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The Sino-Tibetan language family consists of the Chinese, or Sinitic, languages (dialects), all spoken in China, and several hundred Tibeto-Burman languages spoken as far west as Pakistan and as far east as Vietnam. The most important of the Tibeto-Burman group are Tibetan, the dominant language of Tibet, and Burmese, the official language of Burma.

Both Vietnamese and the Tai and Miao-Yao (now sometimes called Hmong-Mien) languages of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and southern China were once placed in the Sino-Tibetan group, but later research has shown this to be mistaken. Vietnamese belongs to the Mon-Khmer family, whereas Tai, together with the related Kam-Sui and Kadai languages of southern China, is a distinct family, now referred to as Kadai. The affiliations of the Miao-Yao group remain unclear; they may turn out to be affiliated with either the Sino-Tibetan or the Kadai family. The common vocabulary and striking structural similarities among the Chinese, Kadai, Miao-Yao, and Vietnamese languages (most of which are not shared with Tibeto-Burman) reflect not a genetic relationship but a long period of close linguistic and cultural contact.

The Tibeto-Burman Languages

Aside from the dominant languages of Tibet and Burma, the Tibeto-Burman branch includes an undetermined number of smaller languages spoken in Pakistan, India, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Bangladesh, northern and western Thailand, and the Yunnan and Sichuan (Szechwan) provinces of China. There are four major subbranches.

The Western (or Bodic) branch includes Tibetan and most of the languages of the Himalayas. Tibetan dialects are spoken from northern Pakistan and Kashmir (Balti and Ladakhi) eastward to Qinghai (Tsinghai) province in China. The most important of the other languages in this branch are Newari, still the dominant language of the Katmandu valley, and the Kiranti languages of eastern Nepal. Several other languages of this branch are spoken along the northern edge of Himachal Pradesh in northwestern India.

The Kamarupan branch includes languages spoken in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Mizoram in India; the most important are the Bodo-Garo languages of Assam, the Kuki-Chin languages of India, Bangladesh, and western Burma, and the Naga languages of Arunachal Pradesh.

The Eastern (or Burmic) branch includes Burmese and the other Lolo-Burmese languages of Burma, Thailand, and Yunnan, and perhaps several other languages of Yunnan and northern Burma. There are many speakers of Loloish languages (Yi, Lahu, Lisu, and others) in Yunnan, and smaller numbers in northern Burma, Thailand, and northwestern Vietnam.

The Karne branch includes a small number of closely related languages spoken on both sides of the Burma-Thailand border. The division of Tibeto-Burman into four major branches may be nearly as old as the original division of Chinese and Tibeto-Burman, which probably occurred between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago.

The majority of the Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken by small hill-dwelling tribal groups, and many are as yet virtually unstudied. In particular, a large number of Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken by small communities in Arunachal Pradesh, in northern Burma, and in eastern Tibet and Yunnan and Sichuan provinces in China. Many of these have been documented only in the last few years, and some remain virtually unknown. The place of many of them within the family is uncertain.

Characteristics of the Sino-Tibetan Family

The Tibeto-Burman languages show much more structural diversity than the Chinese languages, for there are well over 400 of them and they are less closely related to one another. Except for Karen, most of the Tibeto-Burman languages are structurally quite unlike Chinese. In Chinese and Karen, the word order of sentences is subject-verb-object, just as in English. In most of the other Tibeto-Burman languages the order is subject-object-verb. The Tibeto-Burman languages also tend to have or allow fairly long strings of verbs, auxiliary verbs, and verb particles, as in the Tibetan example kho ngu-dgos-yod-pa'dra, which means, literally, "he want cry be seem," or "He looks like he wants to cry." They also show a pattern of discourse organization known as clause-chaining, in which sentences can be of a length and complexity comparable to paragraphs in Western languages, with subordinate clauses corresponding to what would be the sentences of an English paragraph.

Some Tibeto-Burman languages have fairly complex sets of affixes in the verb, marking agreement for person and number with the subject or object or both. Because of the clear relationship between these agreement markers and the independent pronouns, these languages are often referred to as "pronominalized." Many languages of the family are "ergative," placing case-marking on the subject of a transitive verb, rather than on the object as in most European languages, and leaving transitive objects and intransitive subjects unmarked. Most of these are "split ergative," with case-marking in third-person transitive subjects but not first or second. There is reason to consider both the verb-agreement morphology and the split-ergative pattern to be features of Proto-Tibeto-Burman (the ancestor language of the family), which have been lost.

Many Tibeto-Burman languages are tone languages, in which differences in pitch and pitch contour can change the meanings of words--but this seems to be a secondary feature; it is probable that Proto-Tibeto-Burman--and presumably Proto-Sino-Tibetan--lacked tones. Tone systems have developed independently in many of the daughter languages largely through simplifications in the set of possible syllable-final and syllable-initial consonants. Typically, a distinction between voiceless and voiced initial consonants is replaced by a distinction between high and low tone, while falling and rising tones develop from syllable-final (h) and glottal stop, which themselves often reflect earlier consonants. Thus, for example, in modern Central Tibetan the word for "horse," originally rta, is pronounced /ta/, with a high tone reflecting the original voiceless t, while "arrow," originally mda, is now /ta/, with a low tone reflecting the original voiced d. "Tiger," originally stag, is now /taa/, with a high tone reflecting the original voiceless initial, and a falling tone reflecting the original consonant final.

The Chinese language is monosyllabic--that is, virtually all meaningful units in Chinese are a single syllable. Few of the Tibeto-Burman languages are monosyllabic in the same sense. Most of them contain many unanalyzable polysyllables, which are polysyllabic units such as the English word water, in which the individual syllables have no meaning by themselves. In a true monosyllabic language polysyllables are mostly confined to compound words, such as lighthouse. Most Tibeto-Burman languages do show a tendency toward monosyllabicity, however, in that the first syllables of compounds tend over time to be distressed, and may eventually reduce to prefixed consonants.

Virtually all polysyllabic morphemes in Tibeto-Burman languages can be shown to originate in this way. For example, the disyllabic form bakhwan "butterfly," which occurs in one dialect of the Trung (or Dulung) language of Yunnan, is clearly a reduced form of the compound blak kwar, found in a closely related dialect. The first element of this compound, in turn, is itself a reduction of an old compound of two roots, ba or ban and lak, both meaning "arm," "limb," and often turning up in forms for "wing." This is also the origin of many of the famous consonant clusters of written Tibetan.

Independent of the sets of partially related forms within languages created by this process, the Sino-Tibetan languages show a very elaborate form of the "word family" phenomenon, in which large groups of words are obviously related to one another both in sound and in meaning, but not by any regular systematic pattern. An example is the following set of forms from the Jingpho language of Yunnan and northern Burma: bu ("slightly bulging"), bum ("to swell up, be swollen"), bom ("to bloat"), bem ("chubby"), hpum ("fat"), bum ("hill," mountain," "heap"), pem ("to bank up earth into a hillock for planting"), hpum ("to crouch"), bong ("to bulge, to grow," as a goiter), bep ("calf of the leg"--the bulging part), um ("round," or "bulbous"). These (and others not listed here) are all obviously relatable semantically to a notion of bulging or protrusion, and they share a back vowel and a labial initial or final consonant or both. However, the relationships are not regular--that is, there is no general pattern in which, for example, an adjective is related to a verb by suffixation of a nasal, as bu is to bum in the preceding series. While this phenomenon has yet to be studied in detail in the family as a whole, it is widespread in both Tibeto-Burman and Chinese languages, and is clearly present in the oldest reconstructible forms of Chinese, and thus apparently was a feature of Proto-Sino-Tibetan.

Burmese itself is spoken by about three-fourths of the population of Burma, or about 30 million people. The distinctive Burmese alphabet consists almost entirely of circles or portions of circles used in various combinations. It evolved at a time when writing was generally done on palm leaves, the letters traced by means of a stylus. Thus straight lines were impossible because they would cause the leaf to split. There are 42 letters in all - 32 consonants and 10 vowels.

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