The Tibetan alphabet is an abugida of
Indic origin used to write the Tibetan language as well as Dzongkha, the
Sikkimese language, Ladakhi, and sometimes Balti. The printed form of the
alphabet is called uchen script while the hand-written cursive form used in
everyday writing is called umê script. The alphabet is very closely linked to a
broad ethnic Tibetan identity, spanning across areas in China, Bhutan, India,
Nepal, and Pakistan. The Tibetan alphabet is ancestral to the Limbu
alphabet, the Lepcha alphabet, and the multilingual ‘Phags-pa script.
The Tibetan alphabet is romanized in a variety of ways. This article employs
the Wylie transliteration system. History
The creation of the Tibetan alphabet is attributed to Thonmi Sambhota of the
mid-7th century. Tradition holds that Thonmi Sambhota, a minister of Songtsen
Gampo, was sent to India to study the art of writing, and upon his return
introduced the alphabet. The form of the letters is based on an Indic alphabet of
that period. Three orthographic standardizations were
developed. The most important, an official orthography aimed to facilitate
the translation of Buddhist scriptures, emerged during the early 9th century.
Standard orthography has not altered since then, while the spoken language
has changed by, for example, losing complex consonant clusters. As a result,
in all modern Tibetan dialects, in particular in the Standard Tibetan of
Lhasa, there is a great divergence between current spelling and current
pronunciation. This divergence is the basis of an argument in favour of
spelling reform, to write Tibetan as it is pronounced, for example, writing
Kagyu instead of Bka’-rgyud. In contrast, the pronunciation of the
Balti, Ladakhi and Burig languages adheres more closely to the archaic
The Tibetan alphabet has thirty basic letters, sometimes known as “radicals”,
for consonants. A description of the actual pronunciation of individual
letters in Standard Tibetan precedes a chart showing the traditional
romanisation of Classical Tibetan. As in other Indic scripts, each
consonant letter assumes an inherent . However, a unique aspect of the Tibetan
script is that the consonants can be written either as radicals, or they can
be written in other forms, such as superscripts and subscripts. The
superscript position above a radical is reserved for the consonants r, l, and s,
while the subscript position under a radical is for the consonants y, r, l,
and w. To understand how this works, one can
look at the radical “ka” and see what happens when it becomes “kra” or “rka”.
In both cases, the symbol for “ka” is used, but when the r is in the middle of
the consonant and vowel, it is added as a subscript. On the other hand, when the
r comes before the consonant and vowel, it is added as a superscript. R actually
changes form when it is above most other consonants; thus རྐ rka. However, an
exception to this is the cluster རྙ rnya. Similarly, the consonants w, r,
and y change form when they are beneath other consonants; thus ཀྭ kwa; ཀྲ kra;
ཀྱ kya. Besides being written as subscripts and
superscripts, some consonants can also be placed in prescript, postscript, or
post-postscript positions. For instance, the consonants g, d, b, m, and ’a can be
used in the prescript position to the left of other radicals, while the
position after a radical, can be held by the ten consonants g, n, b, d, m, ’a, r,
ng, s, and l. The third position, the post-postscript position, is solely for
the consonants d and s. The vowels used in the alphabet are a,
i, u, e, and o. While the vowel a is included in each consonant or radical,
the other vowels are indicated by marks; thus ཀ ka, ཀི ki, ཀུ ku, ཀེ ke, ཀོ ko.
The vowels i, e, and o are placed above consonants as diacritics, while the
vowel u is placed underneath consonants. Old Tibetan included a gigu ‘verso’ of
uncertain meaning. There is no distinction between long and short
vowels in written Tibetan, except in loanwords, especially transcribed from
the Sanskrit. In the Tibetan script, the syllables are
written from left to right. Syllables are separated by a tseg; since many
Tibetan words are monosyllabic, this mark often functions almost as a space.
Spaces are not used to divide words. Although some Tibetan dialects are
tonal, the language had no tone at the time of the script’s invention, and
there are no dedicated symbols for tone. However, since tones developed from
segmental features they can usually be correctly predicted by the archaic
spelling of Tibetan words. As in other Indic scripts, clustered
consonants are often stacked vertically. Unfortunately, some fonts and
applications do not support this behavior for Tibetan, so these examples
may not display properly; you might have to download a font such as Tibetan
Machine Uni. Transliteration of Sanskrit
The Sanskrit “cerebral” consonants ट ठ ड ण ष are represented by reversing the
letters ཏ ཐ ད ན ཤ to give ཊ ཋ ཌ ཎ ཥ. It is a classic rule to transliterate च
छ ज झ to ཙ ཚ ཛ ཛྷ, respectively. Nowadays, ཅ ཆ ཇ ཇྷ can also be used.
Unicode Tibetan was originally one of the
scripts in the first version of the Unicode Standard in 1991, in the Unicode
block U+1000–U+104F. However, in 1993, in version 1.1, it was removed. The
Tibetan script was re-added in July, 1996 with the release of version 2.0.
The Unicode block for Tibetan is U+0F00–U+0FFF. It includes letters,
digits and various punctuation marks and special symbols used in religious texts:
Transliteration Several competing transliteration and
transcription systems have been devised for the Tibetan script. The most widely
used one is the Wylie transliteration; others include the Library of Congress
system and the IPA-based transliteration.
Input method and keyboard layout The first version of Microsoft Windows
to support the Tibetan keyboard layout is MS Windows Vista. The layout has been
available in Linux since September 2007. In Ubuntu 12.04, one can install Tibetan
language support through Dash / Language Support / Install/Remove Languages, the
input method can be turned on from Dash / Keyboard Layout, adding Tibetan
keyboard layout. The layout applies the similar layout as in Microsoft Windows.
Mac OS-X introduced Tibetan Unicode support with OS-X version 10.5 and
later, now with three different keyboard layouts available: Tibetan-Wyie, Tibetan
QWERTY and Tibetan-Otani. See also
Tibetan calligraphy Tibetan Braille
Dzongkha Braille Tibetan typefaces
Wylie transliteration Tibetan pinyin
THDL Simplified Phonetic Transcription Tise – input method for Tibetan script
Balti script Limbu script
Asher, R. E. ed. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Tarrytown, NY:
Pergamon Press, 1994. 10 vol. Beyer, Stephan V.. The Classical Tibetan
Language. Reprinted by Delhi: Sri Satguru.
Chamberlain, Bradford Lynn. 2008. Script Selection for Tibetan-related Languages
in Multiscriptal Environments. International Journal of the Sociology
of Language 192:117–132. Csoma de Kőrös, Alexander.. A Grammar of
the Tibetan Language. Reprinted by Delhi: Sri Satguru.
Csoma de Kőrös, Alexander. Sanskrit-Tibetan-English Vocabulary. 2
vols. Reprinted by Delhi: Sri Satguru. Daniels, Peter T. and William Bright.
The World’s Writing Systems. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Das, Sarat Chandra: “The Sacred and Ornamental Characters of Tibet”. Journal
of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol. 57, pp. 41–48 and 9 plates.
Das, Sarat Chandra.. An Introduction to the Grammar of the Tibetan Language.
Reprinted by Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. Jacques, Guillaume 2012. A new
transcription system for Old and Classical Tibetan, Linguistics of the
Tibeto-Burman Area, 35.3:89-96. Jäschke, Heinrich August.. Tibetan
Grammar. Corrected by Sunil Gupta. Reprinted by Delhi: Sri Satguru.
External links Tibetan Calligraphy—how to write the
Tibetan script. Elements of the Tibetan writing system.
Unicode area U0F00-U0FFF, Tibetan script Encoding Model of the Tibetan Script in
the UCS Overview of Tibetan Unicode fonts
Tibetan Scripts, Fonts & Related Issues—THDL articles on Unicode font
issues; free cross-platform OpenType fonts—Unicode compatible.
Free Tibetan Fonts Project Ancient Scripts: Tibetan