The Ladakhi language (also called Bhoti or Bodhi) uses the Tibetan script, but the Tibetan and Ladakhi languages are not mutually intelligible. Ladakhi has absorbed words from silk route trade, Tibetan Buddhism, governance by Jammu, Kahsmir and India, and now tourism and English literacy. Spoken Ladakhi shows variations in pronunciation and intonation across Ladakh, the accent in Leh sounds very different from the accents in Nubra and Zanskar. If you only learn one word, make it "julley” which means “hello”, “thank you” and “goodbye”. The greeting “khamzang?” or “khamzang in-a ley?” means “how are you?” and you can simply answer “khamzang in ley” - “I’m fine, thank you”. The phrasebook “getting started in Ladakhi” is available in bookstores in Leh. Most Ladakhi people (especially the younger generations) speak fluently in English and in Hindi too because they learn these languages at school from the very young age.
Ladakhi people will always appreciate any attempt that you make to speak a few words in their language. Ladakhi language is not easy to learn but knowing a few simple phrases will make a world of difference when interacting with your hosts, especially in remote villages where English is not widely spoken. Local people will greatly appreciate your effort and you will be rewarded with beautiful Ladakhi smiles!
MOMO MA ZHIMPO RAK LEY.
Momos are very delicious.
CHAMS TSAM KA GOZUK CHA-NOG?
What time will the mask dances start?
TUNG-CHU KANE YOD?
Where is the drinking water?
THORAY NAMZA KAZUK SHIK YOD DO?
What will the weather be like tomorrow?
I-BUS-BO LEH KYERA-NOG-GA?
Is this bus going to Leh?
Its very name is not agreed on, and in various contexts it has been called Ladakhi, Ladaksi-skat, Bod-yig (pronounced Bodik or Budik), Bodhi (pronounced Bodi or Budi), and Bhoti (pronounced Boṭi). Although most common, obvious and linguistically correct, Ladakhi and Ladaksi-skat have been contested by Ladakhi Buddhist scholars of Tibetan who claim that Ladakhi is no different from Tibetan. Bod-yig refers to the script, not the language, while Bodhi and Bhoti sound unnecessarily like “Buddhist” and can alienate Ladakhi Muslims, who speak the same language. Most Ladakhis normally refer to their language as Ladaksi-skat or Ladakhi.
Ladakhi is a Tibetan dialect or a Tibetan language, in the Tibeto-Burman language family, in turn considered part of the larger Sino-Tibetan language family. Linguists have no clear definition of what distinguishes a language from a dialect. If mutual intelligibility is the test, i.e. “Can Ladakhis and Tibetans understand each other’s languages?” the answer is “No, they are separate languages.”
Ladakhis and Tibetans usually communicate with each other in Hindi or English as they do not understand each other’s languages clearly. Ladakhis cannot understand more than a few words of Tibetan conversation, movies or radio unless they happen to have learnt Tibetan by, for example, attending a Tibetan school or living among Tibetans. Although the language is categorised by linguists as Sino-Tibetan, closer to Chinese than to Indian languages, the Tibetan alphabet is an Indic script, based on Indian writing systems. This leads some people to say, mistakenly, that the Tibetan language is derived from Sanskrit.
Modern Ladakhi and Modern Tibetan are both descendents of the Tibetan of at least a thousand years ago, just as German and English are both descendents of the German of a thousand years ago. Scholars have various theories about when the first or most influential Tibetan speakers came to Ladakh. The modern languages are no longer mutually intelligible with each other or with Classical Tibetan. However, in Buddhist parts of the Himalayas there has been a continuous tradition of literacy in Classical Tibetan, which local scholars consider the “real language,” and the various modern languages “just careless dialects.” In reality not only the pronunciation, but the grammar of the various languages has diverged, as indeed all languages do over a thousand years. Clarity on this subject is obscured by an aura of sacredness attached to the Classical grammar and spelling, confusion of spelling with “grammar”, and perhaps a fear among Buddhist scholars that their identity as part of the Tibetan Buddhist world might be threatened by recognising their own everyday speech as a legitimate language.
Recently a new term, “Bhoti,” has been introduced to include all the Tibetan languages traditionally spoken in the Himalayan parts of India. The different Bhoti-speaking regions have mutually unintelligible speech. A Ladakhi and a person from the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh (both considered Bhoti speakers) need Hindi or English to communicate with each other as their Tibetan languages have very different vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar, although Buddhist scholars from both regions read Classical Tibetan for religious purposes.
Ultimately, it is impossible and unnecessary to decide whether Ladakhi is a Tibetan dialect, a Tibetan language, or a form of Bhoti, but since there are distinct varieties within Ladakhi itself, it is both useful and linguistically accurate to call Ladakhi a language, and its regional varieties dialects.
Ladakhi is closely related to the Tibetan languages of Purik (the Kargil area), Baltistan, Zangskar, Spiti, and Western Tibet. With each of these neighbours there is a continuum: the speech of the border areas of Leh District blends into the next language. Thus it can be difficult to define where Ladakhi ends and the next language begins. Currently the most convenient definition of Ladakhi is the language spoken in Leh District, except the parts of Leh District that speak other languages instead: the closely related Balti language of Turtuk area, and the more different Indo-European Brokskat language of the Brokpas or Dards on the lower Indus. Kargil District comprises Purik, Zangskar, and a few Balti, Shina or Brokskat speaking villages. Confusion arises from the inconsistent local use, especially in Leh town, of the term “Balti” to include Kargilis or all Shia Muslims, rather than the Baltis of Baltistan and their descendants. Neighbouring regions also have pockets speaking Tibetan languages closely related to Ladakhi: a few villages on the Kashmir side of Zoji-La in Sonamarg speak a language similar to Purik; the Paddar region in Kishtwar in Jammu province on the south-western flank of the Himalayas speaks a language similar to Zangskari; and Spiti and several other mountain regions in Himachal Pradesh speak a language similar to West Tibetan and Upper Ladakhi.