By the Trikāya Translation Committee.

Notes on the Relationship of Tibetan to Other Languages

Notes on the Relationship of Tibetan to Other Languages

by Erick Tsiknopoulos, 2021

Tibetan is a member of the larger Sino-Tibetan language family, a broad grouping which includes its distant cousins Mandarin, Cantonese and most of the languages in China, and more specifically, represents one of the primary components of the Tibeto-Burman subfamily. The Tibeto-Burman family of languages is spoken in Western China, Burma, Northern India (mainly in the Himalayan regions), Nepal and Bhutan.

Therefore the closest relatives of Tibetan are the various languages of Bhutan and Burma (including Dzongkha and Burmese, the national languages of Bhutan and Myanmar respectively), as well as hundreds of other minor languages spoken in Northeast India, Nepal and Southwest China.

In terms of its relationship to other branches of the Sino-Tibetan family, Tibetan could be considered to be 1st cousins with the Himalayish and other Bodic languages (Tibetan is a Bodic language), 2nd cousins with the Newaric and Kiranti (Rai) languages, 3rd cousins with the Lolo-Burmese languages, and 4th cousins with the Sinitic (Chinese) and Karenic languages.

Tibetan is also distantly related to the Kra-Dai or Tai-Kadai group of languages in Thailand, Laos and Southwest China (including Thai and Lao). Although sometimes this group is not included in the Sino-Tibetan family (mostly due to political reasons), generally it is considered to be a distinct branch of Sino-Tibetan. For example, there are some similar words in Tibetan and Thai (a point rarely mentioned). These languages are probably also equivalent to 4th cousins to Tibetan.

Roughly speaking, major linguistic divergence of Tibetan from its first cousins (Bodish-Himalayish) probably began, depending on the language, between 1000 to 2000 years ago, with its second cousins (Newaric and Kiranti) between 2000 to 3000 years ago, with its third cousins (Lolo-Burmese) 3000 to 4000 years ago, and with its fourth cousins (the Chinese languages) between 4000 to 5000 years ago. For example, Ancient Chinese (c. 1050 BC) actually had a great deal more in common with Tibetan than any modern form of Chinese (esp. Mandarin), 3070 years ago; and one can imagine that two thousand years prior to that, around 3050 BC, “Tibetan” and “Chinese” may have been almost mutually intelligible. By the same token, 1000 years ago, Tamang, the Bhutanese languages and the Bodic languages of India and Nepal were much more similar to Tibetan than they are today.

The tendency of all languages for at least the last 5000 years has been toward diversity and proliferation; a trend which has continued until recently. As a testament to this, a new dialect of Tibetan exists in India and Nepal, Exile Tibetan or Refugee Tibetan, based mainly on the Central Tibetan dialect but very much distinct unto itself. This language could not have existed even in the most rudimentary forms before 1960, and probably started to take on a life of its own sometime in the 1980s. By the early 2000s at the latest, it was a bona fide separate dialect of Tibetan.

Tibetan is not related to Mongolian (a Mongolic and possibly Altaic language), nor to Sanskrit (an Indo-European and specifically Indo-Aryan language), although its classical grammar was influenced by that of Sanskrit.

Nor is Tibetan directly related to Korean and Japanese, although they do share many similar root-words, mostly due the powerful influence of (medieval) Chinese on these languages. However, although some have proposed distant historical, genetic and linguistic connections between Tibet, Korea and Japan (and genetically there is evidence for this), because Korean and Japanese are considered languages isolates with unclear origins (or rather, too ancient origins), this is widely disputed and debated. In the opinion of the author, it is possible that Korean and Japanese represent some historical fusion of the Sino-Tibetan, Ural-Altaic and Austronesian language families, which probably occurred roughly 2500-3000 years ago. Most linguists agree that both Japanese and Korean have linguistic elements of Altaic, Austronesian and Sino-Tibetan — specifically, Tibeto-Burman. This could be due to the confluence of different cultures and tribes meeting in the same location and mixing over time.

There are many Tibeto-Burman languages with over 1 million speakers. Among them are Burmese (43-46 million native and secondary learners in Myanmar and neighboring countries), Tibetan (8 million in Tibet, India and Nepal), Karen-Karenic (7 million), Arakanese-Rakhine (2 million in Myanmar), Hani (1.8 million), Meitei (1.7 million in Manipur, Northeast India), Tamang-Tamangic (1.4 million in Nepal, Sikkim and Darjeeling District, India), Bai (1.3 million in Yunnan, Southwest China), Newari (1.2 million in Nepal), Jingpo (about 1 million in Kachin, Myanmar and Yunnan, Southwest China), Nuoso (2 million) and Nasu (1 million).

The Loloish group of languages (a branch of Lolo-Burmese), comprising some 95+ different languages, is spoken by over 9 million people in Myanmar and Southwest China. The most widely spoken among these are Nuoso (2 million), Nasu (1 million) and Lisu (940,000).

Other famous Tibeto-Burman languages include Dzongkha, spoken in Bhutan (640,000 speakers), Sherpa, spoken in Nepal (170,000 speakers), Ladakhi, spoken in Ladakh, India (111,000 speakers) and Sikkimese, spoken in Sikkim, India (70,000 speakers), all of which are closely related to Tibetan.

Other languages in the Bodish and Himalayish branches of Tibeto-Burman include Tsangla, which has 170,000 speakers in Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh, India, the Kinnauri language, composed of a dialect cluster spoken by 84,000 people in the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh, India, which is related to Ladakhi, and Gurung is another notable language in the Tibeto-Burman family, with up to 360,000 speakers in Nepal and the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, India, as is Lepcha, spoken by 66,000 people in Sikkim and Darjeeling district, India, and some parts of Nepal and Bhutan.

Also of note in the Tibeto-Burman family are the Kiranti (or Rai) group of languages, comprised of about 27 different languages, including Khambu, Limbu, Sunuwar, Yakkha, Chamling, Kulung, Khaling, Thulung, Bantawa, Bahing, Varyu, Dungmali and Lohorung, which are spoken in Nepal, Sikkim and Darjeeling district, India by approximately over 1.2 million people. Most of these languages are not well documented.

Historically and culturally, the Newari language of Nepal is one of the most significant Tibeto-Burman languages, because Newari served as Nepal’s official administrative language during the medieval period from the 14th century until 1779 under the Malla dynasty; and it remained an important Nepalese literary language until 1847. Newari was also a major language for Buddhist literature, and many Buddhist texts are preserved in Newari.

Currently, the most prominent Tibeto-Burman languages in terms of culture, modern communications and publications, and influential in a political, economic and religious sense, are Burmese, Tibetan and Dzongkha, and to a lesser extent Tamang, Newari, Meitei, Ladakhi and Sikkimese.

An interesting video which gives a fairly comprehensive list of the Tibeto-Burman languages.

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