Sinitic languages

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Linguistic classification: Sino-Tibetan
  • Sinitic
ISO 639-5: zhx
Glottolog: sini1245  (Chinese)[1]

The Sinitic languages,[2] often synonymous with the Chinese languages, are a family of Sino-Tibetan languages. They have frequently been postulated to constitute a primary branch,[3][4] but this is rejected by an increasing number of researchers. The Bai languages, whose classification is difficult, may be Sinitic;[5] otherwise Sinitic is equivalent to the Chinese languages, and often used in opposition to "Chinese dialects" to convey the idea that these are distinct languages rather than dialects of a single language.[6][7]


L1 speakers of Chinese languages and other Sino-Tibetan languages according to the Ethnologue

Chinese dialectologists have refined a hierarchical classification of local varieties, based on the evolution of the sound categories of Middle Chinese. Some details are disputed, including the designation in the 1980s of three new top-level groups, Huizhou, Jin and Pinghua.[8][9] The major groups of this classification, Mandarin, Wu, Yue, Southern Min and so on, are often referred to as languages, because they are not mutually intelligible. However, many varieties within each these groups are also mutually unintelligible.[10] Some varieties remain unclassified within Chinese.

Assuming Bai is Sinitic, it diverged at approximately the time of Old Chinese or possibly earlier. By the time of Middle Chinese, the Min languages had also split off.[11] The evidence for the split is that all Chinese languages apart from Min can be fit into the structure of the Qieyun, a 7th-century rime dictionary.[12]


  1. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Chinese". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  2. ^ "Sinitic" means relating to China or the Chinese. It is derived from the Greco-Latin word Sīnai "the Chinese", probably from Arabic Ṣīn "China", from the Chinese dynastic name Qín. (OED)
  3. ^ Anatole Lyovin (1997) An Introduction to the Languages of the World, Oxford University Press
  4. ^ George van Driem (2001) Languages of the Himalayas: An Ethnolinguistic Handbook of the Greater Himalayan Region. Brill. pp. 329 ff.
  5. ^ Van Driem 2001:380 "Ba'i ... may form a constituent of Sinitic, albeit one heavily influenced by Lolo–Burmese."
  6. ^ N. J. Enfield (2003:69) Linguistics Epidemiology, Routledge.
  7. ^ See also, for example, W. Hannas (1997) Asia's Orthographic Dilemma, University of Hawaii Press.
  8. ^ Kurpaska, Maria (2010). Chinese Language(s): A Look Through the Prism of "The Great Dictionary of Modern Chinese Dialects". Walter de Gruyter. pp. 41–53, 55–56. ISBN 978-3-11-021914-2. 
  9. ^ Yan, Margaret Mian (2006). Introduction to Chinese Dialectology. LINCOM Europa. pp. 9–18, 61–69, 222. ISBN 978-3-89586-629-6. 
  10. ^ Norman, Jerry (2003). "The Chinese dialects: phonology". In Thurgood, Graham; LaPolla, Randy J. (eds.). The Sino-Tibetan languages. Routledge. pp. 72–83. ISBN 978-0-7007-1129-1. 
  11. ^ Mei, Tsu-lin (1970). "Tones and prosody in Middle Chinese and the origin of the rising tone". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 30: 86–110. JSTOR 2718766. 
  12. ^ Pulleyblank, Edwin G. (1984). Middle Chinese: a study in historical phonology. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-7748-0192-8.