Tibetan and Sanskrit: Language Similarities and Differences

Tibetan and Sanskrit belong to different language families, but their writing systems have a common origin.

Tibetan belongs to the same language family as Mandarin Chinese and Burmese: they are Sino-Tibetan languages. In contrast, Sanskrit is an Indo-Aryan language, a branch of the larger Indo-European language family which also includes English.

This means that Sanskrit is distantly related to English, but Tibetan is not.

Their writing systems have a common origin

The slight visual resemblance between written Tibetan and Sanskrit is not a coincidence; both writing systems have a common origin, as they both evolved from the ancient Brahmi script.

The development of the Tibetan writing system coincided with the spread of Buddhism to Tibet and the translation into Tibetan of Sanskrit Buddhist texts.

Buddhism originated in India during the 5th century BCE, but it took over a thousand years to reach Tibet, arriving around the 7th CE century. During the reign of the 7th-century Tibetan king Songtsän Gampo, Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures were translated into Tibetan.

Sanskrit is now often written in the Devanagari script which is also used for writing Hindi and Nepali. The Devanagari script is a descendant of the Brahmi script.

Vocabulary comparison

The basic vocabulary words differ considerably in Tibetan compared to Sanskrit, as can be seen in the table below.

Tibetan Sanskrit English
ཞི་བདེ (zhi bde) शान्ति (shanti) peace
བརྩེ་བ (brtse ba) प्रेमन् (preman) love
པ་ཕ (pa pha) पितृ (pitṛ) father
གངས (gangs) हिम (hima) snow
ཉི་མ (nyi ma) सूर्य (sūrya) sun
ཟླ་བ (zla ba) चन्द्र (candra) moon
རི (ri) गिरि (giri) mountain
གནམ (gnam) आकाश (ākāsha) sky
ཆུ (chu) पानीय (pānīya) water
མེ (me) अग्नि (agni) fire
སེམས (sems) चित्त (citta) mind
བདེ་བ (bde ba) सुख (sukha) happiness
ཤིང་ཏོག (shing tog) फल (phala) fruit
བསམ་གཏན (bsam gtan) ध्यान (dhyāna) meditation
ལས (las) कर्मन् (karman) karma
སྔགས (sngags) मन्त्र (mantra) mantra

There are a few vocabulary words that Tibetan borrowed from Sanskrit. For example, the term པད་མ (pad ma) in Tibetan means “lotus”, and it comes from the Sanskrit word पद्म (padma).

Vowel marks

Consonant symbols in Tibetan and Sanskrit have an inherent vowel, which is 'a' by default for both languages. Additional marks are added to the consonant to change the inherent vowel.

The vowel marks used in Tibetan and those used in Sanskrit have somewhat similar shapes as can be seen in the examples below.

Examples of vowel marks in Tibetan and Sanskrit

Sanskrit has additional vowel marks that are absent in Tibetan. This is because written Sanskrit makes a distinction between long and short vowels, whereas written Tibetan does not.

Additional differences

In Sanskrit, each noun has one of three possible grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, or neuter) whereas Tibetan nouns don’t have grammatical gender.

Several modern dialects of Tibetan, including Lhasa Tibetan, are tonal languages. This means that the pitch or tone in which a syllable is pronounced can change the meaning of a word. In contrast, Sanskrit is not a tonal language.

Sanskrit and Tibetan Literature

Many of the most studied Tibetan language texts are related to Tibetan Buddhism. Here are some examples of such texts:

Some of the most studied Sanskrit texts include: