Newsletter of the Association for the Study of Language In Prehistory

Issue 26 · Spring 1996

Sino-Tibetan -- Tibeto-Burman!

It is not routine procedure for a major linguistic phylum to be drastically altered internally, especially if reconstruction is well under way. Still it does happen from time to time; usually to the benefit of all. Such revisions are inevitably controversial -- at least at first -- and the heat often begets light.

So it may be with S-T (Sino -Tibetan), long viewed as having two primary sub-phyla: Chinese in one and all the rest in the other or T-B (Tibeto-Burman). Paul Benedict pioneered a first revision of 'Indo-Chinese', containing S-T + Thai & its kin. That was a half century ago. Since then, Paul's classification has become more or less standard; others resemble his.

Now George van Driem of Leiden (PhD from Berkeley) has changed, one must say totally changed, S-T. Chinese has been dethroned at least as much as Semitic has been in Afrasian, if not more so. George properly gives credit for initial steps towards reclassification to Nicholas Cleaveland Bodman and David Bradley. Their schemes and references are in van Driem 1995. (Source: George van Driem, 1995. "Black Mountain Conjugat-ional Morphology, Proto-Tibeto-Burman Morphosyntax, and the Linguistic Position of Chinese", SENRI ETHNOLOGICAL STUDIES 41: 229-259) It is nearly amazing that in a phylum noted for its tendency towards word isolation such a grammar-oriented study should overthrow the standard classification!

Here is the basic taxonomy of his new T-B :

T-B --> Western + Eastern
Western--> Baric, Sal, Kamarupan
Kamarupan -> Bodo-Konyak, Abor-Miri-Dafla, Kuki-Naga, Mikir-Meithei (India-Burma borders)
Eastern--> Northern + Southern
Northern --> Sino-Bodic or Bodic + Himalayan vs Sinitic or Northwestern vs Northeastern
Southern --> SW vs SE
Southwestern --> Burmic, Karenic
Burmic --> Lolo-Burmese
Karenic --> Karenic
Southeastern --> Qiangic, Rung
Qiangic --> Tangut, Qiang, Primi
Rung --> Nung + rGya-rong + Naxi

[Note: the exact membership of Qiangic and Rung groups was not given. Above is HF's guess.]

Fundamentally, George's new scheme reflects greater weight being given to the Himalayan languages and, accordingly, less to Chinese, but also Karenic. This is very exciting and we hope to have a MT*Treatment of this whole question, with the lead article obviously going to George van Driem's taxonomy.

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(c) 1996 Association for the Study of Language In Prehistory