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Title: Proto-Sino-Tibetan  
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Subject: Middle Chinese, Checked tone, History of the Chinese language, Mizo language
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East Asia
Linguistic classification: One of the world's major language families.
Ethnologue code: 5: sit

  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, including the Chinese and Tibeto-Burman languages. 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

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. Charles Forbes 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.

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. 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 as the title of his chapter on the group in Meillet and Cohen's Les Langues du Monde in 1924. 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. 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 after meeting Henri Maspero in Paris he left comparative Daic material in the project's publications, though he remained skeptical about a genealogical relationship. 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 Tai–Kadai ('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 (1978) 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)," and that "it no longer seems justified to treat Chinese as the first branching of the Sino-Tibetan family," 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 (or Bodish–Himalayish), Sal (or 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 Tai 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. 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 relationship

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. 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), like Shafer, rejects 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 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.

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.

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 language families, 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.

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. (A narrower binary Dené–Yeniseian family has recently been well-received, but is not yet conclusively demonstrated.) In contrast, Laurent Sagart (2005) proposes a Sino-Austronesian family relating Sino-Tibetan to the Austronesian languages.

Bede Fahey has reported a large number of lexical similarities and phonemic correspondences between Mayan and Sino-Tibetan languages.[1]

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 (1.5 million), Kachin (1 million). The Hui people live in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region of China and, in significant populations, elsewhere in Northwest 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).

The evidence for membership in Sino-Tibetan of several of the groups spoken in Arunachal Pradesh has been questioned, see Tibeto-Burman languages#Other languages.

See also

  • Proto-Tibeto-Burman language



Works cited
  • 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.
  • Coblin, W. South (1986). A Sinologist's Handlist of Sino-Tibetan Lexical Comparisons. Monumenta Serica Monograph Series 18. Nettetal: Steyler Verlag. ISBN 3-87787-208-5.
  • van Driem, George (1995). "Black Mountain Conjugational Morphology, Proto-Tibeto-Burman Morphosyntax, and the Linguistic Position of Chinese". Senri Ethnological Studies 41:229-259.
  • ——— (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 957-671-872-4.
  • "La morphologie du sino-tibétain." In La linguistique comparative en France aujourd’hui, 4 March.
  • Matisoff, James A. (2003). ISBN 0-520-09843-9.
  • 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. ISBN 978-0-415-32242-3.
  • Starostin, Sergei, and I. I. Pejrosom (1996). A Comparative Dictionary of Five Sino-Tibetan Languages Melbourne University Press.
  • Thurgood, Graham and Randy J. LaPolla (eds.) (2003). The Sino-Tibetan Languages. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-7007-1129-5.

External links

  • James Matisoff, Tibeto-Burman languages and their subgrouping -
  • The Genetic Position of Chinese, by Guillaume Jacques
  • MultiTree, The Linguist List MultiTree Project: Sino-Tibetan Family Trees

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