Monday, June 13, 2016

Intro to the Sino-Tibetan Language Family

Hi everybody, today I’d like to talk about the language family that Chinese belongs to: Sino-Tibetan, also sometimes called Trans-Himalayan.

This might be a good time to review, by the way, what exactly a language family is. For those of you who have a background in linguistics, please bear with us a minute! Basically, a language family is a group of languages that have separately evolved from a common ancestor. For example, both British and American English have evolved out of Early Modern English, the language of Shakespeare and Milton. On a larger scale, French, Spanish and Italian developed from regional varieties of Latin, which is why we call these the Romance languages—they rose from the ashes of the Roman Empire.

Moving even further back, English can be demonstrably linked to the Romance languages by a very ancient, hypothetical language that linguists call “Proto-Indo-European” (PIE for short). While this language was never written down, we can conclude that it must have existed, since so many languages across western Eurasia and the Indian subcontinent share uncannily similar elements. For example, take a look at the words in these languages for the numbers one, two and three:

Standard Chinese

The words in English, Spanish, Russian, Greek and Sanskrit all sound similar, while those in Chinese don’t. If we can find further similarities in vocabulary and grammar, while demonstrating that these similarities are not simply borrowed (like “sushi” or “burrito” in English) we can conclude that the first five languages belong to the same “Indo-European” family. That is, they are all daughters of the same long-ago language, while Chinese is (almost certainly) not.

On the other hand, the numbers in Chinese, Tibetan, and Burmese have an uncanny similarity, especially in the ancient forms of these languages:

Old Chinese
Old Tibetan
Old Burmese
– *ʔjit
*tjek “single”


Other lexical and grammatical similarities exist between these languages. The regularity of these similarities make it unlikely that they are simple borrowings(1), so we can conclude that Chinese, Tibetan, and Burmese belong to the same language family: what linguists call Sino-Tibetan.

The Sino-Tibetan language family is pretty widely spread across east and southeast Asia:

The ancestor language was probably spoken by a community somewhere in the densely forested eastern foothills of the Himalayas, sometime during the early or middle neolithic(2). This ancestor language is called Proto-Sino-Tibetan (PST) by modern linguists, although just like PIE we can’t really be sure what these people called themselves.

Gradually, the descendants of PST speakers, and their descendants’ descendants, migrated and spread over a wider area. Regional dialects became distinct languages as groups lost contact with each other and mixed with non-ST communities, until after thousands and thousands of years we have this beautiful quilt that’s been sewn together over the Himalayas by the thread of shared linguistic—and cultural—origin.

When we examine these strands of language, these barely-audible echoes of the distant past, the long-gone world of the Proto-Sino-Tibetans comes back to life, albeit only in glimpses. And—incredibly—through the magic of comparative linguistics, we can actually hear the voices of these people again. After millennia of silence, we can use the comparative method to reconstruct the very words that they may have uttered—indeed, must have uttered.

So stay tuned, because next time we’ll take a quick trip back in time and visit these PST-speaking people. Who were they? What was life like for them? Did they play beer pong? Find out next time!

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