All about Tibetan alphabet & Tibetan script

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Tibetan script and alphabet

The Tibetan script was adapted from the Lancha form of the Indian letters created by Thonmi Sambhota (thon-mi-sam-bho-ta ཐོན་མི་སམ་བྷོ་ཏ་), minister of Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo (srong-btsan-sgam-po སྲོང་བཙན་སྒམ་པོ་) about the year 632.

The Tibetan alphabet consists of thirty consonants and four vowels. It is assumed that the unwritten vowel “Aཨ་ is automatically present in all other 29 consonants. Tibetan grammatical tradition says that without this vowel all consonants would be dead (srog-med སྲོག་མེད་).

Tibetan alphabet – consonants


ka kha ga nga
ca cha ja nya
ta tha da na
pa pha ba ma
tsa tsha dza wa
zha za ‘a ya
ra la sha sa
ha a

Vowels in Tibetan language

In the Tibetan language there are 4 vowels – i, u, e, o. In writing, vowels are marked using the four diacritical vowel signs, which are under or above the consonants.

Since every consonant sign implies, like its Sanskrit prototype, a following a, unless some other vowel sign is attached to it, no particular sing is wanted to denote this vowel.

There are four vowel sounds that replace the inherent “a” of any consonant. Their pronunciations are closer to the French pronunciations of these letters than to standard English pronunciation.

  • The Tibetan “i“ ( ) is pronounced like the “ee“ in keep.
  • The Tibetan “u“ ( ) is pronounced like the “u“ in tune.
  • The Tibetan “e“ ( ) is usually pronounced like the “a“ in fade.
  • The Tibetan “o“ ( ) is pronounced like the “o“ in bone.

These vowels never stand alone but are always written above or below the letter they modify. When written out in a listing of the alphabet they are placed over or under the letter ཨ་ a, i.e., ཨི་ i, ཨུ་ u, ཨེ་ e, ཨོ་ o.

Syllables

The Tibetan language is monosyllabic. It means, that all its words consists of one syllable only, which indeed may be variously composed, though the component parts cannot, in every case, be recognized in their individuality.

The mark for the end of syllable in Tibetan is a dot, called ཚེག་ tsheg. The dot is at the right side of the upper part of the closing letter, such as ཀ་ – the syllable ka. If the dot (ཚེག་ tsheg) is found after two or more consonants, this will indicate that all of them form one syllable with only one vowel in it: ཀ་ར་ ka-raཀར་ kar.

Final consonants

Only the following ten occur at the end of a syllable: ག་ga, ང་nga, ད་da, ན་na, བ་ba, མ་ma, འ་´a ར་ra, ལ་la, ས་sa.

It must be observed, that ག་ga, ད་da, བ་ba as finals are never pronounced like the English g, d, b in leg, bad, cab, but are transformed differently in the different provinces. In Ladakh they sound like k, t, p (སོག་sock, གོད་got, ཐོབ་ – top).

In all central Tibet, moreover, final ད་ da and ན་ na, sometimes even ལ་ la, modify the sound of a preceding vowel: a to ä (similar to the English a in hare, man), o into ö (similar to the French eu in jeu), u into ü (similar to the French u in mur).

Final ས་ sa is not sounded in Tibetan. For example: ནས་ nas [nä] – „barley“, ཤེས་ shes [śe] – „know“, རིས་ ris [rí] – „figure“, ཆོས་ chhos [čhö] – „religion“ and ལུས་ lus [lü] – „body“.

In some words final ས་ sa occurs as a second closing letter (affix), after ག་ ga, ང་ nga, བ་ ba, མ་ ma, as in ནགས་ ngas – „forest“, གངས་ gangs – „glacier-ice“, ཐབས་ thabs – „means“, རམས་ rams „indigo“.

Compound consonants

They are expressed in writing by putting one below the other, in which case several change their original figure.

Subjoined consonants in Tibetan script

The letter ya subjoined to another is represented by the figure, and occurs in connection with the three gutturals and labials, and with མ་ ma, thus ཀྱ་ kya, ཁྱ་ khya, གྱ་ gya, པྱ་ pya, ཕྱ་ phya, བྱ་ bya, མྱ་ mya. The former three have preserved, in most cases, their original pronunciation [kya, khya, gya]. In the Mongolian pronunciation of Tibetan words, however, they have been corrupted into [cha, ccha, ja] respectively, a well-known instance of which is the common pronunciation [kanjur] i.o. [kangyur] – བཀའ་འགྱུར་ ka-gyur, Tibetan Buddhist canon.

པྱ་ pya, ཕྱ་ phya, བྱ་ bya are almost everywhere spoken without any difference from ཅ ca, ཆ cha, ཇ ja. མྱ mya is spoken [nya] = ཉ nya.

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