Sino-Tibetan languages

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Sino-Tibetan languages,

family of languages spoken by over a billion people in central and SE Asia. This linguistic family is second only to the Indo-European stock in the number of its speakers. It is usually said to have three subfamilies: Tibeto-Burman, ChineseChinese,
subfamily of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages (see Sino-Tibetan languages), which is also sometimes grouped with the Tai, or Thai, languages in a Sinitic subfamily of the Sino-Tibetan language stock.
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, and Tai, or Thai. One school of thought, however, assigns the Tai and Chinese languages to a single subfamily called Sino-Siamese or Sinitic. The classification of a number of the languages suggested for the Sino-Tibetan family and its various subfamilies is still unresolved, and more work must be done before general agreement is reached. Some linguists have even proposed a relationship between Sino-Tibetan and the Athabascan group of Native American languages (to which Navajo and Apache belong).

Common Features

The Sino-Tibetan languages have in common several features, which are exhibited to a greater or lesser extent in the individual tongues. For example, they show a tendency to be monosyllabic and isolating and to use tones or musical pitch. In an isolating language the words do not change their form or show inflection. Because of the relative absence of inflection, word order is the key to expressing grammatical relationships. A monosyllabic language has a limited number of syllables since the sound combinations that are possible are also limited in number. Because there are so many words that sound alike, two words of similar meaning are often used together to make the sense clearer. Combinations of two or more monosyllabic words also increase the vocabulary. Classifiers, which vary according to the sense of the words with which they are used, aid in making root meanings clear. For instance, one classifier is employed with round articles, and another with items of clothing. The use of different tones for each monosyllable has two striking benefits. It increases the vocabulary by multiplying the number of possible monosyllables, and it also is helpful in distinguishing among homophones. The number of tones differs in each language; three tones are found in Burmese, five in Thai, four in Mandarin Chinese, and nine in Cantonese Chinese.

Tibeto-Burman Languages

The Tibeto-Burman languages include TibetanTibetan language,
member of the Tibeto-Burman subfamily of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages (see Sino-Tibetan languages). It is spoken by 5 million people in the Tibet autonomous region and the Qinghai and Gansu provinces of China and in Bhutan, Nepal, the Indian state of
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, BurmeseBurmese,
language belonging to the Tibeto-Burman subfamily of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages (see Sino-Tibetan languages). It is spoken by about 30 million people in Myanmar, where it is both the principal and the official language.
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, and a number of other tongues, among which are the Bodo, Garo, and Lushai of Assam, the Kachin of Myanmar (Burma), and perhaps also the languages of the Chins and Nagas of Myanmar, the Karen tongues of Myanmar and Thailand, and the Lolo of SW China. Tibeto-Burman languages are likely to be tonal and have anywhere from two to six tones. They are less monosyllabic and isolating than the languages of the other Sino-Tibetan families. In fact, they tend to be somewhat agglutinative and exhibit some degree of inflection. In an agglutinative language, different linguistic elements, each of which exists separately and has a fixed meaning, are joined to form one word. Affixes added to an unchanged root serve as the usual method of indicating inflection in the Tibeto-Burman tongues.


Chinese is the leading representative of the Sino-Tibetan family. It has a number of variants that have been called dialects but are often regarded as separate languages. Mandarin Chinese is the standard form of Chinese and is spoken in N and central China by about 835 million people as their first language. Other leading dialects or languages of the Chinese subfamily are Cantonese or Yue (spoken in Guangdong and Guangxi provinces and also frequently outside mainland China), Wu (the tongue of Shanghai and Zhejiang province), Hakka or Hakkha (current in Guangdong and Jiangxi provinces), and Fukienese or Northern Min (spoken in Fujian and Guangdong provinces and many places outside mainland China, including the island of Taiwan).

Tai Languages

The Tai or Thai subfamily of Sino-Tibetan is made up of the Thai languageThai language
, formerly Siamese, member of the Tai or Thai subfamily of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages (see Sino-Tibetan languages). The official language of Thailand, Thai is spoken by approximately 50 million people in Thailand, Vietnam, and the Yunnan province of China.
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 (formerly called Siamese) of Thailand, the Lao tongue of Laos, the Shan language of Myanmar, possibly the Vietnamese tongue of Vietnam, and a number of others. The Miae and Yao of China are sometimes classified as Tai or Thai and sometimes as Tibeto-Burman.

See also Southeast Asian languagesSoutheast Asian languages,
family of languages, sometimes also called Austroasiatic, spoken in SE Asia by about 80 million people. According to one school of thought, it has three subfamilies: the Mon-Khmer languages, the Munda languages, and the Annamese-Muong subfamily.
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See P. K. Benedict, Sino-Tibetan: A Conspectus (Princeton-Cambridge Studies in Chinese Linguistics Ser., No. 2; 1972); R. Shafer, Introduction to Sino-Tibetan (1966–73); H. Jaschke, Tibetan Grammar (1989).

Sino-Tibetan Languages


a language family in China, Burma, the Himalayas, and northeastern India.

According to the classification given by the American scholar R. Shafer, the Sino-Tibetan languages are divided into the following main branches:

(1) Chinese;

(2) the Tibetan branch (Tibet and the Himalayas), which includes Tibetan (and the closely related Tsangla, rGyarung, and Gurung languages), the western Himalayan languages (Bunan, Thebor, Kanauri, the Almora Group, Janggali, Thami-Bhramu, and others), the west central Himalayan languages (Magari, Vayu, and Tsepang), and the eastern Himalayan languages (such as Bahing, Thulung, and Dumi);

(3) the Burmese branch (Burma, Yunnan, Szechwan, and Assam), including the Lolo-Burmese languages (such as Burmese, Hor, Taungyo, and the Lolo, or Yi-tzu [Yi], languages—Lisu, Lahu, Akha, Khoany, and Ahi), Mru, the Nung languages, Ka-chin, the Tsairel group, Andro, Taman, and the Kuki language group along the border between India and Burma (So, Yawdwin, Khami, the Lakher group, Langet, Lushei, Haka, Kapwi, Thado, the Luhupa group, Maram, Kabui, the northern Naga group [including Lepcha], Rengma, Simi, Meithei [Manipuri], Mikir [Arleng], and the old Kuki languages—Tsiru, Kyau, and Hrangkhol);

(4) the Baric branch (Assam), including Garo, the Jalpaiguri group, Bodo, Chutiya, and other northeastern Naga languages;

(5) the Karen branch (Burma): Karen and other languages. Small groups and isolated languages also belong to the Sino-Tibetan family: the Newari group (Nepal), the Digari group, the Mising group and Miju (Assam and Tibet), Hruso (Assam), Dhimal (near the border between Assam and Nepal), and the Dzorgai group (Tibet, Szechwan, and Kansu). Shafer also includes the Tai languages in the Sino-Tibetan family, although this is disputed (words of Sinitic origin usually are loanwords from Chinese and occasionally from other Sino-Tibetan languages). The theory of the American scholar P. Benedict concerning the remote kinship of the Tai languages and the Austronesian languages (on the basis of common pronominal roots and other grounds) is more convincing. As Shafer has demonstrated, in the proto-Sino-Tibetan general Sinitic linguistic system words could consist of one, two, or even three syllables, but later nonfinal syllables grew phonetically weaker and everywhere, except in the Kuki languages, lost the vowel and their syllabic character. The initial consonant clusters formed in this process (and retained, for example, in ancient Tibetan) were simplified in some of the languages, such as Chinese and Burmese. Prefixal morphemes (also subsequently reduced) and vowel-consonant alternations are proposed for the general Sinitic language, but syntactic words and word order were the primary grammatical means. Some Sino-Tibetan languages acquired an isolating structure (as in ancient Chinese); agglutination appeared in others. Tones and monosyllabic roots are characteristic of modern Sino-Tibetan languages.


Iakhontov, S. E. Glottokhronologiia i kitaisko-tibetskaia sem’ia iazykov. Moscow, 1964.
Burling, R. “Proto-Lolo-Burmese.” International Journal of American Linguistics, 1967, vol. 33, no. 2, part 2.
Shafer, R. “Classification of the Sino-Tibetan Languages.” Word, 1955, vol. 11, no. 1.
Shafer, R. Bibliography of Sino-Tibetan Languages, vols. 1–2. Wiesbaden, 1957–63.
Shafer, R. Introduction to Sino-Tibetan, parts 1–4. Wiesbaden, 1966–67.