'Classical' Tibetan is a Living Oral Tradition

“Religious vitality is preserved [within Tibetan Buddhism] through the internalization of doctrine via an oral tradition, specifically, that of memorization, oral commentary, and monastic debate” (Cabezon, 1994).

The emphasis of this oral lineage is even encoded in the name of one of the major lineages—the Kagyu (bka’ brgyud), or “Oral Lineage.” Furthermore, philosophical literature is often “couched in the language of debate”—to the point where “in order to understand the commentarial exegesis some familiarity with debate is required” (Perdue, 1992).

Since “Tibetan Buddhist writings have long been intimately associated with various forms of orality, an understanding of how Buddhist texts are read or encountered in Tibetan traditions requires that we consider [those forms] in which such textual encounters are embedded… [for] ‘reading’ in the Tibetan context intertwines oral and literary orientations” (Klein, 1994).

In other words, the Tibetan language is the liturgical language of the Tibetan Buddhist religion, and within this linguistic realm, the relationship between the literary and spoken versions of the language are not stagnant and distinct. They are interacting elements of a living oral tradition, which is both“literary” and “oral” in nature.

And since all Tibetan dialects are “related to Classical Literary Tibetan from lexical, phonological, morphological and syntactic points of view,” the orality found within this tradition bears the marks of the literary language (Tournadre, 2001). So while the literary language itself is not generally used for everyday conversation, a version of elevated speech is spoken by religious teachers and lay intellectuals even to this day (Tournadre, 2003).

This, then, is one of the ways in which a foundation in Spoken Tibetan can form a basis for studying the literary language.

Suggested reading:

Anne Carolyn Klein, “Oral Genres and the Art of Reading in Tibet.”


Cabezon, Jose Ignacio (1994). Buddhism and Language: A Study of Indo-Tibetan Scholasticism. New York: SUNY. p. 84.

Klein, Anne Carolyn (1994). “Oral Genres and the Art of Reading in Tibet,” Oral Tradition 9/2: 281-314.

Perdue, Daniel (1992). Debate in Tibetan Buddhism. New York: Snow Lion. p. 851.

Tournadre (2001). “Final Auxiliary Verbs in Literary Tibetan and in the Dialects,” Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area, Vol. 24.1. p. 51.

Also see Tournadre (2003). Manual of Standard Tibetan. New York: Snow Lion. p. 27, where he notes that while literary Tibetan is not generally used for conversation, “some lamas or lay intellectuals use a form of expression which is virtually Literary Tibetan… there is therefore a real diglossia in their speech.”