Sino-Tibetan languages

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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Sino-Tibetan languages

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, Chinese, 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 Tibetan, Burmese, 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 language (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 languages.


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).

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