Tibeto-Burman languages are the non-Sinitic members of the
Sino-Tibetan language family, over 400 of which are spoken throughout
the highlands of
Southeast Asia as well as certain parts of East Asia
and South Asia. Around 60 million people speak Tibeto-Burman
languages, around half of whom speak Burmese, and 13% of whom speak
Tibetic languages. The name derives from the most widely spoken of
these languages, namely Burmese (over 32 million speakers) and the
Tibetic languages (over 8 million). These languages also have
extensive literary traditions, dating from the 12th and 7th centuries
respectively. Most of the other languages are spoken by much smaller
communities, and many of them have not been described in detail.
Some taxonomies divide Sino-Tibetan into Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman
branches (e.g. Benedict, Matisoff). However, other scholars deny that
Tibeto-Burman comprises a monophyletic group. Van Driem argues that
the Sino-Tibetan family should be called "Tibeto-Burman", but this
usage has not been widely adopted. Others exclude a relationship with
Chinese altogether (e.g. Beckwith, R. A. Miller).
Southeast Asia and southwest China
2.2 Tibet and South Asia
3.1 Shafer (1955)
3.2 Benedict (1972)
3.3 Matisoff (1978)
3.4 Bradley (2002)
3.5 Van Driem
3.6 Other languages
4 See also
7 Further reading
8 External links
During the 18th century, several scholars noticed parallels between
Tibetan and Burmese, both languages with extensive literary
traditions. In the following century,
Brian Houghton Hodgson
Brian Houghton Hodgson collected
a wealth of data on the non-literary languages of the
northeast India, noting that many of these were related to Tibetan and
Burmese. Others identified related languages in the highlands of
south-east Asia and south-west China. The name "Tibeto-Burman" was
first applied to this group in 1856 by James 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. The third volume of the
Linguistic Survey of India was devoted to the Tibeto-Burman languages
of British India.
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. Several authors, including Ernst Kuhn in 1883
August Conrady in 1896, described an "Indo-Chinese" family
consisting of two branches, Tibeto-Burman and Chinese-Siamese. The
Tai languages were included on the basis of vocabulary and typological
features shared with Chinese. Jean Przyluski introduced the term
sino-tibétain (Sino-Tibetan) as the title of his chapter on the group
Antoine Meillet and Marcel Cohen's Les Langues du Monde in 1924.
Tai languages have not been included in most Western accounts of
Sino-Tibetan since the Second World War, though many Chinese linguists
still include them. The link to Chinese is now accepted by most
linguists, with a few exceptions such as
Roy Andrew Miller
Roy Andrew Miller and
Christopher Beckwith. More recent controversy has centred
on the proposed primary branching of Sino-Tibetan into Chinese and
Tibeto-Burman subgroups. In spite of the popularity of this
classification, first proposed by Kuhn and Conrady, and also promoted
by Paul Benedict (1972) and later James Matisoff, Tibeto-Burman has
not been demonstrated to be a valid family in its own right.
Most of the
Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken in inaccessible
mountain areas and many are unwritten, which has greatly hampered
their study. It is generally much easier to identify a language as
Tibeto-Burman than to determine its precise relationship with other
languages of the group. The subgroupings that have
been established with certainty number several dozens, ranging from
well-studied groups of dozens of languages with millions of speakers
to several isolates, some only newly discovered but in danger of
extinction. These subgroups are here surveyed on a geographical
Southeast Asia and southwest China
Language families of Myanmar
The southernmost group are the Karen languages, spoken by three
million people on both sides of the Burma–Thailand border. They
differ from all other
Tibeto-Burman languages (except Bai) in having a
subject–verb–object word order, attributed to contact with
Tai–Kadai and Austroasiatic languages.
The most widely spoken Tibeto-Burman language is Burmese, the national
language of Myanmar, with over 32 million speakers and a literary
tradition dating from the early 12th century. It is one of the
Lolo-Burmese languages, an intensively studied and well-defined group
comprising approximately 100 languages spoken in
Myanmar and the
highlands of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Southwest China. Major
languages include the Loloish languages, with two million speakers in
Sichuan and northern Yunnan, the
Akha language and Hani
languages, with two million speakers in southern Yunnan, eastern
Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, and Lisu and Lahu in Yunnan, northern
Myanmar and northern Thailand. All languages of the Loloish subgroup
show significant Austroasiatic influence. The
transcribed in Chinese characters in the 1st century, appear to record
words from a Lolo-Burmese language, but arranged in Chinese order.
Language families of China, with Tibeto-Burman in orange[a]
Tibeto-Burman languages of south-west China have been heavily
influenced by Chinese over a long period, leaving their affiliations
difficult to determine. The grouping of the Bai language, with one
million speakers in Yunnan, is particularly controversial, with some
workers suggesting that it is a sister language to Chinese. The Naxi
language of northern
Yunnan is usually included in Lolo-Burmese,
though other scholars prefer to leave it unclassified. The hills
Sichuan are home to the small Qiangic and Rgyalrongic
groups of languages, which preserve many archaic features. The most
easterly Tibeto-Burman language is Tujia, spoken in the Wuling
Mountains on the borders of Hunan, Hubei, Guizhou and Chongqing.
Two historical languages are believed to be Tibeto-Burman, but their
precise affiliation is uncertain. The Pyu language of central Myanmar
in the first centuries is known from inscriptions using a variant of
the Gupta script. The
Tangut language of the 12th century Western Xia
of northern China is preserved in numerous texts written in the
Chinese-inspired Tangut script.
Tibet and South Asia
Language families of South Asia, with Tibeto-Burman in orange
Over eight million people in the
Tibetan Plateau and neighbouring
areas in Baltistan, Ladakh, Nepal,
Bhutan speak one of
several related Tibetic languages. There is an extensive literature in
Classical Tibetan dating from the 8th century. The Tibetic languages
are usually grouped with the smaller East
Bodish languages of Bhutan
Arunachal Pradesh as the Bodish group.
Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken on the southern slopes
of the Himalayas. Sizable groups that have been identified are the
West Himalayish languages of
Himachal Pradesh and western Nepal, the
Tamangic languages of western Nepal, including Tamang with one million
speakers, and the
Kiranti languages of eastern Nepal. The remaining
groups are small, with several isolates. The
Newar language (Nepal
Bhasa) of central
Nepal has a million speakers and a literature dating
from the 12th century, and nearly a million people speak Magaric
languages, but the rest have small speech communities. Other isolates
and small groups in
Nepal are Dura, Raji–Raute, Chepangic and
Dhimalish. Lepcha is spoken in an area from eastern
Nepal to western
Bhutan. Most of the languages of
Bhutan are Bodish, but it also
has three small isolates, 'Ole ("Black Mountain Monpa"), Lhokpu and
Gongduk and a larger community of speakers of Tshangla.
Tani languages include most of the
Tibeto-Burman languages of
Arunachal Pradesh and adjacent areas of Tibet. The remaining
Arunachal Pradesh are much more diverse, belonging to the
small Siangic, Kho-Bwa (or Kamengic), Hruso, Midzu and Digaro
languages (or Mishmic) groups. These groups have relatively little
Tibeto-Burman vocabulary, and Bench and Post dispute their inclusion
Northeastern states of India (most of
Arunachal Pradesh and the
northern part of Assam are also claimed by China)
The greatest variety of languages and subgroups is found in the
highlands stretching from northern
Myanmar to northeast India.
Myanmar is home to the small Nungish group, as well as the
Kachin–Luic languages, including Jingpho with nearly a million
speakers. The Brahmaputran or
Sal languages include at least the
Bodo–Koch and Konyak languages, spoken in an area stretching from
Myanmar through the Indian states of Nagaland,
Tripura, and are often considered to include the Kachin–Luic
The border highlands of Nagaland,
Manipur and western
Myanmar are home
to the small Ao, Angami–Pochuri, Tangkhul and Zeme groups of
languages, as well as the Karbi language. Meithei, the main language
Manipur with 1.4 million speakers, is sometimes linked with the 50
or so Kukish or
Kuki-Chin languages are spoken in
Mizoram and the Chin
State of Myanmar. The
Mru language is spoken by a small group in the
Chittagong Hill Tracts
Chittagong Hill Tracts between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
There have been two milestones in the classification of Sino-Tibetan
and Tibeto-Burman languages, Shafer (1955) and Benedict (1972), which
were actually produced in the 1930s and 1940s respectively.
Shafer's tentative classification took an agnostic position and did
not recognize Tibeto-Burman, but placed Chinese (Sinitic) on the same
level as the other branches of a Sino-Tibetan family. He retained
Tai–Kadai (Daic) within the family, allegedly at the insistence of
colleagues, despite his personal belief that they were not related.
II. ?? Daic
a. Bodish (Gurung, Tshangla, Gyarong, Tibetic)
b. West Himalayish (incl. Thangmi, Baram, Raji–Raute)
c. West Central Himalayish (Magar, Chepang, Hayu [misplaced])
d. East Himalayish
d. Katśinish (Jingpho)
A very influential, although also tentative, classification is that of
Benedict (1972), which was actually written around 1941. Like Shafer's
work, this drew on the data assembled by the Sino-Tibetan Philology
Project, which was directed by Shafer and Benedict in turn. Benedict
envisaged Chinese as the first family to branch off, followed by
The Tibeto-Burman family is then divided into seven primary branches:
I. Tibetan–Kanauri (a.k.a. Bodish–Himalayish)
(Tibetic, Gyarung, Takpa, Tsangla, Murmi & Gurung)
i. "major" Himalayish
ii. "minor" Himalayish
(Rangkas, Darmiya, Chaudangsi, Byangsi)
(perhaps also Dzorgai, Lepcha, Magari)
A. Bahing (Sunuwar, Khaling)
B. Khambu (Sampang, Rungchenbung, Yakha, and Limbu)
(perhaps also Newar)
(perhaps also Aka, Digaro, Miju, and Dhimal)
(perhaps including Luish)
B. Southern Lolo
C. Northern Lolo
D. Kanburi Lawa
F. Hsi-fan (Qiangic and
Jiarongic languages apart from Qiang and
(perhaps also Nung)
VI. Bodo-Garo languages
B. Garo (A·chik)
C. Borok (Tripuri (Tøipra))
F. Rava (Koch)
(Perhaps also "Naked Naga" a.k.a. Konyak)
VII. Kuki–Naga (a.k.a. Kukish)
(perhaps also Karbi, Meithei, Mru)
James Matisoff proposes a modification of Benedict that demoted Karen
but kept the divergent position of Sinitic. Of the 7 branches
within Tibeto-Burman, 2 branches (Baic and Karenic) have SVO-order
languages, whereas all the other 5 branches have SOV-order languages.
Tibeto-Burman is then divided into several branches, some of them
geographic conveniences rather than linguistic proposals:
Mahakiranti (includes Newar, Magar, Kiranti)
Tibeto-Kanauri (includes Lepcha)
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.
Matisoff also notes that Jingpho–Nungish–Luish is central to the
family in that it contains features of many of the other branches, and
is also located around the center of the Tibeto-Burman-speaking area.
Since Benedict (1972), many languages previously inadequately
documented have received more attention with the publication of new
grammars, dictionaries, and wordlists. This new research has greatly
benefited comparative work, and Bradley (2002) incorporates much of
the newer data.
I. Western (= Bodic)
iii. East Bodic (incl. Tsangla)
i. Eastern (Kiranti)
ii. Western (Newar, Chepang, Magar, Thangmi, Baram)
A. Baric (Bodo–Garo–Northern Naga)
C. Luish (incl. Pyu)
D. Kuki-Chin (incl. Meithei and Karbi)
III. Central (perhaps a residual group, not actually related to each
other. Lepcha may also fit here.)
B. Mishmi (Digarish and Keman)
A. Burmese–Lolo (incl. Mru)
Van Driem rejects the primary split of Sinitic, making Tibeto-Burman
synonymous with Sino-Tibetan.
The classification of Tujia is difficult due to extensive borrowing.
Anu-Hkongso, a pair of dialects listed as Tibeto-Burman for years,
also remains unclassified. New
Tibeto-Burman languages continue to be
recognized, some not closely related to other languages. Recently
recognized distinct languages include Koki Naga.
Randy LaPolla (2003) proposed a Rung branch of Tibeto-Burman, based on
morphological evidence, but this is not widely accepted.
Roger Blench and Mark Post (2011) list a number of divergent languages
of Arunachal Pradesh, in northeastern India, that might have
non-Tibeto-Burman substrates, or could even be non-Tibeto-Burman
Mey (Sherdukpen) of Shergaon
Mey (Sherdukpen) of Rupa
Chug and Lish
[Northern] Mishmi (Digarish)
Puroik (Sulung) - East Kameng District
Hruso (Aka) - Thrizino Circle, West Kameng District
Miji (Sajolang, Dimai, Dhimmai)
Blench and Post believe the remaining languages with these substratal
characteristics are more clearly Sino-Tibetan:
Monpa of Tawang - Tawang District
Monpa of Kalaktang (Tshangla)
Monpa of Zemithang
Monpa of Mago-Thingbu
^ Source: United States Central Intelligence Agency, 1983. The map
shows the distribution of ethnolinguistic groups according to the
historical majority ethnic groups by region. Note this is different
from the current distribution due to ongoing internal migration and
^ "Tibeto". www.languagesgulper.com. Retrieved 2017-10-15.
^ Hodgson (1853).
^ Logan (1856).
^ Logan (1858).
^ Forbes (1878).
^ van Driem (2001), p. 334.
^ van Driem (2001), pp. 341–342.
^ Sapir (1925).
^ Miller (1974).
^ Beckwith (1996).
^ Beckwith (2002).
^ Handel (2008), p. 431.
^ a b van Driem (2011a).
^ Thurgood (2003), p. 18.
^ Thurgood (2003), pp. 8–9.
^ Coblin (1979).
^ Thurgood (2003), p. 20.
^ Thurgood (2003), pp. 17, 19–20.
^ van Driem (2007), p. 296.
^ Burling (2003), pp. 178, 180–181.
^ Burling (2003), pp. 178–182.
^ a b Blench & Post (2011).
^ Thurgood (2003), pp. 11–12.
^ Burling (2003), pp. 174–178.
^ Thurgood (2003), pp. 12–14.
^ Burling (2003), pp. 182–189.
^ Namkung (1996), p. 455.
^ Bradley (2002).
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Tibeto-Burman bibliography website
Sino-Tibetan Etymological Dictionary and Thesaurus (STEDT)
Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area (journal)
Bodish (Tibetic, East Bodish)
Myanmar tribal belts
Kukish (aka Chin, Zo)
Sinitic (Chinese, Bai)
Dubious (possible isolates)
Hrusish (Hruso, Miji)