bras ljongs skad
RegionSikkim, Nepal (Province No. 1), Bhutan, Sagasu
Native speakers
70,000 (2022)[1]
Tibetan script
Official status
Official language in
Language codes
ISO 639-3sip
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The Sikkimese language, also called Sikkimese, Bhutia, or Drenjongké (Tibetan: འབྲས་ལྗོངས་སྐད་, Wylie: 'bras ljongs skad, "Rice Valley language"),[2] Dranjoke, Denjongka, Denzongpeke and Denzongke, belongs to the Tibeto-Burman languages. It is spoken by the Bhutia in Sikkim, India and in parts of Province No. 1, Nepal. The Sikkimese people refer to their own language as Drendzongké and their homeland as Drendzong (Tibetan: འབྲས་ལྗོངས་, Wylie: 'bras-ljongs, "Rice Valley").[3] Up until 1975 Sikkimese did not have a written language. After gaining Indian Statehood the language was introduced as a school subject in Sikkim and the written language was developed.[4]


Main article: Tibetan script

Sikkimese is written using Sambhota script and Zhang Yeshe De Script, which it inherited from Classical Tibetan. Sikkimese phonology and lexicon differ markedly from Classical Tibetan, however. SIL International thus describes the Sikkimese writing system as "Bodhi style". According to SIL, 68% of Sikkimese Bhutia were literate in the Tibetan script in 2001.[3][5][6]

History of written Sikkimese

Sikkimese belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family, and more specifically, is classified as a Tibetic language, descending from Old Tibetan.[7] For most of the language’s existence Sikkimese was an oral language, and it was not until 1975 when Sikkim became a part of India that a written language was developed. Until this point, Classical Tibetan was the primary mode for writing. After Indian statehood, Sikkimese was one of the many minority languages in the region to be taught in schools over the next few years. As a result of this, a written language was developed, adopting a modified version of the Tibetan script. The first literary materials were school books translated from Tibetan, and in the following years original works would be authored, including novels, poetry, and plays.[7] While the total number of Sikkimese authors number approximately 30, the language continues to be used in different media. As of 2021, currently one active newspaper exists, with another paper that has plans to begin printing again. Moreover, in the last 2 decades multiple dictionaries have been published. Finally, the "Bhutia Language Website Development Committee" plans to launch an informational website about the language and peoples in the future.[7]

Sikkim and its neighbours

Speakers of Sikkimese can understand some Dzongkha, with a lexical similarity of 65% between the two languages. By comparison, Standard Tibetan, however, is only 42% lexically similar. Sikkimese has also been influenced to some degree by the neighbouring Yolmowa and Tamang languages.[3][5]

Due to more than a century of close contact with speakers of Nepali and Tibetan proper, many Sikkimese speakers also use these languages in daily life.[3]


Dialects are for the most part quite mutually intelligible in Sikkimese as most differences that exist are minor. One big difference, however, is the lack of honorifics in some Northern villages, discussed in more detail in a separate section below.[8] Also occurring in these villages are the largest dialectal differences in pronunciation and vocabulary. In the area of Bhutan closest to Sikkim, non-Sikkimese speakers can understand Northern varieties of Sikkimese much more easily than they can varieties from West Sikkim. It is a local belief that the people in these Northern villages originated from this same area in Bhutan.[8]


Phonology Introduction

Sikkimese has a total of eight vowels and 43 consonants in its inventory. Words in Sikkimese are split into high or low registers all based on voice quality and pitch. The register of Sikkimese words can be predicted most of the time based on their starting phoneme but nasals and liquids are unpredictable. Due to the unpredictability of some of Sikkimese’s registers and the lack of difference between modal and breathy voicing, Sikkimese is considered a toned language even though tone itself is not provide too much of a functional load like other languages that are also considered to be toned.[9]


All consonants happen word-initially with the exception of the glottal /ʔ/. Voiceless nasals and liquids actually don’t occur at all. Aspiration is reduced when it comes to the word-medial position and the breathy series of consonants.[10]

Below is a chart of Sikkimese consonants, largely following Yliniemi (2005) and van Driem (1992).[6]

Labial Dental/
Retroflex (Alveolo-)
Velar Glottal
Nasal voiceless n⟩ ŋ̥ ng⟩
voiced m m⟩ n n⟩ n~ɲ ny⟩ ŋ ng⟩
Plosive voiceless
p p⟩ t t⟩ ʈཏྲ tr⟩ k k⟩ ʔ ʔ⟩
ph⟩ th⟩ ʈʰཐྲ thr⟩ kh⟩
voiced b b⟩ d d⟩ ɖདྲ dr⟩ ɡ g⟩
devoiced p̀ʱ~b̀ɦ p'⟩ t̀ʱ~d̀ɦ t'⟩ ʈ̀ʱ~ɖ̀ɦདྲ tr'⟩ k̀ʱ~g̀ɦ k'⟩
Affricate voiceless
ts ts⟩ c⟩
tsʰ tsh⟩ tɕʰ ch⟩
voiced dz dz⟩ j⟩
devoiced tɕ̀ʱ~dʑ̀ɦ c'⟩
Fricative voiceless s s⟩ ɕ sh⟩ h h⟩
voiced z z⟩ ʑ zh⟩
Liquid voiceless l⟩ r⟩
voiced l l⟩ r~ɹ~ɾ r⟩
Approximant w w⟩ j y⟩ w w⟩

Devoiced consonants are pronounced with a slight breathy voice, aspiration, and low pitch. They are remnants of voiced consonants in Classical Tibetan that became devoiced. Likewise, the historical Tibetan phoneme /ny/ is realised as an allophone of /n/ and /ng/, which themselves have mostly lost contrast among speakers.[6]


Below is a chart of Sikkimese vowels, also largely following Yliniemi (2005).[6]

Front Middle Back
unrounded rounded unrounded rounded
Close /i/ i⟩ /y/ u⟩ /u/ u⟩
Mid /e/ e⟩ /ø/ o⟩ /o/ o⟩
Open [ɛ] e⟩ /ɐ/a⟩

In the Tibetan script, an abugida, the inherent vowel /a/ is unmarked.

Language Vocabulary


In Sikkimese, first names are typically two disyllabic words, and are heavily influenced by the day of the week (a child was born), planetary words, and Buddhism. Names can also belong exclusively to one gender, or be gender-neutral.[11] In official documents last names are used and vary in origin. Some may use clan names, while others use names that exist for a group of people or region, such as “Denjongpa/Denjongpo”, meaning “Sikkimese Dwellers” in Tibetan languages. There are also a small number of villages who use last names derived from their respective village name.[11]


There are only 5 basic words for colors in Sikkimese, with words for red, yellow, white, black and blue/green.[11] The last color listed can be difficult for Sikkimese speakers in English translation, as the word represents a very large spectrum, encompassing, for example, both tree leaf green and sky blue. While there are words that describe this range more specifically, they are of (Classical) Tibetan origin and do not see regular use.[11]

Other colors, specific shades of colors, and qualities of color like paleness, darkness and brightness are represented by using the basic color terms with word compounding or suffixation.[11]


In Sikkimese there are different forms of many nouns, pronouns, and verbs varying in politeness and respect, and whose use depends on the relationship between the addresser and addressee, and/or how the speaker perceives the addressee. Typically there are two different groupings, with the lower group being considered common and simple, and the latter honorific. For example, there are three levels of the second person pronoun; the low level may be used with social inferiors or friends, the mid level with social equals, and the honorific with social superiors.[11]

There are also a small number of villages that do not generally use honorifics, using even the low level second person pronoun with strangers. The lack of honorifics is perceived by most speakers as vulgar and offensive, while the use of honorifics is perceived by these villagers as "too slow and wordy". This may be exemplified by the translated sentence "Where are you going?". With honorifics the sentence takes eight syllabus, and without, just three. Overall the use of honorifics is associated with ones speaking ability and language skills.[4]

Differences in Spoken and Written Language

While the spoken and written language are similar, there are some minor differences. Notable types of change are phonological reduction/modification, as well as morphosyntactic reduction. Some morphosyntactic changes include the dropping of case-markers in certain contexts. Examples that have been observed include noun modifiers losing the genitive marker, and the dropping of case marking in directionals.[11] Both literary and spoken variants borrow from related or influential languages. The written language most often borrows Tibetan loan words, especially for words or concepts that may otherwise not yet be standardized in Sikkimese. Because of this, non-literate speakers may have difficulty with these loan words. Conversely, the spoken language borrows more from neighboring Nepali as well as English. Spoken language is more likely to be code switched with these than in written language.[11]

See also


  1. ^ Sikkimese at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  2. ^ "Lost Syllables and Tone Contour in Dzongkha (Bhutan)" in David Bradley, Eguénie J.A. Henderson and Martine Mazaudon, eds, Prosodic analysis and Asian linguistics: to honour R. K. Sprigg, 115-136; Pacific Linguistics, C-104, 1988
  3. ^ a b c d Lewis, M. Paul, ed. (2009). "Sikkimese". Ethnologue: Languages of the World (16 ed.). Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Retrieved 16 April 2011.
  4. ^ a b Yliniemi, Juha Sakari (18 November 2021). "A descriptive grammar of Denjongke". Himalayan Linguistics. 20 (1). doi:10.5070/H920146466. ISSN 1544-7502.
  5. ^ a b Norboo, S. (1995). "The Sikkimese Bhutia" (PDF). Bulletin of Tibetology. Gangtok: Namgyal Institute of Tibetology. pp. 114–115.
  6. ^ a b c d Yliniemi, Juha (2005). Preliminary Phonological Analysis of Denjongka of Sikkim (PDF) (Masters, General Linguistics thesis). University of Helsinki. Archived from the original (PDF) on 9 August 2014. Retrieved 17 April 2011.
  7. ^ a b c Yliniemi, Juha Sakari (18 November 2021). "A descriptive grammar of Denjongke". Himalayan Linguistics. 20 (1). doi:10.5070/H920146466. ISSN 1544-7502.
  8. ^ a b Yliniemi, Juha Sakari (18 November 2021). "A descriptive grammar of Denjongke". Himalayan Linguistics. 20 (1). doi:10.5070/H920146466. ISSN 1544-7502.
  9. ^ "A PHONETIC ANALYSIS OF DRENJONGKE: A FIRST CRITICAL ASSESSMENT" (PDF).((cite web)): CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  10. ^ "A PHONETIC ANALYSIS OF DRENJONGKE: A FIRST CRITICAL ASSESSMENT" (PDF).((cite web)): CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h Yliniemi, Juha Sakari (18 November 2021). "A descriptive grammar of Denjongke". Himalayan Linguistics. 20 (1). doi:10.5070/H920146466. ISSN 1544-7502.

Further reading