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.
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.
The basic vocabulary words differ considerably in Tibetan compared to Sanskrit, as can be seen in the table below.
|ཞི་བདེ (zhi bde)
|བརྩེ་བ (brtse ba)
|པ་ཕ (pa pha)
|ཉི་མ (nyi ma)
|ཟླ་བ (zla ba)
|བདེ་བ (bde ba)
|ཤིང་ཏོག (shing tog)
|བསམ་གཏན (bsam gtan)
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).
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.
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.
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.
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: