The Languages of Tibet

Potala Palace Lhasa Tibet

Lhasa, Tibet

If you paid close attention to our overview of the prodigious number of modern languages spoken in India, you probably remember a brief mention of the Tibeto-Burman languages spoken along the Indian border with Tibet and Burma.

The Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken by a relatively small number of people in India – “only” 6 million compared to the 700 million speakers of an Indo-European language. The Tibetic part of the language group is particularly used to this minority status. In fact, the vast, mountainous Chinese province of Tibet and the surrounding Tibetophone areas (aside from the areas of India and China attiguous to the autonomous region of Tibet, Tibetic languages are also spoken in Nepal, Bhutan, and Pakistan) are flanked by the remarkably symmetrical megapopulations of the two most-peopled nations in the world – India to the South and West and China to the North and East. India’s 1.25 billion inhabitants are matched by China’s 1.36 billion, of which a staggering 1.2 billion are speakers of a Sinitic (Chinese) language.

The fact that over the past few decades the word “Free” has evolved into a nearly inseparable prefix of “Tibet” can therefore be explained at least in part by a situation of markéd linguistic minority. However, while Tibetophones are vastly outnumbered in terms of population, their ancestral homeland – the Tibetan plateau which stretches from the Himalayas in the south to the Kunlun range in the north and reaches into India – covers 970,000 square miles, a quarter of the total land area of China.

In the historical Tibetan capital of Lhasa, some 279,000 people inhabit the city proper; however, official figures (the 2000 census) state that 34% of the city proper’s population is made up of ethnic Chinese, meaning that approximately one third of Lhasa’s population does not speak Tibetan. In Xining – the largest city on the Tibetan Plateau – only about 6% of the city’s population are Tibetans.

The Ü-Tsang variety of the language spoken in Lhasa is also known as Central Tibetan and is the basis of Standard Tibetan – the language used officially by the Autonomous Region of Tibet alongside Mandarin Chinese. The name Ü-Tsang refers to the primary of the three provinces of historical Tibet, the one which together with the western half of another of the provinces – Kham – forms the modern day Autonomous Region. The eastern part of Kham is mostly situated within the attiguous Chinese province of Sichuan, while the remaining historical province – Amdo – is roughly equivalent to the modern Chinese province of Qinghai.

With their 1.1, 1.4 and 1.8 million speakers respectively, Ü-Tsang, Khams, and Amdo Tibetan account for more than half of the 8 million people who speak a Tibetic language. An additional measure of uniformity is provided by the use of Classical Tibetan as a common literary language among the speakers of the three principal Tibetan languages. Classical Tibetan is also the language used by Tibetan Buddhism, a religion which has attracted followers from all over the world.

There are many other languages which are part of the Tibetic language group – linguist Nicolas Tournadre counts a total of 25 – and which are spoken outside of China. Dzongkha is the national language of Bhutan, and although the national language of nearby Himalayan nation Nepal is the Indo-European Nepali, the Sherpa which was spoken by Tenzing Norgay (and continues to be spoken by some 150,000) is a Tibetic language. About 100,000 people in Ladakh, India speak Ladakhi, while 290,000 people living mostly in the adjoining Pakistani region of Baltistan speak the Tibetic language of Balti.

Despite its relatively small number of speakers and its perilous position between the world’s two biggest countries, the Tibetic languages are diverse, thriving and international. Do you know a Tibetic language?

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