Classifying Tibetan

Below I will illustrate two ways of classifying languages:  (1) by their writing and (2) by their grammar/vocabulary.  The first is called “orthography” and the second is called “language family”.   To study Tibetan Buddhism, knowing a bit about its orthography (writing system) can be helpful especially as you will see inconsistent spellings between books on Tibetan Buddhism.  I would wager that very little would be gained by studying Tibetan grammar for reading English books, but the basics of orthography and its history seems helpful.  More later on that — for now, let’s look at those two classifications.

Tibetan is a syllabic alphabet.  See this interesting site on “Ancient Scripts“.  Below is a diagram of just some languages in the 5 different classes of orthography.  I was happy to see I have already studied some orthography in each type (which I put in purple). But I must say, aesthetically, Tibetan has always been the most beautiful script on the planet for me!

But the script of a language does not tell you much.  Tibetan, for instance, was borrowed from Sanskrit (mother of Devanagri).  Japanese and Chinese are unrelated but Japanese borrowed Chinese characters.  Turkish and English are totally unrelated but modern Turkish now uses the Roman alphabet but like English. All these share scripts (orthography) but share no grammar similitude.

So another way to look at language is by their language families.  Below I listed the top 10 groups and gave the percentage of speakers — the data is taken from Wiki.  I have only tasted three different families — but I have played in the grammar minds of 69.1% of the world ! 🙂  Most people have only studied langauges in one language family, but if you learn a language in a different family, you will soon learn what a FOREIGN language is.

1 Comment

  1. Ian

    I think one of the cool things about the formal families is that they are phylogenetic too – to some extent they encode the evolution of the languages from common ancestors (though nowhere near as simply as biological evolution). And so the groups you label are just then ends of further joinings and super-families. Just like freezing a list of species hides the history of their patterns of mutual ancestors.

    It is just so utterly fascinating.

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