Sino-Tibetan languages

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The Sino-Tibetan languages (also called Trans-Himalayan languages ​​by George van Driem, Thomas Owen-Smith and others) form the second largest language family on earth with around 1.3 billion speakers . The total of around 340 languages ​​are spoken in China , the Himalayan region and Southeast Asia . According to most researchers, they are divided into the two main branches Sinitic ("Chinese languages", eight languages ​​with 1.22 billion speakers) and Tibeto-Burmese (330 languages ​​with 70 million speakers). Sino Tibetan is quite in terms of time depth, internal diversity and cultural importance to the Indo-European language family to compare.

In the past, the Tai-Kadai languages , the Hmong-Mien languages (also called Miao-Yao languages ) and Vietnamese were often counted as Sino-Tibetan. Since around 1950, however, the majority of researchers have assumed that the Tai and Hmong-Mien languages ​​each form their own genetic units and are not closely related to Sino-Tibetan, while Vietnamese has been recognized as an Austro-Asian language. The similarities in phonology , syntax and vocabulary between these languages ​​and Sino-Tibetan are attributed to borrowings and long-term area contacts .

Some linguists suggest that the Yenisan languages in Siberia are related to the Chinese languages (the Sino- Tibetan languages). Early linguists such as MA Castrén (1856), James Byrne (1892), and GJ Ramstedt (1907) maintain that the Yenisan languages ​​are of North Sinitic origin. This assumption is supported by the linguists Kai Donner (1930) and Karl Bouda (1957). More recent findings also support a direct relationship with the Sino-Tibetan languages. Linguistic analyzes and autosomal genetic data of the Yenisan peoples show a relationship with the Han Chinese and Burmese. The linguist and specialist in the Yenisan languages Edward Vajda also suspects a relationship with the Sino-Tibetan languages.

Sino-Tibetan languages ​​(shown in red) alongside the other language families in the world
Sino-Tibetan languages ​​(shown in red)

Distribution and major languages

In terms of the number of speakers (1.3 billion), Sino-Tibetan is the second largest language family in the world after Indo-European (2.7 billion speakers). In terms of the number of languages ​​it has (around 340), it ranks fifth in the world, behind Niger-Congo , Austronesian , Trans-New Guinea and Afro-Asian .

The division into the two main branches is very asymmetrical. While Sinitic only includes the eight Chinese languages ​​(better dialect bundles ), which unite 1.2 billion speakers in China and Taiwan , the Tibetan-Burmese branch has around 330 languages ​​with only 70 million speakers, about half of which are different focused on a single language - Burmese (or Burmese). The Tibetan-Burmese languages ​​are spoken in the Himalayan region and the neighboring Southeast Asia, especially in Tibet (which is now part of China), southern China, Burma (now also called Myanmar), Nepal , Bhutan , Sikkim and northern India , and occasionally in the northern parts of Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as in the Southeast Asian states of Laos , Vietnam and Thailand .

With the exception of Burmese, the largest Sino-Tibetan languages ​​all belong to the Sinitic branch. The language with the most speakers is Mandarin (standard Chinese) with 875 million speakers. This is followed by the Sinitic languages Wu (80 million), Cantonese (70 million), Min (60 million), Jinyu (45 million), Xiang (36 million), Hakka (Kejia) (33 million) and Gan (21 million). The Tibetan- Burmese languages ​​with the most speakers are the Burmese languages ( spoken by 35 million native speakers and another 15 million secondary speakers in Burma), South Chinese Yi (4.2 million), and Tibetan (2 million native speakers; 4.5 million speakers combined with Khams and Amdo Tibetan), the language Sgaw (2 million speakers in the Kayin state of Myanmar) and Meithei with almost 2 million speakers in the Indian states of Manipur , Assam and Nagaland .

The article contains as an appendix a table of all Sino-Tibetan languages ​​with at least 500,000 speakers, in which the classification and distribution of these languages ​​is described. The web link below provides the complete classification and current speaker numbers for all Sino-Tibetan languages.

Written languages ​​and writing systems

Chinese is a written language with a 3500-year-old independent ideographic script and a correspondingly extensive written tradition in all areas of science, literature and religion. Next to Chinese, Tibetan and Burmese are the best-researched Sino-Tibetan languages. They have the longest and most extensive written tradition with a focus on Buddhist texts written with alphabets derived from Indian scripts. The Tibetan script dates from the 7th century AD, its oldest longer texts - from the 9th century - were found in the cave monasteries of Dunhuang . The earliest evidence of Burmese writing is inscriptions from the 12th century. The great majority of the other Tibetan Burmese languages ​​are - even today - writtenless, only Newari , Meithei and Lepcha had developed their own scripts based on the Devanagari , in which historical and religious texts were fixed. These special developments have since been abandoned, the three languages ​​are now - like other Tibetan Burman languages ​​in India and Nepal - written in Devanagari or Nepali script.

In the Chinese area, in addition to the dominant Chinese script, some special systems were developed: the Tangut script , based on Chinese characters, for the extinct language Xixia (Tangut) and a pictographic - syllabic script for the Naxi (Moso), a variant of which was used for the neighboring Yi ( Lolo) used. It is also worth mentioning the so-called women's script (Nüshu), which was developed by women in Hunan Province in the 15th century.


Internal structure

On the basis of the current research situation - as summarized in van Driem 2001, Matisoff 2003 and Thurgood 2003 - the following internal structure of Sinotibetic can be justified, even if a full consensus has not yet been reached on all subunits:

Internal structure of the Sinotibetan

For a detailed discussion of these units see below .

Statistical and geographic data

The following table gives a statistical and geographical overview of the subunits of Sinotibetan. The data are based on van Driem 2001 and the web link “Classification of the Sino-Tibetan languages” given below. The number of languages ​​is significantly lower than in Ethnologue , since Ethnologue - contrary to the majority of research opinion - declares many dialects to be independent languages.

The sub-units of Sino-Tibetan
with the number of languages ​​and speakers and their main areas of distribution

Language unit Alternat. Surname Number of
Number of
Main distribution area
SINITIC Chinese 8th 1,220 million China
TIBETO BURMAN   330 68 million Himalayas, South China, Southeast Asia
Bodisch Tibetan i. w. S. 64 7 million Tibet, North India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan
Tibetan   51 5.6 million Tibet, North India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan
Tamang-Ghale   9 1.2 million Nepal
Tshangla   1 150 thousand Bhutan
Takpa Moinba 1 80 thousand India: western tip of Arunachal / Tibet
Dhimal Toto   2 35 thousand Nepal: Terai, India: West Bengali
West Himalayan   14th 110 thousand North India: Kumaon, Lahul, Kinnaur; Western Tibet
Mahakiranti Himalayan 40 2.3 million Nepal
Kiranti   32 500 thousand Nepal (south of the Mount Everest massif)
Magar-Chepang   5 700 thousand Central Nepal
Newari thangmi   3 950 thousand Nepal: Kathmandu Valley / Gorkha District
Lepcha Rong 1 50 thousand India: Sikkim, Darjeeling; Nepal, Bhutan
Dura   1 Nepal: Lamjung District
North Assam Brahmaputran 32 850 thousand India: Arunachal Pradesh, Assam; Bhutan
Tani Abor-Miri-Dafla 24 800 thousand India: Central Arunachal Pradesh
Khowa Sulung Kho-Bwa 4th 10 thousand India: West. Arunachal Pradesh
Idu-Digaru North Mishmi 2 30 thousand India: Arunachal Pradesh (Lohit District)
Mijuish South Mishmi 2 5 thousand India: Arunachal Pradesh (Lohit District)
Hrusian   3 7 thousand Border area India (Arunachal Pradesh) - Bhutan
Bodo-Konyak-Jingpho   27 3.4 million Northeast India, Nepal, Burma, South China
Bodo cook Barely 11 2.3 million Northeast India: Assam
Konyak North Naga 7th 300 thousand India: Arunachal Pradesh; Nagaland
Jingpho-Sak Kachin-Luisch 9 800 thousand Bangladesh, Northeast India, North Burma, South China
Kuki-Chin-Naga   71 5.2 million Northeast India: Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, Arunachal
Mizo-Kuki-Chin   41 2.3 million Northeast India, Bangladesh, Burma
Ao   9 300 thousand Northeast India: Nagaland
Angami-Pochuri   9 430 thousand Northeast India: Nagaland
Zeme   7th 150 thousand Northeast India: Nagaland, Manipur
Thangkul   3 150 thousand Northeast India: Nagaland, Manipur
Meithei Manipuri 1 1.3 million Northeast India: Manipur, Nagaland, Assam
Karbi Mikir 1 500 thousand Northeast India: Assam, Arunachal Pradesh
Qiang Gyalrong   13 500 thousand South China: Sichuan
Xixia-Qiang Tangut-Qiang 10 250 thousand South China: Sichuan
Gyalrong rGyalrong 3 230 thousand South China: Sichuan
Nungisch Dulong 4th 150 thousand South China, North Burma
Tujia   1 200 thousand South China: Hunan, Hubei, Guizhou
Bai Minchia 1 900 thousand South China: Yunnan
Naxi Moso 1 280 thousand South China: Yunnan, Sichuan
Karen   15th 4.5 million Burma, Thailand
Lolo-Burmese   40 42 million Burma, Laos, South China, Vietnam, Thailand
Lolo Yipho 27 7 million South China, Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand
Burmese   13 35 million Burma, South China
Mru   1 40 thousand Bangladesh: Chittagong; Burma: Arakan
Pyu   1 formerly Northern Burma

The primary branches of Tibetan Burmese are printed in bold, followed by the subunits.

Classification: historical overview

Beginnings in the 19th century

The beginnings of research into the Sino-Tibetan languages ​​did not become tangible until the middle of the 19th century. Various researchers and missionaries combined the languages ​​of China, Southeast Asia and the Himalayan region to form an Indo-Chinese language group , which includes Chinese , the Tai languages , Miao-Yao (now called Hmong-Mien), Karen , Tibeto-Burmese and, in some cases, the Mon- Khmer included. This grouping was essentially defined by typological features such as tonal language and monosyllabic language . The Tibeto Burman language was recognized as a group by BH Hodgson as early as 1818 , the first internal attempts at structuring this group were made by Friedrich Max Müller (1854).

Conrady, Konow and Li

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Mon-Khmer languages ​​were generally no longer counted as Indo-Chinese , with the exception of Vietnamese , whose affiliation with Mon-Khmer was recognized much later. Conrady in 1896 divided Indo-Chinese into three primary branches, namely Sinitic, Tai and Tibeto-Burmese. He ruled out the Miao-Yao. At the beginning of the 20th century, the term Sinotibetic arose instead of Indo-Chinese , which Konow 1909 also includes Sinitic, Tai and Tibeto-Burmese, whereby the Tai languages ​​were brought closer to Sinitic by him.

Sinotibetic after Konow 1909

  • Sinotibian
    • Sino-Tai
      • Sinitic
      • Tai
    • Tibeto Burmese

A similar structure was suggested by Fang-Kuei Li in 1937, but he again added the Miao-Yao as the third subgroup to the Sino-Tai, a tradition that has been partially preserved in Chinese linguistics to this day.

Benedict and Shafer

In his seminal work of 1942 Thai, Kadai and Indonesian: A New Alignment in Southeastern Asia , Paul K. Benedict categorically excludes the affiliation of the Tai and Miao-Yao to Sinotibetan. He recognizes that the many common lexical and phonological similarities between the Thai languages ​​and Chinese are due to early borrowings based on area contacts, but not to a common genetic origin. According to Benedict, the basic vocabulary of the two groups has almost nothing in common. He notes:

“The real problem has also been why anyone has ever seriously taken the Kam-Tai and / or Miao-Yao languages ​​to be true 'blood cousins' of Sino-Tibetan, given the almost total lack of any basic ties in the respective lexicons. ”

(The emphasis here must be on basic ties , since the lexicon of the Tai languages ​​certainly knows many borrowings from Chinese.) This work by Benedict laid the foundation for the view that is generally predominant today: Sinotibetic consists of the two primary branches Sinitic and Tibeto Burmese . Within Tibeto-Burman, Benedict emphasized the Karen languages ​​spoken in today's Myanmar, so that he came to the following classification:

Classification according to Benedict 1942

  • Sinotibian
    • Sinitic
    • Tibeto-Karen
      • Karen
      • Tibeto Burmese

The language groups that Benedict had removed from Sino-Tibetan - Tai and Miao-Yao - he considered to be relatives of Austronesian and Austrasian . He combined these four groups into a new unit, Australian , a hypothesis that today only a few researchers share (see the article on the macro family Australian).

In the years that followed, the positioning of the Karen languages ​​and the Bai played a role. In contrast to Benedict, the Karen language was often understood as a third primary branch of Sinotibetic. Shafer 1955 goes even further and completely undoes the Tibetan Burman knot. For him, the question of who the tai belonged to was not yet completely decided.

Classification according to Shafer 1955

  • Sinotibian
    • Sinitic
    • Bodisch (Tibetan)
    • Burmese
    • "Barisch" (contained the current units Tani, Kuki-Chin-Naga, Bodo-Konyak-Jingpho)
    • Karen

James A. Matisoff

James Matisoff took up the work of Benedict again and led it to a preliminary conclusion as a collaborator at the Conspectus (Benedict 1972). For Sino-Tibetan research, Matisoff is of particular importance through the STEDT project (Sino-Tibetan Etymological Dictionary and Thesaurus) that he initiated and significantly funded , through which the greatest possible number of Sino-Tibetan languages ​​are to be thoroughly researched, genetic relationships are recognized and Archetypes are to be reconstructed. Matisoff presented a preliminary assessment of the project, which was not yet completed, in 2003 with his Handbook of Proto-Tibeto-Burman . In the classification it tends towards relatively large units, e.g. B. Himalayan and Kamarupan , which are not (yet) recognized by the majority of the remaining researchers.

George van Driem

While almost all researchers today take Benedict's point of view of dividing Sino-Tibetan into the primary branches Sinitic and Tibeto-Burmese, and at most the position of Karen's language plays a different role, George van Driem resorted to approaches from the 19th century and positioned Sinitic as a sub-unit of Tibetan-Burmese , pari passu with the many other branches of this group. He saw in earlier work a special proximity of the Sinitic to the Bodic (Tibetan in the broader sense), which led him to the subunit Sino-Bodic . This hypothesis was denied by Matisoff in 2000 and is largely isolated today. Van Driem's ​​two-volume work Languages ​​of the Himalayas from 2001 summarizes research into all languages ​​of the Himalayan region (in the broadest sense) . In it, he deals with the linguistic position of almost all known Sino- Tibetan languages ​​and breaks down Tibetan-Burman into many small, recognized genetic units. As secured larger groups he only accepts Lolo-Burmese and Bodo-Konyak-Jingpho , with reservations Bodisch and North Assam , which van Driem calls Brahmaputran .

Current classification

While Sinitic consists of eight closely related languages ​​or dialect bundles - its internal structure is therefore relatively unproblematic - the internal classification of the approximately 330 Tibetan-Burmese languages ​​can by no means be regarded as certain even today. The most important current overview works - van Driem 2001, Thurgood 2003 and Matisoff 2003 - offer quite different models. Research has been able to agree on a number of smaller genetic units - including Tibetan , Kiranti , Tani , Bodo-Koch , Karen , Jingpho-Sak , Kuki-Chin and Burmese - but the question of medium and larger subgroups that contain these summarize smaller units, so far not resolved by consensus. The reasons are a lack of detailed research, grammars and lexicons for many Tibetan Burmese individual languages, intensive mutual areal influences that obscure the genetic connections, and the large number of languages ​​to be compared. Matisoff's extensive STEDT project (Sino-Tibetan Etymological Dictionary and Thesaurus) was conceived to bring more clarity to these questions, to establish intermediate genetic groupings and to reconstruct original languages for all intermediate groups and Tibetan Burman as a whole .

While Matisoff "dares" to combine quite large units in 1996 and 2003, van Driem tends to the other extreme in 2001: he divides Tibetan Burman into many small subgroups and gives only vague information about broader relationships. Thurgood 2003 takes a middle path. The presentation of the present article is based - as far as the intermediate units are concerned - primarily on Thurgood, for the detailed structure on the extensive work van Driem 2001, in which all the Tibetan-Burman languages ​​known by now and their close relationships are dealt with. Overall, there is a relatively small division of Tibetan Burman into genetically secured units. Future research - especially the STEDT project of the working group around Matisoff - will certainly make larger units capable of reaching a consensus by constructing corresponding original languages ​​(such as already in the Kiranti or Lolo-Burmese ).

Classification of Sino-Tibetan

  • Sinotibian
    • Sinitic
    • Tibeto Burmese
      • Bodisch : Tibetan, Tamang-Ghale, Tshangla, Takpa, Dhimal-Toto
      • West Himalayan
      • Mahakiranti : Kiranti, Newari-Thangmi, Magar-Chepang
      • North Assam : Tani (Abor-Miri-Dafla) Khowa-Order a copy, Mijuisch (Deng), Idu-Digaru
      • Hrusian
      • Bodo-Konyak-Jingpho : Bodo-Koch (Barisch), Konyak (North Naga), Jingpho-Sak (Kachin-Luisch)
      • Kuki-Chin-Naga : Mizo-Kuki-Chin, Ao, Angami-Pochuri, Zeme, Tangkhul, Meithei (Manipuri), Karbi (Mikir)
      • Qiang-Gyalrong : Xixia-Qiang, Gyalrong
      • Nungisch
      • Karen
      • Lolo Burmese : Lolo (Yipho), Burmese
      • Individual languages : Pyu †, Dura †, Lepcha, Mru, Naxi, Tujia, Bai

Discussion of proposed units

Himalayan is a hypothetical large unit from Matisoff 2003, which includes Bodish , West Himalayan and Mahakiranti . Since this summary has not yet been accepted by the majority of researchers, in the present classification it was broken down into its components, which are largely accepted in the literature as genetic units.

Mahakiranti : The secured genetic units Kiranti , Newari and Maga-Chepang are summarized here as Mahakiranti according to van Driem 2001 and Thurgood 2003 , which is a subunit of Matisoff's Himalayan that was founded by joint innovations . An original language has been reconstructed for Kiranti . Van Driem has recently moved away from his suggestion (in Saxena 2004).

Kamarupan : Matisoff 2003, with caution, combines Kuki-Chin-Naga , Bodo-Koch , Tani and some individual languages ​​into one large unit of Kamarupan (after a Sanskrit term for “Assam”). Kamarupan is not taken into account here, since all other newer classifications do not support this grouping and - unlike Matisoff - combine the Jingpho-Sak with the Bodo-Koch and Konyak Naga to form the medium-sized unit Bodo-Konyak-Jingpho .

North Assam : Van Driem also sees a particular proximity of the secured genetic units Tani , Khowa-Sulung , Mijuisch and Idu-Digaru, which are grouped together under North Assam . He calls this group Brahmaputran . With Matisoff they form a subunit of the Kamarupan .

Kuki-Chin-Naga : A medium-sized unit that is now generally recognized; in addition to the Chin and Naga languages ​​of northeast India, it also includes the major individual languages Meithei (also Manipuri , one of the 19 official Indian languages) and Karbi (formerly pejorative Mikir ). The North Naga or Konyak Naga languages , which are sometimes also included in this group, are now generally assigned to the Bodo-Koch and Jingpho-Sak .

Bodo-Konyak-Jingpho : Both Thurgood and van Driem represent a medium-sized group consisting of the three established genetic units Bodo-Koch (formerly Barisch ), Konyak Naga and Jingpho-Sak (formerly Kachin-Luisch ). Only Matisoff deviates by combining Jingpho-Sak with Nungic , on the other hand recognizing the closer relationship between Jingpho and Konyak Naga.

Rung : The large Rung grouping of Thurgoods and LaPolla has not yet found any support in the literature; following the arguments of van Driem and Matisoff, it has been broken down into its secure components Qiang-Gyalrong , Nungish , Kiranti and West Himalayan .

Qiang-Gyalrong : A relationship between the Qiang and Gyalrong languages ​​spoken in Sichuan is now accepted by almost all experts. The fact that the extinct language of the Tanguts belongs to the Qiang is also generally accepted.

Nungish : Is placed closer to the Qiang-Gyalrong by Thurgood, connected to the Jingpho-Sak by Matisoff. Both approaches are otherwise controversial. According to van Driem, Nungisch forms a separate unit of Tibetan Burman.

Lolo-Burmese : A generally recognized medium-sized group (with a large number of speakers) within Tibeto-Burmese, which combines the Lolo languages ​​of southern China and the Burmese languages more closely related to Burmese into a unit for which an original language has been successfully reconstructed. Some researchers postulate that the individual language Naxi belongs to this group, but the specialists of Naxi reject it.

Karen : The previously often postulated special position of the Karen languages ​​spoken in Burma has been abandoned; today they are generally classified as an equal main branch within Tibeto-Burmese. One of the main reasons for the special status was the word order SVO, which differs from that of all other Tibetan Burman languages ​​with the exception of Bai .

Bai : The position of the individual language Bai , spoken in southern China, remained controversial for a long time, as it was and is exposed to strong Chinese influence. Some researchers (e.g. Benedict) therefore counted them as Sinitic. Others saw it as an independent third branch of Sino Tibetan. Matisoff, van Driem and Thurgood classify it as a separate sub-unit of Tibetan Burman.

Naxi and other individual languages : For the time being, no generally accepted close relationship with other groups can be proven for the Tibetan Burmese individual languages Lepcha , Tujia , Naxi , Mru and the extinct languages Pyu and Dura . Some researchers place the Naxi as Lolo-Burmese, others place the Pyu as a Sak (subunit of Jingpho-Sak).

External relationships

Tai-Kadai, Miao-Yao and Vietnamese

As shown in the history of the classification, the Tai-Kadai and Hmong-Mien languages as well as Vietnamese and Sino-Tibetan were initially put into closer relation. Since the 1950s (as a result of the work of Paul Benedict), the commonalities between Sino-Tibetan and these language families have been traced back to long-term area contacts; according to the current state of research, a genetic connection seems to be excluded.


This also applies to Kusunda , a language to be regarded as isolated, which is spoken by very few people in Nepal. Its classification as a Sino-Tibetan language in Ethnologue is not tenable and is also rejected by those who know this language (see van Driem 2001). Like Nahali spoken in India, Kusunda belongs to the oldest language class on the Indian subcontinent and has been heavily influenced by the Sino-Tibetan languages ​​of the Mahakiranti group over time, which explains the large proportion of Sino-Tibetan loanwords.

Na-Dené and Sinotibetic

Since around 1920, the Americanist Edward Sapir and some of his students had the theory of a genetic relationship between Sino-Tibetan and the North American Na-Dené languages .

Sapir was convinced that the Na Dené languages ​​were genetically related to the Sinotibetic. In a letter to the Americanist Alfred Kroeber in 1921 he wrote:

"If the morphological and lexical accord which I find on every hand between Nadene and Indo-Chinese (meaning Sinotibetic) is accidential, then every analogy on God's earth is an accident."

Sapir did not publish his opinion on the subject because he foresaw what hostility from conservative Americanists would result in him.

Linguistic analyzes and autosomal genetic data of the Yenisan peoples suggest a relationship with Han Chinese and Burmese. The linguist and specialist in the Yenisan languages Edward Vajda also suspects a relationship with the Sino-Tibetan languages. This connection also exists with the Na-Dene.

Sino- and Dene-Caucasian hypothesis

The Dene-Caucasian macro family is shown in dark red-brown

The hypothesis of the controversial dene-caucasian n macrofamily developed to also hypothetical Sino-Caucasian macrofamily that Sergei Starostin 1984 founded. He assumed a genetic relationship between the Sinotibetic and the North Caucasian , based on his reconstructions of the respective original languages . This macro family was later expanded to include some ancient oriental components ( Hurrian - Urartian , Hattic , Sumerian, etc.), Basque (1985) and. Subsequently, the North American Na-Dené languages ​​were expanded to the Dene-Caucus macro family. The last step followed up on Sapir's hypotheses on the relationship between Sinotibetan and Na-Dené. The composition of the Dene-Caucasian macro family is subject to some fluctuations depending on the author. The following list reflects the current opinion of the "Dene-Caucasians".

Since the Sino-Tibetan original language is probably already 8,000 years old, a Dene-Caucasian original language would have to be at least 15,000 years old, and with its extremely wide geographical distribution probably even older. The majority of linguists doubt that, after such a long time, there are still substantial similarities in phonetics , grammar and vocabulary . The results of the Dene-Caucasians are therefore not accepted by the majority of historical linguists.

Japanese ryūkyū

A theory about the origin of the Japanese language comes from the Japanese linguist Īno Mutsumi. He compared the reconstructions of the phonology and syntax of the Tibeto-Burmese languages , Proto- Chinese and Proto-Japanese and came to largely identical initial forms. Further analyzes also showed a considerable correspondence of the basic vocabulary of the proto-languages, which, however, decreased more and more in the later language levels (Central Japanese). Another argument of this theory is the similar grammatical rules between the Burmese languages and Japanese. The sentence order SOV and the use of vowels at the end of a word are almost identical today.

In his analyzes of Asian languages, the Finnish linguist Juha Janhunen finds clear indications that Proto-Japanese is closely related to the Sinotibetan languages. In his opinion, Proto-Japanese came under the influence of Austronesian languages and, after political crises, migration to Japan started . On the way to Japan, across the Korean Peninsula , Proto-Japanese may have been influenced by Proto-Korean or Tungus languages (assumed). After arriving in Japan, today's Japanese developed with a small number of Ainu loanwords.

This table shows word equations of Proto-Japanese with Proto-Chinese:

Vocabulary matches between Japanese and Chinese
Kanji Heian period Kun reading / Romaji Proto-Chinese Modern Chinese (Pinyin) Cantonese Heian period / Romaji Reconstruction of the Heian period / Romaji Remarks
Sen zeni tsean qian2 chin3 sen, zen sen
Mutsumi mutu, mu muiu mu4 muk6 moku boku
Keikoku kafi ɣeap xia2 haap6 gefu kafu ① The consonants are pronounced in the previous generation [p *].
Chu tu-gu tugio zhu4 jyu3 see below shyu ① "Tsu → su / shu" proves that it comes from Proto-Chinese and therefore cannot be a loan word.
Maki maki miək mu4 muk6 moku boku
Tono tono, domu tyən dian4 din6 the th
Kuni (guni) kuni, (kofori) giuən jun4 gwan6 gun kun
To to, tomu tɕiə zhi3 ji2 shi shi
Uma muma, nma xan ma3 ma5 me ba, ma
Ume mume, nme mei2 mui4 may, me bai
Mugi mugi meək may4 mak6 myaku baku
Ga a, aga, ware, waga ŋai where3 ngo2 ga ga
would would ŋea wu2 ng4 gu go

Typological diversity

The striking typological differences between the Sino-Tibetan languages ​​are based on their intensive contacts with neighboring language groups and the effect of substrate languages ​​that have been overlaid by the Sino-Tibetan languages. Since Sinitic separated from the Tibetan Burmese languages ​​very early - probably over 5000 years ago - the two branches of Sinotibetic experienced very different influences, which also had a typological effect. At times, these typological differences were so overrated that despite the great similarities in vocabulary and other genetic features, Chinese and Tibeto-Burmese were not regarded as a genetic unit .

Syllable structure and tone

The Chinese languages ​​are monosyllabic (almost all morphemes consist of one syllable), many Tibetan-Burmese languages ​​have words with more than one syllable, which, however, can often be reduced to monosyllabic components by analysis.

The Sinitic languages ​​are tonal languages ​​of the same type as the Tai-Kadai and Hmong-Mien languages ​​or Vietnamese. A number of Tibetan Burmese languages, on the other hand, have no tones that differentiate meaning, including the Western Tibetan languages, Amdo, Newar, Bodo-Garo and the Burmese languages. A reconstruction of the tones for the original language is not possible because of these differences, not even a statement as to whether the original Sino-Tibetan was a tonal language. There is much to suggest that the development of phonemic tones was a secondary process and cannot be traced back to the original language. Some condition factors for the development of tone differentiations have been determined (e.g. certain forms of syllable endings, replacement of the pair of features voiced - voiceless with tone differences, reduction of initial consonant clusters), but they lead to different forms of tonality in the various language groups and are also used in neighboring language families that are not genetically related to Sinotibetic.

Word order

The Chinese languages usually have the word order SVO ( subject-verb-object ), whereas the Tibetan-Burmese languages ​​usually have SOV , only Karen and Bai differ and, like Chinese, have the position SVO. The neighboring languages ​​that are not genetically related are structured differently: Tai-Kadai and Austro-Asian prefer SOV, Mia-Yao on the other hand SVO. Regarding the word order of today's languages, area or substrate influences seem to have been decisive; a reconstruction of the word order of the original Sinotibetic is hardly possible due to the different expressions. However, some traces in Old Chinese also point to an SOV position, which could be an argument for a corresponding sentence arrangement in the original language. A consequence of the word order is the positioning of head and Dependens in a noun phrase : the Sino-Tibetan SOV languages ​​follow the rule head before Dependens (i.e. "the father's house"), the SVO languages Dependens before head (i.e. "the father's house") , "large house"). The neighboring languages ​​have very different structures.

Morphological diversity

While Chinese languages from insulating are type - so virtually no morphology have - many Tibeto-Burman languages have the typical agglutinative structure of SOV languages, with sometimes very complex verbal formations by Affixketten . While today's Tibetan-Burmese languages ​​primarily use suffixes (they have only a very few productive prefixes , if at all ), older language stages - which, however, are only known in a few languages ​​- also show extensive use of prefixes. Thus prefixes and suffixes in the verbal morphology can be reconstructed for the original Tibetan Burmese . In the opinion of the majority of researchers, this is an innovation of Tibetan Burman compared to the original Sino-Tibetan.

A number of Tibetan Burmese languages ​​show concordance between subject and predicate - that is, the grammatical person or the number (singular, plural or dual) of the subject and predicate are identified in the same way - but in very different degrees and forms. There are Tibetan-Burmese languages ​​that express a concordance only with certain grammatical persons (preferably the 1st and 2nd person).

In nominal morphology , the Tibetan Burmese languages ​​differentiate between a number of cases ("cases"), including the ergative (e.g. in Gurung), the ergative (Gyalrong, Kham), which is only used for certain aspects , the ergative (Newari ), but also nominative - accusative systems (Lolo-Burmese, Meithei, Jingpho). ( Nominative-accusative languages always have a case - the "nominative" - ​​for the subject of a sentence and another case "accusative" for the direct object. They correspond to the situation in German or Latin and in most European languages Ergative languages ​​have a case "ergative", which is only used as a subject or agent of transitive verbs, and a further case - usually called "absolute" - which is used both as an object of transitive verbs and as a subject of intransitive verbs -Construction in a language is not used equally for all tenses, aspects and persons, one speaks of split ergativity or split-ergative. More details on this in the article Ergativ ).

Pronouns and verbs distinguish singular , plural and dual in the conservative languages , they have the categories "inclusive" and "exclusive" in the 1st person plural (see inclusive and exclusive we ).

Not only do Sinitic and Tibeto-Burmese show completely different morphological structures, but also within Tibeto-Burman the typological range is very large. The only morphological features that can contribute something to the question of genetic unity are certain consonantic prefixes and suffixes , which can be detected in almost all Sino-Tibetan groups in the same or similar function (see below: Derivative morphology).

Sinotibetic as a genetic unit

Despite the great typological differences between Sinitic and Tibeto-Burmese and also between the subgroups of Tibeto-Burmese, Sino-Tibetan is a genetic unit . All of the scholars who deal with the Sino-Tibetan languages ​​professionally today and all of the current summaries - Benedict 1972, Hale 1982, van Driem 2001, Matisoff 2003 and Thurgood 2003 - share this view. The Sino-Tibetan archetypes could be reconstructed on a large scale. The common lexical material is extremely extensive and becomes increasingly reliable as the research of other languages ​​increases (see the table of word equations). In addition to the lexical material, there are enough phonological and grammatical similarities that ensure the genetic unity of Sinotibetan. A comprehensive overview of the comparative material - both lexically and phonologically - is provided by Matisoff 2003.

In the following, the phonological, grammatical and lexical similarities of the Sino-Tibetan languages ​​are presented.

Syllable structure and phonemes

The original Sino-Tibetan was a monosyllabic language throughout. Its syllable structure can be described as

(K) - (K) - K (G) V (K) - (s) (K consonant, V vowel, G glide / l, r, j, w /)

reconstruct (potential positions are indicated by brackets). The first two consonants are originally meaning-relevant "prefixes", the actual root has the form K (G) V (K) , the final consonant must be from the group / p, t, k, s, m, n, ŋ, l, r , w, j / originate, vowel final is rare. The vowel can be short or long, the length is phonemic. There can be a weak vowel / ɘ / between the prefix consonants and the initial consonant (a so-called Schwa ). This original syllable structure is documented in classical Tibetan and some modern western Tibetan languages ​​and in the Gyalrong (which are therefore particularly important for the reconstruction), but less completely in Jingpho and Mizo. The complex initial clusters have been reduced in many languages; Chinese has largely lost plosives in the final syllables. This structural simplification obviously often led to the development of differentiating tones.

According to Benedict 1972 and Matisoff 2003, the consonant inventory of the original Sinotibetan - which was used in full for the initial consonants of the root - consisted of the following phonemes:

p, t, k; b, d, g; ts, dz; s, z, h; m, n, ŋ; l, r, w, j.

As the initial consonant of the word root, these phonemes found the following regular sound equivalents in individual groups :

Sinotib. Tibetan. Jingpho Birman. Garo Mizo
* p p (h) p (h), b p (h) p (h), b p (h)
* t t (h) t (h), d t (h) t (h), d t (h)
* k k (h) k (h), g k (h) k (h), g k (h)
* b b b, p (h) p b, p (h) b
* d d d, t (h) t d, t (h) d
*G G g, k (h) k g, k (h) k
* ts ts (h) ts, dz ts (h) s, ts (h) s
* dz dz dz, ts ts ts (h) f
* s s s s th th
* e.g. z z s s f
*H H O H O H
* m m m m m m
* n n n n n n
* ŋ ŋ ŋ ŋ ŋ ŋ
* l l l l r l
* r r r r r r
* w O w w w w
* j j j j ts, ds z

The alternative equivalents are usually secondary, aspiration can occur under certain conditions, it is not phonemic. The basis of the above table is Benedict 1972, where suitable word equations are listed for these sound equations .

The Sino- Tibetan vowel system was reconstructed as / a, o, u, i, e /. Vowels can appear in the middle and end of the syllable, not at the beginning of the syllable. However, vowels other than / a / are very rarely found in the final syllable of the original language. Endings ending in / -Vw / and / -Vj / are particularly common.

Derivative morphology

A classical relational morphology (i.e. a systematic morphological change of nouns and verbs with categories such as case , number , tense aspect , person , diathesis, etc.) did not exist in the original language according to the unanimous opinion of research. The relational morphology of nouns and verbs, which can be seen today especially in the Tibetan-Burmese languages, is to be regarded as an innovation that can be traced back to the areal influences of neighboring languages ​​or to the effect of substrates. As a result of very different influences, very different morphological types could develop.

With certainty, however, elements of a derivative morphology for the Ur-Sinotibetic can be reconstructed, the continuants of which can be demonstrated in many Sinotibetan languages. These are consonant prefixation and suffixation as well as initial alternation , which modify the meaning of verbs but also of nouns. The existence of common derivative affixes and initial alternations with identical or similar semantic effects in almost all groups of the Sinotibetan is a strong indication of its genetic unity. (The examples are from Benedict 1972, Matisoff 2003 and Thurgood 2003; the transcription is based on Benedict and Matisoff, instead of / y / is used as in Thurgood / j /.)

s prefix

The s prefix has a causative and denominative function, which was originally based on a more general “directive” meaning. Examples:

  • Old Chinese * mjang ' to have gone', * smangs ' to lose', actually. 'Let go' (causative)
  • Old Chinese * mɘk 'ink', * smɘk 'black'; Classical Tibetan smag 'dark' (causative)
  • Old Chinese * tjuʔ ‚broom ', * stuʔ ‚ sweep' (denominative)
  • Old Chinese * ljek ' to exchange', * sljeks ' to give' (directive)
  • Classical-Tibetan grib 'shadow', sgrib- 'shadow, darken' (denominative)
  • Classical-Tibetan gril 'roll', sgril- ' roll up' (denominative)
  • Classical-Tibetan riŋ- 'be long', sriŋ- 'extend' (causative)
  • Jingpho lot 'be free', slot 'free' (causative)
  • Jingpho dam 'get lost', sɘdam 'lead astray' (causative)
  • Lepcha nak ' to be straight', njak <* snak 'to make straight' (causative, metathesis sK> Kj )

In other Tibetan Burmese languages ​​(e.g. Burmese languages, Lolo languages, Lahu) the s prefix has been lost, but has caused changes in the initial consonant or tonal differentiations. In the case of weak initial consonants, however, an s prefix can still be recognizable in these languages , for example

  • Burmese ʔip 'sleep', sip ' put to sleep '
  • Burmese waŋ ‚enter ', swaŋ ‚ bring in'

Initial alternation

In almost all Sino-Tibetan languages ​​there are pairs of semantically related words that differ acoustically only in that the initial consonant is voiceless or voiced . The unvoiced variant then usually has a transitive meaning , the voiced one an intransitive meaning. There is the theory that the initial sound change was caused by an original * h -prefix - a non-syllabic, pharyngeal sliding sound - ( Edwin G. Pulleyblank 2000).


  • Old Chinese * kens 'see', * gens 'be visible'
  • Old Chinese * prats ' to defeat', * brats ' to be defeated'
  • Tibetan kril- ' wrap around' , gril- 'be wrapped around'
  • Bahing kuk 'bend', guk 'be bent'
  • Bodo pheŋ 'straighten', beŋ 'straight'

n suffix

The n -suffix (also in the variant / -m /) mainly forms deverbatives, sometimes also collectives . Examples:

  • Classical Tibetan rgyu 'flow', rgyun 'the river'
  • Classical Tibetan gtsi 'urinate', gtsin 'urine'
  • Classical Tibetan rku 'stealing', rkun-ma 'thief' (nominal formation supported by the ma -Formans)
  • Classical Tibetan nje 'close (to be)', njen 'relative'
  • Lepcha zo ' to eat', azom 'to eat' ( circumfigation also through initial / a- /)
  • Lepcha bu ' to carry', abun 'vehicle'

s suffix

The s suffix also forms mainly deverbatives, but also pairs of opposites . Examples:

  • Classical-Tibetan grang- 'count', grangs 'number' (deverbative)
  • Classical Tibetan thag- 'weave', taghs 'tissue' (deverbative); related to
  • Old Chinese * tjɘk 'weave', * tjɘks 'woven cloth' (deverbative)
  • Old Chinese * mreʔ 'buy', * mres 'sell' (converse relation)
  • Old Chinese * djuʔ 'receive', * djus 'give' (reverse relation)

Further derivation suffixes

In addition to the above, there are other derivative suffixes postulated for Sino-Tibetan, e.g. B. / -t /, / -j / and / -k /. For none of these suffixes, however, has yet been given a satisfactory functional description that would be valid in at least some units of Sinotibetic. For more information, please refer to LaPolla (in Thurgood 2003) and Matisoff 2003.

Common vocabulary

The following word equations - only a small excerpt from the etymologies developed since 1940 and now comprehensively confirmed by research - show particularly clearly the genetic relationship of the Sino-Tibetan languages. They are based on Peiros-Starostin 1996, Matisoff 2003 and the Starostins internet database given below . The word selection is based on Dolgopolsky's list of “stable etymologies” and some words from the Swadesh list, which largely excludes loanwords and onomatopoeia. Each word equation has representatives from up to seven languages ​​or language units: Old Chinese or Ursinite (reconstruction Starostin), Classical Tibetan, Classical Burmese, Jingpho (Kachin), Mizo (Lushai), Lepcha, Ur-Kiranti (reconstruction Starostin), Ur-Tibeto Burmese (Matisoff 2003) and Ur-Sinotibetic (Starostin 1989, Matisoff 2003). The transcription is also done according to Matisoff and the underlying database.

Sinotibetan word equations

meaning Old
Lepcha Ur-
tongue * laj lje hlja   lei left   * lja * laj
eye * muk mig mjak mjiʔ With mik * mik * mik * mjuk
heart   sniŋ hnac   niŋ   * niŋ * niŋ * niŋ
ear * nhɘʔ   close n / A kna njor * nɘ *n / A * nɘH
nose   sua hua well hua   * nɘ * na: r * naʔ
Foot or similar * kak rkaŋ crane crane keŋ kaŋ   * kaŋ * kaŋ
Hand or similar * lɘk lay lak   lak ljok * lak * lak * lak
blood * swhit   swij, swe sài thi (t) vi *Hi * s-hjwɘy * ʔ w ij (s)
uncle * guʔ khu 'uh gu 'u ku * ku * khu * quH
man * pa pha phaʔ       * ba * p w a * pa, * ba
louse * srit s (r) ig   ciʔ hrik   * srik * r (j) ik * srik
dog * kh w in khji lhwij gui 'ui   * coolɘ * k w ej * qh w ij
Sun, day * nit ni (n) nij ʃa-ni ni nji * nɘj * nɘj * nij
stone * nlaŋʔ     nluŋ luŋ luŋ * luŋ * luŋ * (n) laŋ, * (n) luŋ
flow   lu luaij lui lui     * lwij * luj
House * kuŋ kjim 'in the ʃe-cum 'in khjum * kim * jim, * jum * qim, * qiŋ
Surname * mheŋ miŋ miŋ mjiŋ hmiŋ   * miŋ * miŋ * mieŋ
kill * srat gsod sat gɘsat that   *set * sat * sat
dead * smɘŋ . mhaŋ maŋ maŋ mak   * maŋ * (s) maŋ
long * pak aphagous paŋ   pak     * pak, * paŋ * pak
short * tonʔ thuŋ tauh ge-dun   tan *volume * twan *volume
two * nijs gnis   ŋi hni nji * ni (k) * ni * nij
I * ŋha n / A n / A ŋai ŋei     *n / A *n / A
you * nhaʔ   well well well     * naŋ * naŋ

Sino-Tibetan languages ​​with at least 500,000 speakers

The Sino-Tibetan languages ​​with at least 500,000 speakers

language Alternative
speaker Classification Main distribution area
Standard Chinese Mandarin, Guanhua, Putonghua, Guoyu 875 million Sinitic China, Taiwan
Wu   80 million Sinitic China: Yangtze River Estuary, Shanghai
Yue Cantonese 70 million Sinitic China: Guangxi, Wuzhou, Guangdong
Min Hokkien 60 million Sinitic China: Fujian, Hainan, Taiwan, Southeast Asia
Jin Jinyu 45 million Sinitic China: Shanxi, Inner Mongolia; also Hebei, Henan
Xiang Hunan 36 million Sinitic China: Hunan
Hakka Kejia 33 million Sinitic South China, Taiwan
Burmese Burmese 32 million Lolo-Burmese Myanmar (Burma); with second speaker 45 million
Gan Can 21 million Sinitic China: Jiangxi, Hubei; also Hunan, Anhui, Fujian
Yi Yipho 4.2 million Lolo-Burmese South china
Tibetan Ü-Tsang 2 million Tibetan Central and Western Tibet; with Amdo and Khams 4.5 million
Sgaw Sgo 1.6 million Karen Burma: Karen State
Khams Khams-Tibetan 1.5 million Tibetan Tibet: Kham
Meithei Manipuri 1.3 million Manipuri India: Manipur, Assam, Nagaland
Pwo Pho 1.3 million Karen Burma: Karen State
Tamang   1 million Tamang-Ghale Nepal: Kathmandu Valley
Rakhain Arakanese 1 million Lolo-Burmese Burma: Arakan
Bai Min Chia 900 thousand unexplained China: Yunnan
Yangbye Yanbe 800 thousand Lolo-Burmese Burma
Amdo Amdo-Tibetan 800 thousand Tibetan Tibet: Amdo
Kokborok Tripuri 770 thousand Bodo cook India: Tripura
Newari Nepal Bhasa 700 thousand Newari thangmi Nepal: Kathmandu Valley
Hani Haw 700 thousand Lolo-Burmese South China, Burma, Laos, Vietnam
Garo Mande 650 thousand Bodo cook India: Assam
Jingpho Kachin 650 thousand Kachin Bangladesh, Northeast India, North Burma, South China
Lisu Lisaw 650 thousand Lolo-Burmese South China, Burma, Laos
Bodo Bara, Mech 600 thousand Bodo cook India: Assam
Pa'o Taunghtu 600 thousand Karen Burma: Thaung
Magar   500 thousand Magar-Chepang Nepal: mid west
Mizo Lushai 500 thousand Mizo-Kuki-Chin Northeast India, Burma
Karbi Mikir 500 thousand Kuki-Chin-Naga Northeast India: Assam, Arunachal Pradesh
Akha Ikaw 500 thousand Lolo-Burmese South China, Burma, Laos, Vietnam



  • Christopher I. Beckwith (Ed.): Medieval Tibeto-Burman Languages. Brill, Leiden / Boston / Cologne 2002.
  • Paul K. Benedict: Sino-Tibetan. A Conspectus. Cambridge University Press, 1972.
  • Scott DeLancey: Sino-Tibetan Languages. In: Bernard Comrie (Ed.): The World's Major Languages. Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • Ernst Kausen: The language families of the world. Part 1: Europe and Asia. Buske, Hamburg 2013, ISBN 978-3-87548-655-1 .
  • James A. Matisoff: Handbook of Proto-Tibeto-Burman. University of California Press, 2003.
  • Jerry Norman: Chinese. Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  • Edwin G. Pulleyblank: Morphology in Old Chinese. In: Journal of Chinese Linguistics. 28.1, 2000.
  • S. Robert Ramsey: The Languages ​​of China. Princeton University Press, 1987.
  • Anju Saxena (Ed.): Himalayan Languages. Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2004.
  • Graham Thurgood, Randy J. LaPolla: The Sino-Tibetan Languages. Routledge, London 2003.
  • George Van Driem: Languages ​​of the Himalayas. Brill, Leiden 2001.

Classification history

  • Paul K. Benedict: Thai, Kadai and Indonesian: A New Alignment in Southeastern Asia. In: American Anthropologist. 44, 1942.
  • August Conrady: An Indochinese causative-denominative formation and its connection with the tone accents. Leipzig 1896.
  • Austin Hale: Research on Tibeto-Burman Languages. Mouton, Berlin / New York / Amsterdam 1982.
  • Fang-kuei Li: Languages ​​and Dialects of China. Chinese Yearbook, Shanghai 1937.
  • Prapin Manomaivibool: Thai and chinese - Are They Genetically Related? Computational Analyzes of Asian and African Languages ​​6, Tokyo 1976.
  • Robert Shafer: Classification of the Sino-Tibetan Languages. In: Word. 11, 1955.

Sino- and Dene-Caucasian

  • The journal Mother Tongue regularly covers Deno-Caucasian topics. The articles in issues I – V (1995–1999) are particularly important.
  • Vitaly Shevoroshkin (Ed.): Dene-Sino-Caucasian Languages. Brockmeyer, Bochum 1991.
    (Contains the English translation of Starostin's original Russian article on Sino-Caucasian from 1984 and the article Sino-Caucasian Languages ​​in America by Sergei Nikolajev, in which the Na-Dené languages ​​are added to Sino-Caucasian.)
  • Vitaly Shevoroshkin, Alexis Manaster Ramer: Some Recent Work in the Remote Relations of Languages. In: Sydney M. Lamb, E. Douglas Mitchell (Eds.): Sprung from Some Common Source. Investigations into the Prehistory of Languages. Stanford University Press, Stanford (Calif.) 1991.
  • Lyle Campbell : American Indian Languages. The Historical Linguistics of Native America. Oxford University Press, 1997.

See also

Web links

Wiktionary: Sino-Tibetan language  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. George van Driem: “Trans-Himalayan” , in: Nathan Hill and Thomas Owen-Smith (eds.): Trans-Himalayan Linguistics , Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2014, pp. 11-40.
  2. ^ East Asian Studies 210 Notes: The Ket. Retrieved September 6, 2018 .
  3. VAJDA, Edward J. (2008). "Yeniseic" a chapter in the book Language isolates and microfamilies of Asia , Routledge, to be co-authored with Bernard Comrie; 53 pages.
  4. ^ East Asian Studies 210 Notes: The Ket. Retrieved September 6, 2018 .
  5. VAJDA, Edward J. (2008). "Yeniseic" a chapter in the book Language isolates and microfamilies of Asia , Routledge, to be co-authored with Bernard Comrie; 53 pages.
  6. 飯 野 睦 毅 (1994) 『奈良 時代 の 日本語 を 解 読 す る』 東陽 出版
  7. Taw Sein Ko 1924, p. viii.
  8. ユ ハ ・ ヤ ン フ ネ ン 「A Framework for the Study of Japanese Language Origins」 『日本語 系統 論 の 現在』 (pdf) 国際 日本 文化 セ ン タ ー 、 京都, 2003 年, 477-490 頁.
This article was added to the list of articles worth reading on June 7, 2008 in this version .