Classical Tibetan

Classical Tibetan
RegionTibet, North Nepal
Era10th–12th centuries
Early form
Tibetan script
Language codes
ISO 639-3xct

Classical Tibetan refers to the language of any text written in Tibetic after the Old Tibetan period; though it extends from the 7th century until the modern day,[2] it particularly refers to the language of early canonical texts translated from other languages, especially Sanskrit. The phonology implied by Classical Tibetan orthography is basically identical to the phonology of Old Tibetan, but the grammar varies greatly depending on period and geographic origin of the author. Such variation is an under-researched topic.

In 816, during the reign of King Sadnalegs, literary Tibetan underwent a thorough reform aimed at standardizing the language and vocabulary of the translations being made from Indian texts, which resulted in what is now called Classical Tibetan.[3]


Structure of the noun phrase

Nominalizing suffixes — pa or ba and ma — are required by the noun or adjective that is to be singled out;

The plural is denoted, when required, by adding the morpheme -rnams, when the collective nature of the plurality is stressed the morpheme -dag is instead used. These two morphemes combine readily (e.g. rnams-dag 'a group with several members', and dag-rnams 'several groups').[4]


The classical written language has ten cases.[5]

  • absolutive (unmarked morphologically)
  • genitive (གི་ -gi, གྱི་ -gyi, ཀྱི་ -kyi, འི་ -'i, ཡི་ -yi)
  • agentive (གིས་ -gis, གྱིས་ -gyis, ཀྱིས་ -kyis, ས་ -s, ཡིས་ -yis)
  • locative (ན་ -na)
  • allative (ལ་ -la)
  • terminative (རུ་ -ru, སུ་ -su, ཏུ་ -tu, དུ་ -du, ར་ -r)
  • comitative (དང་ -dang)
  • ablative (ནས་ -nas)
  • elative (ལས་ -las)
  • comparative (བས་ -bas)

Case morphology is affixed to entire noun phrases, not to individual words (i.e. Gruppenflexion).

Traditional Tibetan grammarians do not distinguish case markers in this manner, but rather distribute these case morphemes (excluding -dang and -bas) into the eight cases of Sanskrit.


There are personal, demonstrative, interrogative and reflexive pronouns, as well as an indefinite article, which is plainly related to the numeral for "one."

Personal pronouns

As an example of the pronominal system of classical Tibetan, the Milarepa rnam thar exhibits the following personal pronouns.[6]

Person Singular Plural
First person ང་ nga ངེད་ nged
First + Second རང་རེ་ rang-re
Second person ཁྱོད་ khyod ཁྱེད་ khyed
Third person ཁོ་ kho ཁོང་ khong

Like in French, the plural (vous / ཁྱེད་ khyed) can be used a polite singular.[6]

Other Languages