Balti (Nastaʿlīq script: بلتی, Tibetan script: སྦལ་ཏི།, Wylie: sbal ti) is a Tibetic language spoken by the Balti people in the Baltistan region of Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan, the Nubra Valley of Leh district and in the Kargil district of Ladakh, India. It is quite different from Standard Tibetan. Many sounds of Old Tibetan that were lost in Standard Tibetan are retained in the Balti language. It also has a simple pitch accent system only in multi-syllabic words while Standard Tibetan has a complex and distinct pitch system that includes tone contour.
Balti is spoken in the whole of Baltistan in the northern Pakistan and some parts of Northern India in Ladakh as well as Jammu and Kashmir. It is said that Purki dialect of Purgi and Suru-Kartse valleys come into the Balti group linguistically to some extent. However, Balti is spoken by people living in Baltistan (Pakistan), different parts of the states of northern India like Dehradun, Masoorie, Kalsigate, Chakrotta, Ambadi in Uttrakhand and parts of Jammu and Kashmir like Jammu and Ramban in Jammu region, Hariparbat, Dalgate and Tral in Kashmir region. In the twin districts of Ladakh region (Kargil and Leh) it is spoken in Kargil city and its surrounding villages like Hardass, Lato, Karkitchhoo and Balti Bazar and in Leh – Turtuk, Bogdang, Tyakshi including Leh city and nearby villages.
In some rural areas, the Shina people still speak the Shina language but they are very few in number. Also, their language has many loanwords from Balti, as Balti is the majority language in Baltistan.
Tournadre (2005) considers Balti, Ladakhi, and Purgi to be distinct languages because they do not have mutual intelligibility. As a group, they are termed Ladakhi–Balti or Western Archaic Tibetan, as opposed to Western Innovative Tibetan languages, such as Lahuli–Spiti.
The missionary, orientalist and linguist Heinrich August Jäschke (1817–1883) classified Balti as one of the westernmost Tibetic languages. In his Tibetan–English Dictionary, he defines it as "Bal (Balti), the most westerly of the districts in which the Tibetan language is spoken".
The predominant writing system currently in use for Balti is the Perso-Arabic script, although there have been attempts to revive the Tibetan script, which was used between the 8th and the 16th centuries. Additionally, there are two, nowadays possibly extinct, indigenous writing systems, and there have been proposals for the adoption of Roman– as well as Devanagari-based orthographies that were adjusted for writing Balti by the Central Institute of Indian Languages in the 1970s.
The main script for writing Balti is the local adaptation of the Tibetan alphabet which is called Yige in Baltiyul Baltistan, but it is often written in the Persian alphabet, especially within Pakistan.
In 1985, Abadi added four new letters to the Tibetan script and seven new letters to the Persian script to adapt both of them according to the need of Balti language. Two of the four added letters now stand included in the Tibetan Unicode alphabet.
Balti was written with a version of the Tibetan alphabet from 727 AD, when Baltistan was conquered by Tibetans, until the last quarter of the 14th century, when the Baltis converted to Islam. Since then, Persian script replaced the Tibetan script, but the former had no letters for seven Balti sounds and was in vogue in spite of the fact that it was defective. Adding the seven new letters has now made it a complete script for Balti.
Recently, a number of Balti scholars and social activists have attempted to promote the use of the Tibetan Balti or "Yige" alphabet with the aim of helping to preserve indigenous Balti and Ladakhi culture and ethnic identity. Following a request from this community, the September 2006 Tokyo meeting of ISO/IEC 10646 WG2 agreed to encode two characters which are invented by Abadi (U+0F6B TIBETAN LETTER KKA and TIBETAN U+0F6C LETTER RRA) in the ISO 10646 and Unicode standards in order to support rendering Urdu loanwords present in modern Balti using the Yige alphabet.
Since Pakistan gained control of the region in 1948, Urdu words have been introduced into local dialects and languages, including Balti. In modern times, Balti has no native names or vocabulary for dozens of newly invented and introduced things; instead, Urdu and English words are being used in Balti.
Balti has retained many honorific words that are characteristic of Tibetan dialects and many other languages.
No prose literature except proverb collections have been found written in Balti. Some epics and sagas appear in oral literature such as the Epic of King Gesar, and the stories of rgya lu cho lo bzang and rgya lu sras bu. All other literature is in verse. Balti literature has adopted numerous Persian styles of verse and vocables which amplify the beauty and melody of its poetry.
Nearly all the languages and dialects of the mountain region in the north of Pakistan such as Pashto, Khowar and Shina are Indo-Aryan or Iranic languages, but Balti is one of the Sino-Tibetan languages. As such, it has nothing in common with neighboring languages except some loanwords absorbed as a result of linguistic contact. Balti and Ladakhi are closely related.
The major issue facing the development of Balti literature is its centuries-long isolation from Tibet, owing to political divisions and strong religious differences and even from its immediate neighbor Ladakh for the last 50 years. Separated from its linguistic kin, Balti is under pressure from more dominant languages such as Urdu. This is compounded by the lack of a suitable means of transcribing the language following the abandonment of its original Tibetan script. The Baltis do not have the awareness to revive their original script and there is no institution that could restore it and persuade the people to use it again. Even if the script is revived, it would need modification to express certain Urdu phonemes that occur in common loanwords within Balti.