Tibeto-Burman languages

Last updated
Southeast Asia, East Asia, South Asia
Linguistic classification Sino-Tibetan
  • Tibeto-Burman
Proto-language Proto-Tibeto-Burman
ISO 639-5 tbq
Glottolog None
Lenguas tibeto-birmanas.png
Major branches of Tibeto-Burman:

The Tibeto-Burman languages are the non-Sinitic members of the Sino-Tibetan language family, over 400 of which are spoken throughout the Southeast Asian Massif ("Zomia") as well as parts of East Asia and South Asia. Around 60 million people speak Tibeto-Burman languages. [1] The name derives from the most widely spoken of these languages, Burmese and the Tibetic languages, which 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.


Though the division of Sino-Tibetan into Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman branches (e.g. Benedict, Matisoff) is widely used, some historical linguists criticize this classification, as the non-Sinitic Sino-Tibetan languages lack any shared innovations in phonology or morphology [2] to show that they comprise a clade of the phylogenetic tree. [3] [4]


A model of dispersal of the Sino-Tibetan languages. The origin and spread of the Sino-Tibetan language family.png
A model of dispersal of the Sino-Tibetan languages.

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 collected a wealth of data on the non-literary languages of the Himalayas and northeast India, noting that many of these were related to Tibetan and Burmese. [6] Others identified related languages in the highlands of Southeast 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. [7] [8] 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. [9] 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. [10] Several authors, including Ernst Kuhn in 1883 and August Conrady in 1896, described an "Indo-Chinese" family consisting of two branches, Tibeto-Burman and Chinese-Siamese. [11] 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 in Antoine Meillet and Marcel Cohen's Les Langues du Monde in 1924. [12]

The 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 between Tibeto-Burman and Chinese is now accepted by most linguists, with a few exceptions such as Roy Andrew Miller and Christopher Beckwith. [13] [14] [15] 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. [3]


Most of the Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken in remote mountain areas, which has hampered their study. Many lack a written standard. It is generally easier to identify a language as Tibeto-Burman than to determine its precise relationship with other languages of the group. [16] 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. [17] These subgroups are here surveyed on a geographical basis.

Southeast Asia and southwest China

Language families of Myanmar Ethnolinguistic map of Burma 1972 en.svg
Language families of Myanmar

The southernmost group is 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. [18]

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 western 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. [19] The Pai-lang songs, transcribed in Chinese characters in the 1st century, appear to record words from a Lolo-Burmese language, but arranged in Chinese order. [20]

Language families of China, with Tibeto-Burman in orange Ethnolinguistic map of China 1983.png
Language families of China, with Tibeto-Burman in orange

The 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. [21] The hills of northwestern 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. [22]

Tibet and South Asia

Language families of South Asia, with Tibeto-Burman in orange South Asian Language Families.png
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, Sikkim and 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 and Arunachal Pradesh as the Bodish group.

Many diverse 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 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. [23] 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. [17]

The Tani languages include most of the Tibeto-Burman languages of Arunachal Pradesh and adjacent areas of Tibet. [24] The remaining languages of Arunachal Pradesh are much more diverse, belonging to the small Siangic, Kho-Bwa (or Kamengic), Hruso, Miju and Digaro languages (or Mishmic) groups. [25] These groups have relatively little Tibeto-Burman vocabulary, and Bench and Post dispute their inclusion in Sino-Tibetan. [26]

The greatest variety of languages and subgroups is found in the highlands stretching from northern Myanmar to northeast India.

Northern Myanmar is home to the small Nungish group, as well as the Jingpho–Luish languages, including Jingpho with nearly a million speakers. The Brahmaputran or Sal languages include at least the Boro–Garo and Konyak languages, spoken in an area stretching from northern Myanmar through the Indian states of Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Tripura, and are often considered to include the Jingpho–Luish group. [27] [28]

The border highlands of Nagaland, Manipur and western Myanmar are home to the small Ao, Angami–Pochuri, Tangkhulic, and Zeme groups of languages, as well as the Karbi language. Meithei, the main language of Manipur with 1.4 million speakers, is sometimes linked with the 50 or so 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 between Bangladesh and Myanmar. [29] [30]


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 (1955)

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. [31] He retained Tai–Kadai (Daic) within the family, allegedly at the insistence of colleagues, despite his personal belief that they were not related.

I. Sinitic
II. ?? Daic
III. Bodic
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
e. Newarish
f. Digarish
g. Midźuish
h. Hruish
i. Dhimalish
j. Miśingish
k. Dzorgaish
IV. Burmic
a. Burmish
b. Mruish
c. Nungish
d. Katśinish (Jingpho)
e. Tśairelish
f. Luish
g. Taman
h. Kukish
V. Baric
a. Barish
b. Nagish
VI. Karenic

Benedict (1972)

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 Karen.

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

The Tibeto-Burman family is then divided into seven primary branches:

I. Tibetan–Kanauri (a.k.a. Bodish–Himalayish)

A. Bodish
(Tibetic, Gyarung, Takpa, Tsangla, Murmi & Gurung)
B. Himalayish
i. "major" Himalayish
ii. "minor" Himalayish
(Rangkas, Darmiya, Chaudangsi, Byangsi)
(perhaps also Dzorgai, Lepcha, Magari)

II. Bahing–Vayu

A. Bahing (Sunuwar, Khaling)
B. Khambu (Sampang, Rungchenbung, Yakha, and Limbu)
C. VayuChepang
(perhaps also Newar)

III. Abor–Miri–Dafla

(perhaps also Aka, Digaro, Miju, and Dhimal)

IV. Kachin

(perhaps including Luish)

V. Burmese–Lolo

A. Burmese–Maru
B. Southern Lolo
C. Northern Lolo
D. Kanburi Lawa
E. Moso
F. Hsi-fan (Qiangic and Jiarongic languages apart from Qiang and Gyarung themselves)
G. Tangut
(perhaps also Nung)

VI. Boro-Garo

A. Boro
B. Garo (A·chik)
C. Tripuri (Kokborok)
D. Dimasa
E. Mech
F. Rava (Koch)
G. Tiwa (Lalung)
H. Sutiya
I. Saraniya
J. Sonowal
(Perhaps also "Naked Naga" a.k.a. Konyak)

VII. Kuki–Naga (a.k.a. Kukish)

(perhaps also Karbi, Meithei, Mru)

Matisoff (1978)

James Matisoff proposes a modification of Benedict that demoted Karen but kept the divergent position of Sinitic. [32] 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.

  1. Chinese
  2. Tibeto-Burman

Tibeto-Burman is then divided into several branches, some of them geographic conveniences rather than linguistic proposals:

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.

Bradley (2002)

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. [33]

I. Western (= Bodic)

A. Tibetan–Kanauri
i. Tibetic
ii. Gurung
iii. East Bodic (incl. Tsangla)
iv. Kanauri
B. Himalayan
i. Eastern (Kiranti)
ii. Western (Newar, Chepang, Magar, Thangmi, Baram)

II. Sal

A. Baric (Boro–GaroNorthern Naga)
B. Jinghpaw
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.)

A. Adi–Galo–Mishing–Nishi
B. Mishmi (Digarish and Keman)
C. Rawang

IV. North-Eastern

A. Qiangic
B. NaxiBai
C. Tujia
D. Tangut

V. South-Eastern

A. Burmese–Lolo (incl. Mru)
B. Karen

van Driem

George van Driem rejects the primary split of Sinitic, making Tibeto-Burman synonymous with Sino-Tibetan.

Matisoff (2015)

The internal structure of Tibeto-Burman is tentatively classified as follows by Matisoff (2015: xxxii, 1123–1127) in the final release of the Sino-Tibetan Etymological Dictionary and Thesaurus (STEDT). [34] [35]

Other languages

The classification of Tujia is difficult due to extensive borrowing. Other unclassified Tibeto-Burman languages include Basum and the recently described Lamo language. 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.

Scott DeLancey (2015) [36] proposed a Central branch of Tibeto-Burman based on morphological evidence.

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 language isolates: [26]

Blench and Post believe the remaining languages with these substratal characteristics are more clearly Sino-Tibetan:


  1. 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 assimilation.

Related Research Articles

Sino-Tibetan languages Large language family of Asia

Sino-Tibetan, also cited as Trans-Himalayan in a few sources, is a family of more than 400 languages, second only to Indo-European in number of native speakers. The vast majority of these are the 1.3 billion native speakers of Chinese languages. Other Sino-Tibetan languages with large numbers of speakers include Burmese and the Tibetic languages. Other languages of the family are spoken in the Himalayas, the Southeast Asian Massif, and the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Most of these have small speech communities in remote mountain areas, and as such are poorly documented.

Tibetic languages Cluster of Tibeto-Burman languages descended from Old Tibetan

The Tibetic languages form a well-defined group of languages descended from Old Tibetan. According to Tournadre (2014), there are 50 languages, which split into over 200 dialects or could be group into 8 dialect continua. It is spoken in the Tibetan Plateau and in the Himalayas in Baltistan, Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Classical Tibetan is the major literary language, particularly for its use in Buddhist literature.

The Mahakiranti or Maha-Kiranti languages are a proposed intermediate level of classification of the Sino-Tibetan languages, consisting of the Kiranti languages and neighbouring languages thought to be closely related to them. Researchers disagree on which languages belong in Mahakiranti, or even whether Mahakiranti is a valid group. The group was originally proposed by George van Driem, who retracted his proposal in 2004 after a field study in Bhutan.

Qiangic is a group of related languages within the Sino-Tibetan language family. They are spoken mainly in Southwest China, including Sichuan, Tibet and Yunnan. Most Qiangic languages are distributed in the prefectures of Ngawa, Garzê, Ya'an and Liangshan in Sichuan with some in Northern Yunnan as well.

Languages of Bhutan

There are two dozen languages of Bhutan, all members of the Tibeto-Burman language family except for Nepali, which is an Indo-Aryan language, and Bhutanese Sign Language. Dzongkha, the national language, is the only native language of Bhutan with a literary tradition, though Lepcha and Nepali are literary languages in other countries. Other non-Bhutanese minority languages are also spoken along Bhutan's borders and among the primarily Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa community in South and East Bhutan. Chöke is the language of the traditional literature and learning of the Buddhist monastics.

The Sal languages are a branch of Sino-Tibetan languages spoken in northeast India, parts of Bangladesh, and Burma.

The Jingpho-Luish, Jingpho-Asakian, Kachin–Luic, or Kachinic languages are a group of Sino-Tibetan languages belonging the Sal branch. They are spoken in eastern India and Burma, and consist of the Jingpho language and the Luish languages Sak, Kadu, Ganan, Andro, Sengmai, and Chairel. Ethnologue and Glottolog include the extinct or nearly extinct Taman language in the Jingpo branch, but Huziwara (2016) considers it to be unclassified within Tibeto-Burman.

Bodish, named for the Tibetan ethnonym Bod, is a proposed grouping consisting of the Tibetic languages and associated Sino-Tibetan languages spoken in Tibet, North India, Nepal, Bhutan, and North Pakistan. It has not been demonstrated that all these languages form a clade, characterized by shared innovations, within Sino-Tibetan.

The Tibeto-Kanauri languages, also called Bodic, Bodish–Himalayish, and Western Tibeto-Burman, are a proposed intermediate level of classification of the Sino-Tibetan languages, centered on the Tibetic languages and the Kinnauri dialect cluster. The conception of the relationship, or if it is even a valid group, varies between researchers.

The Nung or Nungish languages are a poorly described family of uncertain affiliation within the Sino-Tibetan languages spoken in Yunnan, China and Burma. They include:

Lolo-Burmese languages Sino-Tibetan language group of Southeast Asia

The Lolo-Burmese languages of Burma and Southern China form a coherent branch of the Sino-Tibetan family.

The Loloish languages, also known as Yi in China and occasionally Ngwi or Nisoic, are a family of fifty to a hundred Sino-Tibetan languages spoken primarily in the Yunnan province of China. They are most closely related to Burmese and its relatives. Both the Loloish and Burmish branches are well defined, as is their superior node, Lolo-Burmese. However, subclassification is more contentious.

Proto-Tibeto-Burman is the reconstructed ancestor of the Tibeto-Burman languages, that is, the Sino-Tibetan languages except for Chinese. An initial reconstruction was produced by Paul K. Benedict and since refined by James Matisoff. Several other researchers argue that the Tibeto-Burman languages sans Chinese do not constitute a monophyletic group within Sino-Tibetan, and therefore that Proto-Tibeto-Burman was the same language as Proto-Sino-Tibetan.

ʼOle language Sino-Tibetan language of western Buhtan

ʼOle, also called ʼOlekha or Black Mountain Monpa, is a Sino-Tibetan language spoken by about 1,000 people in the Black Mountains of Wangdue Phodrang and Trongsa Districts in western Bhutan. The term ʼOle refers to a clan of speakers.

The Luish, Asakian, or Sak languages are a group of Sino-Tibetan languages belonging to the Sal branch. They are spoken in Burma and Bangladesh, and consist of the Sak, Kadu, and Ganan languages. In recent years, Luish languages have been influenced by Burmese and Chakma.

The Burmo-Qiangic or Eastern Tibeto-Burman languages are a proposed family of Sino-Tibetan languages spoken in Southwest China and Myanmar. It consists of the Lolo-Burmese and Qiangic branches, including the extinct Tangut language.

Proto-Sino-Tibetan (PST) is the reconstructed proto-language of the Sino-Tibetan language family and the common ancestor of all languages in it, most prominently the Chinese languages, the Tibetan language, Yi, Bai, Burmese, Karen, Tangut, and Naga, although others exist. Paul K. Benedict (1972) placed a particular emphasis on Old Chinese, Classical Tibetan, Jingpho, Written Burmese, Garo, and Mizo in his discussion of Proto-Sino-Tibetan.

Central Tibeto-Burman or Central Trans-Himalayan is a proposed branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family proposed by Scott DeLancey (2015) on the basis of shared morphological evidence.

Ganan is a Sino-Tibetan language of northwestern Myanmar. It belongs to the Luish branch, and is most closely related to the Kadu language of Myanmar.

Taman is an extinct Sino-Tibetan language that was spoken in Htamanthi village in Homalin Township, Sagaing Region, northern Myanmar. It was documented in a list of 75 words in Brown (1911). Keisuke Huziwara (2016) discovered an elderly rememberer of Taman in Htamanthi who could remember some Taman phrases as well as a short song, but was not fluent in the Taman language. However, no fluent speakers of Taman remained in the area.



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  2. Guillaume, Jacques (2012). "The Tangut Kinship System in Qiangic Perspective". In Hill, Nathan (ed.). Medieval Tibeto-Burman Languages IV. p. 215.
  3. 1 2 Handel (2008), p. 431.
  4. Guillaume, Jacques (2007). "A shared suppletive pattern in the pronominal systems of Chang Naga and Southern Qiang". Cahiers de Linguistique Asie Orientale. 36 (1): 2.
  5. Sagart et al. (2019), p. 10319–10320.
  6. Hodgson (1853).
  7. Logan (1856).
  8. Logan (1858).
  9. Forbes (1878).
  10. van Driem (2001), p. 334.
  11. van Driem (2001), pp. 341–342.
  12. Sapir (1925).
  13. Miller (1974).
  14. Beckwith (1996).
  15. Beckwith (2002).
  16. Handel (2008), pp. 424–432.
  17. 1 2 van Driem (2011a).
  18. Thurgood (2003), p. 18.
  19. Thurgood (2003), pp. 8–9.
  20. Coblin (1979).
  21. Thurgood (2003), p. 20.
  22. Thurgood (2003), pp. 17, 19–20.
  23. van Driem (2007), p. 296.
  24. Burling (2003), pp. 178, 180–181.
  25. Burling (2003), pp. 178–182.
  26. 1 2 Blench & Post (2011).
  27. Thurgood (2003), pp. 11–12.
  28. Burling (2003), pp. 174–178.
  29. Thurgood (2003), pp. 12–14.
  30. Burling (2003), pp. 182–189.
  31. Shafer (1955).
  32. Namkung (1996), p. 455.
  33. Bradley (2002).
  34. Matisoff, James A. 2015. The Sino-Tibetan Etymological Dictionary and Thesaurus. Berkeley: University of California. (PDF)
  35. Bruhn, Daniel; Lowe, John; Mortensen, David; Yu, Dominic (2015). Sino-Tibetan Etymological Dictionary and Thesaurus Database Software. Software, UC Berkeley Dash. doi : 10.6078/D1159Q
  36. DeLancey, Scott. 2015. "Morphological Evidence for a Central Branch of Trans-Himalayan (Sino-Tibetan)." Cahiers de linguistique - Asie oriental 44(2):122-149. December 2015. doi : 10.1163/19606028-00442p02


Further reading