Tibetan Grammar - Formation of the Tibetan Syllable

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WORK IN PROGRESS: the grammar articles are being edited for wiki publication. During editing, the content might be incomplete, out of sequence or even misleading.

Articles on Tibetan Grammar
1. Introduction
2. Formation of the Tibetan Syllable
3. Formation of the Tibetan Word
4. First case: ming tsam
5. agentive particle
6. Connective Particle
7. La don particles
8. La don particles—Notes
9. Originative case
10. Verbs
11. Verbs—Notes
12. Syntactic particles

by Stefan J. E.

Contents

Formation of the Tibetan syllable

Overview

The Tibetan alphabet

Tibetan.png
This section contains Tibetan script. Without proper Tibetan rendering support configured, you may see other symbols instead of Tibetan script.
unaspirated, high-
tone, unvoiced
aspirated, high-
tone, unvoiced
aspirated, low-
tone, unvoiced
nasal
1. column 2. column 3. column 4. column
1    ka    kha    ga    nga
2    ca    cha    ja    nya
3    ta    tha    da    na
4    pa    pha    ba    ma
5    tsa    tsha    dza    wa
6    zha    za    'a    ya
7    ra    la    sha    sa
8    ha    a

Tibetan names of the components of a syllable

དབྱངས་༼ཨི་ཨེ་ཨོ་༽
vowel (i, e, o)
མགོ་ཡིག་
superscribed letter
སྔོན་འཇུག་
prefix letter
མིང་གཞི་
root letter
རྗེས་འཇུག་
postfix letter
ཡང་འཇུག་
second postfix letter
ཚེག་
dot
འདོགས་ཡིག་
subscribed letter
དབྱངས་༼ཨུ་༽
vowel (u)


Letters that are used for the different components of a syllable

Position Letter
Root letter, མིང་གཞི་ the whole alphabet except for the vowels i, u, e, o which need ཨ་ or འ་ as a "vowel-carrier"
Prefix letters, སྔོན་འཇུག་ ག་ ད་ བ་ མ་ འ་
Superscribed letters, མགོ་ཡིག་ ར་ ལ་ ས་
Subscribed letters, འདོགས་ཡིག་ ཡ་ ར་ ལ་ ཝ་
Suffix letters, རྗེས་འཇུག་ ག་ ང་ ད་ ན་ བ་ མ་ འ་ ར་ ལ་ ས་
second suffix letters, ཡང་འཇུག་ ས་ ད་


Examples

  • བདག་


སྔོན་འཇུག་
prefix letter


མིང་གཞི་
root letter


རྗེས་འཇུག་
postfix letter


ཚེག་
dot



  • ཀྱང་


མིང་གཞི་
root letter


རྗེས་འཇུག་
postfix letter


ཚེག་
dot


འདོགས་ཡིག་
subscribed letter



  • བསྒྲུབས་


མགོ་ཡིག་
superscribed letter


སྔོན་འཇུག་
prefix letter


མིང་གཞི་
root letter


རྗེས་འཇུག་
postfix letter


ཡང་འཇུག་
second postfix letter


ཚེག་
dot


འདོགས་ཡིག་
subscribed letter


དབྱངས་༼ཨུ་༽
vowel (u)



  • དབྱིངས་
  ི

དབྱངས་༼ཨི་ཨེ་ཨོ་༽
vowel (i, e, o)


སྔོན་འཇུག་
prefix letter


མིང་གཞི་
root letter


རྗེས་འཇུག་
postfix letter


ཡང་འཇུག་
second postfix letter


ཚེག་
dot


འདོགས་ཡིག་
subscribed letter


Combinations of letter forming a syllable

Vowels

  •  i   ི  e   ེ  o   ོ are written above the root letter.
  •  u  ུ is written below the root letter.

E.g.:

  • ལ་ +   ི = ལི་


  • ང་ +  ུ = ངུ་


  • མ་ +   ེ = མེ་


  • ཁ་ +   ོ = ཁོ་

Subscribed letters

Subscribed letters, འདོགས་ཡིག་: ཡ་ ར་ ལ་ ཝ་
Position Letter/Stack
ཡ་ is used under
and becomes  
ཀ་ ཁ་ ག་ པ་ ཕ་ བ་ མ་ རྐ་ རྒ་ རྨ་ སྐ་ སྒ་ སྤ་ སྦ་ སྨ་
ཀྱ་ ཁྱ་ གྱ་ པྱ་ ཕྱ་ བྱ་ མྱ་ རྐྱ་ རྒྱ་ རྨྱ་ སྐྱ་ སྒྱ་ སྤྱ་ སྦྱ་ སྨྱ་
ར་ is used under
and becomes  
ཀ་ ཁ་ ག་ ཏ་ ཐ་ ད་ པ་ ཕ་ བ་ མ་ ཤ་ ས་ ཧ་ སྐ་ སྒ་ སྤ་ སྦྲ་ སྨ་ སྣ་
ཀྲ་ ཁྲ་ གྲ་ ཏྲ་ ཐྲ་ དྲ་ པྲ་ ཕྲ་ བྲ་ མྲ་ ཤྲ་ སྲ་ ཧྲ་ སྐྲ་ སྒྲ་ སྤྲ་ སྦྲ་ སྨྲ་ སྣྲ་
*
ལ་ is used under
and does not change
ཀ་ ག་ བ་ ཟ་ ར་ ས་
ཀླ་ གླ་ བླ་ ཟླ་ རླ་ སླ་
ཝ་ is used under
and becomes  
ཀ་ ཁ་ ག་ ཅ་ ཉ་ ཏ་ ད་ ཙ་ ཚ་ ཞ་ ཟ་ ར་ ལ་ ཤ་ ས་ ཧ་ གྲ་ དྲ་ ཕྱ་ རྒ་ རྩ་
ཀྭ་ ཁྭ་ གྭ་ ཅྭ་ ཉྭ་ ཏྭ་ དྭ་ ཙྭ་ ཚྭ་ ཞྭ་ ཟྭ་ རྭ་ ལྭ་ ཤྭ་ སྭ་ ཧྭ་ གྲྭ་ དྲྭ་ ཕྱྭ་ རྒྭ་ རྩྭ་
**
* Some of them are rare, for example, in the Great Tibetan-Chinese Dictionary, བོད་རྒྱ་ཚིག་མཛོད་ཆེན་མོ་ there are only three syllables with སྣྲ.
** All of them are rare, many of them very rare.
Changes in tone, aspiration and pronunciation with subscribed letters
  • Subscribed letters don’t cause any changes in tone and / or aspiration.
Subscribed ཡ་, ཡ་བཏགས་
  • ཀྱ་, རྐྱ་, སྐྱ་, are pronounced /kya/, high tone
  • ཁྱ་, is pronounced /khya/, high tone
  • གྱ་, is pronounced /khya/, low tone


  • པྱ་ སྤྱ་ are pronounced same as ཅ་, high tone
  • ཕྱ་ is pronounced same as ཆ་, high tone
  • བྱ་ is pronounced same as ཇ་, low tone
  • མྱ་ is pronounced same as ཉ་, low tone

Which means that there pronunciation for the labial letters becomes same as that of the palatal letters of there respective column with the according tone, voicing and aspiration.

  • རྒྱ་ རྨྱ་ སྒྱ་ སྦྱ་ སྨྱ་ are pronounced like གྱ་ མྱ་ བྱ་ respectively, but with changes in voicing, tone and aspiration according to the changes caused by superscript letter. The consonants of the third column become voiced and non-aspirated, staying low tone. The nasals become high tone. (see below)


Subscribed ར་, ར་བཏགས་
  • ཀྲ་ ཏྲ་ པྲ་ སྐྲ་ སྤྲ་ The consonants of the first column are pronounced as a retroflex /tra/, high tone.
  • ཁྲ་ ཐྲ་ ཕྲ་ The consonants of the second column are pronounced as a retroflex /thra/, high tone.
  • གྲ་ དྲ་ བྲ་ The consonants of the third column are pronounced as a retroflex /thra/, low tone.

Which means that they all become a retroflex t-r-sound with the according tone, voicing and aspiration of their respective column.

  • སྒྲ་ སྦྲ་ སྨྲ་ are pronounced like གྲ་ བྲ་ མྲ་ respectively, but with changes in voicing, tone and aspiration according to the changes caused by superscript letter. The consonants of the third column become voiced and non-aspirated, staying low tone. The nasals become high tone. (see below)
  • མྲ་ སྲ་ no changes in pronunciation
  • ཧྲ་ pronounced /hra/, high tone, unvoiced
  • ཤྲ་* pronounced shra
* The Great Tibetan-Chinese Dictionary, བོད་རྒྱ་ཚིག་མཛོད་ཆེན་མོ་ gives ཤྲ་ ཤྲི་ ཤྲཱི་, and they are all exclusively used for Sanskrit phonemes.
  • སྣྲ་ pronounced same as སྣ་ (high tone)


Subscribed ལ་, ལ་བཏགས་
  • ཀླ་ གླ་ བླ་ རླ་ སླ་ are pronounced as a high tone, retroflex /la/.

The exception:

  • ཟླ་ is pronounced /da/, low tone, non-aspirated, voiced;
  • ཟླ་བ་, /da wa/, the moon;
  • ཟླུག་པ་, /dug pa/, to pour, to ask about


Subscribed ཝ་, ཝ་ཟུར་
  • ཀྭ་ ཁྭ་ གྭ་ ཅྭ་ ཉྭ་ ཏྭ་ དྭ་ ཙྭ་ ཚྭ་ ཞྭ་ ཟྭ་ རྭ་ ལྭ་ ཤྭ་ སྭ་ ཧྭ་ གྲྭ་ དྲྭ་ ཕྱྭ་ རྒྭ་ རྩྭ, the ཝ་ཟུར་ causes no changes in pronunciation.


Superscribed letters

Superscribed letters, མགོ་ཡིག་: ར་ ལ་ ས་
Position Letter/Stack
ར་ is used above
and becomes*
ཀ་ ག་ ང་ ཇ་ ཉ་ ཏ་ ད་ ན་ བ་ མ་ ཙ་ ཛ་[1] ཀྱ་ གྱ་ མྱ་
རྐ་ རྒ་ རྔ་ རྗ་ རྙ་ རྟ་ རྡ་ རྣ་ རྦ་ རྨ་ རྩ་ རྫ་   རྐྱ་ རྒྱ་ རྨྱ་
ལ་ is used above
and doesn’t change
ཀ་ ག་ ང་ ཅ་ ཇ་ ཏ་ ད་ པ་ བ་ ཧ་
ལྐ་ ལྒ་ ལྔ་ ལྕ་ ལྗ་ ལྟ་ ལྡ་ ལྤ་ ལྦ་ ལྷ་
་ is used above
and doesn’t change
ཀ་ ག་ ང་ ཉ་ ཏ་ ད་ ན་ པ་ བ་ མ་ ཙ་ ཀྱ་ གྱ་ པྱ་ བྱ་ མྱ་ ཀྲ་ གྲ་ པྲ་ མྲ་ ནྲ་
སྐ་ སྒ་ སྔ་ སྙ་ སྟ་ སྡ་ སྣ་ སྤ་ སྦ་ སྨ་ སྩ་ སྐྱ་ སྒྱ་ སྤྱ་ སྦྱ་ སྨྱ་ སྐྲ་ སྒྲ་ སྤྲ་ སྨྲ་ སྣྲ་
**
* རྙ་ being the exception with a 'full' ར་.
** སྣྲ་ only come in this combination (not as ནྲ་).
Changes in tone, aspiration and pronunciation with superscribed letters
All superscribed letter cause the same change in pronunciation to the same group of consonants. The consonants of the first column have no changes in pronunciation. There are no consonants of the second column with superscribed letter.
  • The consonants of the third column become voiced and non-aspirated, staying low tone.
གུ་, /khu/, inside; extent — རྒུ་, /gu/, many, several
དོ་, /tho/, a pair, match — རྡོ་, /do/, stone; core, main point
  • The nasals, the fourth column root letters, become high tone.
ང་, /nga/ (low tone), I, me — ལྔ་, /nga/ (high tone), five — རྔ་, /nga/ (high tone), drum


Superscribed ར་, ར་མགོ་
  • རྐ་ རྟ་ རྩ་ རྐྱ་ no changes in pronunciation.
  • རྒ་ རྗ་ རྡ་ རྦ་ རྫ་ རྒྱ་ become voiced and non-aspirated, staying low tone.
  • རྔ་ རྙ་ རྣ་ རྨ་ རྨྱ་ become high tone.


Superscribed ལ་, ལ་མགོ་
  • ལྐ་ ལྕ་ ལྟ་ ལྤ་ no changes in pronunciation.
  • ལྒ་ ལྗ་ ལྡ་ ལྦ་ become voiced and non-aspirated, staying low tone.
  • ལྔ་ becomes high tone.


The exception:

  • ལྷ་ is pronounced as an aspirated /hLa/; ལྷ་ས་ the city of "Lhasa". ལ་མགོ་ is the only superscribed letter for ཧ་.


Superscribed ས་, ས་མགོ་
  • སྐ་ སྟ་ སྤ་ སྩ་ སྐྱ་ སྤྱ་ སྐྲ་ སྤྲ་ no changes in pronunciation.
  • སྒ་ སྡ་ སྦ་ སྒྱ་ སྦྱ་ སྒྲ་ become voiced and non-aspirated, staying low tone.
  • སྔ་ སྙ་ སྣ་ སྨ་ སྨྱ་ སྨྲ་ སྣྲ་* becomes high tone.
*concerning སྣྲ་, see note above


Prefix letters

Prefix letters, སྔོན་འཇུག་: ག་ ད་ བ་ མ་ འ་
Position Letter/Stack
ག་ is used before ཅ་ ཉ་ ཏ་ ད་ ན་ ཙ་ ཞ་ ཟ་ ཡ་ ཤ་ ས་
ད་ is used before ཀ་ ག་ ང་ པ་ བ་ མ་ ཀྱ་ གྱ་ པྱ་ བྱ་ མྱ་ ཀྲ་ གྲ་ པྲ་ བྲ་
བ་ is used before ཀ་ ག་ ཅ་ ཏ་ ད་ ཙ་ ཞ་ ཟ་ ཤ་ ས་ ཀྱ་ གྱ་ ཀྲ་ གྲ་ རླ་ སླ་ རྐ་ རྒ་ རྔ་ རྗ་ རྙ་ རྟ་ རྡ་ རྣ་ རྩ་ རྫ་ སྟ་ སྐ་ སྒ་ སྔ་ སྙ་ སྟ་ སྡ་ སྣ་ སྩ་ རྐྱ་ རྒྱ་ སྐྱ་ སྒྱ་ སྐྲ་ སྒྲ་
མ་ is used before ཁ་ ག་ ང་ ཆ་ ཇ་ ཉ་ ཐ་ ད་ ན་ ཚ་ ཛ་ ཁྱ་ གྱ་ ཁྲ་ གྲ་
འ་ is used before ཁ་ ག་ ཆ་ ཇ་ ཐ་ ད་ ཕ་ བ་ ཚ་ ཛ་ ཁྱ་ གྱ་ ཕྱ་ བྱ་ ཁྲ་ གྲ་ དྲ་ ཕྲ་ བྲ་


Changes in tone, aspiration and pronunciation with prefix letters
Changes in pronunciation are the same as with superscribed letters.
  • The consonants of the first column have no changes in pronunciation.
  • The consonants of the the second column have no changes in pronunciation.
  • The consonants of the third column become voiced and non-aspirated, staying low tone.
  • The nasals, the fourth column root, letters become high tone.


Third column root letters
  • ག་ གྱ་ གྲ་ ཇ་ ད་ དྲ་ བ་ བྱ་ བྲ་ཛ་[2] with prefix become voiced and non-aspirated, staying low tone.
  • གྲ་, /thra/, fence — དགྲ་, /dra/, enemy
  • རྒ་ རྒྱ་ སྒ་ སྒྱ་ སྒྲ་ རྗ་ རྡ་ སྡ་ རྫ་ with prefix, they are already voiced and non-aspirated (having superscribed letters)* and stay that way. E.g.,
  • སྒྲིབ་, /drib/, to cover, veil, obscure (present tense), same pronunciation as བསྒྲིབ་, /drib/, to cover, veil, obscure (future tense)
* Merely because the superscribed letters are covered before the prefix letters in here. If the prefix letters would be first it would the other way around. E.g. བདོ་, /do/, to increase, spread, same pronunciation as བསྡོ་, /do/, to risk (future tense).
Nasals, fourth column root letters
  • ང་ ཉ་ ན་ མ་ མྱ་, the nasals with prefix become high tone.
  • མག་, /mag/, low tone, short for མག་གི་མུག་གི་, fuzzy obscured — {{gtib|དམག་}, /mag/, troops, high tone
  • ཡ་ after ག་ becomes high tone ཡ་.
  • ཡབ་, /yab/, low tone, father (h.) — {{gtib|གཡབ་}, /yab/, high tone, shelter
  • རྔ་ རྙ་ སྔ་ སྙ་ with prefix, they are already* high tone (having superscribed letters)
  • སྔགས་པ་, /ngag pa/, tantric practitioner — བསྔགས་པ་ /ngag pa/, praise; to praise
* and stay that way.


Exception, prefix ད་
Prefix ད་ with བ་: དབ་, དབྱ་, དབྲ་. The prefix ད་ changes the བ་ into /wa/ or makes it silent so that only the vowel and the subscribed consonant is pronounced.
  • The silent བ་ with only the vowel "a" is also commonly pronounced as /wa/.
  • དབང་, /wang/, empowerment, might also be pronounced as /ang/.
  • With other vowel or subscript ཡ་
  • དབུ་, /u/ as in དབུ་མ་, /u-ma/, Madhyamaka
  • དབྱིངས་, /ying/, expanse, space, dhatu
  • With subscript ར་ either /dra/ or /ra/
  • དབྲེ་པོ་, /dre po/ or /re po/, filthy, disgusting


Postfix letters

Postfix letters, རྗེས་འཇུག་: ག་ ང་ ད་ ན་ བ་ མ་ འ་ ར་ ལ་ ས་
Position Letter/Stack
The ten postfix letters: ག་ ང་ ད་ ན་ བ་ མ་ འ་ ར་ ལ་ ས་


Changes in tone, aspiration and pronunciation with postfix letters
Postfix letters don’t cause any changes in tone and / or aspiration.


ད་ ན་ ལ་ ས་
ད་ ན་ ལ་ ས་ changing "a" "o" "u" into umlauts[3] ä, ö, ü. Vowels become short before ད་ ན་ and long before Template:ལ་ ས་.
  • ན་ ལ་ change a, o, u into the umlauts ä, ö, ü, and are softly or fully pronounced or might be swallowed.
  • {{gtib|སྨན་}, /mä/ or /män/, medicine, ཡུལ་སྐད་, /yü kä / or /yül kä/, dialect
  • ད་ ས་ change a, o, u into the umlauts ä, ö, ü, and are not pronounced themselves.
  • ལུས་ /lü/, body, མད་པ་, /mä pa/, true
ག་
  • ག་ might be pronounced very softly or "swallowed" and shortens the vowel , if the word continues with second syllable ག་ is often clearly pronounced.
  • དུག་, /thu(k)/, poison, བདག་པོ་, /dak po/, owner
བ་
  • བ་ is very softly pronounced as the end of the syllable and shortens the vowel.
  • འབབ་པ་, /bap pa/, to fall, move downward
ར་
  • ར་ is pronounced or sometimes silent.
  • དཀར་པོ་, /kar po/, white
ང་ མ་
  • ང་ མ་ is pronounced as clear nasals at the end of the syllable.
  • བུམ་པ་, /phum pa/, vase, མང་པོ་, /mang po/, many
འ་
  • འ་ does not change pronunciation. It is used to mark the second of two letters as root letter, when there is no other vowel then "a" and the first or second letter can be pre or postfix (see below).


Second postfix letters

Second postfix letters, ཡང་འཇུག་: ས་ ད་
There are two second postfix letters: ས་ ད་
  • ས་ is used after ག་ ང་ བ་ མ་.
  • ཁམས་པ་, /kham pa/, kham pa
  • ད་ was used after ན་ར་ལ་ in old orthography and is called ད་དྲག་ (short དྲག་). Even though it is not written anymore it changes the spelling of particles as if it still would be there (see: Introduction to the Tibetan Particles).
  • ཀུན་ old ཀུནད་ goes with ལ་དོན་ particle ཏུ་ and not with དུ་ after ན་.
  • ཀུན་ཏུ་, /kun tu/, completely, from ཀུནད་ཏུ་


Changes in tone, aspiration and pronunciation with postfix letters
The second postfix letters cause no changes in pronunciation.


Pronunciation table for letter combinations

Root letters and syllables with superscribed letters or prefix
unaspirated, high-
tone, unvoiced
aspirated, high-
tone, unvoiced
aspirated, low-
tone, unvoiced
non-aspirated,
low-tone, voiced
nasal
low tone
nasal
high tone
1. column 2. column 3. column 3. column
with prefix
or superscript
4. column 4. column
with prefix
or superscript
1 ཀ་   /ka/ ཁ་   /kha/ ག་   /kha/ སྒ་   /ga/ ང་   /nga/ ལྔ་   /nga/
2 ཅ་   /ca/ ཆ་   /cha/ ཇ་   /cha/ འཇ་   /ja/ ཉ་   /nya/ སྙ་   /nya/
3 ཏ་   /ta/ ཐ་   /tha/ ད་   /tha/ རྡ་   /da/ ན་   /na/ སྣ་   /na/
4 པ་   /pa/ ཕ་   /pha/ བ་   /pha/ རྦ་   /ba/ མ་   /ma/ སྨ་   /ma/
5 ཙ་   /tsa/ ཚ་   /tsha/ ཛ་   /dza/ /tsha/[4] རྫ་   /dza/


Syllables with subscript and prefix
Subscript ཡ
unaspirated, high-
tone, unvoiced
aspirated, high-
tone, unvoiced
aspirated, low-
tone, unvoiced
non-aspirated,
low-tone, voiced
nasal
low tone
nasal
high tone
1. column 2. column 3. column 3. column
with prefix
or superscript
4. column 4. column
with prefix
or superscript
1 ཀྱ་   /kya/ ཁྱ་   /khya/ གྱ་   /khya/ རྒྱ་   /gya/
4 པྱ་   /ca/=/ཅ་/ ཕྱ་   /cha/=/ཆ་/ བྱ་   /cha/=/ཇ་/ འབྱ་   /ja/=/འཇ་/ མྱ་   /nya/=/ཉ/ རྨྱ་   /nya/=/རྙ་/
Subscript ར
unaspirated, high-
tone, unvoiced
aspirated, high-
tone, unvoiced
aspirated, low-
tone, unvoiced
non-aspirated,
low-tone, voiced
nasal
low tone
nasal
high tone
1. column 2. column 3. column 3. column
with prefix
or superscript
4. column 4. column
with prefix
or superscript
1 ཀྲ་   /tra/ ཁྲ་   /thra/ གྲ་   /thra/ དགྲ་   /dra/
3 ཏྲ་   /tra/ ཐྲ་   /thra/ དྲ་   /thra/ འདྲ་   /dra/
4 པྲ་   /tra/ ཕྲ་   /thra/ བྲ་   /thra/ དབྲ་   /dra/


[...]


Endnotes

  1. See: The Tibetan Alphabet, debate about the pronunciation of ཛ་ without superscribed letter.
  2. see above
  3. The "umlaut" can refer to the changed of sound of a vowel (I-mutation) and the diacritic sign, a pair of dots above a vowel, which is the graphic representation of those sounds.
  4. See: The Tibetan Alphabet, debate about the pronunciation of ཛ་ without superscribed letter.