Stefan GEORG

Sino-Tibetan languages, by some measurements the largest language family in the world, are divided into two groups. The Sinitic group includes variants of Chinese; the Tibeto-Burman group includes several hundred languages and language groups.

In terms of the number of people who speak one of its components as their first language, Sino-Tibetan is the largest language family in the world. Sino-Tibetan includes Chinese and its variants, Tibetan, most of the indigenous languages of the Himalayan region, and some of the more important languages of Southeast Asia.

The Sino-Tibetan family is divided into two groups. Whereas the sole constituents of Sinitic are the variants of Chinese (which are mostly—but mistakenly—referred to as the “dialects” of Chinese), the Tibeto-Burman branch totals several hundred often little-known languages and language groups, the proper linguistic classification of which is still largely unfinished.

The Bodic (bod, Tibetan for Tibet) languages are subdivided into Bodish and East Himalayan. The former include Tibetan proper and its variants, Kanauri in northern India and Newari and the Tamangic languages in Nepal (Tamang, Gurung, and Thakali). East Himalayan is formed by, among others, the Kiranti (or Rai) languages, the Kham-Magar group, and Bahing (Vayu). These are spoken in central and eastern Nepal. Baric is a conventional term used for the Kamarupan languages (named after the medieval state of Kamarupa in northeastern India), which are made up of a large number of lesser language groups, which are subdivided into the Abor-Miri-Dafla, Kuki-Chin-Naga, and Mikir-Meithei groups.

Burmic includes the Lolo-Burmese group, the most important language of which is literary Burmese, the national language of Myanmar (Burma); Burmic also includes sizable groups of languages in Thailand, such as Lisu and Lahu.

Karenic, sometimes regarded as a higher-level subgroup of Sino-Tibetan, taxonomically (in terms of its scientific classification) coordinates with Tibeto-Burman rather than being one of its branches and consists of the Karen languages Pwo and Sgaw, spoken in Myanmar and Thailand.

Kachinic (for example, Jinghpo, or Kachin proper, in northern Myanmar) is sometimes classified as a subbranch of Baric, but some scholars group it with Burmic or treat it as a separate Tibeto-Burman branch.

Qiangic, a small language family in south China, recently has been added to Tibeto-Burman; scholars sometimes view it as a separate branch of the family, sometimes included in Burmic. Some linguists establish a distinct Rung branch, composed of Qiangic, Gyarong and Primi/Pumi of southwestern China, and the Nung languages of northern Myanmar. The extinct language of the Tangut (the language of the Xi Xia empire, which flourished in Shaanxi and Gansu provinces between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries), written in a unique and complicated script, is mostly viewed as Tibeto-Burman. Scholars still debate its place in the family, but most opt for its inclusion in either the Rung subgroup or Lolo-Burmese.

The Bai (or Minjia) language of northern Yunnan Province in China may constitute a separate Tibeto-Burman group. This classification of Sino-Tibetan or Tibeto-Burman, as well as any other, can be viewed as only preliminary, and many details of it are still debated.

Another division of the Tibeto-Burman language—into indospheric and sinospheric languages—is based on cultural rather than linguistic criteria. Indospheric languages (the most typical of which are the Bodic and Baric languages) are spoken in the cultural realm of greater India, whereas sinospheric languages are spoken in the cultural realm of China. The millennia-long influences of these two dominant cultural areas are reflected in many loanwords (words taken from another language and at least partly naturalized) from Chinese and Indo-Aryan languages, respectively, found in the languages as well as in some real linguistic traits. Indospheric languages thus generally display more complicated morphological (relating to word formation) systems than languages of the sinosphere (with the Kiranti languages in eastern Nepal being morphologically the most elaborate of the Sino-Tibetan languages), whereas the latter, which are generally poorer in morphological devices, tend to use monosyllabic lexemes (units of vocabulary in a language), display intricate tone systems, and so forth. However, this division is far from being unequivocal, and it does not imply that direct influence of the eponymous languages is solely responsible for these differences.

Writing Systems

Some Sino-Tibetan languages are among those with the longest continuous written record in history.

Tibetans writing began in the seventh century CE; the script was an offshoot of the Indian family of scripts and continues to be used today. Newari, the language of the original inhabitants of the Katmandu valley, has been written in Devanagari script since the seventeenth century (with at least one manuscript dated as early as the fourteenth century). Lepcha, the state language of Sikkim, has a script of its own that has been in use since the eighteenth century, although it is little used today. Burmese has been written since the twelfth century in a script that is likewise an offshoot of an Indic predecessor.

A different kind of script, which some scholars have called possibly the most complicated writing system humanity has ever used, is the Tangut script, which rendered the language of the Xi Xia empire. Although progress was made in Tangut philology (the study of the meaning and use of words) and linguistics during the last decades of the twentieth century, it is not fully deciphered.

The Naxi (or Moso) language of Yunnan Province in China is known for an interesting kind of writing system that mainly consists of iconic, but nonetheless conventionalized, pictographs.

Questions Remain

Although the genetic relationship of the Sino-Tibetan languages is no longer in doubt, details of the relationship have not been worked out. Understandably, one of the reasons for this uncertainty is the great number of languages in the Tibeto-Burman branch, only a small number of which have been adequately described. Moreover, an alarming number of these languages are endangered, rendering the collection of reliable data for them the most important task of Sino-Tibetan linguistics. On the Sinitic side the last decades of the twentieth century brought much progress in our understanding of the phonological (relating to speech sounds) prehistory of Chinese, although scholars still debate too many details to be able to speak of a consensus on the sound-shape of early Chinese.

Besides subclassification, the most debated topics of Sino-Tibetan linguistics include such questions as whether the complicated verbal concord (agreement) system of, for example, the Kiranti languages is to be taken as original for Tibeto-Burman or the more isolating typology (the fact that words show only a minimal amount of morphological elements) of the Southeast Asian members of the family—and if a more isolating and tonal parent language has to be reconstructed, how many distinctive tones should be reconstructed for the parent language, and so on.

A woman of Tibetan ancestry goes to market in Xiao Zhongdian, Yunnan Province. The Bai (or Minjia) language is spoken in northern Yunnan Province. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.


The Sino-Tibetan family shows perhaps more internal typological (categorized) diversity than any other established group of related languages. Most languages show systematic tonal contrasts, some do not. The basic word order in most Tibeto-Burman languages is subject-object-verb, but Karenic and Sinitic languages have subject-verb-object syntax (and prepositions as opposed to the postpositions common in the rest of the family). The morphological techniques used range from mostly isolating (in Southeast Asia and Sinitic), to agglutinative (relating to compound words), to high levels of polysynthesis (in Kiranti).

Further Reading

Benedict, P. K. (1972). Sino-Tibetan: A conspectus. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Beyer, S. V. (1992). The classical Tibetan language. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Georg, S. (1996). Marphatan Thakali. Munich, Germany: Lincom-Europa.

Matisoff, J. T. (1978). Variational semantics in Tibeto-Burman. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues.

Ramsey, S. R. (1987). The languages of China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Van Driem, G. (1987). A grammar of Limbu. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Source: Georg, Stefan. (2009). Sino-Tibetan Languages. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1993–1995. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Sino-Tibetan Languages (Hàn-Zàng y?xì de y?yán ???????)|Hàn-Zàng y?xì de y?yán ??????? (Sino-Tibetan Languages)

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