Identification. The Tibetans are a Central Asian group living primarily on the high plateau of southwestern China and throughout sections of the Himalayas. The term "Tibet," which appeared in various forms on early maps of Arabic explorers, is thought to be derived either from the Tibetan term for "upper Tibet," stod bod, or from the early Indian name for Tibet, bhot. Ethnic Tibetans often refer to themselves by the place-names of their geographic area or a tribal name, such as the Ladakhi and Zanskari people of northern India and the Golock tribal people of Amdo.
Location. Prior to 1959, the majority of Tibetans lived on the Central Asian plateau bounded on the south by the Himalayas, on the west by the Karakorum, on the east by the Tangkula Mountains, and on the north by the Kunlun Mountains and the Taklamakan Desert. This is a high mountain plateau of more than 3.9 million square kilometers, which averages 12,000 feet above sea level, has extreme temperature fluctuations, and receives 46 centimeters or less of annual precipitation.
Following 1959, a substantial number of Tibetans migrated from the plateau to Bhutan, Nepal, India, and other countries. There are currently several large reserves of Tibetans in India, some with as many as 5,000 inhabitants.
Demography. Estimates of the Tibetan population are subject to dispute. No internal census was taken prior to 1950; various foreign visitors estimated the total population of Tibetans at between 3 and 6 million. The fighting in the 1950s over control of the plateau caused substantial human loss. The current (1990) Chinese figures for the total population of ethnic Tibetans within Chinese borders is 4.5 million, about half in the Tibet Autonomous Region, the rest in Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces. The Indian government has estimated the number of ethnic Tibetans currently in India at approximately 100,000.
Linguistic Affiliation. Tibetan belongs to the Tibetan-Burmese Branch of the Sino-Tibetan Language Family. It is also known as "Bodish." There are two Tibetan languages, Central Tibetan and Western Tibetan, with many regional dialects spoken throughout the plateau, the Himalayas, and parts of South Asia. Tibetan is monosyllabic with no consonant clusters, five vowels, twenty-six consonants, an ablaut verb system, tones and a subject-object-verb word order. The Tibetan script is a readaptation of a northern Indian script devised for the first historical king around A.D. 630.