Standard Tibetan, based on the Lhasa variety, is the lingua franca for at least six million speakers, possibly more, of over 50 distinct languages and several hundred local varieties, recently subsumed by scholars under the umbrella term “Tibetic”. Tournadre (2014) defines Tibetic as “a well-defined family of languages derived from Old Tibetan” based on phonological, morphosyntactic and lexical criteria and ties to literary and older forms of Tibetan.
What is commonly called Tibetan is increasingly known to linguists as Tibetic, a substantial and diverse branch of the Tibeto-Burman language family with over 50 varieties of often limited mutual intelligibility spoken across the traditional Tibetan cultural sphere of the Himalaya in today’s China, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bhutan — and, increasingly, around the world. For many, not only Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan alphabet, but also the Classical Tibetan of religious scripture and the modern “Diaspora Standard” Tibetan (based on the Lhasa variety), and sometimes a mixed Ramaluk all serve as common lingua francas uniting people whose home languages are quite different. Among the large groups in New York for whom Tibetan is a common second or third language are speakers of Sherpa, Loke, Dzongkha, and varieties of Amdo and Kham Tibetan (themselves very internally diverse).
A branch of the Tibeto-Burman language family, Tibetic languages are spoken widely among peoples of the traditional Tibetan cultural sphere in today’s China, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bhutan — and, increasingly, around the world. Recent research has shown Tibetan languages to be much more diverse than was previously thought and many “dialects” to be mutually unintelligible. This diversity is likely to be due to the Himalaya creating barriers between groups of Tibetic speakers as well as language contact with neighboring languages, especially Bodish, Qiangic and rGyalrongic languages on certain languages of Tibetic.
Almost all Tibetan speakers recognize and make use of the Tibetan alphabet, in which both the classic and modern texts of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan literature are written. This writing system is also utilized by speakers of Tibetan languages that do not have a writing system. The Wylie system is the standard way of rendering the Tibetan alphabet into the Roman alphabet.
Torunadre (2014) has compiled a list of Tibetic languages by country:
China: Ü-Tsang, Khams, Hor, Amdo, Kyirong, Zhongu, Khalong, gSerpa, Khöpokhok, Palkyi [Pashi]/Chos-rje, Sharkhok, Thewo, Chone, Drugchu, Baima.
Pakistan: Balti (northern Pakistan).
India: Purik, Ladakhi, Zangskari, Spiti, Lahuli or Gharsha, Khunu, Jad or Dzad, Drengjong often locally called Lhoke.
Nepal: Humla, Mugu, Dolpo, Lo-ke or Mustang, Nubri, Tsum, Langtang, Yolmo, Gyalsumdo, Jirel, Sherpa also locally called Sharwi Tamnye, Kagate also called Shupa, Lhomi, Walung and Tokpe Gola.
Bhutan: Dzongkha, Tsamang or Chocha-ngacha, Lakha also called Tshangkha, Dur Brokkat also called Bjokha in Dzongkha, Mera Sakteng Brokpa-ke.
The majority of Tibetic languages have under 10,000 speakers, and for many languages there is no accurate estimate of exactly how many fluent speakers remain. In the growing new Tibetan diaspora, many are assimilating to the national languages of the countries in which they reside or have switched to Standard Tibetan, or a related variety spoken widely in the diaspora.
The phonology of the Tibetic languages shows considerable variation, but there are regular reflexives to Classical Tibetan in all languages, such as the change discussed in Tournadre (2014) from the consonant cluster /lt/ of Classical Literary Tibetan to the modern Tibetic languages:
LTA ‘look at’ > /lta/ (Ladakhi, Balti), /rta/ (“archaic Amdo”) or /hta/ (“innovative Amdo”), /tā/ (Ü,Tsang, Khams), /lhā/ (Sherpa).
LTOGS ‘be hungry’ > /ltoks/ (Balti), /rtox/ (archaic Amdo) or /htox/ (innovative Amdo), /tōʔ/ (Ü,Tsang, Khams), /lhōʔ/ (Sherpa)
Another constant is that Tibetic languages forbid consonant clusters of /ml/, /pl/, and /ŋr/ in onsets whereas Bodish languages allow these. Tibetic languages are typically tonal, but there are exceptions. An aspirated stop series is common.
“The Comparative Dictionary of Tibetan Dialects” (Bielmeier et al. in preparation) is expected to showcase the diversity of Tibetic, sometimes cited as being comparable to the Romance languages.
Tibetic languages do not share the characteristic of verb agreement with some Tibeto-Burman languages. Auxiliary verbs and nominalized verb forms are used to express verb tense-aspect. Evidential and epistemic markers appear suffixed onto verbs in the majority of Tibetic languages.
While Classical Tibetan has 10 nominal case markers, modern Tibetic languages have very few, with most containing only the ergative, absolutive, genitive, and dative case.
New York’s growing Himalayan community, estimated to be at least 20,000, substantially identifies as “Tibetan” on the basis of religion, language, and traditional culture. Most have arrived in the last few decades, many as refugees coming via elsewhere the Tibetan diaspora (India, Nepal). As part of our Voices of the Himalaya project, ELA has worked with speakers of several varieties of Tibetan (including Ü-tsang, Amdo, Kham dialects), as well as Loke, Seke, Thakali, Dzongkha, Sherpa, and Yolmo. In 2016, ELA hosted Tibetan classes taught by Yeshi Jigme Gangne.
Tibetan-speaking New Yorkers have come from across the Tibetan-speaking world, including many refugees who immigrate via India and Nepal. There are some institutions more oriented towards Westerners with an interest in Tibet, such as Tibet House in Manhattan, but most Tibetans have settled in the Queens neighborhoods of Astoria, Sunnyside, Woodside, Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, and Corona, with smaller numbers in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and others now branching out elsewhere — with important religious centers also upstate in Woodstock and Walden.
Most Tibetan New Yorkers have settled in the Queens neighborhoods of Astoria, Sunnyside, Woodside, Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, and Corona among other South Asian and Himalayan communities. The growing community is creating and maintaining a tremendous range of communal, political, cultural, artistic, and other organizations, prominent among them the Tibetan Community of New York & New Jersey (with its Woodside headquarters) and the New York Tibetan Service Center in Elmhurst, which runs a wide variety of programs.
Drawn by the comparatively more affordable housing, a small number of Tibetan, Mustangi, and other Himalayan families have recently started moving to this section of the Bronx, near Pelham Parkway.