Modern Standard Tibetan grammar

Modern Standard Tibetan grammar

Tibetan grammar describes the morphology, syntax and other grammatical features of the Tibetan language, the language and dialects of the Tibetan people spoken across a wide area of eastern Central Asia. Generally considered a member of the Tibeto-Burman language family, typologically Tibetan is classified as an ergative-absolutive language. Nouns are generally unmarked for grammatical number but are marked for case. Adjectives are never marked and appear after the noun. Demonstratives also come after the noun but these are marked for number. Verbs are possibly the most complicated part of Tibetan grammar in terms of morphology. The dialect described here is the colloquial language of Central Tibet, especially Lhasa and the surrounding area, but the spelling used reflects classical Tibetan, not the colloquial pronunciation.


Nouns and case

Nouns are not usually marked for grammatical gender or number.

Natural gender may be conveyed through the lexicon, e.g. གཡག་ <gyag> "yak (male)," འབྲི་ <'bri> "yak-cow." In human or animate nouns, gender may be indicated through suffixes. These suffixes are generally པ་ <pa> or པོ་ <po> "male," and མ་ <ma> or མོ་ <mo> "female."

  • ཁམས་་ <khams-pa> "man from Kham," → ཁམས་མོ་ <khams-mo> "woman from Kham"
  • མཛོ་ <mdzo> "yak-cow hybrid," → མཛོ་མོ་ <mdzo-mo> "female dzo"

Number is never marked in inanimate nouns or animals. Even human nouns can only take the plural marker ཚོ་ <tsho> if they are specified or definite, e.g. ཨ་མ་ <a-ma> "mother" → ཨ་མ་ཚོ་ <a-ma-tsho> "(the) mothers." Tibetan does not mark definiteness, and such a meaning would be left to be deduced from the context.

Tibetan nouns are marked for six cases: absolutive, agentive, genitive, ablative, associative and oblique. Particles are attached to entire noun phrases, not to individual nouns. Case suffixes are attached to the noun phrase as a whole, while the actual noun remains unchanged. The form taken by the suffix depends on the final sound of the noun to which the suffix is attached.

Absolutive case

The absolutive case is the unmarked form of the noun, which may be used as the subject of an intransitive verb, the object of a transitive verb or the experiencer of an emotion.

Genitive case

The genitive case marks possession and is often translated as "of." The form of the genitive suffix depends on the last sound of the noun:

  • if the last sound is a vowel or འ་ <'a> then the suffix is འི་ <'i>
  • if the last sound is ག་ <-g> or ང་ <-ng> then the suffix is གི་ <gi>
  • if the last sound is ད་ <-d>, བ་ <-b>, ས་ <-s> or one of the secondary sound suffixes then the genitive suffix is ཀྱི་ <kyi>
  • if the last sound is ན་ <-n>, མ་ <-m>, ར་ <-r> or ལ་ <-l> then the suffix is གྱི་ <gyi>.

The genitive is also used to form relative clauses. Here, the genitive suffix is attached to the verb and is translated as "that" or "who."

དེབ་ ནང་ལ་ ཡོད་པའི པར་
<deb nang-la yod-pai bar>
book inside-OBL. is-GEN. photo
"the photo that is in the book"

Agentive case

Formally the agentive (or ergative) case is built upon the genitive by adding ས་ <-s> to the latter; consequently:

  • if the last sound is a vowel or འ་ <'a> then the suffix is ས་ <-s>
  • if the last sound is ག་ <-g> or ང་ <-ng> then the suffix is གིས་ <gis>
  • if the last sound is ད་ <-d>, བ་ <-b>, ས་ <-s> or one of the secondary sound suffixes then the genitive suffix is ཀྱིས་ <kyis>
  • if the last sound is ན་ <-n>, མ་ <-m>, ར་ <-r> or ལ་ <-l> then the suffix is གྱིས་ <gyis>.

The agentive is used for ergative and instrumental functions. The ergative function occurs with the subject, agent or causer of transitive verbs, the agent of "mental" and "verbal" actions and the perceiver of a sensation.

Ablative case

The ablative case is always suffixed with ནས་ <nas>. It marks direction away from the noun. Like the agentive case, the ablative can also take the ergative role marking the agent of an action.

Associative case

The associative case is marked by the suffix དང་ <dang>, which may be translated as "and" but also as "with," "against" or have no translation at all. When the associative case suffix is followed by a pause, for example:

པཱ་ལགས་དང་། ཨ་ཁུ་དང་། ཨ་ནེ།
<paa-lags-dang, a-khu-dang, a-ne>
father-ASS. uncle-ASS. aunt
"father and uncle and aunt..."

The associative suffix cannot cannot combine with other case or plural markers on the same noun or noun phrase:

ཨ་མ་དང སྤུ་གུ་ཚོ།   བུ་དང བུ་མོ་ཚོར་ ལག་རྟགས་ སྦྲུས་པ་ཡོད།
<a-ma-dang sbu-gu-tsho>   <bu-dang bu-mo-tshor lag-rtags sbrus-pa-yod>
mother-ASS. children   boy-ASS. girl-DAT. present gave
"mother and children"   "(they) gave presents to the boys and girls"

Oblique case

The oblique suffix fulfills the functions of both the dative and locative cases. The dative case marks the indirect object of an action and can be translated as "to." The locative case marks place, with or without movement, or time, and can be translated as "on," "in," "at" or "to."

There are two varieties of the suffix, one of which is dependent on the final sound of the noun and one that is not. The form –ར་ <-r> is found only after vowels and འ་ <'a> whereas –ལ་ <-la> can be found after all sounds including vowels and <'a>. The <-r> form is rarely used to mark the dative with monosyllabic words except the personal pronouns and demonstrative and interrogative adjectives.


Personal pronouns

Pronouns have between one and three registers and three numbers: singular, dual and plural.

Singular Dual Plural
First Person ང་ <nga> ང་གཉིས་ <nga-gnyis> ང་ཚོ་ <nga-tsho>
Second Person Ordinary རང་ <rang> རང་གཉིས་ <rang-gnyis> རང་ཚོ་ <rang-tsho>
Honorific ཁྱེད་རང་ <khyed-rang> ཁྱེད་རང་གཉིས་ <khyed-rang-gnyis> ཁྱེད་རང་ཚོ་ <khyed-rang-tsho>
Pejorative ཁྱོད་ <khyod> ཁྱོད་གཉིས་ <khyod-gnyis> ཁྱོད་ཚོ་ <khyod-tsho>
Third person Ordinary ཁོང་ <khong> ཁོང་གཉིས་ <khong-gnyis> ཁོང་ཚོ་ <khong-tsho>
Familiar (male) ཁོ་(རང་) <kho-(rang)> ཁོ་(རང་)གཉིས་ <kho-(rang)-gnyis> ཁོ་(རང་)ཚོ་ <kho-(rang)-tsho>
Familiar (female) མོ་(རང་) <mo-(rang)> མོ་(རང་)གཉིས་ <mo-(rang)-gnyis> མོ་(རང་)ཚོ་ <mo-(rang)-tsho>

Demonstrative pronouns

Tibetan has proximal, medial and distal demonstrative pronouns: proximal འདི་ <'di> "this," medial དེ་ <de> "that," and distal ཕ་གི་ <pha-gi> "that over there." འདི་ <'di> and དེ་ <de> also have temporal meanings where འདི་ <'di> is connected with present and དེ་ <de> is connected with the past or the future:

  • ལོ་འདི་ <lo 'di> "this year (present time reference)"
  • ལོ་དེ་ <lo de> "that year (past or future reference)"

ཕ་གི་ <pha-gi>, on the other hand, can only express spatial distance. From these demonstrative pronouns the following adverbs are derived: འདིར་ <'dir> "here," དེར་ <der> "there," and ཕ་གིར་ <pha-gir> "over there."

The demonstratives can be used as both pronouns and adjectives. As pronouns they act much in the same way as the third person pronouns do, but may also refer to previous clauses or events. As adjectives they appear after the noun and act as any other adjective would. Both adjectival and pronominal demonstratives are capable of receiving both case and number suffixes.

Verb classes

Volitional and non-volitional classes

There is an important division of verbs into two main classes: volitional and non-volitional. The former concerns controllable actions, and the latter non-controllable actions. This difference is comparable to that in English between look and see, and between listen and hear: listen and look are volitional because you can choose to do them or not, while see and hear are non-volitional because they do not denote deliberate actions. These two classes are important when conjugating any Tibetan verb because each class can only use a certain set of suffixes. This means that volitional verbs cannot use the same suffixes as non-volitional verbs and vice versa. For example, the verb form མཐོང་​​པ་​​ཡིན་ <mthong-pa-yin> would be incorrect as <mthong> is a non-volitional verb and <pa-yin> is a volitional suffix. The correct form would be མཐོང་པ་རེད་ <mthong-pa-red> or "I saw."

Transitive and intransitive verbs

Both the volitional and non-volitional classes contain transitive as well as intransitive verbs. The forms of transitive and intransitive verbs remain the same if the two verbs share the same root. The difference between transitive and intransitive is only evident in the way each verb is used: if the verb takes an object then it is transitive, if it does not then it is intransitive. This distinction determines which case the nouns will take.

Verb inflection

Verbs in modern spoken Tibetan have between one and three stems. These are the present-future stem, the past stem and the imperative stem. Many verbs, however, only have one stem when spoken, remaining distinct only in writing, meaning that inflection is based mainly on the use of verbal auxiliaries. The verb is inflected by means of attaching suffixes to the verb stem in a similar way to nouns and pronouns.


Tibetan has several verbs that can be translated as "to be" or "to have" which appear in two classes. Copulas in the first class are essential, meaning that they denote an essential quality of the noun. Copulas in the second class are existential, meaning that they express the existence of a phenomenon or a characteristic and suggests an evaluation by the speaker. The difference between essential and existential copulas is similar to that of the verbs estar and ser in the Spanish language.

Essential copulas

There are three essential copulas: assertive རེད་ <red>, revelatory རེད་བཞག་ <red-bzhag>, and egophoric ཡིན་ <yin>

Essential-assertive copula

རེད་ <red> is the "assertive" essential copula. It translates as "to be" and represents an objective assertion or affirmation regarding the subject of the sentence. The negative of རེད་ <red> is མ་རེད་ <ma-red>. The attribute may be an adjective, giving an attributive meaning, or a substantive, giving an equative meaning. The attributive immediately precedes the verb.

འདི་ ཐུབ་བསྟན་ རེད   ཁོང་ འབྲོག་པ་ མ་རེད   མོ་རང་ སྙིང་རྗེ་པོ་ རེད
<'di thub-bstan red>   <khong 'brog-pa ma-red>   <mo-rang snying-rje-po red>
this Thubtän be:ESS.-ASSERT.   he nomad not-be:ESS.-ASSERT.   she pretty be:ESS.-ASSERT.
"This is Thubtän."   "He isn't a nomad."   "She’s pretty."

This copula, in rare cases, may also express possession of a quality:

མོ་རང་ མིག་ ཆུང་ཆུང་ རེད
<mo-rang mig chung-chung red>
she eye small be:ESS.-ASSERT.
"She has small eyes."

Essential-revelatory copula

རེད་བཞག་ <red-bzhag> is the "revelatory" copula, meaning that the speaker has only recently become aware of what they are stating. It may be translated as "to be" with the statement preceded by an exclamation such as "Hey!" or "Why!" Its negative form is རེད་མི་འདུག་ <red-mi-'dug>.

ཐུབ་བསྟན་ རེད་བཞག   འབྲོག་པ་ རེད་མི་འདུག   སྨྱོན་པ་ རེད་བཞག
<thub-bstan red-bzhag>   <'brog-pa red-mi-'dug>   <smyon-pa red-bzhag>
Thubtän be:ESS.-REV.   nomad not-be:ESS.-REV.   crazy be:ESS.-REV.
"Hey! It’s Thubtän."   "No, he isn’t a nomad."   "Why, he’s mad! (I’ve just realized)"

Essential-egophoric copula

ཡིན་ <yin> is the "egophoric" essential copula. It is usually translated as "I am" because of its main use with the first person. Like རེད་ <red>, it can be used with adjectives or substantives. Its negative form is མིན་ <min>.

ང་ འབྲོག་པ་ ཡིན   ང་ བདེ་པོ་ ཡིན
<nga 'brog-pa yin>   <nga bde-po yin>
I nomad be:ESS.-EGO.   I fine be:ESS.-EGO.
"I am a nomad."   "I am fine."

ཡིན་ <yin> may, on rare occasions, express an intention or an insistence on the part of the speaker:

ཁྱེད་རང་གི ་ཇ་ ཡིན
<khyed-rang-gi ja yin>
you:GEN. HON.-tea be:ESS.-EGO.
"It’s your tea (that I’m intending to give you)."

Existential copulas

There are three existential copulas: assertive ཡོད་རེད་ <yod-red>, testimonial འདུག་ <'dug> and egophoric ཡོད་ <yod>.

Existential-assertive copula

ཡོད་རེད་ <yod-red> is the "assertive" copula. This copula is used with the second and third person pronouns and implies a definite assertion by the speaker. It can usually be translated three ways according to context; "there is/are," giving an existential sense, "to be at," giving a certain location (situational sense) or by the verb "to have," giving a possessive sense. Its negative form is ཡོད་མ་རེད་ <yod-ma-red>.

བོད་ལ་ གནམ་གྲུ་ ཡོད་རེད   ཐུབ་བསྟན་ ལགས་ འདིར་ ཡོད་རེད   ཚེ་རིང་ལ་ མོ་ཊ་ ཡོད་རེད
<bod-la gnam-gru yod-red>   <thub-bstan lags 'dir yod-red>   <tse-ring-la mo-tra yod-red>
Tibet-OBL. airplane be:EX.-ASSERT.   Thubtän mister here be:EX.-ASSERT.   Tsering-OBL. car be:EX.-ASSERT.
"There are airplanes in Tibet."   "Thubtän is here."   "Tsering has a car."

It can also be preceded by a qualifying adjective to form the attributive sense in which it can be translated as "to be."

འདི་ སྙིང་རྗེ་པོ་ ཡོད་རེད
<'di snying-rje-po yod-red>
this pretty be:EX.-ASSERT.
"This is pretty."
Existential-testimonial copula

འདུག་ <'dug> is the "testimonial" copula. It is translated in the same way as ཡོད་རེད་ <yod-red> in all cases but it differs in a subtle way. It implies that the speaker was a witness to what is being stated. Its negative form is ཡོད་མ་རེད་ <yod-ma-red>.

བོད་ལ་ གནམ་གྲུ་ འདུག
<bod-la gnam-gru 'dug>
Tibet-OBL. airplane be:EX.-TEST.
"There are airplanes in Tibet. (I know because I have seen them)"

It can also, like ཡོད་རེད <yod-red> be preceded by a qualifying adjective to form the attributive sense in which it can be translated as "to be."

འདི་ སྙིང་རྗེ་པོ་ འདུག
<'di snying-rje-po 'dug>
this pretty be:EX.-TEST.
"This is pretty. (I know because I have seen this for myself)"
Existential-egophoric copula

ཡོད <yod> is the "egophoric" copula. Like ཡིན་ <yin> it is associated with the first person but it instead marks possession (I have) and location (I am (at)). It may also be used to express the speakers opinion of something or an acquaintance with something.

དེབ་​​ མང་​​པོ་ ​​ཡོད   རྒྱ་ནག་ལ་ ཡོད   ཇ་ འདི་ ཞིམ་པོ་ ཡོད
<deb ming-po yod>   <rgya-nag-la yod>   <ja 'di zhim-po yod>
book many be:EX.-EGO.   China-OBL. be:EX.-EGO.   tea this tasty be:EX.-EGO.
"I have many books."   "I am in China."   "This tea is good (in my opinion)."


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