The Tibetan language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. There are up to six million speakers, found in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (Xizang), as well as in other provinces of the People's Republic of China which contain culturally Tibetan areas (Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu). Tibetan (in its various dialects) is the main language of Bhutan as well as certain populations in northern Nepal, India (Sikkim, Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh) and Tibetan diaspora communities primarily in India, Nepal, the USA, and various European countries.
Colloquial Tibetan is comprised of a numerous variety (at least 220) of what, in the present day, are often mutually unintelligible dialects. Clues about the common source of these dialects can be found in the language of documents deriving from the period of empire (7th–9th century CE). Among today’s dialects, those of Central Tibet have gained some form of primacy, not only in Tibet, but also within the communities in exile.
The Tibetan literary tradition goes back to approximately the 7th century, when the language began to be written in the script which is still used today. Classical Literary Tibetan (which, as with the dialects, has its original source in empire-era Tibetan) served as a stable medium by which educated Tibetans could discourse across the patchwork of disparate dialects. The huge literature of Tibet not only encompasses the religious and philosophical literature of the Buddhist and Bön traditions, but also the massive output of historical, legal, medical and other secular knowledge systems, as well the Tibetan epic, poetry, and belles-lettres.
Owing to grammatical, lexical, and other differences, Classical Tibetan and Colloquial Tibetan are taught in separate classes. The primary aim of the Classical Tibetan course is to enable students to work with a variety of literary sources; the Colloquial Tibetan course – which introduces the students to the Central Tibetan dialect – focuses on comprehension and active communication skills.
- Jonathan Samuels, Colloquial Tibetan: Routledge Colloquial Series (forthcoming)
- Nicolas Tournadre, Sangda Dorje: Manual of Standard Tibetan. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2003
- Stephan Beyer, The Classical Tibetan Language. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992
- Michael Hahn, Lehrbuch der klassischen tibetischen Schriftsprache. Swisttal-Odendorf: Indica-et-Tibetica-Verlag, 1996
- Peter Schwieger, Handbuch zur Grammatik der klassischen tibetischen Schriftsprache. Halle: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies GmbH, 2006
- Christine Sommerschuh, Einführung in die tibetische Schriftsprache. Lehrbuch für den Unterricht und das vertiefende Selbststudium. Norderstedt: BoD-Verlag, 2008