སྒྲ་སྦྱོར། Drájyór - A Phonetic Transcription System for Tibetan


Most of the sounds used in Tibetan language are similar to those of other languages. Yet, a number of factors that distinguish syllables one from another, such as tone, aspiration, voice and pre-nasalisation, are absent in, or different to, European languages and are often very subtle and difficult to notice for the untrained ear.

The Drájyór (སྒྲ་སྦྱོར་sgra sbyor)phonetic transcription system is designed to allow students and practitioners alike to identify and correctly reproduce these subtle sound differences enabling a correct pronunciation of the language without knowing it in depth.

As inevitable for a language such as Tibetan, Drájyór is a highly technical system and therefore needs to be studied in careful detail in order to be mastered. Consequently it enables its students to a remarkable precision in pronunciation and transmits an accurate knowledge of Tibetan phonology, regardless of the mother tongue of its students. It is also very useful to be studied alongside the Tibetan script as a support for correct pronunciation.


The Drájyór system has been devised by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu on the base of previous work done by Chinese linguists, who started from the hanyu pinyin 汉语拼音 system. Despite its many qualities, it has not been adopted as a standard and it has been in use only during the years in which Chögyal Namkhai Norbu taught in the university of Naples, and is still in use within the Dzogchen Community.

Main Features

The basic unit of Tibetan language is the syllable. It is generally composed of an initial consonant, in Drájyór mostly a single roman letter, with a few sounds represented by two letters (GY- and DR-) one vowel and, in most cases, a final consonant.

Initial Consonants

In the following interactive table, inspired by the traditional Tibetan order of consonants, but adapted to the Drajyor phonetic transcription system, syllables are ordered in columns (1-6) and lines (1-14) according to their phonetic characteristics. The columns (in lines 1-4, the first three of the fifth, 8 and 9) group sounds on the base of criteria such as voice (phonetics), tone (high or low), aspiration (absent, strong, slight) and prenasalization (note that the intensity of prenasalization differs greatly in different Tibetan dialects. In Central Tibet it is audible only when found between the two syllables of disyllabic words in which the first ends with a vowel and the second starts with a prenasalization.

Example: tib.: མཁའ་འགྲོ་ , wylie: mkha' 'gro, drájyór: KÀDRÒ). In Eastern Tibet it is more evident also at the beginning of words.

The six columns contain respectively:

1 - unvoiced, high tone, non aspirated

2 - unvoiced, low tone, slightly aspirated

3 - voiced, low tone, non aspirated

4 - voiced, low tone, non aspirated

5 - unvoiced, high tone, aspirated

6 - unvoiced, high tone, aspirated and prenasalized

The first 5 lines contain respectively:

1 - the consonants pronounced in the throat (velars),

2 - with the tongue touching the palate (alveo-palatals)

3 - with the tip of the tongue behind the teeth (dentals)

4 - closing the lips (bilabials)

5 - alveolar affricates

Lines 8 and 9 contain respectively:

8 - velar + ya sund

9 - apical postalveolar retroflex stops (curling the tongue backwards )

The other lines contain miscellaneous sounds which are easier to reproduce by listening to them rather than to describe them, if that is not already the case with the ones described above.

A note on line 14. The first three letters of this line are:

A is an 'a' vowel starting from a closed throat (the 'a' common in western languages)

HĂ is an 'a' vowel starting from an open throat

HA is simply an aspiration


Accents, or their absence, are very important to assess.

Accents, or their absence, define how the consonant before the vowel on which they sit is pronounced, not the vowel itself.

There are four possibilities:

  1. no accent: high tone, unvoiced, except in lines 10-13 where consonants are in low tone.

  2. Caron or háček accent ( ˇ at times seen as ˘ ) denotes a low tone, unvoiced, slightly aspirated consonant. The consonants marked with this accent (in column 2) become voiced (and listed in column 3 in rows 1-9) when marked with acute ( ´ ) or grave ( ` column 4) accents. They also become voiced when found in syllables beyond the first, in two or more syllable words (see below).

  3. Acute accent ( ´ ) indicates low tone, voiced, non aspirated consonants (third column, lines 1-9). In other instances see the heading.

  4. Grave ( ` ) accent adds a pre-nasalisation to the consonant in the previous column (lines 1-9, silent in Central Tibetan).

Table of Drajyor initial consonants (Syllables pronounced by Lobsang Zatul)
1. unvoiced high tone2. unvoiced low tone3. voiced low tone4. voiced prenasalized5. unvoiced aspirated high tone6. unvoiced aspirated prenasalized high tone
1. velarGAKA
ཀ་ རྐ་ ལྐ་ སྐ་ དཀའ་ བཀའ་ བརྐ་ བསྐ་ག་རྒ་ ལྒ་ སྒ་ དགའ་ བགའ་ བརྒ་ བསྒ་མགའ་ འགའ་ཁ་མཁའ་ འཁའ་
2. alveo-palatalJAQA
ཅ་ ལྕ་ གཅའ་ བཅའ་ཇ་རྗ་ ལྗ་ བརྗ་མཇའ་ འཇའ་ཆ་མཆའ་ འཆའ་
3. dentalDATA
ཏ་ རྟ་ ལྟ་ སྟ་ གཏའ་ བཏའ་ བརྟ་ བལྟ་ བསྟ་ད་རྡ་ ལྡ་ སྡ་ གདའ་ བདའ་ བརྡ་ བལྡ་ བསྡ་ ཟླ་ བཟླ་མདའ་ འདའ་ཐ་མཐའ་ འཐའ་
4. bilabialBAPA
པ་ ལྤ་ སྤ་ དཔའ་བ་རྦ་ ལྦ་ སྦ་འབའ་ཕ་འཕའ་
5. affricateZACA
ཙ་ རྩ་ སྩ་ གཙའ་ བཙའ་ བརྩ་ བསྩ་ཛ་རྫ་ སྫ་ བརྫ་མཛའ་ འཛའ་ཚ་འཚའ་ མཚའ་
1. unvoiced high tone2. unvoiced low tone3. voiced low tone4. unvoiced reinforced
6. fricativeXA
ཤ་ཞ་གཞའ་ བཞའ་གཤའ་ བཤའ་ ཤྲ་
7. sibilantSA
ས་ཟ་གཟའ་ བཟའ་སྲ་ གསའ་ བསའ་ བསྲ་
1. unvoiced high tone2. unvoiced low tone3. voiced low tone4. voiced prenasalized5. unvoiced aspirated high tone6. unvoiced aspirated prenasalized high tone
ཀྱ་ རྐྱ་ སྐྱ་ དཀྱ་ བཀྱ་ བརྐྱ་ བསྐྱ་གྱ་རྒྱ་ དགྱ་ བགྱ་ བརྒྱ་ སྒྱ་ བསྒྱ་འགྱ་ཁྱ་མཁྱ་ འཁྱ་
པྱ་ སྤྱ་ དཔྱ་བྱ་སྦྱ་འབྱ་ཕྱ་འཕྱའ་
ཀྲ་ ཏྲ་ པྲ་ སྤྲ་ དཔྲ་གྲ་ དྲ་ བྲ་སྒྲ་ དགྲ་ བགྲ་ བསྒྲ་ སྦྲ་མགྲ་ འགྲ་ འདྲ་ འབྲ་ཁྲ་ ཐྲ་ ཕྲ་མཁྲ་ འཁྲ་ འཕྲ་
1. low tone2. high tone3. more nasal4. low tone5. high tone6. more nasal
ང་རྔ་ ལྔ་ དངའ་ མངའ་སྔ་ བསྔ་ཉ་རྙ་ གཉའ་ མཉའ་ བརྙ་ མྱ་ རྨྱ་སྙ་ བསྙ་ སྨྱ་
ན་རྣ་ མནའ་ བརྣ་ གནའ་སྣ་ བསྣ་ སྣྲམ་རྨ་ དམའ་སྨ་ སྨྲ་
1. low tone2. high tone3. low tone4. high tone
11. semi-vowelYAWA
ཡ་གཡའ་ དབྱ་ རྱ་ཝ་དབའ་
1. low tone2. high tone
12. liquidRA
13. alveolar constrictiveLA
ལ་ཀླ་ གླ་ བླ་ རླ་ སླ་
1. unvoiced high tone2. unvoiced low tone3. unvoiced aspirated high tone4. unvoiced high tone5. unvoiced low tone6. voiced low tone

Final letters to be pronounced non voiced, after the vowel:
• -g is pronounced like a very light k, shortening the previous vowel (example: NAG)
• -d* is pronounced like a very light, and the sound of the vowel changes (example: ÑID)
• -b is pronounced like a light -p (example: RAB)
Final letters to be pronounced as in English
• -ŋ is pronounced like -ng in ring (example: RIŊ)
• -m is pronounced -m (example: LAM)
• -n* is pronounced -n and the sound of the vowel changes (example: YIN)
Final letter to be pronounced in a lighter way
• -r is pronounced -r in a lighter way (example: BǍR)
• -l is pronounced -l in a lighter way, and the sound of the vowel changes. However, according to the pronunciation in Eastern Tibet, the suffix -l does not modify the sound of the vowel (example: SÀL)
Unpronounced finals
• -s* is silent (unpronounced) but lengthens and transforms the sound of the previous vowel (example: QOS)

With NO Final and all the Finals except for -d, -n and -s* With Finals -d, -n and -s (final -s also lengthens the sound)
A as in italianBecomes an open e, like a with German umlaut (ä) (examples: MAD, YAN, NAS)
I between an italian i and ei like in italian (examples: ÑID, YIN, DRǏS)
U as in italianBecomes ü (examples: YUD, YUN, LUS)
E like a closede as a closed e (examples: MED, LEN, JÉS)
O like a closed oBecomes ö (examples: JOD, YON, QOS)

Syllables after the first one
In words having more than one syllable the ones after the first change in the following way:
1. Aspiration is removed
2. Syllables with a voiced variant (GĂ, JĂ, DĂ, BĂ, GYĂ, JYĂ and DRĂ) are pronounced voiced

© 2019 Fabian Sanders, Margherita Pansa & Daniel Simonelli for ATIF School for Tibetan Language and Translation

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