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East Asia
One of the world's major language families.
Kradai (per Chinese linguists)
Hmong-Mien (per Chinese linguists)
ISO 639-2 and 639-5: sit
Sino-Tibetan languages.png

     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, Southeast Asia and parts of South Asia. They are second only to the Indo-European languages in terms of the number of native speakers.


Validity of language family

The Sino-Tibetan language family has been defined as also including the Tai and Hmong-Mien languages. In the past, Vietnamese and other Mon-Khmer languages were classified under the Sino-Tibetan tree, however, their similarities to Chinese are currently credited to language contact. In the Western scholarly community, the other tonal language families of East Asia, Kradai and Hmong-Mien (Miao-Yao), 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 community, Kradai (actually Zhuang-Dong or Kam-Tai, which excludes i.a. the Kra languages) and Hmong-Mien are still commonly included in the Sino-Tibetan family.[1]

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,[2] 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.

History of the proposal

In 1823, Julius Klaproth suggested a modern-looking classification, nothing similar to which would be proposed again for over a century. He noted that the Burmese, Tibetan, and Chinese all shared common basic vocabulary, but that Thai and Vietnamese were quite different.

However, large-scale linguistic classification of the time was largely based on race rather than the languages themselves. For example, in 1855 Max Müller divided Eurasian languages into four families: Semitic, Aryan (Indo-European), Chinese, and Turanian. (Later writers would include Chinese within Turanian.) Competing with this idea, and eventually winning out, was "Indo-Chinese". Nathan Brown used the term in 1837 for all "Oriental" languages except for Altaic and Dravidian (but including Korean and Japanese, as well as the languages of the Pacific islands). There was continuing debate between racially and linguistically based theories.

John Logan added Karen to "Tibeto-Burman" (as a branch of Turanian) in 1858. By this time the known Tibeto-Burman languages were recognized as such by at least some scholars. In his 1878 classification, Charles Forbes favored the name "Indo-Chinese" over "Turanian", and divided it into Tibeto-Burman (including Chinese), Karen, Tai, and "Mon-Annamese" branches. Indo-Chinese was reduced in scope by the exclusion of Mon-Khmer (Mon-Annam) by Ernst Kuhn in 1883, who divided it into Tibeto-Burman and Chinese-Siamese, thus removing Chinese from Tibeto-Burman. He was followed by this in the influential 1896 classification of August Conrady, who even had doubts about Karen. John Avery, in order to avoid the broad implications of "Indo-Chinese", used "Tibeto-Burman" for Kuhn's entire family. However, most linguists continued to used Kuhn's terminology. Vietnamese was generally included; Franz Finck in 1909 moved Karen to a third branch of Chinese-Siamese.

The term sino-tibétain (Sino-Tibetan) was coined as a synonym for Indo-Chinese by Jean Przyluski in 1924. He retained Conrady's two branches of Tibeto-Burman and "Sino-Daic", with Miao-Yao included within Daic. 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-Tibetain, but out of respect to Henri Maspero in Paris he left comparative Daic material in the project's publications, though he never claimed a genealogical relationship (van Driem 2001:323). Shafer (1941) also rejected the division of the family into Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman branches, but instead placed Sinitic on the same level of other branches such as Bodic, Burmic, Baric, and Karenic (as well as Daic) as working hypotheses. (For Shafer, the suffix -ic denoted a primary division of the family, whereas the -ish suffix denoted a sub-division of one of those.) Paul 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 Daic ('Kadai', placing it in Austro-Tai), but otherwise retained the outlines of Conrady's Indo-Chinese classification, with the compromise of putting Karen in an intermediate position—Tibeto-Karen as a branch of Sino-Tibetan, and Tibeto-Burman as a branch of Tibeto-Karen. The disagreements over the inclusion of Thai, Vietnamese, and Miao-Yao were tied to the conception of tone as something so fundamental to language that tonal typology could be used as the basis for classification; the exclusionary position of Kuhn and Benedict would be vindicated when André-Georges Haudricourt published on Vietnamese tonogenesis in 1954.

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.

Internal classification

The Sino-Tibetan language family, largely following Thurgood and La Polla (2003).

Although many 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 Kradai 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 Kradai. (See Kradai languages.)

In the Western (and sometimes Chinese) conception which excludes these families, Sino-Tibetan is commonly thought to consist of two primary branches, Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman, because the sound correspondences that have been worked out between several of the Tibeto-Burman families are not applicable to Chinese. However, as 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),[3] and that it no longer seems justified to treat Chinese as the first branching of the Sino-Tibetan family,[4] as the morphological divide between Chinese and Tibeto-Burman has been bridged by recent reconstructions of Proto-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 (aka Bodish-Himalayish), Sal (aka Brahmaputran), and Maha-Kiranti have wide support. See Tibeto-Burman for contrastive classifications.



Shafer (1966-1974) took an agnostic position and did not promote any one branch of the family to primary status. Rather, Chinese (Sinitic) is placed on the same level as the other branches, and Shafer's Sino-Tibetan is a synonym of Tibeto-Burman. He retained Daic, despite severe doubts that it was related, at the insistence of colleagues.

Sino-Tibetan (= Tibeto-Burman)
  1. Sinitic
  2. Daic
  3. Bodic
  4. Burmic
  5. Baric
  6. Karenic

Besides excluding Daic, as all recent Western scholars have done, Benedict (1972) split off Chinese and introduced the terminological distinction between Sino-Tibetan and Tibeto-Burman, and created a similar distinction with Karen:

  1. Chinese
  2. Tibeto-Karen
    1. Karen
    2. Tibeto-Burman

Matisoff (19xx) abandoned the Tibeto-Karen hypothesis. Most later scholars, such as Bradley (1997) and La Polla (2003) have retained Matisoff's basic outline, though differing in the details of Tibeto-Burman:

  1. Chinese
  2. Tibeto-Burman

Sergei Starostin (1996) promoted Kiranti to a primary branch, possibly with Sinitic:

Sino-Tibetan (version 1)
  1. Sino-Kiranti
  2. Tibeto-Burman
Sino-Tibetan (version 2)
  1. Chinese
  2. Kiranti
  3. Tibeto-Burman

Van Driem (2001) returned to Shafer's position. He calls the family Tibeto-Burman, which name he says has historical primacy. Even with several hypotheses that he has proposed for evaluation, it is more agnostic than Shafer.

Tibeto-Burman (= Sino-Tibetan)
  1. Brahmaputran
  2. Southern Tibeto-Burman (Lolo-Burmese, Karen)
  3. Sino-Bodic (Sinitic, Bodish-Himalayish, Kirantic, Tamangic, plus several isolates)
  4. A number of other small families and isolates (Qiang, Nungish, Magar, etc.)


Advocates of the Sino-Bodic hypothesis such as George van Driem 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, they claim that Tibeto-Burman has innovations that Sinitic lacks. Thus Sino-Bodic is not supported as a group distinct from Sino-Tibetan in this view. Van Driem disputes the evidence, and notes that other branches of Tibeto-Burman, such as Lepcha, cannot be derived from the proto-Tibeto-Burman reconstructed so far, yet are not excluded from Tibeto-Burman by these scholars.


Starostin (1996) proposed that both the Kiranti languages and Chinese are divergent form a "core" Tibeto-Burman of at least Bodish, Lolo-Burmese, Tamangic, Jinghpaw, Kuki-Chin 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, so that Sino-Tibetan has two primary branches, Sino-Kiranti and Tibeto-Burman, or that the are not demonstrably close, so that Sino-Tibetan has three primary branches, Sinitic, Kirantic, and (core) Tibeto-Burman. No Sino-Tibetan specialist, however, has accepted Starostin's hypothesis.

External classification

Besides the traditional families of Southeast Asia, a number of possible relationships have been suggested. One of these is the "Sino-Caucasian" hypothesis of Sergei Starostin, which posits 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", which adds the Na-Dené languages of North America (redundant now that Dene-Yeniseian has been demonstrated), Burushaski, and occasionally Basque.

Sagart (2005) suggests that Sino-Tibetan is ultimately related to Austro-Tai. The evidence for all of these proposals is extremely tentative, as several of the constituent families (North Caucasian, Austro-Tai) have not been demonstrated to most linguists' satisfaction.


  1. ^ 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).
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ les travaux de comparatisme n’ont jamais pu mettre en évidence l’existence d’innovations communes à toutes les langues « tibéto-birmanes » (les langues sino-tibétaines à l’exclusion du chinois)
  4. ^ il ne semble plus justifié de traiter le chinois comme le premier embranchement primaire de la famille sino-tibétaine


Sino-Tibetan is not an ethnic group, but rather a linguistic family. Therefore it makes little sense to speak of "Sino-Tibetan people" as a group apart from the languages they speak.

The most numerous of the Sino-Tibetan–speaking peoples are the Han Chinese numbering 1300 million people. The Hui (10 million) also speak Chinese, but are ethnically distinct. Numerous Tibeto-Burman 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 million), Kachin (1 million). The Hui people live predominantly in the Ningxia autonomous region of China. The Burmese and Bhutanese peoples mostly live in Myanmar (Burma) and Bhutan. Rakhine, Kachin, Karen, Red Karen, and Chin peoples live in Rakhine, Kachin, Kayin, Kayah, and Chin states of Myanmar. 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 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).


  • 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.
  • 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.
  • ——— (2001) Languages of the Himalayas: An Ethnolinguistic Handbook of the Greater Himalayan Region. Brill.
  • 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.
  • Jacques, Guillaume (2006). "La morphologie du sino-tibétain." In La linguistique comparative en France aujourd’hui, 4 March.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Starostin, Sergei, and I. I. Pejrosom (1996). A Comparative Dictionary of Five Sino-Tibetan Languages Melbourne University Press.
  • Thurgood, Graham and Randy J. LaPolla (ed.s) (2003). Sino-Tibetan Languages. London: Routledge. ISBN 0700711295.

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary




Sino-Tibetan (not comparable)

  1. Of, or relating to, both China and Tibet
    Sino-Tibetan relations are more complicated than the media portrays it.
  2. (linguistics) Of the Sino-Tibetan languages, one of the major language families.
    Mandarin, Burmese and Tibetan all belong to the Sino-Tibetan language family.

Derived terms



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