Features of Tibetan you won't always find in textbooks (even Esukhia ones!)


Many very frequent features of common speech can be left out of language-learning textbooks for Tibetan, or be under-emphasized. This can be simple oversight — authors don’t realize just how frequent some features are — but often it’s because these features are seen as non-prestiguous, ungrammatical, or otherwise unimportant.

However, from a linguistic point of view, there is no such thing as “ungrammatical”. There are simply patterns of language use that speech communities use to communicate; if they are used, that makes them useful; and, if they are useful, language learners need to learn them! Otherwise, they risk not understanding real speakers in real contexts, or not being understood.

1 The Discourse Marker (-འ་)

The first feature of common Tibetan speech we will highlight in this series are the very frequent verbal endings that serve to emphasize a statement, or create a tag question or hedge. Examples of this feature of spoken grammar include: རེད་ད། རེད་བ། འདུག་ག ཡོད་ད། etc.

In everyday speech, these types of endings account for about half of all sentences. In the chart below, for example, we calculated that sentences ended in a ‘plain’ རེད། at 46.1% of the time; with a རེད་ད། 21.6% of the time; and as a form of རེད་པ། 32.4% of the time!

Because these types of verbs are frequent, they are useful; because they are useful, you will find them in Esukhia language-learning materials!

2 The Leveled Verb Form

In Part 1, we noted that there are some very common verb forms that are under-represented in most textbooks and language-learning materials in Tibetan that show emphasis, or seek agreement (རེད་ད། འདུག་ག རེད་བ། ར།). These are important to expressing oneself in Tibetan, and communicating effectively.

In this post, we will mention another feature of Tibetan that is not always discussed in sources that are authoratative or more formal in nature—the morphological levelling of verb tenses in Tibetan. In traditional sources, you will find spellings for four tenses of verbs, the past, present, future, and imperative (eg བལྟས ལྟ བལྟ ལྟོས). This spelling variation relates to historical pronunciations; however, the trend in diaspora Tibetan is to settle on a single form of the verb, and provide the tense information via helping verbs and a few common morphologies.

What’s really important to note is that this kind of language change is super common across all languages, and it doesn’t make Tibetan speech “ungrammatical”. English, for example, is also undergoing this very same change! Verbs are moving from irregular (ex: dive, dove) to regular (dive, dived), where tense information is given by markers like -s / -ed and helper verbs. Similarly, Tibetan is moving from internal variation (སྤྲད།, སྤྲོད།) to a regularized grammatical system of helping verbs and markers like -་ད། (སྤྲད་ཡིན།, སྤྲད་ད།).

We can see this by exploring some of the frequencies in verb use is the corpus. In the examples, you’ll see a huge preference for one verb form over all others (frequently the past or present). སྤྲད, to give, for example, is used hundreds of times in its past / future form. The spoken imperative, སྤྲད་ད།, is used far more often than the traditional imperative, སྤྲོད།. The same is true for many other common verbs, like འགྲོ་ (to go) and བཤད་ (to say)…

3 The Common Adposition (གི་)

There are five traditional spellings for the adposition known as the “connective” in Tibetan: ཀྱི་ / གྱི་ / གི་ / ཡི་ / -འི་. As we’ve discussed in many previous posts, spellings represent sounds; so the reason there is spelling variation is a hint that these spellings indicate a difference in pronunciation that depended on the final sound of the word the adposition modified, or followed.

That is, for example, the reason for a -ཀྱི་ -kyi coming after a final -ས་ -s is phonological. The unaspirated -kyi follows a sibilant (‘s’ sound) in Tibetan, similar to how English “skin” has an unaspirated ‘k’ sound (compare to aspirate “kin”). However, the final ‘s’ is no longer pronounced in many varieties of Tibetan. This, and other sound changes like it, have likely influenced the unwritten sound rules of Tibetan (though not the spellings).

In many cases, including verbal constructions (though it is debated whether the verbal usage is a true འབྲེལ་སྒྲ་ or not), this adposition is realized as “གི་”, including after words that end in vowel sounds (both vowel sounds that are still spelled w/ consonants, as well as vowels, eg བྱེད་གི་ཡོད། , འགྲོ་གི་འདུག , and འདི་གི་).

Again, the reason for the change here isn’t that common speech is becoming ungrammatical, or ‘degrading’, but that its grammar is evolving to suit the way people today express themselves in the cultural, social, and communicative contexts they find themselves in…

4 The Optional Marker (unmarked ལ་ / གི་ / གིས་)

Unlike parts 1–3, which seem to mainly be modern innovations, part 4 seems to be a traditional feature of Tibetan—that is, that grammatical case markers can be dropped, especially when context makes the grammatical roles of the sentence clear. (For more, see page 114–116 in Tournadre’s “The Classical Tibetan Cases…”: “In some contexts, the grammatical cases are optional and may be dropped or exchanged…”).

This is, again, not “ungrammatical”, but common across many languages. In various dialects of English, preposition dropping is common (for example, “going down the ocean” vs “going down to the ocean”); case-dropping is also common in Japanese. Likewise, case-dropping is acceptable in some contexts for Tibetan (but not all!)…

Examples from the corpus:

ང་ལྟ་གི་ཡོད། vs ང་ཚོས་ཨེ་འདྲ་བལྟ་གི་བསྡད་ན་་་

ད་སློབ་གྲྭ་འགྲོ་རེད་ད། vs ཨ་ནི་སློབ་གྲྭ་ལ་འགྲོ་རེད་ད།

ཁོང་ཚོ་རྩེད་མོ་རྩེ་ར། vs པུ་གུ་གིས་རྩེད་མོ་རྩེ་རེད་ད།

5 The Modern Loanword

The varieties of Tibetan spoken in India, Nepal, and the West use many loanwords from the languages like English, Hindi, and Nepali. This is a natural result of language contact! Historically, Tibetan has absorbed loanwords from many of its neighbors and trading partners, including words like མོག་མོག་ momo (Chinese), ཕྱུ་པ་ chupa (Arabic), ཇ་ ja (Chinese), པི་ཝང་ piwang (Khatonese), དེབ་ deb (Persian), ཨེམ་ཆི་ emchi (Mongolian), among others.

That Tibetan has continued borrowing today is a reflection of this very same process. It is important to note that loanwords are not a sign of degradation, impurity, or language loss. Loanwords are especially common for new items and foods in the informal register, or technical terms in more formal settings. They actually appear relatively rare in daily diaspora speech (even children’s speech), occurring fewer than one word per every 100 spoken…

6 The Filler Word (ཨ་ནི་ / འ་)

The connective and filler word “ཨ་ནི་” or “ཨ་ནས་” (ani) is the second-most frequent word in everyday speech after the verb “རེད་” (ray). It is more frequent than the preposition “ལ་” (la) and the demonstrative pronoun “དེ་” (de). Other filler words, or hesitation markers, include expressions like “འ་” and “ཨོ་”.

In speech, a filler word or hesitation marker is a sound or word that participants in a conversation use to signal that they are pausing to think but are not finished speaking. It is important for learners to learn these words in order to properly indicate their pauses, and to give listeners appropriate communicative cues.

Fillers that perform this kind of function in English include “like”, “so”, “you know”, “actually”, and “right?”

7 The Helping Verb བསྡད་

The verb བསྡད་ (bsdad) is used as a helper verb to indicate present continuous actions (Tournadre calls it the ‘aspectual’ function, p 381 in the MST). In everyday speech, it is nearly as frequent as the present / habitual and past tenses. Some common verbs it is used with include: བསྡད་, འགྲོ་, ཟ་, and ཉལ་.



ནང་ལོགས་ལ་བསྡད་བསྡད་འདུག ཨ་མ་ལགས་དང་པ་ལགས།



8 The Post-verb Subject/Object

While Tibetan is a ‘verb-final’ language, with a S-O-V sentence structure, it is also not uncommon to find the subject or object of a sentence clarified, or restated, after the verb.

For example:

ནང་ལོགས་ལ་བསྡད་བསྡད་འདུག ཨ་མ་ལགས་དང་པ་ལགས།

བུ་གཅིག་གིས་ར། མེ་ཏོག་ལ་ཆུ་བླུག་བསྡད་ཞག བུ་གཅིག་གིས་ར།

ཁོ་རང་ཆེན་པོ་ཆགས་རེད་ད་ར། བུ་དེ།

9 The Possessive Marker ག་ཅི་ / ཁ་གྱི་ / རྒ་རྗི་

There is a speech-only marker for possessives pronounced “kaji”. We have documented the following spellings: ག་ཅི་, ཁ་གྱི་, and རྒ་རྗི་.


དེབ་དེ་ངའི་ག་ཅི་རེད། “That’s my book”

ལྷམ་དེ་ཁོ་ག་ཅི་རེད། “Those are his shoes”

ངའི་ཁ་གྱི་གྲོགས་པོ་་་ “My friend…”

འདི་ངའི་ཁ་གྱི་རེད། “This is mine”.