LANGUAGES IN BHUTAN
Languages: Tshanglakha (Sharchhopka): 28 percent; Dzongkha (official): 24 percent: Lhotshamkha (Nepalese): 22 percent; other 26 percent (includes foreign languages) (2005 estimated). Different language and dialects are spoken by residents of the east, west and south, which sometimes makes it difficult for them to understand each other. [Sources: CIA World Factbook, 2020; “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]
Bhutan is linguistically rich with over nineteen languages and dialects spoken in the country. The richness of the linguistic diversity can be attributed to the geographical location of the country with its high mountain passes and deep valleys. These geographical features have traditionally forced the inhabitants of the country and communities with in it to live in relative isolation, and this encourages the creation and endurance of languages and dialects. [Source: Tourism Council of Bhutan, tourism.gov.bt]
Bhutanese speak one or more of four major, mutually unintelligible languages as well as English. 1) Dzongkha is a Tibetan dialect spoken mainly by Ngalop in the northern and western parts of the country. 2) Tshanglakha is the native language of the Sharchops of eastern Bhutan while 3) Bumthangkha, an aboriginal language, is spoken in central Bhutan. Both of these have traditionally been used in primary schools in areas the languages are strong. 4)The Nepalese is the south have largely retain their own languages: Nepali, the languages of their ethnic groups, or Lhotshamkha, a form of Nepali spoken by people by southern Bhutanese of Nepali origin who have been there for some time. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991*, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007 =|=]
Dzongkha is main language in Thimphu, the capital, and western Bhutan while Nepali is predominant in southern regions of the country. English is widely used in schools, colleges and by government officials. Traditionally, public and private communications, religious materials, and official documents were written in chhokey, the classical Tibetan script, and a Bhutanese adaptive cursive script was developed for correspondence. In modern times, as in the past, chhokey, which exists only in written form, was understood only by the well educated. Common names include Dorji (Dorjee), which is also common in Tibet. A person’s ethnic group and language they speak can often be determined from their name.
Regionwise, Dzongkha and other Tibetan dialects are spoken in the north and center of the country. Tshanglakha (Tsangla, Tshangla or Sharchhopka) is spoken in the southeast. Both are Tibeto-Burman languages. In the southwest the Rai, Gurung, and Limbu settlers from Nepal, and some Nepalese Brahmans and Chhetris, speak Nepali and their ethnic group languages. [Source: Brenda Amenson-Hill, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992]
Dzongkha, the official language of Bhutan, is a dialect or form Tibetan. It is one of the many variations Tibetan spoken by people in the Himalayas (sometimes called the Bhote or Bhutia people). Dzongkha’s written form is identical with Tibetan. About a quarter of Bhutan's population speak Dzongkha fluently as their first language. Other Bhutanese speak it at varying levels of fluency depending on their amount of contact with native Dzongkha speaks and how much they were taught in the language at school.
Dzongkha is the native language of the Ngalops of western Bhutan. Dzongkha literally means the language spoken in the Dzongs, massive fortresses that serve as the administrative centers and monasteries traditionally used by the Ngalops, who are also well represented in northern parts of the country. Dzongkha is derived from the Tibetan spoken by Ngawang Namgyal, the founder of Bhutan, and his followers, who left Tibet for Bhutan in the 1600s.
Dzongkha (the language of the Drukpas) has been described bu outsiders as sounding like a “guttaral barbaric yawp.” Dzongkha (language of the dzong), has developed since the 17 century. A sophisticated form of the Tibetan dialect spoken by Ngalop villagers in western Bhutan, it is based primarily on the vernacular speech of the Punakha Valley. In its written form, Dzongkha uses an adaptive cursive script based on chhokey to express the Ngalop spoken language. Ngalopkha is spoken in six regional dialects with variations from valley to valley and village to village; Dzongkha, however, through vigorous government education programs, was becoming widely understood throughout Bhutan by the 1970s. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991]
The Tibetan language belongs to the Tibetan language branch of the Tibetan-Burmese language group in the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, a classification that also includes Chinese. Tibetan, often implicitly meaning Standard Tibetan, is an official language of the Tibet Autonomous Region. It is monosyllabic, with five vowels, 26 consonants and no consonant clusters. Maxims and proverbs are very popular among the Tibetans. They use many metaphors and symbols, which are lively and full of meaning.
There are many dialects. Some are quite different from one another. Tibetans from some regions have difficulty understanding Tibetans from other regions that speak a different dialect. There are three main dialects in Tibet: 1) Wei Tibetan (Weizang) , 2) Kang and Amdo. The For political reasons, the dialects of central Tibet (including Lhasa), Kham, and Amdo in China are considered dialects of a single Tibetan language, while Dzongkha, Sikkimese, Sherpa, and Ladakhi — languages of the Himalayan Tibetans in Bhutan, Nepal and India — are generally considered to be separate languages, although their speakers may to be ethnically Tibetan. The standard form of written Tibetan is based on Classical Tibetan and is highly conservative. However, this does not reflect linguistic reality: Dzongkha and Sherpa, for example, are closer to Lhasa Tibetan than Khams or Amdo are.
The Tibetan languages are spoken by approximately 10 million people. Tibetan is also spoken by groups of ethnic minorities in Tibet who have lived in close proximity to Tibetans for centuries, but nevertheless retain their own languages and cultures. Although some of the Qiangic peoples of Kham are classified by the People's Republic of China as ethnic Tibetans, Qiangic languages are not Tibetan, but rather form their own branch of the Tibeto-Burman language family. Classical Tibetan was not a tonal language, but some varieties such as Central and Khams Tibetan have developed tone. (Amdo and Ladakhi/Balti are without tone.) Tibetan morphology can generally be described as agglutinative, although Classical Tibetan was largely analytic. <>
The Tibetan script, an alphabetic system of writing, was created in the early 7th century from Sanskrit, the classical language of India and the liturgical language of Hinduism and Buddhism. Written Tibetan has four vowels and 30 consonants and is written from left to right. It is a liturgical language and a major regional literary language, particularly for its use in Buddhist literature. It is still used in everyday life. Shop signs and roads signs in Tibet are often written in both Chinese and Tibetan, with Chinese first of course.
Written Tibetan was adapted from a northern Indian script under Tibet's first historical king, King Songstem Gampo, in A.D. 630. The task is said to have been completed by a monk named Tonmu Sambhota. The northern India script in turn was derived from Sanskrit. Written Tibet has 30 letters and looks sort of like Sanskrit or Indian writing. Unlike Japanese or Korean, it doesn't have any Chinese characters in it.
Grammar and Pronunciation of Tibetan Languages
Tibetan uses conjugated verbs and tenses, complicated prepositions and subject-object-verb word order. It has no articles and possesses an entirely different set of nouns, adjectives and verbs that are reserved only for addressing kings and high ranking monks. Tibetan is tonal but the tones are far less important in terms of conveying word meaning than is the case with Chinese.
Tibetan is classified as an ergative-absolutive language. Nouns are generally unmarked for grammatical number but are marked for case. Adjectives are never marked and appear after the noun. Demonstratives also come after the noun but these are marked for number. Verbs are possibly the most complicated part of Tibetan grammar in terms of morphology. The dialect described here is the colloquial language of Central Tibet, especially Lhasa and the surrounding area, but the spelling used reflects classical Tibetan, not the colloquial pronunciation. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 <>]
Word Order: Simple Tibetan sentences are constructed as follows: Subject — Object — Verb. The verb is always last. Verb Tenses: Tibetan verbs are composed of two parts: the root, which carries the meaning of the verb, and the ending, which indicates the tense (past, present or future). The simplest and most common verb form, consisting of the root plus the ending-ge ray, can be used for the present and future tenses. The root is strongly accented in speech. In order to form the past tense, substitute the ending -song. Only the verb roots are given in this glossary and please remember to add the appropriate endings. <>
Pronunciation: The vowel "a" must be pronounced like the "a" in father-soft and long, unless it appears as ay, in which cast it is pronounced as in say or day. Note that words beginning with either b or p, d or t and g or k are pronounced halfway between the normal pronunciation of these constant pairs (e.g., b or p), and they are aspirated, like words starting with an h. A slash through a letter indicates the neural vowel sound uh. <>
Tibetan Languages in Bhutan
In a paper on the Upper Mangdep language, which helps us understand how smaller Tibetan languages exist in Bhutan. André Bosch, a student at the University of Sydney, wrote: “Of the approximately 19 Tibeto-Burman languages spoken in Bhutan, only a handful has been closely studied. Although these represent a diverse range of subgroups, one subgroup, East Bodish, is almost completely unique to Bhutan. The national language, Dzongkha, along with a few other languages around the kingdom, is a representative of Tibetic, a widely spread clade whose members descend from Old Tibetan. East Bodish is local to the central and eastern parts of the country, and is internally divided into a DakpaDzala subgroup and a Bumthangic subgroup. Two other languages, Chali and Upper Mangdep have an unclear relative position. [Source: André Bosch, University of Sydney, June 2016]
“Upper Mangdep speakers numbered around 10,000 people in the 1990s. The language is variously known in existing literature as Mangdep, Mangsdebikha, Phobjip, ’Nyenkha, Henke, or some variant of these names. The term “Upper Mangdep” is newly introduced to the literature here, arising from the need for an unambiguous English term for the language. Speakers typically do not speak of the language in its entirety, but rather of the language as spoken in a given village, i.e. the name of the village, an area or its inhabitants comes to be applied to the language spoken there. This is the case for “Mangdep” and “Phobjip”, derived from names of regions.
“Thus “Mangdep” refers to any person from this region. Although speakers of all dialects seem to accept and understand references to their language as ‘Mangdep’, the term is problematic because it includes speakers of other distinct languages within the Mangde region of Trongsa. Namely, speakers of Bumthangkha and Khengkha, two closely related languages spoken to the east of the Upper Mangdep speaking area, who live in Trongsa district often refer to themselves and their language as “Mangdep”.”
“Inhabitants of all field locations were fluent in at least Dzongkha in addition to being native speakers of Upper Mangdep. There is thus far no evidence of any monolingual Upper Mangdep speakers. Importantly, it appears that in all locations the language is being maintained and transmitted to children. Those speakers who had both left their home villages and were young enough to have undergone modern, compulsory English-medium education also spoke English with high competency. Many such consultants, having also worked in the tourism industry, spoke English virtually fluently.”
Lhotshamkha (a Bhutanese form of Nepalese) is spoken by 22 percent of the population of Bhutan according to the CIA World Factbook. How widely spoken Nepalese languages are spoken, on a percentage basis in Bhutan, depends on how many people of Nepalese origin are in the country. Officially, the government stated that 28 percent of the national population was Nepalese in the late 1980s, but unofficial estimates ran as high as 30 to 40 percent, and Nepalese were estimated to constitute a majority in southern Bhutan. The number of legal permanent Nepalese residents in the late 1980s may have been as few as 15 percent of the total population, however. After that many Nepalese were kicked out the country and over 100,000 were forced to live in refugees camps. How many Nepalese are in Bhutan now is hard to say, maybe 25 percent of the population.
Nepalese, who live primarily in the southern and western parts of Bhutan near the Indian border, largely retain their own languages: Nepali, the languages of their ethnic groups, or Lhotshamkha, a form of Nepali spoken by people by southern Bhutanese of Nepali origin who have been there for some time. Nepalese themselves are divided into into various lineages linked with ethnic groups in Nepal such as the Bhawans, Chhetris, Rais, Limbus, Tamangs, Gurungs, and Lepchas. Each of these have their own language or dialect.
Nepali is the official language of Nepal and is spoken as the first language by about 45 percent of Nepal’s population. It is an Indo-European language similar to Hindi, the main language spoken in northern India, and is derived from Sanskrit and is written, like Sanskrit and Hindi, with the Devanagari script, which is syllabary rather than an alphabet. Nepali is spoken by most Nepalese in the Kathmandu Valley.
Most Nepalese and Indians speak Indo-Aryan languages. Persian and the languages of Afghanistan are close relatives, belonging, like the Indo-Aryan languages, to the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family. Brought into South Asia from the northwest during the second millennium B.C., the Indo-Aryan tongues spread throughout the north, gradually displacing the earlier languages of the area. [Source: Library of Congress *]
Despite the extensive linguistic diversity in South Asia, many scholars treat it as a single linguistic area because the various language families share a number of features not found together outside South Asia. Languages entering South Asia were "Indianized." Scholars cite the presence of retroflex consonants, characteristic structures in verb formations, and a significant amount of vocabulary in Sanskrit with Dravidian or Austroasiatic origin as indications of mutual borrowing, influences, and counter-influences. Retroflex consonants, for example, which are formed with the tongue curled back to the hard palate, appear to have been incorporated into Sanskrit and other Indo-Aryan languages through the medium of borrowed Dravidian words.*
Tshanglakha (Sharchhopka) — the language of the Sharchhops — is the most widely spoken language in Bhutan (28 percent of the population) according to the CIA World Factbook. Tshanglakha is spoken in mainly in eastern Bhutan, where the Sharchhops are the predominate group. It was traditionally been used in primary schools in areas where large numbers of Sharchhops live.
The Sharchops (the word means easterner) are a Tibetan-influenced, Indo-Mongoloid people who are thought to have migrated from Assam or possibly Burma during the past millennium. They comprise most of the population of eastern Bhutan. Although long the biggest ethnic group in Bhutan, the Sharchop have been largely assimilated into the Tibetan-Ngalop culture. Because of their proximity to India, some speak Assamese or Hindi.The Sharchops (Tshanglas) as considered the aboriginal inhabitants of eastern Bhutan. They speak Tshanglakha and are descendants of Hindus from India but mostly practice Tibetan Buddhism today. They are the primary inhabitants of Mongar, Trashigang, Trashiyangtse, Pema Gasthel and Samdrup Jongkhar. [Sources: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991; Tourism Council of Bhutan, tourism.gov.bt]
Tshanglakha (Tsangla, Tshangla or Sharchhopka) was regarded by some in the past as a Mon language but now most linguists consider it a Sino-Tibetan language of the Bodish branch closely related to other Tibetic languages. Tshangla is primarily spoken in Eastern and Southeaster Bhutan, especially in the Trashigang district, and acts as a lingua franca in the country particularly among Sharchop/Tshangla communities; it is also spoken in Arunachal Pradesh, India, and Tibet. [Source: Wikipedia]
Tshangla is a dialect cluster consisting of a few mutually unintelligible language varieties, including: Trashigang, Dungsam, Dirang and Bjokapakha (Bjoka) The Tshangla variety of Trashigang town is used as a lingua franca. Dungsam is conservative, while Dirang and Bjokapakha are divergent. The language is referred to as “Sharchopkha” meaning “language of the people in the east” by speakers of Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan.
Despite its predominance in eastern Bhutan, Tshangla has been described as “an unwritten language” because it has not been standardized, nor “taught in the schools, recognized as an official language, or even given status as a minority language.” According to Ethnologue a large number of its speakers are literate, mainly using the Tibetan Uchen script. Though there are no official publications in Tshangla, the language is used in radio and television broadcasts.
According to the CIA World Factbook, 26 percent of the population of Bhutan speaks other languages (including foreign languages). These include Assamese, Tibetan and Gurung. Some Hindi is spoken in southern areas that border India.
Bumthangkha is an aboriginal Khen language spoken by the Bumthap people of Central Bhutan.. It is fairly widely spoken and is considered one of Bhutan’s four main languages by some. It has traditionally been used in primary schools in areas where it speakers predominate.
Seven other Khen and Mon languages also are spoken in Bhutan. Hindi is understood among Bhutanese educated in India and was the language of instruction in the schools at Ha and Bumthang in the early 1930s as well as in the first schools in the "formal" education system from the beginning of the 1960s. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
Other dialects spoken are Khengkha by the Khengpas of Central Bhutan. Mangdepkah, which is spoken by the inhabitants of Trongsa and the Cho Cha Nga Chang Kha which is spoken by the Kurtoeps. The Sherpas, Lepchas and the Tamangs in southern Bhutan also have their own dialects. Unfortunately two dialects that are on the verge of becoming extinct are the Monkha and the Gongduepkha. *
English in Bhutan
English is widely used in schools, colleges and by government officials. It is the language of instruction in many schools and an official working language for the government.
English is widely spoken among the Bhutanese elite Many people speak English in the capital Thimphu, and in tourist areas. English is taught from an early age in the schools. In the past most Bhutanese either never went to school or attended for only a short time. But now education is getting to be near universal and a surprising number of people can speak English.
According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: Most of the schools conduct classes in English, although more textbooks are being written in Dzongkha. A large proportion of the population — especially urban residents — speak English. Kuensel, the national newspaper, is published in Dzongkha, English, and Nepali, both in print and on the Internet. [Source:“Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]
Fanta Philic, a medical student, posted on Quora.com in 2019: “I am proud to say that most of the Bhutanese can speak English. 3 reasons why: 1) In education system of Bhutan, all the subjects are based on English except national language subject.(so English is almost like 2nd language). 2) Daily news papers are circulated in English and Dzongkha language. Bhutan news are broadcast in English and Dzongkha medium. And there is significant increase in number of Authors writing in English medium. 3) cellphones (Facebook,Quora,search engines etc.) and computers are operated in English medium. Since other than Dzongkha keyboard, auto translations of English into Dzongkha language isn't available.”
Language Discrimination in Bhutan
Along with Dzongkha and English, Nepali was once one of the three official languages used in Bhutan. Dzongkha was taught in grades one through twelve in the 1980s. English was widely understood and was the medium of instruction in secondary and higher-level schools. Starting in the 1980s, college-level textbooks in Dzongkha were published, and in 1988 a proposal was made to standardize Dzongkha script. Tshanglakha, Bumthangkha, and Nepali also were used in primary schools in areas where speakers of those languages predominated. In 1989, however, Nepali was dropped from school curricula. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
Part of the government's effort to preserve traditional culture and to strengthen the contemporary sense of national identity (driglam namzha — national customs and etiquette) has been its emphasis on Dzongkha-language study. The Department of Education declared in 1979 that because Dzongkha was the national language, it was "the responsibility of each and every Bhutanese to learn Dzongkha." To aid in language study, the department also published a Dzongkha dictionary in 1986. *
.To promote national unity, Dzongkha, the language of the Buddhist Bhutanese was made the national language and the language taught in school. The teaching of minority languages was discouraged. There were also laws that discouraged Bhutanese from marrying non-Bhutanese.. This "Bhutanisation drive" alienated the country’s largely Hindu Nepali population. Nepalese within Bhutan formed political groups and tried pressure the government to make social reforms. The government responded with force, and violence broke out. Large numbers of people of Nepali origin were expelled from Bhutan. The majority of them, estimated to be between 100,000 and 135,000 in number, ended up in refugee camps in eastern Nepal. [Sources: “Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments” Thomson Gale, 2008; “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009]
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Council of Bhutan (tourism.gov.bt), National Portal of Bhutan, the Bhutan government’s main site (gov.bt), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022