Dialogue  October-December, 2012, Volume 14 No. 2

7.      Facets of Tibetan Language


Tashi Tsering


Creative productions in Tibetan emerged since 7th century when the Tibetan alphabet first appeared during this time. Since then, Tibet has produced a great number of literary works in various fields of knowledge. Though a major portion of Tibetan literature belongs to translations from Sanskrit, a wide variety of literature known as the Sungbum have been written by Tibetan. The first and foremost Tibetan scholar and translator was Thonmi Sambhota, who studied in India, spent years learning Sanskrit and thereafter came back to Tibet and codified thirty consonants and four vowels. Subsequently, he started translating Sanskrit literature into Tibetan, an act which is followed by thousands of Tibetan scholars who have contributed to Tibetan literature by ways of translations of topics ranging from ten major and minor fields of study. Among these areas, from which the Buddhist philosophy emerged as the most advanced field of study. Of these scholars, Bodong had contributed more than 100 Sungbum1 which show the extent of literary output by a single individual.

It has been widely held that Sanskrit, as proved by computer programmes, is the most scientific language in the world because of its well defined and adequately structured grammar. This is why, while dealing with the topic of Language, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has repeatedly mentioned2 that Tibetan is the only language which goes parallel to Sanskrit because of its India-based script, richness and influence of Sanskrit. Professor Samdong Rinpoche, by going one step further, asserts3 that in some cases of lexical translations, the Tibetan version proved to be more meaningful and appealing to the scholars.

* Dr. Tashi Tsering, Snr. Asstt. Professor, HoD, Tibetan Language and Literature, CUTS, Sarnth,Varansi.

For instance, Dharam in Sanskrit, the direct translation would be Zinpa which means to uphold. It can be seen that the meaning in this case, becomes more obscure. So the Tibetan Lotsawa (translator) preferred to translate Chos to Zinpa, which means the state of change, that the mind undergoes and this is taken to have a direct appeal and understanding for the common people.

One of the main features of Tibetan Language is having a vast gap between literary form and spoken form4. Perhaps, in no other language in the world there exists such a gap between the written and spoken language. But many people, including even scholars, do not seem to underline the significance of this nature. Over the years, I have come across some books written by both foreigners and Tibetans on learning the Tibetan Language, but it is very strange that all these books have devoted their time on the spoken form only, and almost no efforts have been made to learn the literary language of Tibet.

As we all know, the teaching of the Buddha is getting more and more popular in the world due to its importance and relevance in our day-to-day life. Though there are many languages in the world through which Buddha’s words can be taught and learned, non can be as complete and authentic a source as the Tibetan language. It is believed that the literary output in Tibetan language is the largest in the world considering its demographic numbers. This is because the teachings of the Buddha exist in a vast corpus of literature known as the Kangyur,5 the Tangyur6 and their various commentaries which are only available in the Tibetan language. In order to have an access to this large corpus of literature, the knowledge of classical Tibetan language is indispensable. It is, therefore, generally believed that one can not claim to be a true and real scholar in Buddhist Philosophy and Tibetan Culture unless one has a sound knowledge of classical Tibetan language. It is due to such practical reasons that the importance and relevance of learning classical Tibetan language can never be ruled out. Here, I am trying to emphasise this point due to the fact that there are some so-called scholars in the Tibetan community who seem to have malice towards classical Tibetan due to which they continuously try to undermine the relevance of learning the language. In fact, some sections of our society subscribe to this view without knowing the consequences and the extent of damage which would intellectually affect our coming generations.

Generally, there could be many objectives of learning the Tibetan language, but if one’s objective is to have access to a large corpus of Tibetan literary output, learning the colloquial language alone will not suffice and serve the purpose. The reason can be easily understood by looking at the native Tibetan people who have no problem of speaking Tibetan, but when it comes to comprehending literary language, they face almost the same problem as that of a non-Tibetan speaking person. Therefore, those who are interested in learning the language must understand the duality of its nature, and I strongly feel that a clear distinction must be drawn between these two skills i.e., the Yigked or the literary language and the Khaked or the spoken language of Tibet.

There are some important factors which make the literary language not possible for comprehension by the general people. To sum up the issue precisely the following factors are required to be kept in mind.

Firstly, technical terms of philosophy which are mostly used in Kagyur and Tengyur, for instance, the meaning of the term Gogpa (cessation) cannot be taken as a literary meaning of Gagpa (negation).

Secondly, the exorbitant use of Ngonjod or synonyms make the meaning very obscure. But in classical poetry, it is used to be considered as a backbone for composing poetry.

Thirdly, DaNying or the archaic words are no longer in use today in spoken language, but are very much prevalent in the old texts.

Fourthly, the literary style of writing comes under the purview of Debjor or Chand which constitutes the formal way of writing. It mainly refers to complex sentences and often use of particles.

Fifthly, one of the main means of composing classical poetry is to convey the meaning through indirect and rhetoric forms. The 35 Arth Alangkar mentioned in the Kavyadarsh7 is aimed at achieving this end.

Sixthly, there are many terms which may not fall under the category of archaic words, but they are generally not used in the spoken language. For instance, Di ni dag gi chungma wo (this is my wife) is a form of expression which is widely used in the written form but not in the spoken language.

So, those who are very serious in learning Tibetan language should devote, at least, a part of their time to the above-mentioned points which would pave the way for understanding of a large corpus of Tibetan literary creations. It is very certain that by simply learning the colloquial language of Tibet shall not lead to any access to the Tibetan Sungbum and, for that matter to the Kagyur and the Tengyur also.

The second major category of Tibetan language is called Khaked or the spoken language which has a vast range of dialects coming under this domain. There is another word very similar to Khaked called Falked. Broadly speaking, a distinction may be made between these two terms also. The first one means the spoken language, and the second one means the spoken language of the ordinary people. The main criterion of difference between these is whether there is a marked usage of honorific words in them or not. Thus, dialect of Utsang (central Tibet) may be presumed as Khaked because of its extensive use of honorific words.

In Tibet there are many dialects which differ with regions but generally the language of central Tibet or Usked is the commonly used spoken language. This dialect has some positive points as well as negative points. The positive part of the dialect is that its use of honorific words shows the maturity of the language and the sophistication of the class of people, who use this language. The negative point is that there is a huge gap between the spoken and the written forms of the language. It is this reason that the famous Tibetan scholar, Gedun Choephel, has criticised the Usked dialect for deteriorating the standard of the original language of Tibet and has advised the user to be very cautious8. But the biggest advantage of the dialect is the fact that, it is the most and commonly used spoken language of Tibet. In the Indian context, it is like this that the literary language of Tibet is like Sanskrit, Usked is like Hindi and the Phalked is like local dialects of few other places with the same Indian state.

Hence, the Falked is like a local language which does not bother to use honorific words barring a few words here and there. Thus it is considered a straightforward way of expression which are adopted in the provinces of Kham, Amdo and many other parts of Tibet. Therefore, such dialects are innumerable in Tibet and hence the saying goes, beyond every higher pass there is a region, that has a different local dialect. If I am not mistaken, the same concept applies to the hill areas of the Indian border like, Ladakh and Khunu. The language used in these places is now known as the Bhoti languge, perhaps for reasons of political affiliation. Whether it is Yigked or Khaked or Falked or Bhoti, the basic sentence structure is exactly the same as the classical language of Tibet, which is again different from English. It is basically like S+O+V or Subject(S) followed by Object(O) followed by Verb(O) whereas in English, it is S+V+O. Again, in Tibetan, unlike Hindi, figures follow the noun e.g. we say Mi gu for nine men where Mi means Man and Gu means nine, or literally ‘Men nine’. Very often non-Tibetans get confused with this structure. But these days, many people from the younger generation of the Himalayan regions, who have an exposure to foreign languages, sometimes tend to use the noun followed by figures. For instance, Chig Ja, which literally means ‘one tea’. This is an incorrect structure in Tibetan and a clear sign of a starting degeneration from the original language.

Having emphasised the importance of learning classical language, I am not at all demeaning the importance of learning Falked. If we look at these dialects closely, we find that it has both a positive point and a negative point. The negative side is that in due course of time, it has developed its own characteristic features which have become the main obstacle in understanding each other’s dialects. The positive aspect of the dialect is its affiliation to literary language. Many basic and root words can be found in the original scriptures. In other words, there are many words which we consider as archaic, are simply used in their day-to-day language.

Above all, this language is currently used, spoken and understood by large population in the border hill areas of Ladakh, Lahul-Spiti, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim and the other border regions of the eastern periphery of India. Therefore, it becomes one of the most indispensable instruments in reinforcing national integration in India.


* There are three languages in the North-East India – population as per 1961 census given in the bracket – which are dialects of Tibetan, mamely Mompa (pop, 363), Memba (pop, 2431) and Khamba (pop, 1110). Laddakhi (J&K.; pop, 50146), Lahuli (H.P., 11412), Bhotia unspecified (Sikkim, U.P.), Sikkim Bhotia, (36760) and Tibetan (Sikkim, H.P. and Arunachal, 33931) were also remunerated in 1961 cenus. It needs mention that Linguistic phylum theory and Benedict's classification of languages have thoroughly modified Griereson's classification of Tibeto-Burman Languages. – Editor

1. Sungbum in Tibetan is a series of works published in volumes mostly contributed by Tibetan scholars. Bodong Thamched Kyenpa was one of the most famous Tibetan scholars who had contributed such numerous works in Tibetan.

2. On many occasions, H.H. the Dalai Lama gave speech on the topic of importance and scope of learning Tibetan Language.

3. During his long commendable services in the Central University of Tibetan Studies, Prof. Samdong Rinpoche gave talks on wide-ranging topics. When the question of authenticity and richness of the Tibetan Language has arisen, he never missed to make a mention of the strong inter-relationship that the Sanskri and Tibetan Language share.

4. "The objective of this little work is to provide a practical hand book for those who wish to acquire a speedy knowledge of Colloquial Tibetan. It therefore, does not deal with the written language, which differs widely from the colloquial, and is useless for conversational purposes". Grammar of Colloquial Tibetan, Sir Charles Bell, preface pg.V, Pilgrims Publishing

5. The collection of Buddha’s teaching translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan, generally consisting of 108 volumes, butthe number varies according to different editions.

6. The commentarial canon. The collection of Tibetan translations of early Indian comentaries to Buddha’s teaching which runs into 225 volumes with slight variations between different editions.

7. Kavyadarsh is a book on poetic theory written in Sanskrit in the 7th century AD by Acharya Dandi. The whole text was translated into Tibetan by Pandit Lakshmikara and Shongton Dorjee Gyaltsen in the 13th century. Since then, more than 50 commentaries on this text were written in the Tibetan Language. It has been widely held that the translation of the text has brought a sea change in the style of Tibetan poetry, an art that has given an elitist touch for which such poetry is believed to have gone beyond the reach of the common people. But, it is the only source of peotic theory available in Tibetan Language, which has come to be embraced by the Tibetan scholars as root text for composing prose and poetry in Tibetan.

8. Palbar, Horkhang Sonam et al., dge ‘dun chos ‘phel gsung rtsom, bod ljongs bod yig dpe rnying dpe skrun khang, Vol. III, 1994, p.272 j

"Conversely, today there are certain people who (lacks the aptitude of proficiency in Tibetan literary language) tend to compile the dictionary with entries from local vernacular of Central Tibet and Ladakh and so forth. If this sort of trend becomes popular, the common language of Tibet would disintegrate, owing to the diversity of the colloquial languages of each and every region of Tibet. Certainly there will come a day when respective regional dialects and the literary language would be limited to mutual communication. As a result of language disintegration, mental disposition and character and so forth (among the fellow people) would end up in diversity and would eventually lead to the cause of splitting the Tibetan nation and her ethics. If this sort of new colloquial language becomes popular all over Tibet, then the entire ocean-like Sutra and Tantra literature written in doctrinal language (chos skad) gradually understood by none and certainly becomes the mere aggregation of volumes. So everyone must caution against this sort of unfavorable trend".

This English translation is taken from the Tibetan text by Dr. Shedup Tenzin, Vishwa Bharati University, Shantiniketan in an article which was presented during the Nalanda University workshop in May, 2012.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)                                                Astha Bharati