An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Overview. Tibeto-Burman is a large language family, comprising between 250 to 300 languages, which extends over a vast geographical area of Asia and exhibits a remarkable typological diversity. Most scholars consider that it is genetically related to Chinese integrating with it a Sino-Tibetan phylum. The ancestral language, Proto-Sino-Tibetan, would have been spoken to the east of the Tibetan Plateau, perhaps in the Yellow River valley, at least 6,000 years ago (a time-depth comparable to that of Proto-Indo-European). From there, migrations to the west and south carried what would become the Bodish or Tibetan languages to Tibet, while a different wave of migrations  from the homeland, in a southwesterly direction, following the river valleys down into Myanmar, India, and Nepal, produced the other branches of the family.

  Some Tibeto-Burman branches have been influenced lexically, phonologically and morphologically by Chinese, others by Indo-Aryan, others like Tibetan by both.

Distribution. Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken in Tibet, western China (provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan, and western Hunan), in the north and east of South Asia, and in Southeast Asia. In the Indian subcontinent they are found in Baltistan (an area of North Pakistan colonized by the Tibetans in the 7th century), Ladakh (a region of northwest India akin culturally to Tibet), Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and in the northeastern states of India (Sikkim, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoran, Tripura, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh). In Southeast Asia they predominate in Myanmar and are also spoken in pockets in Thailand, Laos, and northwestern Vietnam.

Internal Classification. The genetic relationship between Tibeto-Burman languages is a matter of controversy but, according to recent classifications, they can be grouped into the following branches:

Map of Chinese and Tibeto-Burman languages (click to enlarge it)

1) Qiangic. Includes 9 languages, strongly influenced by Chinese, spoken in southwest China (Sichuan and Yunnan provinces) by 255,000 people. The largest are Qiang with 140,000 speakers, Pumi with 54,000 and Ersu with 20,000. The others (with less than 10,000 speakers each) are Guiqiong, Muya, Namuyi, Queyu, Shixing and Zhaba.

2) Lolo-Burmese is divided in two groups:

  1. -Burmish: includes Burmese and a few minor languages of Yunnan and northern Myanmar, notably Lhao Vo (or Maru) with 105,000 speakers and Zaiwa (or Atsi) with 110,000.

  1. -Loloish (or Yi): influenced by Mon-Khmer or Tai-Kadai, is spoken by hill tribes in Myanmar and Thailand, Laos, Sichuan, Yunnan and Vietnam. The most important are: Nosu (Nuosu) with 2 milion speakers, Lahu with 650,000, Lisu with 770,000, and Akha (Hani) with 565,000.

3) Bodish or Tibetan (in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, India, Pakistan). Comprises Tibetan (in all its forms) spoken in Tibet, Bhutan, Ladakh (Northwest India) and Baltistan (North Pakistan), Takpa (a small language of Tibet), Tshangla spoken in Bhutan (175,000 speakers), and a group of Nepalese languages which include Tamang (1.4 million), Newar (840,000), Gurung (360,000), Thakali  (6,500) and Manang (3,800).

4) Kuki-Chin. Comprises some 50 languages spoken in western Myanmar, Northeast India and Bangladesh. They include Mizo (Lushai) in the Indian state of Mizoram (542,000 speakers), Tiddim Chin (350,000), Thado (231,000) Lai or Hakha Lai (130,000), Mara (84,000) Hmar (83,000) and others.

5) Bodo-Garo (NE India). Includes Bodo and Dimasa in Assam (spoken, respectively, by 1.7 million and 100,000), Kokborok or Tripuri in Assam and Tripura (700,000), Kachari (60,000) and Garo in the Indian state of Meghalaya (1 million).

6) Konyak. Spoken by tribal peoples in Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland in NE India. It comprises 6 languages: Tangsa (Tase), Nocte and Wancho in the extreme south of Arunachal Pradesh; Konyak, Phom and Chang in the contiguous region of northeast Nagaland. The total number of speakers is around 600,000.

7) Tani  (in NE India). Includes several languages spoken by about 600,000 people in the states of Arunachal Pradesh and northern Assam.

8) Naga (in NE India). Includes several languages spoken in the state of Nagaland by about 1.6 million people.

9) Mikir-Meithei (in NE India). Mikir, also known as Karbi, is spoken in Assam by half a million people, and Meithei by 1.5 million in the states of Manipur and Assam.

10) Karenic. Comprises several closely related languages spoken in eastern Burma and adjacent parts of Thailand: Pa-o (600,000), Kayah Li or Karenni (150,000), Pwo Karen (1.4 million), Sgaw (2 million).

11) Rung (in southern China, Myanmar, Nepal and northern India). Includes the rGyalrong languages of Sichuan, Dulong-Rawang-Anong spoken in Yunnan and the Kachin State of Myanmar, the Kiranti languages (Bantawa, Athpare [Athapariya], Dumi, Khaling, Camling) and  the Kham languages of Nepal, as well as the Western Himalayan languages Kinnauri, Rongpo, Chaudangsi and Darmiya spoken in Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal (both states of northern India) as well as in Nepal.

12) Kachinic. Includes Jinghpo (Kachin) spoken in the Kachin state of northern Myanmar by close to one million speakers, and perhaps also the Luish languages.

13) Bai. Is a language isolate of NW Yunnan spoken by 1.3 million people.

Major Languages and Speakers. Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken by about 60 million people. In Southeast Asia, they are mostly minority ‘‘hill tribe’’ languages, with speakers numbering in the thousands and tens of thousands. The big exceptions are Burmese, a national language with 35 million speakers, and Tibetan with 5 million, both possessing a long literary tradition. Large groups are Loloish and Karen with more than 4 million speakers each, and Bodo-Garo with 3.5 million. Languages with one million or more speakers are (numbers in millions):

Status. More than one third of all Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken by less than 10,000 people and many of them are endangered. In Southeast Asia, with the exception of Burmese, the official language of Myanmar, they are mostly spoken by minority ‘‘hill tribes’’ and have no official status. Many are not even written. In six of the seven states of Northeastern India, Tibeto-Burman languages predominate, and two of the most numerous are recognized in the Constitution (Bodo in Assam, and Meithei in Manipur). Newar is an official language in Nepal, Tibetan is the official language of the Tibet Autonomous region of China and Dzongkha (a dialect of Tibetan) is the national language of Bhutan.

Oldest Documents. The best-known Tibeto-Burman languages are Tibetan and Burmese which have the longest and most extensive literary traditions. Both have a primarily Buddhistic literature written in an Indic script. The earliest attestations of Burmese are in twelfth-century inscriptions; the earliest extant Tibetan writings were discovered in the caves at Dunhuang and date back to the ninth century. Another early attested language of this family is the extinct Tangut, spoken once by the Danxian, better known as Tangut (their Mongol name), who founded in the eleventh century an empire in northern China and who created their own script in 1036.


  1. Phonology

  2. -Word structure. Proto-Sino-Tibetan was monosyllabic but many modern languages have also disyllabic and polysyllabic words. Syllable structures are very diverse; in some languages consonant clusters in initial and/or final position are allowed while others have a simple consonant-vowel structure.

  1. -Sound system. Proto-Tibeto-Burman had five phonemic vowels, i, u, e, o, a, and, at least, 15 consonants articulated at four places:


  1. Many Himalayan languages, influenced by neighboring India, have acquired phonemes of Indo-Aryan origin.

  1. -Tones. Some Tibeto-Burman languages have tones but many do not. Tonal languages differ among them in the number and characteristics of tones. Several theories attempt to explain the origin of tones in the family. The most traditional one considers them a genetic feature of the entire Sino-Tibeto-Burman phylum. More recent theories take into account the factors of diffusion between languages and independent development of tones within branches to justify tonal diversity.

  1. -Vowel gradation (ablaut) is found in several members of the Tibeto-Burman family, like in Tibetan, where it contributes to differentiate various verbal forms.

  1. Morphology

  1. Nominal

  2. -Some languages are predominantly monosyllabic, tonal and isolating with little or no inflectional morphology (like Lolo-Burmese and Karen). Others are agglutinative, adding affixes to verbal roots, having in some cases complex verbal systems (like Kiranti in eastern Nepal). Most of them have very productive compounding processes.

  1. -Gender and number are not marked on nouns but in many languages numeral classifiers are required when nouns are quantified. Each classifier is used with a group of conceptually related nouns i.e., they share some salient feature like shape, dimensions, material, etc.

  1. Verbal

  2. -Many languages mark tense, aspect and mood in the verb, besides person. In the so-called pronominalized languages, the suffixes added to verbs to show concordance with person and number are similar or identical to the personal pronouns.

  1. -The major verbal category is aspect and not tense. More important than distinguishing between past, present, and future is to indicate if an action is starting or is imminent, if it has been completed or if it is in progress, if there is a change of state or if a state has become permanent.

  1. -Verb concatenations (serial verb constructions), in which two or more verbs are juxtaposed without an intervening conjunction, are frequent, notably in the Loloish branch of Tibeto-Burman. One verb serves as semantic head while the others acquire more abstract grammatical meanings in order to modify it ('bleaching'). In Lahu as many as five verbs  may be juxtaposed in a single clause.

  1. -Many languages have causative verbs, signaled by special prefixes, by a change in the initial consonant of the root or by tone.

  1. Syntax

  2. -In all Tibeto-Burman languages sentence word order is Subject-Object-Verb (SOV), except in Bai and Karen which are SVO like Chinese. The following characteristics, which correspond to SOV languages, are present in Tibeto-Burman: use of postpositions rather than prepositions, modifiers precede the modified noun, auxiliary verbs are placed after the main verb and relative clauses before the head noun.

  1. -In colloquial speech, the organization of a sentence can change to reflect the focus of interest of the speaker and/or the context of the discourse. In other words, the concept of subject is less important than that of topic. Thus, the topic tends to appear at the beginning of the clause.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -The Sino-Tibetan Languages. G. Thurgood & R. J. LaPolla (eds). Routledge (2003).

  2. -Sino-Tibetan: A Conspectus. P.K. Benedict. Cambridge University Press (1972).

  3. -'Sino-Tibetan Languages'. S. DeLancey. In The World’s Major Languages, 693-702. B. Comrie (ed). Routledge (1987).

  4. -Handbook of Proto-Tibeto-Burman: System and Philosophy of Sino-Tibetan Reconstruction. J. A. Matisoff. University of California Press (2003).

  5. -La Morphologie du Sino-Tibétain. G. Jacques. Journée d’étude «la linguistique comparative en France aujourd’hui », 4 mars 2006, EHESS.

  6. -The Qiang Nationality Language and Culture Website. R. J. LaPolla. Available online at:


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