will use “shey-sa” which is the polite, respectful speech, earlier used primarily by officials and aristocrats from Lhasa. The colloquial “phal-kay” is spoken in casual settings, between friends and family members who belong to the same age group.

The Tibetan language has a unique script which has its origins in India. Its present form has been in use since the 9th century. Tibetan scholar Thoemi Sambotta, who served as a minister under the reign of King Srongtsen Gampo, is credited with creating the Tibetan script.

According to legends, Thoemi Sambotta was sent to India by Srongtsen Gampo to study Buddhism. At the time, Buddhism hadn’t spread to Tibet, and Bon was the main religion of the country. In order to gather knowledge about Buddhism, Sambotta had to first study the art of writing. And it is in this process that Sambotta ended up creating the Tibetan script for the primary purpose of translating Buddhist texts into Tibetan.

The Tibetan alphabet that Sambotta created consists of 30 letters and four vowels and is considered to be ancestral to the alphabets of Limbu and Lepcha. Each consonant has an inherent vowel which can be suppressed or replaced with other vowels by using a variety of diacritical marks that can appear above or below the consonant. Syllables are separated by a dot.

In terms of writing the script, there are two forms. The first one, known as u-chen (meaning with head Tibetan), is used in formal writing and for printing purposes because of its clarity. The second form, known as ume (meaning without head in Tibetan), is essentially the cursive form of writing. It can further be divided into two forms: Drutsa and chuyig. Drutsa is an artistic form of Tibetan calligraphy that is used for official documents and titles whereas chuyig which means flowing script is used in day-to-day life for things like informal handwritten notes and personal letters.

Most Tibetan students grow up learning the ume script first and gradually advance to u-chen.


Some useful Tibetan phrases:

Hello                          Tashi Delek

Tashi Delek: It is a common greeting meaning hello. Actually it is difficult and perhaps impossible to translate properly in English. Tashi, means auspicious and Delek, means fine or well. On the other hand, it means, “may many auspicious signs come to you’. “Tashi Delek” also means “Good Luck”. Or ” Cheers” in Bhutanses Language.

Good morning          Shogpa Delek

Good afternoon        Nyingmo Delek

Good evening            Gongmo Delek

How are you?            Kherang kusuk depo yin-pe

I am fine                    Nga De-Po-Yin

Please to meet you.  Khye-Rang Jel-Pa-Ga-Po-Chung.

What is your name?  Kye-Rang-Gi-Mingla-Ga-Rey-Rey.

My name is ………. Nge-Mingla……………..Rey.

Where are you from? Khye-Rang Lung-pa Ga-Nay-Yin-Pa.

I am from…………..Nga………………..Nay-Yin.

I understand.              Nga-Ha-Go-Song.

I don’t understand.    Nga-Ha-Go-Masong.

Nice to meet you        Kherang jepa la gawo jhung

How much is this?     Di gong ka-tsay-ray.

See you again.             Jey-La-Jal-Yong

Sorry                             Gon-da

Thank you                    Thug-je-chey.

Goodbye         Kha-le-shu. (said by person leaving).

Goodbye         Kha-le-phe. (said by person staying).