Sino-Tibetan Languages

I. Introduction

Sino-Tibetan Languages, a family of languages spoken in China, parts of Southeast Asia, and along the Himalayas, a mountain system in south central Asia. It is the world's second largest language family in number of speakers, surpassed only by the Indo-European language family, which includes English and most European languages. The Sino-Tibetan language family consists of about 200 languages in two major subfamilies: Chinese, or Sinitic languages, and Tibeto-Burman. The Tibeto-Burman subfamily comprises many more languages than the Chinese subfamily, but Chinese languages are spoken by many more people.

Although they are all written in the same system, the main variants of Chinese are not considered dialects. Linguists classify these variants as separate languages on the basis of differences in their vocabularies and pronunciation. These differences are similar to those found among Romance languages–for example, French, Italian, and Spanish.

II. Chinese Subfamily

The major language in the Chinese subfamily is Mandarin Chinese. With more than 800 million speakers, it is spoken by more people than any other language in the world. Other Chinese languages, such as Wu, Cantonese, Gan, Xiang, Hakka, Yue, and Min, have tens of millions of speakers. Chinese languages are spoken throughout China, in parts of central Asia, and in Chinese communities throughout Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

III. The Tibeto-Burman Subfamily

The major languages in the Tibeto-Burman subfamily are Tibetan, which is the dominant language in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, and Burmese, which is the national language of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Other languages in this subfamily are spoken in Bhutan, Nepal, Thailand, northern Pakistan, Sikkim and other parts of India, and the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan.

In terms of speakers, Burmese, with 30 million, is the largest language in the group. Tibetan and Yi, a language spoken in the mountains of southern Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in China, each have about 5 million speakers. (Yi was formerly known as Lolo, a term that some speakers of the language now consider derogatory.) A few other Tibeto-Burman languages have as many as 1 million speakers, but some have only a few hundred.

IV. Origins

Linguists believe that languages in the Sino-Tibetan family are related, having a common ancestral language. The distribution of these languages indicates that they spread along the many rivers that have their headwaters in an area of eastern China where the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan meet Tibet. These rivers include the Yalong, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Irrawaddy, Hwang Ho, and Brahmaputra. As groups of people who spoke the ancestral languages became isolated from one another, the different languages in the Sino-Tibetan family developed.

V. Linguistic Features

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All the Chinese languages and at least half the Tibeto-Burman languages are tonal–that is, the same syllable can have different meanings if spoken at a different pitch. However, Chinese and Tibeto-Burman differ in grammatical structure. Chinese has a subject-verb-object order (as does English). In Tibeto-Burman languages the verb follows the subject and object. Chinese also uses few prefixes and suffixes, whereas Tibeto-Burman languages add a number of suffixes to words, especially to verbs.

VI. Writing Systems and Literature

The best-known Sino-Tibetan writing system is the Chinese system, which dates from about 1000 BC. It uses thousands of distinctive characters called ideographs, which are symbols that represent ideas. The characters in this system, unlike letters in an alphabet, are not related to the sound of a word, but rather to its meaning. The earliest known examples of Chinese writing are inscriptions on polished ox bones or tortoise shells dating from the 14th century BC. See also Chinese Literature.

Most Tibeto-Burman languages were unwritten until the 20th century, but several of them have old writing systems with alphabets that are of Indian origin. Tibetan script dates from the 7th century and Burmese has been written since the 10th century. Both Tibetan and Burmese have extensive bodies of religious, historical, and literary writing that span centuries. Newari and Meithei also have writing systems derived from Indian scripts; Limbu (spoken in Nepal) and Lepcha (spoken in Sikkim) have alphabets based on Tibetan script.

VII. Classification

Early linguists, noting structural similarities and shared vocabulary between Chinese and languages of mainland Southeast Asia, assumed that Chinese and such languages as Thai, Lao, Vietnamese, and Miao-Yao (a small group of languages spoken in southern China, northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam) had all descended from the same language. The resemblances between Chinese and the Southeast Asian languages are now thought to be the result of prolonged and intense cultural contact rather than common ancestry. Linguists today consider Tibeto-Burman languages to be the closest relatives of Chinese.

Many questions about the classification of Tibeto-Burman languages remain unresolved. One commonly used system classifies the Tibeto-Burman languages into four branches: Bodic, Burmic, Baric, and Karenic.

Tibetan, the principal language of the Bodic branch, is spoken throughout Tibet, in parts of western China, in Nepal, and in communities of Tibetan refugees in India. The dominant languages of Sikkim and Bhutan are forms of Tibetan. The closest relatives of Tibetan are Bodic languages spoken in Nepal such as Tamang and Gurung, and several languages spoken in small communities in northwestern India. Other important Bodic languages spoken in Nepal include Limbu and Newari. Newari, with over one million speakers, is the dominant language of the Kathmandu Valley.

The major languages in the Burmic branch are Burmese and Yi. The group may include the Qiangic languages of western China, although scholars disagree on this. The Burmic branch also includes a number of tribal languages of Myanmar and Yunnan, such as Lisu, Lahu, and Hani. Each of these has several hundred thousand speakers.

The languages of the Baric branch are spoken in Yunnan, northern and western Myanmar, and eastern India. The Baric languages with the most speakers are Meithei (also known as Manipuri), with over one million speakers in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, and Lushai (also known as Mizo), with 500,000 speakers in the Indian state of Mizoram, which borders Manipur.

Languages of the Karen branch are spoken in eastern Myanmar and western Thailand. The largest are Sgaw and Pwo, each with over two million speakers.

Contributed By:

Mario Pei, Ph.D.

Late Professor Emeritus of Romance Philology, Columbia University. Author of articles and books on language.

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"Sino-Tibetan Languages," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000

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