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Tibet's Minority Languages: Diversity and endangerment


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.

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27 Spivak, G., ‘Can the subaltern speak?’, in Marxism and the Interpretation of Cultures, Nelson, C. and Grossber, L. (eds), Macmillan Education, Basingstoke, 1988, pp. 271313.

28 Minglang, Zhou, ‘Minority language policy in China: equality in theory and inequality in practice’, in Language Policy in the People's Republic of China: Theory and Practice since 1949, Minglang, Zhou and Hongkai, Sun (eds), Kluwer Academic Publishers, Boston, 2004, pp. 7196. Possession of an orthography (regardless of whether it is a traditional one or a newly created one) for a specific speech community is often a criterion for regarding a variety as an independent language, as a view taken for the Saami languages; see Sammallahti, P., The Saami Languages: An Introduction, Davvi Girji O.S., Kárášjohka, 1998.

29 Anderson, ‘Language hotspots’.

30 H. Suzuki and Sonam Wangmo, ‘Language evolution and vitality of Lhagang [Tagong] Tibetan, a Tibetic language as a minority in Minyag Rabgang’, International Journal of the Sociology of Language, vol. 245, 2017, pp. 63–90.

31 Dryer, M. S. and Haspelmath, M. (eds), The World Atlas of Language Structures Online, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, 2013,, [accessed 20 March 2018].

32 Meriam, B., China's’ Tibetan ‘Frontiers’: Sharing the Contested Ground, Global Oriental, Leiden, 2011; Roche, G., ‘The Tibetanization of Henan's Mongols: ethnicity and assimilation on the Sino-Tibetan Frontier’, Asian Ethnicity, vol. 17, no. 1, 2016, pp. 128–49.

33 Skutnabb-Kangas, T., Linguistic Genocide in Education or Worldwide Diversity and Human Rights?, Routledge, London, 2000.

34 McIvor, O., A. Napoleon, and K. Dickie, ‘Language and culture as protective factors for at-risk communities’, Journal of Aboriginal Health, vol. 5, no. 1, 2009, pp. 625; Bals, M. J., Turi, A. L., Skre, I., and Kvernmo, S., ‘The relationship between internalizing and externalizing symptoms and cultural resilience factors in Indigenous Sami youth from Arctic Norway’, International Journal of Circumpolar Health, vol. 70, no. 1, 2011, pp. 3745.

35 Hallett, D., Chandler, M. J., and Lalonde, C. E., ‘Aboriginal language knowledge and youth suicide’, Cognitive Development, vol. 22, no. 3, 2007, pp. 392–9.

36 People cannot be treated by a doctor they cannot communicate with, cannot learn from a teacher they do not understand, cannot obtain information from media services that are unintelligible to them, and cannot express their political grievances to people who do not understand them. Identifying languages is a critical step in language development, for example, developing orthographies.

37 Piller, I., Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice: An Introduction to Applied Sociolinguistics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2016.

38 We have placed Tibetan and Chinese in inverted commas here, since neither of them are languages, but rather clusters of related languages that are often considered to be single languages. From this point onwards in this article, we use the term ‘Tibetic’ to refer to the languages typically described as ‘Tibetan’ (Tournadre, ‘The Tibetic languages’) and ‘Sinitic’ for language typically described as ‘Chinese’. Regarding the term ‘Tibetic languages’, Zeisler employs ‘Tibetan languages’ instead (Zeisler, B., Relative Tense and Aspectual Values in Tibetan Languages: A Comparative Study, Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, 2004); however, we prefer the term ‘Tibetic’ to avoid conflation with the ethnic term ‘Tibetan’, as Tibetic languages are spoken not only by Tibetans, but also by other ethnic groups—see Tournadre, ‘The Tibetic languages’. Additionally, there are also Tibetans who do not speak Tibetic languages, such as rGyalrongic languages, which are often insisted on being ‘Tibetan dialects’ even by Tibetan scholars such as Wang Jianmin 王建民 and bTsan-lha Ngag-dbang Tshul-khrims (Anduoyu Jiaronghua duibi fenxi 安多语嘉戎话对比分析, Sichuan Minzu Chubanshe, Chengdu, 1992) and Sum-bha Don-grub Tshe-ring (Bod skad kyi yul skad rnam shad, Krung go'i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang, Beijing, 2011, pp. 50–1); Tournadre, ‘The Tibetic languages’.

39 This is the name used by the community to refer to the language. Linguists call it Wutun/Wutunhua—see Janhunen, J., Peltomaa, M., Sandman, E., and Dongzhou, Xiawu, Wutun, Lincom Europa, München, 2008.

40 Ibid.

41 Dede, K., ‘Mixed languages’, in Encyclopedia of Chinese Language and Linguistics, Sybesma, Rint (ed.), Brill, Leiden, 2015. A position contesting the existence of ‘mixed languages’ can be found in van Driem, G., Languages of the Himalayas: An Ethnolinguistic Handbook of the Greater Himalayan Region, Brill, Leiden, 2001.

42 Tshe ring skyid, ‘An introduction to Rgya tshang ma, a Monguor (Tu) village in Reb gong (Tongren)’, Asian Highlands Perspectives, vol. 37, 2015, pp. 276–300.

43 The term Daohua, however, may also be used by local Tibetans to designate a similar (‘mixed’) variety spoken in surrounding counties such as Daofu. Kun dga’ dBang mo 根呷翁姆 and Hiroyuki Suzuki 鈴木博之, ‘Daofuyu de shiyong qingkuang he yuyan huoli: Xianshuizhen Daofuyu de gean yanjiu 道孚语的使用情况和语言活力: 鲜水镇道孚语的个案研究’, Kyoto University Linguistic Research, vol. 27, 2008, pp. 223–40.

44 Chirkova, K., ‘On the position of Baima within Tibetan: a look from basic vocabulary’, in Evidence and Counter-Evidence: Festschrift for F. Kortland, Volume 2: General linguistics, Lubotsky, A., Schaeken, J., and Wiedenhof, J. (eds), Rodopi, Amsterdam, 2008, pp. 6991.

45 Tournadre, ‘The Tibetic languages’.

46 Kehoe, T., ‘I am Tibetan? An exploration of online identity construction among Tibetans in China’, Asian Ethnicity, vol. 16, no. 3, 2015, pp. 314–33.

47 Upton, J. L., ‘Notes towards a native Tibetan ethnology: an introduction to and annotated translation of dMu dge bSam gtan's essays on Dwags po (Baima Zangzu)’, Tibet Journal, vol. 25, no. 1, 2000, pp. 326.

48 Janhunen, J., Ha, L. M., and Tshe dpag rnam rgyal, J., ‘On the language of the Shaowa Tuzu in the context of the ethnic taxonomy of Amdo Qinghai’, Central Asiatic Journal, vol. 51, no. 2, 2007, pp. 177–95.

49 Suzuki and Sonam Wangmo, ‘Language evolution and vitality’.

50 Tournadre, ‘The Tibetic languages’. All of these varieties are classified as ‘Choni’ in the Ethnologue. One of the important contributions of Tournadre for the languages of southern Gansu is the observation that typologically similar languages are also spoken in its surroundings such as Jiuzhaigou, Songpan, and Baxi District of Ruoergai. They are certainly a minority within the Tibetic languages and have never been officially treated as independent groups, as Choni in Ethnologue. Tournadre puts all of them under the section called ‘Eastern’ with Ethnologue’s Choni. Additionally, Suzuki provides a different classification based on an analysis combining the historical linguistic methodology with the mutual intelligibility. Regarding the languages of Jiuzhaigou, Songpan, and Baxi District of Ruoergai, see Hiroyuki Suzuki 鈴木博之, ‘Gannan-syuu Zhuoni-Diebu-Zhouqu 3-ken no Tibetto-kei syogengo to sono kaibunrui siron 甘南州卓尼 • 迭部 • 舟曲 3 県のチベット系諸言語とその下位分類試論’, Nidaba, vol. 44, 2015, pp. 1–9.

51 Roche, ‘The Tibetanization of Henan's Mongols’.

52 In the various legal mechanisms that deal with language in China, no minority languages are formally recognized by name; in fact, only Putonghua, Modern Standard Chinese, is mentioned by name. However, in practice, each minzu is considered to have a single standard language that is protected by law.

53 Bradley, D., ‘Language policy for the Yi’, in Perspectives on the Yi of Southwest China, Harrell, S. (ed.), University of California Press, Berkeley, 2001, pp. 195214.

54 For example, in Muli Tibetan Autonomous County in Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Jiulong County in Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, and Shangri-La Municipality in Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.

55 For example, in Ninglang Yi Autonomous County in Lijiang Municipality.

56 For the controversy surrounding this classification, see Wen Maotao, ‘The creation of the Qiang ethnicity, its relation to the Rme people and the preservation of Rme language’, MA thesis, Duke University, 2014.

57 Kloss, ‘“Abstand languages”’.

58 Limusishiden and Dede, K., ‘The Mongghul experience: consequences of language policy shortcomings’, International Journal of the Sociology of Language, vol. 215, 2012, pp. 101–24.

59 Zhou, ‘Minority language policy in China’.

60 Hongkai, Sun, ‘On nationality and the recognition of Tibeto-Burman languages’, Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area, vol. 15, no. 2, 1992, p. 2.

61 Zhou Qingsheng 周庆生 (ed.), Zhongguo Yuyan Shenghuo Zhuangkuang Baogao 2005 中国语言生活状况报告 2005, Shangwu Yinshuguan, Beijing, 2006.

62 Sun Hongkai 孙宏开, Hu Zengyi 胡增益, and Huang Xing 黄行, Zhongguo de yuyan 中国的语言, Shangwu Yinshuguan, Beijing, 2007.

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71 Cysouw, M. and Good, J., ‘Languoid, Doculect, and Glossonym: formalizing the notion “language”’, Language Documentation and Conservation, vol. 7, 2012, p. 342.

72 Suzuki, H. and Wangmo, Sonam, ‘Discovering endangered Tibetic varieties in the easternmost Tibetosphere: a case study on Dartsendo Tibetan’, Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area, vol. 38, no. 2, 2015, pp. 256–70; Suzuki, H. and Wangmo, Sonam, ‘Lhagang Choyu: a first look at its sociolinguistic status’, Studies in Asian Geolinguistics, vol. 2, 2016,, [accessed 13 April 2018].

73 Gates, J. P., Situ in Situ: Towards a Dialectology of Jiāróng (rGyalrong), Lincom Europa, München, 2014; J. P. Gates, ‘Intelligibility, identity, and structure in Western rGyalrongic’, paper presented at 3rd Workshop of Sino-Tibetan Languages of Sichuan. Paris, 2–4 September 2013.

74 See data presented at the rGyalrongic Languages Database:, [accessed 20 March 2018].

75 Sims, N., ‘A phonology and lexicon of the Yonghe Variety of Qiang’, Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area, vol. 37, no. 1, 2014, pp. 3474; Sims, N., ‘Towards a more comprehensive understanding of Qiang dialectology’, Language and Linguistics, vol. 17, no. 3, 2016, pp. 351–81,, [accessed 13 April 2018]; N. Sims, forthcoming, ‘Testing intelligibility within the “Qiang” language(s)’.

76 Evans, J. and Sun, J., ‘Qiang’, in Encyclopedia of Chinese Language and Linguistics, Sybesma, R. (ed.), Brill, Leiden, 2013.

77 Liu Guangkun 刘光坤, Mawo Qiangyu yanjiu 麻窝羌语研究, Sichuan Minzu Chubanshe, Chengdu, 1998.

78 LaPolla, R. J. and Chenglong, Huang, A Grammar of Qiang: With Annotated Texts and Glossary, Mouton De Gruyter, Berlin, 2003.

79 Huang Bufan 黄布凡 and Zhou Facheng 周发成, Qiangyu yanjiu 羌语研究, Sichuan Renmin Chubanshe, Chengdu, 2006.

80 Huang Chenglong 黄成龙, Puxi qiangyu yanjiu 蒲溪羌语研究, Minzu Chubanshe, Beijing, 2007.

81 Hofer, T., ‘Is Lhasa Tibetan Sign Language emerging, endangered, or both?’, International Journal of the Sociology of Language, vol. 245, 2017, pp. 113–45; Deaf Association, Tibet, Bod kyi rgyun spyod lag brda'i tshigs mdzod, Bod ljongs mi rigs dpe skrun khang, Lhasa, 2011.

82 Sun Hongkai 孙宏开, Huang Chenglong 黄成龙, and ’Brug mo mtsho 周毛草, Rouruoyu yanjiu 柔若语研究, Zhongyang Minzu Daxue Chubanshe, Beijing, 2002.

83 Hongkai, Sun and Guangkun, Liu, A Grammar of Anong: Language Death under Intense Contact, translated, annotated, and supplemented by Fengxiang, Li, Thurgood, E., and Thurgood, G., Brill, Leiden, 2009.

84 Liying, Qin and Suzuki, H., ‘Chasing a cat from the Mekong to the Salween: a geolinguistic description of “cat” in Trung and Khams Tibetan in North-western Yunnan’, Studies in Asian Geolinguistics, vol. 1, 2016, pp. 6171,, [accessed 13 April 2018].

85 See, for example, Sum-bha Don-grub Tshe-ring, Bod skad kyi yul skad rnam shad.

86 On this issue, see Tunzhi (Sonam Lhundrop), ‘Language vitality and glottonyms in the ethnic corridor: the rTa'u language’, International Journal of the Sociology of Language, vol. 245, 2017, pp. 147–68.

87 Bourdieu, P., Language and Symbolic Power, Malden, Polity Press, 1991.

88 However, we do not include the area claimed by China but controlled by India, which they refer to as Zangnan and Arunachal Pradesh, respectively.

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. 756) 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.

*The authors wish to thank Juha Janhunen, Nicolas Tournadre, and Katia Chirkova for their valuable feedback. Any remaining errors or omissions are our own responsibility. Gerald Roche acknowledges the support of the Australian Research Council for his Discovery Early Career Research Award project ‘Ethnicity and Assimilation in China: The Monguor of Tibet’. Hiroyuki Suzuki would like to thank the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science for the support of his research entitled ‘Study on the Dialectal Development of Tibetan Spoken in Yunnan, China, through a Description of the Linguistic Diversity’ (Grant No. 25770167).

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