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Sino-Tibetan languages

Sino-Tibetan Geographic
distribution: East AsiaGenetic
: One of the world's major language families. Subdivisions: ChineseTibeto-BurmanTai-Kadai(controversial) Hmong-Mien(controversial) ISO 639-2: sit

     Sino-Tibetan languages

The Sino-Tibetan languages form a language family composed of, at least, the Chinese and the Tibeto-Burman languages, including some 250 languages of East Asia. They are second only to the Indo-European languages in terms of their number of speakers.



A few scholars, most prominently Christopher Beckwith and Roy Andrew Miller, argue that Chinese is not related to Tibeto-Burman. They point to an absence of regular sound correspondences, an absence of reconstructable shared morphology,[1] 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 paucity in many of these languages, including modern Chinese and Tibetan.

In the past, Vietnamese and other Mon-Khmer languages were classified under the Sino-Tibetan tree. Today their similarities to Chinese are credited to language contact. However, what should be included in the family is yet to be settled. In the Western scholarly circle, the other tonal language families of East Asia, Tai-Kadai and Hmong-Mien, are no longer classified under the Sino-Tibetan tree either, with the similarities attributed to borrowings and areal features, especially after Benedict's publication (1972). However, in the Chinese scholarly world, Tai-Kadai and Hmong-Mien are still included in the Sino-Tibetan family (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)).


James Matisoff's classification is as follows:

Sino-Tibetan (Matisoff)

Not all of the "branches" of Matisoff's classification are intended as genealogical nodes. For example, Matisoff makes no claim that the families in the Kamarupan or Himalayish branches have a special relationship to one another other than a geographic one. They are intended rather as categories of convenience pending more detailed comparative work.

Like Matisoff, George van Driem acknowledges that the relationships of the "Kuki-Naga" languages (Kuki, Mizo, Meitei, etc.), both amongst each other and to the other Tibeto-Burman languages, remain unclear. However, rather than placing them in a geographic grouping, as Matisoff does, van Driem leaves them unclassified.

Van Driem proposed that Chinese owes its traditional privileged place in the Matisoffian classification to cultural rather than linguistic criteria, much as Semitic was once considered a primary branch of a "Hamito-Semitic" family; and just as Semitic was later demoted to a sub-branch of Afro-Asiatic, several recent classifications have demoted Chinese to a sub-branch of Tibeto-Burman.

Van Driem's classification is typical of this view (controversial):

Tibeto-Burman (Van Driem)

The essential part of this model is called the Sino-Bodic hypothesis, for it proposes that the closest relatives of Chinese are the Bodic languages such as Tibetan.


Advocates of the Sino-Bodic hypothesis point 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.

Opponents of the Sino-Bodic hypothesis present two rebuttals. First, they 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.

Second is the reconstruction of Proto-Tibeto-Burman produced by Benedict and refined by later scholars. This was largely based on data from literary Tibetan, literary Burmese, Mizo (Lushai), and Jingpho (Kachin), although Matisoff (2003) has used data from a very large number of languages. From the reconstructed forms, reflexes in each of these and many other Tibeto-Burman languages may be derived by the application of regular sound laws. If Chinese had an especially close relationship to Bodic, and therefore to literary Tibetan, any reconstruction that accounted properly for both Tibetan and languages outside of Bodic (such as Mizo and Jingpho) should be able to account for Chinese as well; however, Chinese forms cannot be derived from these reconstructions through regular sound laws – in other words, Tibeto-Burman has innovations that Sinitic lacks. Thus Sino-Bodic is not supported as a group distinct from Sino-Tibetan in this view.

Relationship with other families

Sino-Tibetan's relationship with other families have been suggested, such as the "Sino-Caucasian" hypothesis by Sergei Starostin, which finds the Yeniseian languages and the Caucasian languages to form a clade with Sino-Tibetan languages. The Sino-Caucasian hypothesis has been expanded by other workers to the "Dené-Caucasian" hypothesis, which also includes Burushaski, Basque, and at least the Na-Dené languages of North America.


  1. ^ Cf. 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. Vol. III, pp. 812-826. Bangkok: Mahidol University at Salaya.


  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Thurgood, Graham and Randy J. LaPolla (ed.s) (2003). Sino-Tibetan Languages. London: Routledge. ISBN 0700711295.
  • 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.

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Categories: Language families | Sino-Tibetan languages

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