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Tibet's Minority Languages: Diversity and endangerment

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 April 2018

Asia Institute, University of Melbourne, Australia Email:
IKOS, University of Oslo, Norway Email:


Asia is the world's most linguistically diverse continent and its diversity largely conforms to established global patterns that correlate linguistic diversity with biodiversity, latitude, and topography. However, one Asian region stands out as an anomaly in these patterns—Tibet, which is often portrayed as linguistically homogenous. A growing body of research now suggests that Tibet is linguistically diverse. In this article, we examine this literature in an attempt to quantify Tibet's linguistic diversity. We focus on the minority languages of Tibet—languages that are neither Chinese nor Tibetan. We provide five different estimates of how many minority languages are spoken in Tibet. We also interrogate these sources for clues about language endangerment among Tibet's minority languages and propose a sociolinguistic categorization of Tibet's minority languages that enables broad patterns of language endangerment to be perceived. Appendices include lists of the languages identified in each of our five estimates, along with references to key sources on each language. Our survey found that as many as 60 minority languages may be spoken in Tibet and that the majority of these languages are endangered to some degree. We hope our contribution inspires further research into the predicament of Tibet's minority languages and helps support community efforts to maintain and revitalize these languages.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

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89 Although officially identified Tibetan towns and townships do exist (see Appendix 4), these have no role in terms of autonomy.

90 Also within the TAA in Huangnan TAP.

91 Basum was described by Chinese scholars as a Tibetan dialect, but Tournadre (Tournadre, N., ‘L'aire linguistique tibétaine et ses divers dialectes’, Lalies, vol. 25, 2005, pp. 756Google Scholar) re-analysed it as a non-Tibetic language that has been heavily influenced by the local Tibetic variety.

92 When this language name is written as it is here, it directly designate one language. However, if it is written in Chinese characters, the situation is confusable because there are two languages designated in one manner of writing.

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