Karen languages

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Ethnicity: Karen people
Burma and across the border into Thailand
Linguistic classification: Sino-Tibetan
  • Karen
ISO 639-2 / 5: kar
Glottolog: kare1337[1]

The Karen /kəˈrɛn/[2] or Karenic languages are tonal languages spoken by some seven million Karen people. They are of unclear affiliation within the Sino-Tibetan languages.[3] The Karen languages are written using the Burmese script.[4] The three main branches are Sgaw, Pwo, and Pa'o. Karenni (also known Kayah or Red Karen) and Kayan (also known as Padaung) are related to the Sgaw branch. They are unusual among the Sino-Tibetan languages in having a subject–verb–object word order; other than Karen, Bai, and the Chinese languages, Sino-Tibetan languages have a subject–object–verb order.[5] This is likely due to influence from neighboring Mon and Tai languages.[6] The Karen languages are also considered unusual for not having any Chinese influence.[7]


Because they differ from other Tibeto-Burman languages in morphology and syntax, Benedict (1972: 2–4, 129) removed the Karen languages from Tibeto-Burman in a Tibeto-Karen branch, but this is no longer accepted.[3][6]

The internal structure of the family is as follows:

Manson (2011)[edit]

Manson (2011)[8] classifies the Karen languages as follows. The classifications of Geker, Gekho, Kayaw, and Manu are ambiguous, as they may be either Central or Southern.


Manson (2011) defines phonological innovations for each primary branch of Karenic.

  • Peripheral branch (Pa’O and Pwo) branch: proto-voiced stop initials appearing as aspirated stops (e.g. *p > pʰ).
  • Northern branch (Kayan, Lahta, Yinbaw and Yintale): merging of nasal finals (e.g. *am, *an > aɴ); merging of stop final rimes with the open rhyme equivalent (e.g. *aʔ, *a > a)
  • Central branch (Kayah, Bwe, Geba): vowel raising (e.g. *a > ɛ)
  • Southern branch (Sgaw, Luce’s Paku, Palaychi, Dermuha): merger of nasal final rimes, with the rime subsequently raised (e.g. *am, *aŋ > ɔ)

Shintani (2012)[edit]

Shintani (2012:x)[9] gives the following tentative classification, proposed in 2002, for what he calls the "Brakaloungic" languages, of which Karen is a branch. Individual languages are marked in italics.

  • Pao
  • Karen
    • Kayah-Padaung
      • Kayah
      • Pado-Thaido-Gekho
        • Thaidai
        • Pado-Gekho
    • Bwe
    • Sgaw-Pwo
      • Pwo
      • Mobwa
      • Pako-Sgaw

However, at the time of publication, Shintani (2012) reports that there are more than 40 Brakaloungic languages and/or dialects, many of which have only been recently reported and documented. Shintani also reports that Mon influence is present in all Brakaloungic languages, while some also have significant Burmese and Shan influence.


Ken Manson (2009) proposed a Karen tone box to help understand Karenic tonal diversity and classify Karenic languages.[10] It is similar to William Gedney's Tai tone box (see Proto-Tai language#Tones). The tone box contains diagnostic words for use during field elicitation.

Karen tone box (Manson 2009)[10]
*A *B *B′ *C
1 (III)

Water [*tʰi]
Branch [*pʰaŋ]
Flower [*pʰɔ]
Chicken [*sʰan]
Sleep [*m̥i]
Die [*tʰi]

4 (VI)

Star [*sʰa]
Leaf [*l̥a]
Fingernail [*m̥i]
Fire [*m̥e]
Give [*pʰe]
Bitter [*kʰa]

7 (Va)

Bone [*kʰri]
Child [*pʰo]
Right [*tʰwe]
Spicy [*hɛ]
Take [*pʰi]
Pus [*pʰi/mi]

10 (VIII)

Sky [*m̥oʔ]
Iron [*tʰaʔ]
Pig [*tʰɔʔ]
Skin/bark [*pʰeʔ]
Shoot [v] [*kʰaʔ]
Dark [*kʰeʔ/kʰuʔ]

2 (II)

Silver [*rɔn]
Ginger [*ʔeŋ]
Rabbit [*tɛ]
Navel [*te]
Spear [*pan]
White [*pwa]

5 (VIa)

Egg [*ti]
Cheek [*pu]
Liver [*sɨn]
Eat [*ʔam]
Left [*se]
Be at, exist [*ʔɔ]

8 (V)

Paddy [*pɨ]
Blow/howl [*ʔu]
Head [*klo]
Hand [*su]
Breathe [*sa]
Many [*ʔa]

11 (VIIIa)

Alcohol [*siʔ]
Wing [*teʔ]
Heart [*saʔ]
Call/shout [*kaʔ]
Near [*pɔʔ]

3 (I)

Nest [*bwe]
Tongue [*ble]
Person [*bra]
Name [*min]
Drunk [*mun]
Red [*le]

6 (IV)

Sun [*mɤ]
Stone [*loŋ]
Snake [*ru]
Arrow [*bla]
Old [humans] [*bra]
Hot [*go]

6 (IV)

Sun [*mɤ]
Stone [*loŋ]
Snake [*ru]
Arrow [*bla]
Old [humans] [*bra]
Hot [*go]

12 (VII)

Monkey [*zoʔ]
Eye/face [*meʔ]
Brain [*nɔʔ]
Intestines [*breʔ]
Rib [*rɤʔ]
Deep [*jɔʔ]

Sound changes[edit]

Theraphan Luangthongkum[11] lists the following sound changes that had taken place during the transition from Proto-Tibeto-Burman (PTB; James Matisoff's reconstruction) to Proto-Karenic (PK; Luangthongkum's own reconstruction).

  • Retention of the PTB low central vowel *a in PK
  • Retention of the PTB final nasals *-m *-n *-ŋ in PK
  • PTB *voiced onsets > PK *voiceless or *glottalised onsets
  • PTB prefix *s- followed by a stem with *voiced sonorant > PK *voiceless initials
  • PTB *voiceless unaspirated stop initials > PK *voiceless aspirated stop initials
  • PTB voiced rhotic *-r > PK *-Ø
  • PTB *voiceless alveolar fricative *-s > PK *voiceless alveolar stop *-t
  • PTB *voiceless stop finals have remained *voiceless stop or have become glottal stop *-ʔ in PK
  • PTB high back vowel *u > PK mid back vowel *o (vowel lowering)
  • PTB off-gliding rhyme *-iy > PK monophthong *-i
  • PTB off-gliding rhyme *-ey > PK monophthong *-e
  • PTB off-gliding rhymes *-ay and *-a:y > PK monophthong *-e
  • PTB off-gliding rhyme *-əy > PK off-gliding rhyme *-ej(ey)
  • PTB *prefix-stem and/or *-infix-stem > PK *CC-


  1. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Karenic". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  2. ^ Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student's Handbook, Edinburgh
  3. ^ a b Graham Thurgood, Randy J. LaPolla (2003). The Sino-Tibetan Languages. Routledge. ISBN 0-7007-1129-5. 
  4. ^ "Burmese/Myanmar script and pronunciation". Omniglot.com. Retrieved 2015-05-05. 
  5. ^ "The Sino-Tibetan Language Family". Berkeley.edu. Retrieved 2015-05-05. 
  6. ^ a b Matisoff, James A. (1991). "Sino-Tibetan Linguistics: Present State and Future Prospects". Annual Review of Anthropology. Annual Reviews Inc. 20: 469–504. doi:10.1146/annurev.an.20.100191.002345. 
  7. ^ [1] Archived July 21, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.‹The template Wayback is being considered for merging.› 
  8. ^ "The subgrouping of Karen" (PDF). Jseals.org. Retrieved 2015-05-05. 
  9. ^ Shintani Tadahiko (2012). A handbook of comparative Brakaloungic languages. Tokyo: ILCAA.
  10. ^ a b Manson, Ken. 2009. A prolegomena to reconstructing Proto-Karen. La Trobe Working Papers in Linguistics 12.
  11. ^ Luangthongkum, Theraphan. 2014. Karenic As A Branch of Tibeto-Burman: More Evidence From Proto-Karen. Paper presented at the 24th Annual Meeting of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society (SEALS 24), Yangon, Burma.
  • George van Driem (2001) Languages of the Himalayas: An Ethnolinguistic Handbook of the Greater Himalayan Region. Brill.

Further reading[edit]


  • Jones, Robert B., Jr. 1961. Karen linguistic studies: Description, comparison, and texts. University of California Publications in Linguistics 25. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Luangthongkum, Theraphan. 2013. A view on Proto-Karen phonology and lexicon. Unpublished ms. contributed to STEDT.

External links[edit]