Sino-Tibetan languages

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

The Sino-Tibetan languages are a language family comprising, at least, the Chinese and the Tibeto-Burman languages, including some 250 languages of East Asia, Southeast Asia and parts of South Asia. They are second only to the Indo-European languages in terms of the number of native speakers. The internal classification of the family is debated.


History of the proposal

In 1823, Julius Klaproth suggested a modern-looking classification, nothing similar to which would be proposed again for over a century. He noted that the Burmese, Tibetan, and Chinese all shared common basic vocabulary, but that Thai, Mon and Vietnamese were quite different.

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.[1][2] Logan viewed the family as uniting the Gangetic and Lohitic branches of Max Müller's Turanian, a huge family consisting of all the Eurasian languages except the Semitic, Aryan (Indo-European) and Chinese languages. (Later writers would include Chinese within Turanian.)

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. In 1858 Logan suggested that Chinese, Tibeto-Burman, Tai and Mon–Annamese (Mon–Khmer) formed a Chino-Himalaic subgroup of Turanian. Ernst Kuhn divided the Indo-Chinese languages, plus Chinese, into northern and southern groups in 1883, sub-dividing the former into two primary branches:

Northern Indo-Chinese
  • Chinese-Siamese
  • Tibeto-Burman

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.

Jean Przyluski introduced the term sino-tibétain (Sino-Tibetan) as the title of his chapter on the group in Meillet and Cohen's Les Langues du Monde in 1924.[3] He retained Conrady's two branches of Tibeto-Burman and "Sino-Daic", with Miao–Yao included within Daic. The term was adopted by Alfred Kroeber for the UC Berkeley Sino-Tibetan Philology project, where Robert Shafer worked. Shafer quickly realized that Daic was not Sino-Tibetan, but out of respect to Henri Maspero in Paris he left comparative Daic material in the project's publications, though he never claimed a genealogical relationship (van Driem 2001:323). Shafer (1941) also 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:

  • Sinitic
  • Daic
  • Bodic
  • Burmic
  • Baric
  • Karenic

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

Chinese and Tibeto-Burman

Paul K. Benedict had joined the Berkeley team in 1938, and in 1942 he published his own classification, where he overtly excluded Vietnamese (placing it in Mon–Khmer), Miao–Yao, and Daic ('Kadai', placing it in Austro-Tai). He otherwise retained the outlines of Conrady's Indo-Chinese classification, except for putting Karen in an intermediate position:

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

Matisoff (19xx) abandoned Benedict's Tibeto-Karen hypothesis:

  • Chinese
  • Tibeto-Burman

Most later 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),"[4] and that "it no longer seems justified to treat Chinese as the first branching of the Sino-Tibetan family,"[5] as the morphological divide between Chinese and Tibeto-Burman has been bridged by recent reconstructions of Old Chinese. 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. Nonetheless, a few internal proposals such as Tibeto-Kanauri (aka Bodish–Himalayish), Sal (aka Brahmaputran), and Maha-Kiranti have wide support. See Tibeto-Burman for contrastive classifications.

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, and subsequent work has reconstructed such a system for the proto-language.

Status of Thai and Hmong–Mien

In the past, tone was considered so fundamental to language that tonal typology could be used as the basis for classification. Thus Vietnamese, Tai–Kadai and Hmong–Mien (Miao–Yao), all languages with a similar tone system to Chinese, were classified under the Sino-Tibetan tree. In the Western scholarly community, these languages are no longer classified under the Sino-Tibetan tree, 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 published on Vietnamese tonogenesis in 1954.

In the Chinese scholarly community, Tai–Kadai (actually Kam–Tai (Zhuang–Dong), which excludes the Kra languages) and Hmong–Mien have commonly been included in the Sino-Tibetan family.[6] Although some Chinese linguists continue to include the Miao–Yao and Kam–Tai families in Sino-Tibetan, this arrangement remains problematic. For example, there is disagreement over whether the entire Tai–Kadai family should be included, 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.

Challenges to the inclusion of Chinese

A few scholars, most prominently Christopher Beckwith and Roy Andrew Miller, argue that Chinese is not related to Tibeto-Burman. They point to what they consider an absence of regular sound correspondences, an absence of reconstructable shared morphology, and evidence that much shared lexical material has been borrowed from Chinese into Tibeto-Burman.[7][8][9] In opposition to this view, scholars in favor of the Sino-Tibetan hypothesis such as W. South Coblin, Graham Thurgood, James Matisoff, and Gong Hwang-cherng have argued that there are regular correspondences in sounds as well as in grammar.

One of the chief difficulties of applying the comparative method to the Sino-Tibetan languages is the morphological simplicity of many of these languages.


Starostin (1996) 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

No Sino-Tibetan specialist, however, has accepted Starostin's hypothesis.


Van Driem (2001) returned to Shafer's position, rejecting a primary split between Chinese and the rest. He calls the entire family "Tibeto-Burman", which name he says has historical primacy, but most other linguists who reject a priviledged 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.

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

  • Western (Baric, Brahmaputran or Sal)
  • Eastern
    • Northern (Sino-Bodic)
      • North-western (Bodic): Bodish, Kirantic, West Himalayish, Tamangic
      • North-eastern (Sinitic)
    • Southern
      • South-western: Lolo–Burmese, Karenic
      • South-eastern: Qiangic, Jiarongic

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.[10]

In response, opponents of the Sino-Bodic hypothesis note that the existence of shared lexical material only serves to establish an absolute relationship between two linguistic groups, not their relative relationship to one another. While it is true that some of the cognate sets presented by supporters of the Sino-Bodic hypothesis 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.[11]

External classification

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.[12] (A narrower binary Dené–Yeniseian family has recently been well-received, but is not yet conclusively demonstrated.) In contrast, Laurent Sagart (2005) suggests that Sino-Tibetan is genetically related to the Austronesian languages.

Peoples and languages

The most numerous of the Sino-Tibetan-speaking peoples are the Han Chinese numbering 1.3 billion people. The Hui (10 million) also speak Chinese, but are ethnically distinct. The more numerous of the Tibeto-Burman-speaking peoples are the Burmese (42 million), Yi (Lolo) (7 million), Tibetans (6 million), Karen (5 million), Bhutanese (1.5 million), Manipuris (1.5 million), Naga (1.2 million), Tamang (1.1 million), Chin (1.1 million), Newar (1 million), Bodo (1 million), Kachin (1 million). The Hui people live predominantly in the Ningxia autonomous region of China. The Burmese and Bhutanese peoples mostly live in Burma (Myanmar) and Bhutan. Rakhine, Kachin, Karen, Red Karen, and Chin peoples live in 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. ^ Logan, James R. (1856). "The Maruwi of the Baniak Islands". Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia 1 (1): 1–42. 
  2. ^ Logan, James R. (1858). "The West-Himalaic or Tibetan tribes of Asam, Burma and Pegu". Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia 2 (1): 68–114. 
  3. ^ Sapir, Edward (1925). "Review: Les Langues du Monde". Modern Language Notes 40 (6): 373–375. JSTOR 2914102. 
  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
  6. ^ See, for example, the "Sino-Tibetan" (汉藏语系) entry in the Encyclopedia of China, found in the "languages" (语言文字) volume, 1988, and the "linguistics and philology" (語言文字, Yǔyán-Wénzì) volume of the Encyclopedia of China (1988).
  7. ^ Miller, Roy Andrew (1974). "Sino-Tibetan: Inspection of a Conspectus". Journal of the American Oriental Society 94 (2): 195–209. JSTOR 600891. 
  8. ^ Beckwith, Christopher I. (1996). "The Morphological Argument for the Existence of Sino-Tibetan". Pan-Asiatic Linguistics: Proceedings of the Fourth International Symposium on Languages and Linguistics, January 8–10, 1996. Bangkok: Mahidol University at Salaya. pp. 812–826. 
  9. ^ Beckwith, Christopher (2002). "The Sino-Tibetan problem". Medieval Tibeto-Burman languages. Brill. pp. 113–158. ISBN 978-90-04-12424-0. 
  10. ^ van Driem (1997).
  11. ^ Matisoff, James A. (2000). "On 'Sino-Bodic' and Other Symptoms of Neosubgroupitis". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 63 (3): 356–369. JSTOR 1559492. 
  12. ^ Shafer, Robert (1952). "Athapaskan and Sino-Tibetan". International Journal of American Linguistics 18 (1): 12–19. JSTOR 1263121. 

See also

  • Proto-Tibeto-Burman language


  • Baxter, William H. (1995). "'A Stronger Affinity ... Than Could Have Been Produced by Accident': A Probabilistic Comparison of Old Chinese and Tibeto-Burman", in William S.-Y. Wang (ed.) The Ancestry of the Chinese Language (Journal of Chinese Linguistics Monographs, 8), Berkeley: Project on Linguistic Analysis, pp. 1–39.
  • Benedict, Paul K. (1972). Sino-Tibetan: A Conspectus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521081750.
  • Coblin, W. South (1986). A Sinologist's Handlist of Sino-Tibetan Lexical Comparisons. Monumenta Serica Monograph Series 18. Nettetal: Steyler Verlag. ISBN 3877872085.
  • van Driem, George (1995). "Black Mountain Conjugational Morphology, Proto-Tibeto-Burman Morphosyntax, and the Linguistic Position of Chinese". Senri Ethnological Studies 41:229-259.
  • ——— (1997). "Sino-Bodic". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 60(3):455-488.
  • ——— (2001). Languages of the Himalayas: An Ethnolinguistic Handbook of the Greater Himalayan Region. Brill.
  • ——— (2003). "Tibeto-Burman vs. Sino-Tibetan", Werner Winter, Brigitte L. M. Bauer and Georges-Jean Pinault (eds.) Language in time and space: a Festschrift for Werner Winter on the occasion of his 80th birthday, Walter de Gruyter, pp. 101–119. ISBN 978-3-11-017648-3.
  • Gong Hwang-cherng (2002). Han Zang yu yanjiu lunwen ji (漢藏語硏究論文集 "Collected papers on Sino-Tibetan linguistics"). Taipei: Academia Sinica. ISBN 9576718724.
  • Jacques, Guillaume (2006). "La morphologie du sino-tibétain." In La linguistique comparative en France aujourd’hui, 4 March. [1]
  • Matisoff, James (2000). "On 'Sino-Bodic' and Other Symptoms of Neosubgroupitis". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 63(3):356-369.
  • ——— (2003). Handbook of Proto-Tibeto-Burman: System and Philosophy of Sino-Tibetan Reconstruction (805 pages, 3.2 MB). Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0520098439.
  • Nedeljković, Mile (2001). Leksikon naroda sveta, Beograd.
  • Sagart, Laurent 2005. "Sino-Tibetan–Austronesian: an updated and improved argument." Laurent Sagart, Roger Blench & Alicia Sanchez-Mazas, eds. The Peopling of East Asia: Putting Together Archaeology, Linguistics and Genetics. London: Routledge Curzon, pp. 161–176.
  • Starostin, Sergei, and I. I. Pejrosom (1996). A Comparative Dictionary of Five Sino-Tibetan Languages Melbourne University Press.
  • Thurgood, Graham and Randy J. LaPolla (ed.s) (2003). Sino-Tibetan Languages. London: Routledge. ISBN 0700711295.

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