Spelling & Grammar in Tibetan: Why you shouldn’t worry about it (so much) [Part 1]

1 Background

One FAQ and common concern of Esukhia students has to do with correct spelling and grammar. Students want to be sure they are using Tibetan spelling and grammar correctly, which is understandable. And, they get concerned if they get different answers from different sources—one teacher tells them one thing, but another tells them something different. Or, a book or dictionary gives a spelling different from the one they learned during class.

This post is to help students understand that there are several factors that complicate things for Tibetan, meaning that sometimes, there really is no single ‘right’ answer possible. Our hope is that students can learn to accept and appreciate how Tibetan can be diverse and flexible, rather than becoming frustrated by its ambiguity.

1a The diversity of Tibetan

What is called “Tibet” is a very large region. As it is so large, it is also very diverse. What is called “the Tibetan language” today is better thought of as a large language family, rather than one single language. Tournadre, for example, compares the size and diversity of the Tibetan language family (Amdo, Khams, Central, Ladakhi, Dzongkha, etc.) to that of the Romance language family (Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, etc.).


The modern speech variety you are learning in your classes is coming to be called “Diaspora Tibetan” in the scholarly literature. This is a new variety of Tibetan that is spoken in India, Nepal, and the West. It is evolving from many speakers from many regions of Tibet living in settlement areas in the Himalayas, and communicating with each other on a daily basis. While they don’t understand each other right away, their languages are similar enough that, over time, they find ways to communicate (this kind of language variety called a “koiné” in linguistics).

You might notice that your teachers still have different accents or pronunciations; that’s because accents can become hard-wired from a young age. While new words and grammar are easy to pick up, it can be harder to hear and make sounds your mother tongue (ཕ་སྐད་ / ཡུལ་སྐད་) doesn’t use.

However, Tibetans who come from Tibetan can take up to several years to learn how to speak and understand ‘Diaspora Tibetan’ (or གཞིས་ཆགས་སྐད་). While this ‘dialect’ is often called “Standard Tibetan”, and equated with Central or Lhasa Tibetan, it is something different. When speakers from Central Tibet were asked how long it took them to become fluent in ‘Diaspora Tibetan’, answers ranged from 2 to 15 years. When asked if it was different from their mother tongue, 100% said yes; when asked how much they understood, no respondents said “everything”:

A survey of speakers from Central Tibet who live in Dharamsala:

Do you think Shijak-skad is the same or different from your mother tongue?

\ 217x233.08792663410262

\ 142x50

Did you understand Shijak-skad when you first arrived?

\ 205x197

\ 131x88

Speakers from other regions of Tibet have the same issues learning this variety, perhaps to an even greater degree (since it is less like their mother tongue)! A good resource for understanding a bit about ‘Diaspora Tibetan’, and the socio-cultural aspects of it, is Izzard, Jeff Robert (2014). “Language attitudes and identity in the Tibetan Dharamsala diaspora”.

2 Spelling

2a Asking your teachers

If you look at things from this perspective, it might become clearer why different people might give different answers for how this or that word is spelled. In languages that use alphabets, ‘spelling’ is an attempt to encode pronunciations. Prior to a process called “standardization”, spellings are very diverse. Speakers write words how they sound to them, in their local language variety. So spellings can come from multiple time periods and/or multiple regions. Tibetan is no exception to this rule; texts in Old Tibetan especially show a great diversity of spellings.

Spellings for the word ‘twenty’ in Old Tibetan: ཉི་ཤུ། ཉིས་ཅུ། ཉིས་ཤུ། གཉིས་ཤུ། གཉིས་བཅུ།

That’s because, originally, Tibetan was written down by different people in different regions, who pronounced words differently. In one place, they said, “gnyis-bcu”; in another, “nyi-shu”. They wrote it using the letters of the sounds they used when they spoke that word.

Today, speakers pronounce these words very differently; many Tibetan spellings are 1,000 years old! That’s one big reason the spelling is so difficult. And, it’s a big reason you’ll find different answers from different people. This diversity can be influenced by:

  • Where they are from (ཕ་ཡུལ་), and what their local Tibetan language (ཕ་སྐད་) is;
  • Where their teacher(s) were from, and what spellings they taught them;
  • What their literary background is, and the spellings they’ve absorbed from reading (Buddhist texts, newspapers, blogs, etc.);
  • Or even, what dictionary they’ve used…

2b Asking the dictionary

Even though Literary Tibetan has been “standardized” to some degree, there has been no central authority confirming these standards for more than 1,000 years. Even today, you will find different answers for “What is the right spelling?”, not only if you ask different people, but if you ask different dictionaries.

For example: “ལབས་” is the past-tense given in “Bya byed las gsum dus gsum daṅ bcas dper brjod,” but “ལབ་” is the past-tense given in “Bod rgya tshig mdzod chen mo”. For the imperative tense of “བྱེད་”, you will find “བྱོ་”, “བྱོས་”, and “བྱེད་”, depending on which dictionary you use.

If we come back to our analogy—that the Tibetic Language Family is as large as, and as diverse as, the Romance Language Family—we can see, for example, that this kind of diversity produces a lot of pronunciation and spelling variation:

English Latin French Italian Spanish
bread panem le pain il pane el pan
beer cervisia la bière la birra la cerveza
children liberi les enfants i figli los hijos / los niños
I ego je io yo

We easily accept, for example, that we cannot say “The way the French spell ‘bread’ is right, and the way the Italians spell it is wrong”. This is obviously nonsense. And yet, we would expect all French speakers—no matter their regional dialect—to spell it the same way. What we must realize, then, is that this is really more a political question than a linguistic one. It only has to do with the authority who defines ‘correct spellings’, in this case, the Académie Française.

Since there is no modern Tibetan equivalent providing these kinds of standards, the best we—as students of Tibetan—can do is remain open-minded and flexible, and absorb the general patterns of spelling use we find in the communities in which we study and work (rather than worry about memorizing each and every ‘correct spelling’).

After all, from an ‘ultimate truth’ perspective, there is really no such thing as a ‘correct spelling’!

3 Grammar

This is true of grammar, too. From an ultimate perspective, there is no ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ grammar—only people using languages to communicate. While successful communication generally aligns with what we would call ‘proper grammar’, they are not really the same thing.

After all, languages existed well before grammar did. People who speak languages use grammar without even knowing it—the vast majority of them! ‘Grammar’ is something that comes after languages. It is a tool for describing patterns that exist and form naturally when speakers use languages to communicate.

In the case of Tibetan, the vast majority of resources try to fit Tibetan grammar into the framework of European grammars—whether that is influenced by modern English, Latin, or Sanskrit grammar, or some combination thereof. This is notably problematic, since Tibetan is not a European language!

བོད་སྐད་ལ་རྣམ་དབྱེ་བརྒྱད་དུ་ཕྱེས་པ་དེ།རྒྱ་གར་གྱི་སྐད་ལ་དཔེ་བླངས་པ་ཡིན་ཀྱང་།དཔེ་དེ་དོན་ལ་མི་འབྱོར་མི་ཉུང་བ་ཞིག་ཡོད་པ་ནི།སྒྲ་ལ་གཟིགས་རྟོགས་གནང་བའི་མཁས་པ་སུས་ཀྱང་ཤེས།སྐད་རིགས་གཞན་པའི་ཤན་ཤོར་དུ་མ་བཅུག་པར།བོད་སྐད་རང་གི་གྲུབ་ལུགས་དང་ཁྱད་ཆོས་མཚོན་ཐུབ་པ་ཞིག་གི་སྟེང་ནས་གཞི་རྩ་འཛིན་དགོས་སོ།། ( Dorzhi Snyemblo Gdongdrug 1987)

“The analysis of Tibetan into eight cases is based on a Sanskrit model. But the model does not work on many occasions. Every scholar who pays attention to grammar knows that very well. Avoiding the bad habit of copying other languages, one should describe the Tibetan language only on the basis of its own structure and specificities” (transl. Tournadre, 2010).

Perhaps the most important academic article you can read about Tibetan grammar is “The Classical Tibetan cases and their transcategoriality: From sacred grammar to modern linguistics”, authored by Tournadre (2010). Some important points this article raises is the fact that there is not a one-to-one relationship between the traditional Tibetan cases and their case functions.

The most obvious example is the ladon, which spreads over three Sanskrit cases, but also uses forms that are not allomorphs (they are not all related in sound and meaning). This means that Tibetan grammar is transcategorical; one case describes different categories. The second important point is that many Tibetan cases are optional. That is, grammar terms can be left out if the meaning is clear from context.

Because Tibetan grammar is both transcategorical and optional, it means that reasonable people can disagree about ‘what is grammatical’ and ‘what is not grammatical’, or ‘what grammatical case’ this or that sentence should be defined as—even in traditional, literary contexts! Adding to this ambiguity is that modern speech is changing in ways that are—traditionally speaking—’non-grammatical’ (yet, useful for communicating with real speakers in everyday contexts).

4 Conclusion

While Esukhia TSL works hard to make distinctions as clear as possible, there is simply no way to guarantee that we are offering students a “perfect understanding of Tibetan grammar”—this is simply neither practical nor possible in the Tibetan context!

We also hope that this clarifies some aspects of studying Tibetan spelling and grammar, and helps our students appreciate the diverse and flexible features—while worrying less about being overly ‘correct’ or ‘proper’ :slight_smile:

1 Like