Tibetan alphasyllabary

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Tibetan alphabet: consonants and vowels

The Tibetan alphasyllabary is the writing system used to write the Tibetic languages such as Tibetan, Dzongkha (Bhutan), and so on.

An alphasyllabary, or abugida, is a segmental writing system in which consonant–vowel sequences are written as a unit: each unit is based on a consonant letter, and vowel notation is secondary. This contrasts with a full alphabet, in which vowels have status equal to consonants.

Alphasyllabaries are the writing systems of the Indian subcontent and much of Southeast Asia, in addition to Tibet and the Himalayas. The Tibetan system is derived from the Indic languages such as Sanskrit.

There are two scripts used to write the Tibetan alphasyllabary:

  • Uchen: most common printed form
  • Umê: the hand-written cursive form used in everyday writing


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 (569-649), was sent to India to study the art of writing, and upon his return introduced the Tibetan alphasyllabary, which he derived from the Indic writing systems of that period. The grammar of the Tibetan language is based on Sanskrit grammar.[1]

The alphasyllabary


The Tibetan alphasyllabary has thirty consonants. Each consonant has an inherent /a/ vowel sound. The Tibetan symbol for /a/ is .

The consonants are shown in the following table:

Letter IPA Letter IPA Letter IPA Letter IPA
Guttural /ka/ /kʰa/ /ga/ /ŋa/
Palatal /tʃa/ /tʃʰa/ /dʒa/ /ɲa/
Dental /ta/ /tʰa/ /da/ /na/
Labial /pa/ /pʰa/ /ba/ /ma/
Dental /tsa/ /tsʰa/ /dza/ /wa/
low tone /ʒa/ /za/ /'a/ /ja/
mixed /ra/
high tone /ha/ /a/


There are five vowels in the alphasyllabary:

Vowel Phonetic Vowel sign Vowel sign name
ཨི /i/ khi khu
ཨེ /e/ dreng bu
ཨོ /o/ na ro
ཨུ /u/ shap chu

The vowel /a/ is implicit in each consonant; the other vowels are indicated by the appropriate vowel sign. For example:

  • /ka/
  • ཀི /ki/
  • ཀེ /ke/
  • ཀོ /ko/
  • ཀུ /ku/

Note that the vowels signs for ཨི /i/, ཨེ /e/, and ཨོ /o/ are placed above the consonants, while the vowel ཨུ /u/ is placed below the consonants.

Consonant clusters

The 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 subscript and superscript forming consonant clusters.

To understand how this works, one can look at the radical /ka/ and see what happens when it becomes ཀྲ /kra/ or རྐ /rka/. In both cases, the symbol for /ka/ is used, but when the /ra/ is in the middle of the consonant and vowel, it is added as a subscript. On the other hand, when the /ra/ comes before the consonant and vowel, it is added as a superscript.[2] /ra/ actually changes form when it is above most other consonants; thus རྐ rka. However, an exception to this is the cluster རྙ /rɲa/. Similarly, the consonants /wa/, /ra/, and /ja/ change form when they are beneath other consonants; thus ཀྭ /kwa/; ཀྲ /kra/; ཀྱ /kja/.

Besides being written as subscripts and superscripts, some consonants can also be placed in prescript, postscript, or post-postscript positions. For instance, the consonants /kʰa/, /tʰa/, /pʰa/, /ma/ and /a/ can be used in the prescript position to the left of other radicals, while the position after a radical (the postscript position), can be held by the ten consonants /kʰa/, /na/, /pʰa/, /tʰa/, /ma/, /a/, /ra/, /ŋa/, /sa/, and /la/. The third position, the post-postscript position is solely for the consonants /tʰa/ and /sa/.[2]

Head letters

The superscript position above a radical is reserved for the consonants /ra/, /la/, and /sa/.

  • When /ra/, /la/, and /sa/ are in superscript position with /ka/, /tʃa/, /ta/, /pa/ and /tsa/, there are no changes in the sound, they look and sound like:
    • རྐ /ka/, རྟ /ta/, རྤ /pa/, རྩ /tsa/
    • ལྐ /ka/, ལྕ /tʃa/, ལྟ /ta/, ལྤ /pa/,
    • སྐ /ka/, སྕ /tʃa/, སྟ /ta/, སྤ /pa/, སྩ /tsa/
  • When /ra/, /la/, and /sa/ are in superscript position with /kʰa/, /tʃʰa/, /tʰa/, /pʰa/ and /tsʰa/, they lose their aspiration and sounds change. They look and sound like:
    • རྒ /ga/, རྗ /d͡ʒa/, རྡ /da/, རྦ /ba/, རྫ /dza/
    • ལྒ /ga/, ལྗ /d͡ʒa/, ལྡ /da/, ལྦ /ba/,
    • སྒ /ga/, སྗ /d͡ʒa/, སྡ /da/, སྦ /ba/, སྫ /dza/
  • When /ra/, /la/, and /sa/ are in superscript position with /ŋa/, /ɲa/, /na/ and /ma/, the nasal sound gets high. They look and sound like:
    • རྔ /ŋa/, རྙ /ɲa/, རྣ /na/, རྨ /ma/
    • ལྔ /ŋa/, ལྨ /ma/
    • སྔ /ŋa/, སྙ /ɲa/, སྣ /na/, སྨ /ma/

Sub-joined letters

The subscript position under a radical is for the consonants /ja/, /ra/, /la/, and /wa/.


Tibetan numerals
Arabic numerals 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Tibetan numerals
Arabic numerals 0.5 1.5 2.5 3.5 4.5 5.5 6.5 7.5 8.5 9.5


Name Function
yig mgo
marks beginning of text
sbrul shad
separates sections of meaning equivalent to topics and sub-topics
bskur yig mgo
list enumerator (Dzongkha)
morpheme delimiter
full stop (marks end of a section of text)
full stop (marks end of a whole topic)
bsdus rtags
gug rtags g.yon
left bracket
gug rtags g.yas
right bracket
ang khang g.yon
left bracket used for bracketing with a roof over
ang khang g.yas
right bracket used for bracketing with a roof over

Extended use

A text in Tibetan script suspected to be Sanskrit in content. From the personal artifact collection of Donald Weir.

The Tibetan alphabet, when used to write other languages such as Balti and Sanskrit, often has additional and/or modified graphemes taken from the basic Tibetan alphabet to represent different sounds.

Extended alphabet - Sanskrit

Letter Used in Romanization & IPA
གྷ Sanskrit gha /ɡʱ/
ཛྷ Sanskrit jha /ɟʱ, d͡ʒʱ/
Sanskrit ṭa /ʈ/
Sanskrit ṭha /ʈʰ/
Sanskrit ḍa /ɖ/
ཌྷ Sanskrit ḍha /ɖʱ/
Sanskrit ṇa /ɳ/
དྷ Sanskrit dha /d̪ʱ/
བྷ Sanskrit bha /bʱ/
Sanskrit ṣa /ʂ/
ཀྵ Sanskrit kṣa /kʂ/

In Sanskrit:

  • "cerebral consonants" ṭa, ṭha, ḍa, ṇa, ṣa are represented by reversing the letters ཏ ཐ ད ན ཤ (ta, tha, da, na, sha) to give ཊ ཋ ཌ ཎ ཥ (Ta, Tha, Da, Na, Sa).
  • it is a classic rule to transliterate ca, cha, ja, jha, to ཙ ཚ ཛ ཛྷ (tsa, tsha, dza, dzha), respectively. Nowadays, ཅ ཆ ཇ ཇྷ (ca, cha, ja, jha) can also be used.

Extended vowel marks and modifiers

Vowel Mark Used in Romanization & IPA
Sanskrit ā /ā/
Sanskrit ī /ī/
Sanskrit ū /ū/
Sanskrit ai /ai/
Sanskrit au /au/
Sanskrit ṛ /ṛ/
Sanskrit /ṝ/
Sanskrit /ḷ/
Sanskrit /ḹ/
Sanskrit aṃ /ṃ/
Sanskrit aṃ /ṃ/
ཿ Sanskrit aḥ /ḥ/
Name Used in Function
srog med Sanskrit suppresses the inherent vowel sound
paluta Sanskrit used for prolonging vowel sounds

Extended alphabet - Balti

Balti is a Tibetic language spoken in the Baltistan region of Pakistan.

Letter Used in Romanization & IPA
Balti qa /qa/
Balti ɽa /ɽa/
ཁ༹ Balti xa /χa/
ག༹ Balti ɣa /ʁa/

In Balti, consonants ka, ra are represented by reversing the letters ཀ ར (ka, ra) to give ཫ ཬ (ka, ra).

Romanization and transliteration

Romanization and transliteration of the Tibetan script is the representation of the Tibetan script in the Latin script. There are various ways of Romanization and transliteration systems created in recent years, but failed to represent the true phonetic sound.[3] While the Wylie transliteration system is widely used to romanize Standard Tibetan, others include the Library of Congress system and the IPA-based transliteration (Jacques 2012).

Below is a table with Tibetan letters and different Romanization and transliteration system for each letter, listed below systems are: Wylie transliteration (W), Tibetan pinyin (TP), Dzongkha phonetic (DP), ALA-LC Romanization (A)[4] and THL Simplified Phonetic Transcription (THL).

Letter W TP DP A THL Letter W TP DP A THL Letter W TP DP A THL Letter W TP DP A THL
ka g ka ka ka kha k kha kha kha ga k kha ga ga nga ng nga nga nga
ca j ca ca cha cha q cha cha cha ja q cha ja ja nya ny nya nya nya
ta d ta ta ta tha t tha tha ta da t tha da da na n na na na
pa b pa pa pa pha p pha pha pa ba p pha ba ba ma m ma ma ma
tsa z tsa tsa tsa tsha c tsha tsha tsa dza c tsha dza dza wa w wa wa wa
zha x sha zha zha za s sa za za 'a - a 'a a ya y ya ya ya
ra r ra ra ra la l la la la sha x sha sha sha sa s sa sa sa
ha h ha ha ha a a a a a

Input method and keyboard layout


Tibetan 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-Wylie, Tibetan QWERTY and Tibetan-Otani.


Dzongkha keyboard layout

The Dzongkha keyboard layout scheme is designed as a simple means for inputting Dzongkha text on computers. This keyboard layout was standardized by the Dzongkha Development Commission (DDC) and the Department of Information Technology (DIT) of the Royal Government of Bhutan in 2000.

It was updated in 2009 to accommodate additional characters added to the Unicode & ISO 10646 standards since the initial version. Since the arrangement of keys essentially follows the usual order of the Dzongkha and Tibetan alphabet, the layout can be quickly learned by anyone familiar with this alphabet. Subjoined (combining) consonants are entered using the Shift key.

The Dzongkha (dz) keyboard layout is included in Microsoft Windows, Android, and most distributions of Linux as part of XFree86.

See also:



See also


  1. Which specific Indic script inspired the Tibetan alphabet remains controversial. Recent study suggests Tibetan script was based on an adaption from Khotan of the Indian Brahmi and Gupta scripts taught to Thonmi Sambhota in Kashmir (Berzin, Alexander. A Survey of Tibetan History - Reading Notes Taken by Alexander Berzin from Tsepon, W. D. Shakabpa, Tibet: A Political History. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1967: http://studybuddhism.com/web/en/archives/e-books/unpublished_manuscripts/survey_tibetan_history/chapter_1.html).
  2. 2.0 2.1 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named daniels
  3. See for instance [1] [2]
  4. [https://www.loc.gov/catdir/cpso/romanization/tibetan.pdf ALA-LC Romanization of Tibetan script (PDF)


  • Asher, R. E. ed. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Tarrytown, NY: Pergamon Press, 1994. 10 vol.
  • Beyer, Stephan V. (1993). 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. (1983). A Grammar of the Tibetan Language. Reprinted by Delhi: Sri Satguru.
  • Csoma de Kőrös, Alexander (1980–1982). 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 (1888), pp. 41–48 and 9 plates.
  • Das, Sarat Chandra. (1996). 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. (1989). Tibetan Grammar. Corrected by Sunil Gupta. Reprinted by Delhi: Sri Satguru.


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