Tibetan: alteration of numeral


Sichuanese Mandarin
I know that in Tibetan, when the numerals གཅིག། (gcig, "one") and གཉིས། (gnyis, "two") modify words which can be either nouns or quantifiers, these two numerals must change if the words are quantifiers.

That is, we say དཀར་ཡོལ་གཅིག། (dkar-yol-gcig, "bowl-one", "a bowl") and དཀར་ཡོལ་གང་། (dkar-yol-gang, "bowl-one", "a bowl of something"). The numeral gcig means potentially the word which it modifies is a noun, and the numeral gang means potentially the word which it modifies is a quantifier.

And so do the numeral gnyis (which modifies nouns) and དོ། (do, which modifies quantifiers).

But, there is not such a difference if the numeral goes more than 3. So how could we distinguish the word which is being modified is a noun or a quantifier when the numeral goes more than 3?
  • BeckyLadakh

    New Member
    English - American
    As a fluent speaker of a Tibetan language that has this feature, I can say there is rarely any confusion. Speakers of Ladakhi use /gang/ and /do/ for talking about the amount held in one or two cups, and /cik/ or /nyis/ for talking of one or two cups themselves, but even without this distinction the meaning is usually clear from context. So /karyol sum/ could be the amount held in three cups, or the three cups themselves, and there's rarely confusion (as indeed there isn't confusion in English "three cups").

    What I find interesting is that /gang/ (one container-full) is cognate to various Tibetan/Ladakhi words for "full" or "to fill" and /do/ (two containers-full) is cognate to Hindi "two." Could these predate the Tibetan numerals?

    During the 26 years I've been in this region, I've seen a change in the use of numbering vocabulary, and it inspires speculation about how these parallel counting systems may have come about. In 1992, Ladakhis used Hindi/Urdu numbers (ek, do, tin) for counting money, kilometres and other measurements, and saying phone numbers, but they used the Ladakhi (ie Tibetan) numbers for talking about anything social, such as the number of people in the room, or the number of days that some work takes. In 2018, as all local children now study in nominally English-medium schools, nobody uses Hindi numbers for phone numbers anymore, and even monolingual old grandmothers use the English numbers for that purpose (wan, ṭu, thri, pho, phayi or phayu, sik(s), sewan, eṭ, nen). For measurements and money, older people may still use Hindi numbers, but people under 25 use only the English numbers and may not be fully fluent with the higher Hindi numbers. Yet the Ladakhi numbers are still largely used for talking about a number of people, days, etc.

    Is it possible that earlier Tibetans had only a "one-two-many" system until they adopted the somewhat Chinese-derived Tibetan numbering system, when trade or counting came from China? Or maybe they had a full counting system and then supplanted most of it with the Chinese-derived Tibetan numerals, keeping only the first two for limited use as quantifiers? Somebody has probably already published research about this, but I haven't seen it.
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