Dzongkha: Bhutan's National Language

Dzongkha (རྫོང་ཁ་) falls within the Central Bodish group of languages within the greater Tibeto-Burman or Sino-Tibetan family of languages. It is the modern name for the language spoken in the western valleys, known as Ngalongkha (སྔ་ལོང་ཁ་) or the language of the Ngalong or Ngenlung (སྔན་ལུང་) region. Initially, it seems this name referred to part of Shar district but later came to be used to refer to all of western Bhutan from Pelela pass to Haa. After the unification of Bhutan, Ngalongkha became the dominant language for official transactions as political offices were mainly based in areas where it was spoken. Among the power centres of medieval Bhutan, only Trongsa was not part of the Ngalongkha speaking area.

Gradually, Ngalongkha was used as the official language in the administrative offices and monastic centres across the country. As government offices and monastic institutions were based in the large dzongs, Ngalongkha came to be known as Dzongkha, meaning the language of the dzong. However, it appears that the term Dzongkha probably gained currency only in the latter half of the 20th century, particularly after Bhutan adopted it as the national language in 1960s.

Ngalongkha, it must be remembered, was a spoken vernacular like other local Bhutanese languages. It was a pelké (ཕལ་སྐད་), a commoner’s vernacular, as opposed to chöké (ཆོས་སྐད་), the scriptural idiom, which in this case refers to classical Tibetan, the Latin of the Buddhist Himalayas. Until the introduction of written Dzongkha in the second half of the 20th century, all written communications in Bhutan were conducted in classical Tibetan; in fact, much Bhutanese literature even today is composed in the medium. Some authors such as the 13th Je Khenpo Yönten Tayé (1724-1784) were said to have written some material in the local vernacular but apart from oral compositions, nothing significant seems to have been written in Dzongkha until the adoption of Dzongkha as the national language.

The main task instituting Dzongkha as a written language was to develop its standard orthographic and grammatical structures, which started in the 1960s with the authorship of school grammar books. This move seems to have been triggered by a cultural consciousness and nationalistic sentiments aimed at establishing a unique linguistic identity for Bhutan, and further, to distinguish Bhutan from Tibet, over which China had by then made serious historical claims. It was thus a way of resisting external claims of linguistic hegemony as well as uniting the country with a lingua franca. Today, Dzongkha is taught in schools and most Bhutanese speak Dzongkha imperfectly but only a few can write in Dzongkha with ease.

The promotion of Dzongkha over classical Tibetan as a written language faced serious challenges in many quarters and continues to do so even today. While the elites, most of whom were educated in western English medium schools, were and are still today not capable of writing even government correspondences in Dzongkha; in addition, the conservative clerics were outraged by the idea of replacing a religious language with a vernacular language. Dzongkha did not have the lexical strength and grammatical sophistication to construct advanced literary works without relying on classical Tibetan and it was feared that promoting Dzongkha instead of classical Tibetan could close the access to the wealth of religious literature available in this medium. Furthermore, Dzongkha was not even spoken by the majority of Bhutanese people. It was perceived to be as hard as learning a foreign language. To make things worse, Dzongkha is disappointingly short of vocabulary to render new technological and scientific terminology. These problems encumber Dzongkha even today and its viability as the national language against the onslaught of English continues to be tested today.

Dzongkha is the only written local language so far and it is written using Tibetan alphabets. Bhutanese widely use Uchen (དབུ་ཅན་) script for formal documents and books and Joyig (མགྱོགས་ཡིག་) script for informal writing. This script is considered to be unique to Bhutan although there is no substantial evidence that it was used in Bhutan before the 20th century. The prototype of Joyig, used by some traditional scholars to prove its antiquity, very closely resembles Tibetan scripts used before the 11th century visible in documents discovered from Dunhuang caves in Gansu. Ancient manuscripts housed in Bhutan’s temples seem to indicate that Bhutanese wrote a great deal in a variety of Umé (དབུ་མེད་) scripts in the past although most Bhutanese today cannot read Ume script and associate it with Tibetans.

Dzongkha is spoken as the native tongue by people from Haa, Paro, Chukkha, Thimphu, Punakha, Gasa, Wangdiphodrang, and Dagana districts and is heavily split into different dialects, some of them nearly unintelligible to other Dzongkha speakers. The mainstream Dzongkha used in official communication and media is a modern Dzongkha based on these dialects but without regional accents or variations. All school students learn Dzongkha for about one hour a day at school while monastic institutions still impart their education in both Dzongkha and classical Tibetan. Thus, monastic scholars are the main users of written Dzongkha though many of them often write in classical Tibetan.


Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan.