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The Alphabet

The Tibetan alphabet consists of 30 consonants and four vowels. The


consonants are traditionally arranged in a set of four columns and eight
rows.
You can click on each letters' phonetic equivalent to hear a native
Tibetan say it. Use the download options on the right to save files
locally.
The Thirty Consonants and Their Pronunciation
Column 1 Column 2 Column 3
Column
4
Row 1

ka

kha

ga

nga
Row 2

cha

chha

ja

nya
Row 3

ta

tha

da

na
Row 4

pa

pha

ba

ma
Row 5

tsa

tsha

dza

wa
Row 6

zha

za

a

ya
Row 7

ra

la

sha

sa
Row 8

ha

a

Each consonant has an inherent "a" sound. There are four other vowels
in Tibetan. The vowels are not letters by themselves, but are drawn
either above or below the consonant they modify. In the example below
we use the last consonant of the alphabet as an example.
The Four Vowels and Their Pronunciation
Vowels







Example

i

u

e

o

The Reversed Letters
The six reversed letters are sometimes referred to as the Sanskrit letters,
since their original purpose was for use in the translation of texts from
Sanskrit. In modern Tibetan these letters have taken on a new role and
therefore it's important for the student to recognize them.
The Six Reversed Letters and Their Pronunciation

ta

tha

da

na

kha

kyha
Examples of Reversed Letters Usage in Modern Tibetan
Tibetan English Comments

Canada If this word were spelled with non-
reversed letters, its literal meaning
could be "mouth-sick-now". By
using reversed letters the meaning
becomes obvious and the
pronunciation is about the same as
in English.

Car This word is pronounced roughly
the same as the English word
"motor". There are other words in
Tibetan with the same meaning,
e.g. "num-kor-kar":







Writing Tibetan

Throughout the centuries Tibetan has been written using different types
of scripts. Two of those scripts, U-chen and U-me are the most common.
U-chen is the script you see on this site. It has been used for centuries to
print religious books and today it is used for books, newspapers and
other media. U-me is more of a handwriting script, although it is
sometimes used in books.
Below is a guide on how to draw the U-chen script. Horizontal lines are
drawn from left to right and vertical lines from the top down. The letters
should align with the top line, thus the first line you draw is the base
line.






The Superscribed Letters
Three consonants can be written on top of other consonants. Those
superscribed letters are almost never pronounced themselves, but they
change the pronunciation of the consonant they are placed on, by raising
its tone pitch. For the beginner this change might be difficult to notice
since it's only a slight variation from the pronunciation of the consonants
when they have no superscribed letter.
The Three Superscribed Letters
Letter Name English Phonetic Name

Ra-go (Ra-head)

La-go (La-head)

Sa-go (Sa-head)
Each superscribed letter cannot be written on all consonants. Below is a
list of all possible combinations and how to pronounce them.
The Twelve Ra-go Letters and Their Pronunciation

ka

ga

nga

ja

nya*

ta

da

na

ba

ma

tsa

dza
*Note how different from others the Ra-go is drawn
when placed on Nya.
The Ten La-go Letters and Their Pronunciation

ka

ga

nga

cha

ja

ta

da

pa

ba

lha

The Eleven Sa-go Letters and Their Pronunciation

ka

ga

nga

nya

ta

da

na

pa

ba

ma

tsa




The Subscribed Letters
Four consonants can be written below or subscribed to other consonants.
Most of the subscribed letters change the pronunciation of the consonant
they are attached to. All of the subscribed letters, except one, are written
in a different way than when they are written as base letters. In the
following tables you can see how to draw those letters as well as how to
pronounce them.
The Four Subscribed Letters
Letter Name English Phonetic (Name)

Ya-ta (Ya-bound)

Ra-ta (Ra-bound)

La-ta (La-bound)

Wa-sur (Wa-corner)
The Eight Ya-ta Letters and Their Pronunciation

kya

khya

gya

chya

chhya

jya

nya

hya
The Thirteen Ra-ta Letters and Their Pronunciation

tra

thra

dra

tra

thra

dra

na

tra

thra

tra

ma

sa

hra

The Six La-ta Letters and Their Pronunciation

la

la*

la*

la*

la*

da
*Pronounced the same as the first la-ta
The Thirteen Wa-zur Letters

ka

kha

ga

nya

da

tsa

tsha

zha

za

ra

la

sha

ha

Wa-zur does not affect the pronunciation of the base letter and therefore
we have omitted recording these letters. You can hear how they are
pronounced on the Alphabet page.


The Prefixes
A prefix is an unpronounced letter at the beginning of a syllable.
Although the prefixes are never pronounced, they modify the
pronunciation of some root letters (the letter that follows them). When
consonants from the third column of the alphabet are prefixed, they lose
aspiration while remaining low in tone. The nasal consonants in the
fourth row, when prefixed, should be pronounced in a higher tone than
when not prefixed.
The Five Prefixes

Examples of Words with Prefixes
Word Pronunciation Meaning

nahm Sky

ny Two

kar-po White

jyar-kha Summer

tsn-pa Prisoner

dn-thak Week

tsho Lake

ngar-mo Sweet

kor-lo Wheel

tr Rice







The Suffixes
A suffix is the last letter in a syllable. Tibetan also has a secondary
suffix. Ten letters can act as suffixes, and two letters can act as
secondary suffixes. The suffix will always affect the pronunciation of
the syllable, but not in the same way. A suffix will either add its own
sound to the root letter (omitting the inherent "a" sound), modify the
vowel of the root letter, or have both of these effects.
The Ten Suffixes


Six suffixes add their own sound, without the inherent "a", to the root
letter. In the examples below we use the first letter in the alphabet as a
root letter, but this could be any of the 30 consonants.
The Six Suffixes Which Add Their Own Sound
Suffix Example Pronunciation Notes

kag
This suffix is
sometimes not fully
pronounced.

kang


kab


kam


ka
This suffix does not
add its own sound
since it's already
present in the root
letter.

kar

Two suffixes do not add their own sound to the syllable, but they do
modify the sound of the root letter's vowel.
The Two Suffixes Which Modify the Root Letter's Vowel
Suffix Example Pronunciation Suffix Example Pronunciation

k

k


k


k


k


k


k


k


k


k
Two suffixes modify the sound of the root letter's vowel, and add their
own sound.
The Two Suffixes Which Add Their Sound and Modify
Suffix Example Pronunciation Suffix Example Pronunciation

kn

kl


kn


kl


kn


kl


kn


kl


kn


kl
Secondary Suffixes
and are the only letters which can be secondary suffixes. In modern
Tibetan is not used anymore as a secondary suffix. Secondary suffixes
do not add their own sound, nor do they affect the pronunciation of the
root letter.
Examples of Words With a Secondary
Suffix
Word Pronunciation Meaning

drog-po Friend

chag Iron

sm Mind



The Syllable
A syllable can contain as little as one letter or as many as six letters. the
end of syllable is marked by a dot, called a Tsheg, which is placed at the
upper right side of the last letter in the syllable.
Each syllable is a combination of all types of letters mentioned in
previous lessons. The root letter is the most critical letter in each
syllable. This letter is the starting point for the sound of the syllable and
ther efore it's very important to identify it when reading. If you, for
example, mistake a prefix for a root letter, you will end up pronouncing
the word differently from what it should be. Beginners often find it
difficult to know if a letter is a prefix or not. Rather than focus on the
first letter and try to figure out if it's a prefix or not, you should process
the whole syllable and focus on finding the root letter. There are some
simple guidelines you can follow to identify the root letter.
The Five Rules for Identifying the Root Letter
A letter with a vowel is always the root letter,
except when it's the phrase connector Letters
which have superscribed or subscribed letters are
always root letters
In a two letter syllable with no vowel, the first
letter is always the root letter
In a three letter syllable the middle letter is usually
the root letter. This is not the case if the last letter
is the secondary suffix = in which case sometimes
the root letter will be the first letter and sometimes
the second letter will be
In a four letter syllable the second letter is always
the root letter
Below is a word which is made up of two syllables. These two syllables
contain all of the seven types of letters we have studied in previous
lessons.

This word is pronounced drem-tn and it means "show" or "exhibition".
According to the guidelines above, the root letter in the first syllable is .
This letter has both a vowel and a subscribed letter which means it must
be the root letter. In the second syllable is the root letter and is
superscribed. That syllable is therefore pronounced tn, rather than sn.












The Sentence
In Tibetan, words are made up of one or more syllables. Written Tibetan
uses a dot, called a Tsheg, to separate syllables, but words are not
separated at all. The sentence is terminated with a vertical stroke called
Sh. Let's look at a simple sentence to illustrate this:


I Tibetan am.
I am Tibetan.
One difference between English and Tibetan is the arrangement of
words within a sentence. The sequence of words in a basic Tibetan
sentence, like the one above, is: subject - object - verb.
Lets have a look at another more complicated sentence:


Yesterday man rich this house expensive an bought did
Yesterday this rich man bought an expensive house.
Here the first word is a time reference. Words like "today", "tomorrow",
"yesterday", etc, are often placed at the beginning of a sentence, before
the subject, but they can also be placed after the subject. The subject in
this sentence is the noun "man", which is followed by the adjective
"rich" and the demonstrative pronoun "this". Adjectives and
demonstrative pronouns usually follow the subject they refer to.
Therefore, "this rich man" is written "man rich this" and "expensive
house" is written "house expensive". The word "house" is the object in
this sentence and it is qualified with the adjective "expensive". The
indefinite article "an" is placed after the object and its adjective (in
spoken Tibetan the indefinite article is often omitted). The sentence is
terminated with the past tense of the verb "buy" and an auxiliary verb
"did". We will learn more about auxiliary verbs and other grammar
terms in later lessons; for now just study how the Tibetan sentence is
built.
Note that this sentence ends with both a Tsheg () and a Sh () . This is
only done when the last letter before the Sh is
Note also that the Sh is omitted when the sentence ends with the letter
Identifying The Words
For the beginner the most challenging feature of the Tibetan sentence is
the lack of separation between words. The first two letters in the
sentence above illustrate this. The first letter, ,is a word and can mean
"surface", the second letter, is also a word and can mean "earth".
However, together they are also a word and then the meaning is
"yesterday". Since there is no space after a word, the reader must figure
out each word based on context and location in the sentence. Looking up
these two letters in a dictionary might lead you to think that this sentence
is starting with a reference to the surface of earth. However, the rest of
the sentence, its context, and the lack of an agentive case connector,
indicates that these two letters are not words by themselves, but rather
the word "yesterday". From this you can see it's good to first evaluate a
sentence as a whole, by identifying it's various elements, rather than
translate it word by word.
To reach the level of being able to identify each word in a sentence is
not as difficult as it might look. If you study the grammar, memorize
words, and practice reading you will soon be able to translate simple
texts.


















Irregular Pronunciation
In spoken Tibetan each letter will generally translate into the same basic
sound. This sound, as explained in previous lessons, is usually affected
in the same way based on the letter's position within a syllable (e.g.
initial, suffix, etc), and by neighboring letters (e.g. prefix, vowel, etc).
There are some instances where pronunciation is different from this.
Note though that spoken Tibetan has many different dialects and
therefore many variations of speech exist. The examples below apply to
the Lhasa dialect.
1. When is the only letter in a syllable, it is
pronounced "wa", rather than "ba"
Tibetan Pronunciation Translation

re-wa Hope

da-wa
Moon, Month, Name of a
person

zhu-wa To melt
2. is also sometimes pronounced in a different way
when it's an initial
Tibetan Pronunciation Translation

wang-cha Power

u Head (Honorific)
3. Some words have an additional nasal sound, as if the
letter were present
Tibetan Pronunciation Translation

mn-dug
Is not, Not to be (2nd and 3rd
person)

gan-dr How

kn-da Spouse (Honorific)

dan-ta Now
4. Various irregular pronunciations:
Tibetan Pronunciation Translation

Not gn-pa, but gom-
pa
Monastery

Not gyl-tse, but
gyang-tse
Name of a city in Tibet










Spelling
It might not seem very important to learn how to spell in Tibetan, but it
can come in handy, especially if you have a teacher. You will frequently
find yourself asking your teacher how a word is spelled and then you
must know the Tibetan way of spelling.
Spelling is done by syllable. If a letter is a vowel or a part of a stack of
letters, you must give the overall sound of all letters spelled up to that
point. This process is repeated until all letters have been accounted for in
the syllable. If a word consists of more than one syllable you must first
fully spell the first syllable, and give the final sound for it, before
moving onto the next one. Letter stacks are pronounced from top down,
e.g. first the superscribed letter and then the initial letter. Vowels are
spelled last.
To spell properly you have to memorize the alphabet , as well as names
of vowels, prefixes, and the words for subscribed and reversed letters.
How to Pronounce Various Letters When Spelling
Type Letter Tibetan Name Pronunciation
Vowels


gi-gu



zhap-kyu



dreng-pu



na-ro

Prefixes

ga-


da-


pa-


ma-


a-

Superscribed

ra letter + ta


la letter + ta


sa letter + ta

Subscribed

ya-ta


ra-ta


la-ta


wa-zur

Reversed
Letters

ta-log


tha-log


da-log


na-log


sha-log


ka-sha-log
In the following spelling examples the yellow letters represent the
accumulated sound as it is after a vowel or a stack. The green letters are
the final sound of a syllable.
Spelling Examples

Hand
la ga lag / pa = lag-pa

Noise
sa ka-ta ka da k / cha na-ro cho ra chor = k-chor

Talk, Speech
ga- sa zhap-kyu su nga sung / pa sha da sh = sung-sh

Pen
sa ma-ta ma ya-ta nya zhab-kyu nyu ga nyug / ga zhap-
kyu gu = nyu-gu

Car
ma na-ro mo / ta-log ta = mo-ta

Suffering, Unsatisfactory, Misery
sa da-ta da zhap-kyu du ga dug / pa- sa nga-ta nga la
ngl = dug-ngl

Compassion
sa nya-ta nya gi-gu nyi nga nying / ra ja-ta ja dreng-pu
je = nying-je