Tibetan Grammar - verbs - notes

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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

WORK IN PROGRESS (by Stefan J. Gueffroy[1] [fka Eckel]): the grammar articles are being edited for wiki publication. During editing, the content might be incomplete, out of sequence or even misleading.

The approach to explain Tibetan verbs will be changed to that of the "three thematic relations: Theme, Location, and Agent" - there will be discrepancies to the other grammar section until they are matched with it

the grammar articles are being edited for wiki publication. During editing, the content might be incomplete, out of sequence or even misleading. - (particular this sections is still in change - the introduction sections are all new - since the 'collection of points on Tibetan grammar' are now available outside of a class room context the background information to some of their points need to be written down, and this is still a work in progress)


The approach to explain the way Tibetan verb function will be that of the "three thematic relations: Theme, Location, and Agent " by Scott DeLancey as explained in his "Figure and Ground in Argument Structure" (LSA Summer Institute, UC Santa Barbara, 2001, Lecture 3). Unfortunately I only came across this work recently when reading through different articles trying to find a way to treat the troublesome "agentive directed verbs" - verbs without a theme in ming tsam but one core argument marked with the agentive particle and one market by the locative.

On the Categories of 'Transitive' and 'Intransitive' in Here

The the agentive transitive and ming tsam intransitive categories are respectively either the "simple" transitive or intransitive verbs. These names are merely a naming convention to distinguish them from transitive and intransitive agentive directed verbs.[2]

 ming tsam intransitive     intransitve  
 agentive transitive  transitve, ditransitve
 agentive directed  intransitve,  indirect ditransitive, indirect transitive

The agentive transitive and ming tsam intransitive are easily classified by the possibility of a given verb to either have the theme (in ming tsam) together with an agent marked with the agentive particle (with transitive verbs) or not (with intransitive verbs).

In contrast to that the verbs of the agentive directed category have a core participant with the agentive particle but include verbs that are intransitive, "indirect transitive" and "indirect ditransitive".

The Agentive Directed Verbs

There are different semantic groups of verbs that have the agentive directed syntax. The reasons for having this agentive directed syntax differs between these groups, which are:

  • intentional verbs of perception
  • verbs expressing "to make effort, to engage in"
  • verbs of comparison and competition
  • Verbs of benefit or harm
  • the verb "to pervade" ཁྱབ་
  • a number of transitive verbs that can come alternatively with an agentive directed syntax

On the Ditransitivity of Verbs of Benefit or Harm

The archetypical ditransitive constructions describing a scene that expresses physical transfer like "give", "sell", "lend", "hand over" in which an agent participant causes an object to pass into the possession of an animate receiver /recipient. This can be widened to include verbs of communication like "tell", "teach", "show" which express a mental transfer and also verbs like "offer" and "promise" which have recipient-like arguments. Here the beneficiary or harmed of "Verbs of Benefit or Harm" is treated as a recipient-like argument and on that basis the Verbs of Benefit or Harm are indirect ditransitive.

ལྟ་བ་ And Intransitivity

The verb ལྟ་ "to look" is intransitive since the one who is doing the action and the one experiencing it are the same. The "looker" is experiencing the act of "looking and since the "looking" is still happening even if nothing is "seen" there is no agent-theme relation expressed. The "looking" has merely a direction (it is directed towards) which is not the theme. ལྟ་ has a participant marked with the agentive particle but functions like the theme. Since it is not in ming tsam it is here called the agentive-perceiver who substitutes the theme.

Note: The intentional verbs of perception are classified as ཐ་དད་པ་ in Tibetan grammar and labelled as transitive in many Tibetan-English dictionaries. Whereas the unintentional verbs of perception (like མཐོང་) which are transitive verbs are classified as ཐ་མི་དད་པ་ and labelled as intransitive in many dictionaries.

On the Transitivity of Verbs Expressing "To Make Effort, To Engage In"

The (Tibetan) Verbs Expressing "To Make Effort, To Engage " are not easily classified as either transitive of intransitive.

The transitivity or intransitivity of these verbs can not be determined based on their syntax since they do not have a theme in ming tsam and agentive directed verbs can be either (indirect) ditransitive or intransitive (see above). Thus any consideration in regard to their transitivity or intransitivity can only be done on semantic grounds which will not have a clearly cut result and be open to debate, as it is often the case categories based on semantics.

First of all they are not indirect ditransitive since the goal is not a recipient-like argument, the effort is directed towards the goal but does not arrive at it or affects it. Yet the effort (of the verb) is to some extent theme-like as something that is produced. For instance འབད་པ་ "exertion, effort", འབད་བརྩོན་ "exertion, effort, struggle" are used with the verb བྱེད་ "to do" as འབད་པ་བྱེད་ "to make effort" which shows that the notion of the effort as something produced exists, which gives these verbs a transitive characteristic.

On the other hand if one takes the meaning as rather "to strive for (with a firm mental resolve to achieve) something" then these verbs are also somewhat similar to verbs of motion - with the one striving not different from the one experiencing the striving and a goal for it - an intransitive verb with a direction for the action. The one striving is in a way (regarding theme and location) more connected with goal as a destination - wanting to reach there, accomplishing it - than the striving itself which is only the means, with the one striving marked by agentive particle do to the very voluntary and active nature of the verb.

If these verbs are viewed as to have a lexicalized theme - the effort - they are indirect transitive with a direction of the action, "what the effort is toward". If they are taken merely to mean "to strive" they are rather intransitive.

Conclusion: These verbs are agentive directed and the meaning expressed is clear (no need to be a Platonic essentialist about transitivity and intransitivity).

Note: By Tibetans these verbs are categorized as ཐ་དད་པ་ (action passing over); In English "to strive (for)" is intransitive accompanied by a qualifier stating what one is striving for; S.V.Beyer designates རྩོལ་ and བརྩོན་ as intransitive verbs.[3]; In "A Tibetan Verb Lexicon" འབད་ "to make effort" belongs to the "verb class VI" / "Agentive-Objective Verb"[4] which corresponds to agentive directed syntax.[5]

Verbs Expressing Mental Activity with Directed Grammar

Verbs of mental activity like དཔྱོད་པ་ when it means "to examine", སེམས་པ་ when it means "to contemplate" When an agent is actively engaging in the "object of interest" with verbs expressing mental activity - like སེམས་པ་, when it means "to contemplate", སྒོམ་པ་ "to meditate about" and དཔྱོད་པ་ when it means "to examine" - then these verbs can have the direction of their investigation marked with the locative ལ་ instead of having a theme in ming tsam. This difference in grammar comes from the difference between "[just] thinking something" and "[directly] investigating something".

This grammar can be interpreted in different ways:
- that the participant marked by the locative substitutes the theme - the theme is marked by the locative
- that the participant marked by the locative ལ་ is processed as the direction of the action with the theme lexicalized in the verb
- that it is similar to the grammar of intentional verbs of perception like ལྟ་བ་ "to look"

Note: If the theme (object) is a whole clause then it is marked by the terminative སུ་རུ་ཏུ་དུ་ར་. This is not an occurrence of an agentive directed grammar.




  1. recently adopted
  2. The name ming tsam intransitive is a mere naming convention, based on the theme in ming tsam (with no agent) for the verb. It does not at all imply that the verbs are in ming tsam. (That objection was once raised against this naming.) Any other naming convention is possible as long as it distinguishes them form agentive directed verbs.
  3. S.V.Beyer, The Classic Tibetan Language p.341
  4. P.G. Hackett, A Tibetan Verb Lexicon, 2003, p.131
  5. P.G. Hackett,(ibid.) In their system the verb class VI is linked to "different" ཐ་དད་པ་ (p.7) which is there taken as transitive (p.6).