Sino-Tibetan languages

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East Asia
Linguistic classification: One of the world's major language families.
ISO 639-2 / 5: sit
Glottolog: sino1245
  Sino-Tibetan languages

The Sino-Tibetan languages are a family of more than 400 languages spoken in East Asia, Southeast Asia and parts of South Asia. The family is second only to the Indo-European languages in terms of the number of native speakers. The Sino-Tibetan languages with the most native speakers are the Chinese languages (1.2 billion speakers), Burmese (33 million) and the Tibetan languages (8 million). Many Sino-Tibetan languages are spoken by small communities in remote mountain areas and are poorly documented.

Several low-level groupings are well established, but the higher-level structure of the family remains unclear. Although the family is often presented as divided into Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman branches, it has not been convincingly demonstrated that the non-Chinese languages constitute a monophyletic group. A minority of researchers call the whole family "Tibeto-Burman", and the name "Trans-Himalayan" has also been proposed.


A genetic relationship between Chinese, Tibetan, Burmese and other languages was first proposed in the early 19th century, and is now broadly accepted. The initial focus on languages of civilizations with long literary traditions has been broadened to include less widely spoken languages, some of which have only recently, or never, been written. However reconstruction of the family is much less developed than for families such as Indo-European or Austroasiatic. Difficulties have included the great diversity of the languages, the lack of inflection in many of them, and the effects of language contact. In addition, many of the smaller languages are spoken in mountainous areas that are difficult to access, and are often also sensitive border zones.[1]

Early work[edit]

During the 18th century, several scholars had noticed parallels between Tibetan and Burmese, both languages with extensive literary traditions. Early in the following century, Brian Houghton Hodgson and others noted that many non-literary languages of the highlands of northeast India and Southeast Asia were also related to these. The name "Tibeto-Burman" was first applied to this group in 1856 by James Richardson Logan, who added Karen in 1858.[2][3] The third volume of the Linguistic Survey of India was devoted to the Tibeto-Burman languages of British India.

Studies of the "Indo-Chinese" languages of Southeast Asia from the mid-19th century by Logan and others revealed that they comprised four families: Tibeto-Burman, Tai, Mon–Khmer and Malayo-Polynesian. Julius Klaproth had noted in 1823 that Burmese, Tibetan and Chinese all shared common basic vocabulary but that Thai, Mon, and Vietnamese were quite different.[4][5] Ernst Kuhn envisaged a group with two branches, Chinese-Siamese and Tibeto-Burman.[a] August Conrady called this group Indo-Chinese in his influential 1896 classification, though he had doubts about Karen. Conrady's terminology was widely used, but there was uncertainty regarding his exclusion of Vietnamese. Franz Nikolaus Finck in 1909 placed Karen as a third branch of Chinese-Siamese.[6]

Jean Przyluski introduced the term sino-tibétain as the title of his chapter on the group in Meillet and Cohen's Les langues du monde in 1924.[7] He retained Conrady's two branches of Tibeto-Burman and "Sino-Daic", with Miao–Yao included within Daic (Tai–Kadai). The English translation "Sino-Tibetan" first appeared in a short note by Przyluski and Luce in 1931.[8]

Shafer and Benedict[edit]

In 1935, the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber started the Sino-Tibetan Philology Project, funded by the Works Project Administration and based at the University of California, Berkeley. The project was supervised by Robert Shafer until late 1938, and then by Paul K. Benedict. Under their direction, the staff of 30 non-linguists collated all the available documentation of Sino-Tibetan languages. The result was 8 copies of a 15-volume typescript entitled Sino-Tibetan Linguistics.[9][b] This work was never published, but furnished the data for a series of papers by Shafer, as well as Shafer's five-volume Introduction to Sino-Tibetan and Benedict's Sino-Tibetan, a Conspectus.[11]

Benedict completed the manuscript of his work in 1941, but it was not published until 1972.[12] Instead of building the entire family tree, he set out to reconstruct a Proto-Tibeto-Burman language by comparing five major languages, with occasional comparisons with other languages.[13] He reconstructed a two-way distinction on initial consonants based on voicing, with aspiration conditioned by pre-initial consonants that had been retained in Tibetan but lost in many other languages.[14] For example, Benedict reconstructed two velar initials (other places are similar) as follows:[15]

TB Tibetan Jingpho Burmese Garo Mizo
*k k(h) k(h) ~ g k(h) k(h) ~ g k(h)
*g g g ~ k(h) k g ~ k(h) k

Although the initial consonants of cognates tend to have the same place and manner of articulation, voicing is often unpredictable.[16] This irregularity was attacked by Roy Andrew Miller,[17] though Benedict's supporters attribute it to the effects of prefixes that have been lost and are often unrecoverable.[18] The issue remains unsolved today.[16] It was cited together with the lack of reconstructable shared morphology, and evidence that much shared lexical material has been borrowed from Chinese into Tibeto-Burman, by Christopher Beckwith, one of the few scholars still arguing that Chinese is not related to Tibeto-Burman.[19][20]


Several low-level branches of the family, particularly Lolo–Burmese, have been securely reconstructed, but in the absence of a secure reconstruction of proto-Sino-Tibetan, the higher-level structure of the family remains unclear.[21][22] Thus a conservative classification of Sino-Tibetan/Tibeto-Burman would posit several dozen small coordinate families and isolates; attempts at subgrouping are either geographic conveniences or hypotheses for further research.

Li (1937)[edit]

In a survey in the Chinese Yearbook, Li Fang-Kuei described Sino-Tibetan as consisting of four branches:[23]


The latter two groups were included because they shared isolating typology, tone systems and some vocabulary with Chinese. At the time, tone was considered so fundamental to language that tonal typology could be used as the basis for classification. In the Western scholarly community, these languages are no longer included in Sino-Tibetan, with the similarities attributed to borrowings and areal features, especially since Benedict (1972). The exclusionary position of Kuhn and Benedict would be vindicated when André-Georges Haudricourt demonstrated in 1954 that the tones of Vietnamese were reflexes of final consonants from Proto-Mon–Khmer.

Many Chinese linguists continue to follow Li's classification.[c] However this arrangement remains problematic. For example, there is disagreement over whether to include the entire Tai–Kadai family or just Kam–Tai (Zhuang–Dong which excludes the Kra languages), since the Chinese cognates that form the basis of the putative relationship are not found in all branches of the family and have not been reconstructed for the family as a whole. In addition, Kam–Tai itself no longer appears to be a valid node within Tai–Kadai.

Benedict (1942)[edit]

Benedict overtly excluded Vietnamese (placing it in Mon–Khmer) as well as Hmong-Mien and Tai–Kadai (placing them in Austro-Tai). He otherwise retained the outlines of Conrady's Indo-Chinese classification, though putting Karen in an intermediate position:[24][25]

  • Chinese
  • Tibeto-Karen
    • Karen
    • Tibeto-Burman

Shafer (1955)[edit]

Shafer quickly realized that Daic was not Sino-Tibetan, but after meeting Henri Maspero in Paris he left comparative Daic material in the project's publications even though he remained skeptical about a genealogical relationship.[26] He rejected the division of the family into Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman branches but instead placed Sinitic on the same level as other branches as working hypotheses:[27]


(For Shafer, the suffix -ic denoted a primary division of the family, whereas the -ish suffix denoted a sub-division of one of those.)

Matisoff (1978)[edit]

Matisoff abandoned Benedict's Tibeto-Karen hypothesis:

  • Chinese
  • Tibeto-Burman

Some more recent Western scholars, such as Bradley (1997) and La Polla (2003), have retained Matisoff's two primary branches, though differing in the details of Tibeto-Burman. However, Jacques (2006) notes, "comparative work has never been able to put forth evidence for common innovations to all the Tibeto-Burman languages (the Sino-Tibetan languages to the exclusion of Chinese)"[d] and that "it no longer seems justified to treat Chinese as the first branching of the Sino-Tibetan family,"[e] since the morphological divide between Chinese and Tibeto-Burman has been bridged by recent reconstructions of Old Chinese.

Starostin (1996)[edit]

Starostin proposed that both the Kiranti languages and Chinese are divergent from a "core" Tibeto-Burman of at least Bodish, Lolo–Burmese, Tamangic, Jinghpaw, Kukish, and Karen (other families were not analysed) in a hypothesis called Sino-Kiranti. The proposal takes two forms: that Sinitic and Kiranti are themselves a valid node or that the two are not demonstrably close, so that Sino-Tibetan has three primary branches:

Sino-Tibetan (version 1)
  • Sino-Kiranti
  • Tibeto-Burman
Sino-Tibetan (version 2)
  • Chinese
  • Kiranti
  • Tibeto-Burman

van Driem (1997)[edit]

Van Driem, like Shafer, rejects a primary split between Chinese and the rest. He calls the entire family "Tibeto-Burman", a name he says has historical primacy,[28] but other linguists who reject a privileged position for Chinese continue to call the resulting family "Sino-Tibetan". Van Driem has more recently suggested "Trans-Himalayan" as a more neutral alternative name for the family.[29]

Van Driem has proposed several hypotheses, including a demotion of Chinese to part of a Sino-Bodic subgroup:


Van Driem points to two main pieces of evidence establishing a special relationship between Sinitic and Bodic and thus placing Chinese within the Tibeto-Burman family. First, there are a number of parallels between the morphology of Old Chinese and the modern Bodic languages. Second, there is an impressive body of lexical cognates between the Chinese and Bodic languages, represented by the Kirantic language Limbu.[30]

In response, Matisoff notes that the existence of shared lexical material only serves to establish an absolute relationship between two language families, not their relative relationship to one another. While it is true that some of the cognate sets presented by van Driem are confined to Chinese and Bodic, many others are found in Tibeto-Burman languages generally and thus do not serve as evidence for a special relationship between Chinese and Bodic.[31]


With the exception of the Chinese, Karen and Bai languages, the usual word order in Sino-Tibetan languages is object–verb. Most scholars believe this to be the original order, with Chinese, Karen and Bai having acquired subject–verb–object order due to the influence of neighbouring languages in the Mainland Southeast Asia linguistic area.[32] However Chinese and Bai differ from almost all other OV languages in the world in placing relative clauses before the nouns they modify.[33]

Hodgson had in 1849 noted a dichotomy between "pronominalized" (inflecting) languages, stretching across the Himalayas from Himachal Pradesh to eastern Nepal, and "non-pronominalized" (isolating) languages. Konow (1909) explained the pronominalized languages as due to a Munda substratum, with the idea that Indo-Chinese languages were essentially isolating as well as tonal. Maspero later attributed the putative substratum to Indo-Aryan. It was not until Benedict that the inflectional systems of these languages were recognized as (partially) native to the family. Scholars disagree over the extent to which the agreement system in the various languages can be reconstructed for the proto-language.[34][35]


Sino-Tibetan numerals
gloss Old Chinese[36] Old Tibetan[37] Old Burmese[37] Jingpho[38] Garo[38] Limbu[38] Kanauri[38]
"one" *ʔjit ac thik
"two" *njijs gñis nhac ni gəni nis
"three" *sum gsum sumḥ məsum githam sum◦si s̱ẖŭm
"four" *s.ljij-s bźi liy məli –bri liː◦si
"five" *ŋaʔ lṅa ṅāḥ məŋa bo'ŋa ŋaː◦si ṅā
"six" *C-rjuk drug khrok kru dok tuk◦si ʈǔg
"seven" *tsʰjit khu-nac sənit səni stis̱ẖ
"eight" *pret brgyad rhac mətsat tśhet rae
"nine" *kjuʔ dgu kuiḥ džəkhu sku zgŭī
"ten" *gjəp kip gip
chay tśi tśi

External classification[edit]

Beyond the traditionally recognized families of Southeast Asia, a number of possible broader relationships have been suggested. One of these is the "Sino-Caucasian" hypothesis of Sergei Starostin, which posits that the Yeniseian languages and North Caucasian languages form a clade with Sino-Tibetan. The Sino-Caucasian hypothesis has been expanded by others to "Dené–Caucasian" to include the Na-Dené languages of North America, Burushaski, Basque and, occasionally, Etruscan. Edward Sapir had commented on a connection between Na-Dené and Sino-Tibetan.[39] (A narrower binary Dené–Yeniseian family has recently been well-received but not conclusively demonstrated.) In contrast, Laurent Sagart (2005) proposes a Sino-Austronesian family relating Sino-Tibetan to the Austronesian languages.

Peoples and languages[edit]

Circle frame.svg

Proportion of first-language speakers of larger branches of Sino-Tibetan[40]

  Chinese (94.28%)
  Lolo-Burmese (3.39%)
  Tibetic (0.44%)
  Karen (0.30%)
  Other (1.59%)

There is no ethnic unity among the many peoples who speak Sino-Tibetan languages. The most numerous are the Han Chinese, numbering 1.3 billion. The Hui (10 million) also speak Chinese but are considered ethnically distinct by the PRC regime. The more numerous peoples speaking other Sino-Tibetan languages are the Burmese (42 million), Yi (Lolo) (7 million), Tibetans (6 million), Karen (5 million), Manipuris (1.5 million), Naga (1.2 million), Tamang (1.1 million), Chin (1.1 million), Newar (1 million), Bodo (1.5 million), and Kachin (1 million). The Burmese live in Burma (Myanmar). Kachin, Karen, Red Karen, and Chin peoples live in the Rakhine, Kachin, Kayin, Kayah, and Chin states of Burma. Tibetans live in the Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai, western Sichuan, Gansu, and northern Yunnan provinces in China and in Ladakh in the Kashmir region of Pakistan and India, while Manipuris, Mizo, Naga, Tripuri, Idu Mishmis, and Garo live in Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, and Meghalaya states of India. Bodo and Karbi live in Assam, India, while Adi, Nishi, Apa Tani, and Galo, calling themselves sons and descendants of Abotani, live in Arunachal Pradesh, India.


  1. ^ Kuhn (1889), p. 189: "wir das Tibetisch-Barmanische einerseits, das Chinesisch-Siamesische anderseits als deutlich geschiedene und doch wieder verwandte Gruppen einer einheitlichen Sprachfamilie anzuerkennen haben." (also quoted in van Driem (2001), p. 264.)
  2. ^ The volumes were: 1. Introduction and bibliography, 2. Bhotish, 3. West Himalayish, 4. West central Himalayish, 5. East Himalayish, 6–7. Digarish–Nungish, 8. Dzorgaish, 9. Hruso, 10. Dhimalish, 11. Baric, 12. Burmish–Lolish, 13. Kachinish, 14. Kukish, 15. Mruish.[10]
  3. ^ See, for example, the "Sino-Tibetan" (汉藏语系 Hàn-Zàng yǔxì) entry in the "languages" (語言文字, Yǔyán-Wénzì) volume of the Encyclopedia of China (1988).
  4. ^ les travaux de comparatisme n’ont jamais pu mettre en évidence l’existence d’innovations communes à toutes les langues « tibéto-birmanes » (les langues sino-tibétaines à l’exclusion du chinois)
  5. ^ il ne semble plus justifié de traiter le chinois comme le premier embranchement primaire de la famille sino-tibétaine


  1. ^ Handel (2008), pp. 422, 434–436.
  2. ^ Logan (1856), p. 31.
  3. ^ Logan (1858).
  4. ^ van Driem (2001), p. 334.
  5. ^ Klaproth (1823), pp. 346, 363–365.
  6. ^ van Driem (2001), p. 344.
  7. ^ Sapir (1925), p. 373.
  8. ^ Przyluski & Luce (1931).
  9. ^ Hale (1982), p. 4.
  10. ^ Miller (1974), p. 195.
  11. ^ Miller (1974), pp. 195–196.
  12. ^ Matisoff (1991), p. 473.
  13. ^ Handel (2008), p. 434.
  14. ^ Benedict (1972), pp. 20–21.
  15. ^ Benedict (1972), p. 17.
  16. ^ a b Handel (2008), pp. 425–426.
  17. ^ Miller (1974), p. 197.
  18. ^ Matisoff (2003), p. 16.
  19. ^ Beckwith (1996).
  20. ^ Beckwith (2002).
  21. ^ Handel (2008), p. 426.
  22. ^ DeLancey (2009), p. 695.
  23. ^ Handel (2008), p. 424.
  24. ^ Benedict (1942), p. 600.
  25. ^ Benedict (1972), pp. 2–4.
  26. ^ van Driem (2001), pp. 343–344.
  27. ^ Shafer (1966), p. 1.
  28. ^ van Driem (2001), p. 383.
  29. ^ van Driem (2011).
  30. ^ van Driem (1997).
  31. ^ Matisoff (2000).
  32. ^ Dryer (2003), pp. 43–45.
  33. ^ Dryer (2003), pp. 50.
  34. ^ Handel (2008), p. 430.
  35. ^ LaPolla (2003), pp. 29–32.
  36. ^ Baxter (1992).
  37. ^ a b Hill (2012).
  38. ^ a b c d "9.9 Numbers and numeric expression". Sino-Tibetan Etymological Dictionary and Thesaurus. University of California, Berkeley. 2010–2013. 
  39. ^ Shafer (1952).
  40. ^ Lewis, Simons & Fennig (2013).
Works cited

External links[edit]