Sino-Tibetan languages

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Sino-Tibetan languages in red.

The Sino-Tibetan languages form a putative language family composed of Chinese and the Tibeto-Burman languages¡Bincluding some 250 languages of East Asia. They are second only to the Indo-European languages in terms of their number of speakers.

Many of the better known Sino-Tibetan languages are tonal. However¡Btone may evolve quickly and is often an areal feature¡Band thus poor evidence for a genealogical relationship. For example¡Bwhile standard Lhasa Tibetan is tonal¡Bother Tibetan dialects are not¡Band several reconstructions of Old Chinese do not require tone: Chinese and Tibetan tones appear to have developed during historical times to compensate for the loss of consonantal distinctions.



[edit] Validity

A few scholars¡Bmost prominently Christopher Beckwith and Roy A. Miller¡Bargue that Chinese is not related to Tibeto-Burman. They point to an absence of regular sound correspondences¡Ban absence of reconstructable shared morphology¡B[1] and evidence that much shared lexical material has been borrowed from Chinese into Tibeto-Burman. In opposition to this view¡Bscholars in favor of the Sino-Tibetan hypothesis such as W. South Coblin¡BGraham Thurgood¡BJames Matisoff¡Band Gong Hwang-cherng have argued that there are some regular correspondences. The genetic relationship of the hypothetical Sino-Tibetan family thus remains disputed. Since both proponents and opponents of the hypothesis agree that it is not as well demonstrated as that of the Indo-European family¡Band in fact a convincing reconstruction of Proto-Sino-Tibetan has never been proposed¡Bit remains to be shown that Sino-Tibetan is a valid family. Despite the serious problems with it¡BSino-Tibetan continues to be very strongly supported by its proponents¡Band accordingly it is widely accepted without question by non-specialists.

The other tonal language families of East Asia¡BTai-Kadai and Hmong-Mien¡Bare sometimes included in Sino-Tibetan. This view fell out of favor in the West in the mid twentieth century¡Bwith the similarities credited to borrowings and areal features¡Bbut it is still widely held in China.

[edit] Classification

James Matisoff's widely accepted classification is as follows:

Sino-Tibetan (Matisoff)

Not all of the "branches" of Matisoff's classification are intended as genealogic nodes. For example¡BMatisoff 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.

Like Matisoff¡BGeorge van Driem acknowledges that the relationships of the "Kuki-Naga" languages (Kuki¡BMizo¡BMeitei¡Betc.)¡Bboth amongst each other and to the other Tibeto-Burman languages¡Bremain unclear. However¡Brather than placing them in a geographic grouping¡Bas Matisoff does¡Bvan Driem leaves them unclassified.

Certain linguists¡Bmost notably van Driem¡Bhave proposed that Chinese owes its traditional privileged place in the Matisoffian classification to cultural rather than linguistic criteria¡Bmuch as Semitic was once considered a primary branch of a "Hamito-Semitic" family; and just as Semitic was later demoted to a sub-branch of Afro-Asiatic¡Bseveral recent classifications have demoted Chinese to a sub-branch of Tibeto-Burman.

Roger Blench comments that

it is hard not to suspect that Chinese does not have the distinct status accorded it by the Matisoffian model¡Bbut whatever evidence exists for other schemas has failed to win significant assent from the scholarly community. The second major issue is the status of the problematic ¡yremnant¡z languages of the Himalaya¡BGongduk¡BMagaric and others. Either these are early branchings from the Sino-Tibetan tree or they are ¡yKusundic¡z¡Bremnants of earlier language phyla that have been Sino-Tibetanised.
(The Kusunda language of western Nepal is often thought to be a remnant of the pre-Tibeto-Burman indigenous languages of the southern Himalayas. Kusunda is thought to be on the verge of extinction¡Bif not extinct.)

Van Driem's classification is typical of this view:

Tibeto-Burman (van Driem)

The essential part of this model is called the Sino-Bodic hypothesis¡Bfor it proposes that the closest relatives of Chinese are the Bodic languages such as Tibetan.

[edit] Sino-Bodic

Advocates of the Sino-Bodic hypothesis point to two main pieces of evidence establishing a special relationship between Sinitic and Bodic¡Band thus placing Chinese within the Tibeto-Burman family. First¡Bthere are a number of parallels between the morphology of Old Chinese and the modern Bodic languages. Second¡Bthere is an impressive body of lexical cognates between the Chinese and Bodic languages.

Opponents of the Sino-Bodic hypothesis present two rebuttals. First¡Bthey note that the existence of shared lexical material only serves to establish an absolute relationship between two linguistic groups¡Bnot their relative relationship to one another. While it is true that some of the cognate sets presented by supporters of the Sino-Bodic hypothesis are confined to Chinese and Bodic¡Bmany others are found in Tibeto-Burman languages generally and thus do not serve as evidence for a special relationship between Chinese and Bodic.

Second is the reconstruction of Proto-Tibeto-Burman produced by Benedict and refined by later scholars. This was largely based on data from literary Tibetan¡Bliterary Burmese¡BMizo (Lushai)¡Band Jingpho (Kachin). From the reconstructed forms¡Breflexes in each of these and many other Tibeto-Burman languages may be derived by the application of regular sound laws. If Chinese had an especially close relationship to Bodic¡Band therefore to literary Tibetan¡Bany reconstruction that accounted properly for both Tibetan and languages outside of Bodic (such as Mizo and Jingpho) should be able to account for Chinese as well; however¡BChinese forms may not be derived from these reconstructions through regular sound laws. Thus Sino-Bodic is not supported as a group distinct from Sino-Tibetan in this view.

[edit] Common Sino-Tibetan roots

*ŋaI¡Bme¡BmyOld Chinese *ŋa (Mandarin ¡BCantonese ŋo) (Burmese [ŋa])
*neiyou¡ByourOld Chinese *ni (Mandarin ¡BCantonese lei ~ nei;) (Burmese [nin] or [neɪn])
*k-ikoneClassical Tibetan *gchig (Tibetan chig)¡BProto-Karen *tək (Wewaw ta¡BPho ka¡BPaku toʔ) (Burmese [tiʔ])
*k-istwoOld Chinese *is (Mandarin er¡BCantonese yi)¡BProto-Tibetan *g-nis (Tibetan nyee) (Burmese: [n̥iʔ])
*k-sumthreeOld Chinese *sum (Mandarin sān¡BCantonese saam)¡BProto-Tibetan *g-sum (Tibetan sum) (Burmese: [£coʊn])
*p-leifourOld Chinese *siy (Mandarin si¡BCantonese sei)¡BProto-Tibetan *b-liy (Tibetan zhi) (Burmese: [le])
*p-ŋafiveOld Chinese *ŋaʔ (Mandarin ¡BCantonese ŋ)¡BProto-Tibetan *l-ŋʲa (Tibetan ŋa) (Burmese: [ŋa])
*t-ruksixOld Chinese *Cuk (Mandarin liu¡BCantonese lok)¡BProto-Tibetan *d-ruk (Tibetan dug) (Burmese: [tʃʰaʊʔ])
*s-nyatsevenOld Chineseʲit (Mandarin ¡BCantonese chat)¡BProto-Tibetan *s-nis (Tamang nis) (Burmese: [kʰṵ n̥iʔ])
*p-ʁyateightOld Chinese *pret (Mandarin ¡BCantonese baat)¡BProto-Tibetan *b-r-at (Tibetan gyey) (Burmese: [ʃiʔ])
*p-kunineOld Chinese *juʔ (Mandarin jiǔ¡BCantonese gao)¡BProto-Tibetan *d-kuw (Tibetan gu) (Burmese: [koʊ])
*p-ciptenOld Chinese *ip (Mandarin shi¡BCantonese sap)¡BProto-Tibetan *ci (Tibetan chu) (Burmese: [sʰɛ̀])

[edit] References

  • Coblin¡BW. South. 1986. A Sinologist's Handlist of Sino-Tibetan Lexical Comparisons. Monumenta Serica Monograph Series 18. Nettetal: Steyler Verlag.ISBN 3-87787-208-5
  • Matisoff¡BJames. 2003. Handbook of Proto-Tibeto-Burman: System and Philosophy of Sino-Tibetan Reconstruction. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-09843-9
  • Thurgood¡BGraham. 2002. Sino-Tibetan Languages. Oxford. RoutledgeCurzon. ISBN 0-7007-1129-5

[edit] External links