Usually classified as member of the Tibeto-Burman
branch of the Sino-Tibetan linguistic family.
It is a mildly tonal language using two to four tones depending on
dialect. It is described as primarily isolating but agglutinative in some
It is spoken by approximately 6 million Tibetan people across the Tibetan
Plateau as well as by approximately 150,000 exile speakers.
Tibetan is written with a Sanskrit-derived script.
By means of agglutination, the Tibetan language has developed a
considerable grammatical system of word suffixes and is no longer strictly
isolating in structure. Agglomerations of consonants are often met with as
initials, giving the appearance of telescoped words -- an appearance which
historical etymology often confirms. Many of these initial consonants are
silent in the Gtsang dialects, or have been resolved into a simpler one of
another character. The language is much ruled by laws of euphony, which
have been strictly formulated by native grammarians.
Since at least around the 7th century when the Chinese came into contact
with the Tibetans, phonetics and grammar of Tibetan have been studied and
documented. Tibetans also studied their own language, mostly for
translation purpose for diplomacy (with China) or religion (from
Verbs do not inflect for person or number.
Morphologically there are up to four separate stem forms called by the
Tibetan grammarians present (lda-ta), past ('das-pa), future (ma-'ongs-pa),
and imperative (skul-tshigs), although the precise semantics of these
stems is still controversial. Most verbs which describe uncontrollable
action lack an imperative.
The classical written language has nine cases: the
absolutive, (unmarked morphologically), the genitive (-gi, -gyi, -kyi, -'i,
-yi), the ergative/instrumental (-gi, -gyi, -kyi, -'i, -yi), the locative
(-na), allative (-la), terminative ( -ru, -su, -tu, -du, -r), comitative
(-dang), the ablative (-nas), and the elative (-las). Case morphology is
affixed to entire noun phrases, not to individual words.
There are no numeral auxiliaries or measure words
used in counting, as in many languages of East Asia, though words
expressive of a collective or integral are often used after the tens,
sometimes after a smaller number.