All In The Language Family: The Sino-Tibetan Languages

As the world’s 2nd largest language group, how did Sino-Tibetan languages evolve?
June 10, 2020
All In The Language Family: The Sino-Tibetan Languages

The Sino-Tibetan language family is one of the largest in the world. It boasts more than 400 languages and over a billion native speakers. Pretty impressive stuff. While Sino-Tibetan languages mostly span East Asia, its speakers aren’t limited by geography. In fact, Sino-Tibetan languages are used around the globe.

In this article, we’ll look at which modern languages belong to this family, how many people speak them and where their similarities lie. As ever, we’ll finish up by helping you decide which one you might want to learn.

What Are The Sino-Tibetan Languages?

The Sino-Tibetan family has 400 languages. Fortunately for us, we can break this language family into 4 slightly more bite-sized branches. First up is Sinitic: The Sinitic languages include Mandarin and other Chinese languages (such as Wu, Yue, Jin, Min and Hakka). Next, we have Burmese, a branch of several languages spoken throughout Burma and southwestern China. After that comes Tibetic: This includes approximately 40 languages, spoken mostly in Tibet, western China, Bhutan, Nepal, northern India and eastern Pakistan. Last (but not least!) we have Karen. This is a much smaller group of languages spoken in southern Burma and west Thailand.

Sino-Tibetan languages are also known as Trans-Himalayan. This might offer a clearer picture of where the languages are spoken: all over China, Burma, Tibet and across the Himalayas to small parts of India, Nepal and Bhutan.

How Many People Speak Sino-Tibetan Languages?

When it comes to speaker numbers, the Sino-Tibetan language family is 2nd only to the Indo-European family. By a huge margin, the most widely spoken Sino-Tibetan language is the Sinitic language Mandarin. Mandarin has approximately 920 million native speakers. In the same branch, the Yue dialects of Chinese (often collectively referred to as Cantonese) number around 68 million speakers. The Burmese language branch accounts for around 33 million speakers. The Tibetic branch has only 6 million speakers, and the Karen branch about 3 million.

Of course, there are a significant number of speakers outside of East Asia, too. By some accounts, there are as many as 50 million Sinitic language speakers (mostly Cantonese) in North America, South America, Australia and Europe. Quite the spread.

How Similar Are The Sino-Tibetan Languages?

Since they belong to the same family, it can be tempting to assume that Sino-Tibetan languages are similar. However, the family’s roots stretch back many thousands of years and over such vast timescales, significant changes have occurred between individual languages. This is especially true of the Sinitic branch, which probably split from a common language around 6,000 years ago. Since then, the Sinitic languages have evolved to become quite distinct from others in the Sino-Tibetan family.

Writing Systems

For example, let’s consider how modern-day Sino-Tibetan languages are written. While there’s a lot of variation between writing systems, Sinitic languages all use the logographic system of Chinese characters (sometimes referred to as Hanzi). Meanwhile, the Burmese and Karen branches generally use the Burmese script. Finally, Tibetic languages use the Tibetan, Devanagari or Urdu scripts, depending on where they’re spoken.

Grammar

In terms of grammar, it’s tricky to make generalizations about the family as a whole. Still, there are some similarities between Sino-Tibetan languages of the same branch. Sinitic languages, for instance, are what we call “analytic.” This means they organize words and grammar using strict word order, not through inflections or word endings.

Tibetic languages, on the other hand, tend to be agglutinative. This is just a fancy way of saying that they show grammatical relationships by adding suffixes to words. Hungarian (though not a Sino-Tibetan language) is a good example of another agglutinative language, because it uses many affixes and can have extremely long words. The same is true for many Tibetic languages.

Other Features

One common feature among many Sino-Tibetan languages is that they are often tonal. This means they use pitch to differentiate between words. While the number of tones used in Sino-Tibetan languages varies, it’s a pretty common feature. For example, Standard Tibetan has 2 tones, Burmese has 3, Mandarin 4 and Cantonese typically makes use of 9 distinct tones. 

Since the 4 distinct branches split so long ago, there aren’t many similar words between branches. There are some exceptions, though. For instance, the word “name” in Mandarin is (míng), in Standard Tibetan མིང (ming), and in Burmese အမည် (əmyi).

Which Sino-Tibetan Language Should You Learn?

Since Mandarin is the most widely spoken Sino-Tibetan language, this arguably makes it the most useful to learn (even if it is quite difficult). To start with, it has a huge amount of learning resources. Plus, Mandarin’s media output and cultural reach extend around the globe.

If you’re interested in the diaspora of speakers though, Cantonese might be better. However, if you’d prefer to avoid learning a complex writing system, consider Standard Tibetan. It’s a bit easier to learn and is a great language if you’re interested in the cultural impact of Tibetan Buddhism.

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Author Headshot
Sam Wood
Sam is a vegan travel blogger, freelance writer, social media manager, former English teacher, linguist and occasional guest university lecturer from London, now living in Berlin. He is fascinated with the phonetics of the many varieties of English from all over the world, both from a pedagogical and historical point of view and as well speaks German, Spanish and French plus smatterings of Swedish, Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese. In his free time he enjoys watching Star Trek, doing yoga, baking delicious vegan cakes and performing as a drag queen.
Sam is a vegan travel blogger, freelance writer, social media manager, former English teacher, linguist and occasional guest university lecturer from London, now living in Berlin. He is fascinated with the phonetics of the many varieties of English from all over the world, both from a pedagogical and historical point of view and as well speaks German, Spanish and French plus smatterings of Swedish, Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese. In his free time he enjoys watching Star Trek, doing yoga, baking delicious vegan cakes and performing as a drag queen.

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