The
Sino-Tibetan Family
of Languages

Tibetan Lahu Newari
Mandarin Cantonese Thai

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The Sino-Tibetan Family is an important Asian family of languages. It contains the world's most spoken language, Mandarin, the official language of China.

The languages in this family are monosyllabic tonal languages. Words are made up of single syllables: Mandarin has over 1600. GUO - country, MEN - gate, WO - I, REN - person, AN - peace. The syllables themselves have tones. This means that the voice can be high, low, rising, falling, etc, just like singing. It is like the way many Europeans raise their voice at the end of a question. As an example the syllable, MEN can mean gate or we depending on tone. Mandarin has four tones, Thai has five (MAI can mean not, burn, wood or no depending on tone), Cantonese has nine and Kam-Sui has 15.

The languages in the Sinitic Branch are the various languages of China (Mandarin, Cantonese, Wu, Amoy, Gan, Min, Hakka, Xiang, Yue). They are all written in Chinese characters. Each syllable has a different character so that the writing is not alphabetic. There are over 50,000 characters, 6000 of which are needed to read a newspaper. Even though the different languages have different pronunciations, the meanings of characters are the same.

The languages in the Tibeto-Burman Branch are spoken in Burma (Burmese, Karen) Thailand and Laos (Lisu, Lahu), Southern China (Chin, Yi), Tibet (Tibetan), Bhutan (Jonkha), Nepal (Sherpa, Newari), and eastern India (Mizo, Manipuri, Bodo).

Tibetan

Tibetan

Bodo is famous for its verbs that convey complex actions: KHALE (to feel partly bitter), ONSRA (to love for the last time), KHONSAY (to pick up an object with care as it is scarce), GAGROM (to seach for something below water by trampling), ASUSU (to feel unknown and uneasy in a new place).

When written, the scripts of many of these languages are derived either from the curly scripts of south India or the angular scripts of north India.

The Tai and Southern Branches are spoken in Thailand and Laos (Thai and Lao written in curly south Indian scripts, and the unwritten Shan) and amongst the tribal people of Southern China (Chuang, Yao, She).

Thai

Thai

Lao

Lao

Thai has noun classifiers. These are groups of words that go with certain types of nouns. KHON goes with people nouns (except royalty or sacred people), TUA goes with animals, LEM goes with sharp or pointed objects, KHAN goes with objects with handles.

The language family is thought to have originated in northern China around the Yangse River valley.

Some linguists consider the Tai Languages to be a separate family.


Sinitic Branch
Mandarin : Wu : Amoy : Gan : Min : Hakka
Xiang : Cantonese : Yue
Tibeto-Burman Branch
Burmese : Tibetan : Yi : Lisu : Moso : Lahu : Karen
Kachin : Chin : Bodo : Garo : Meithei : Lushei : Newari
Murmi : Jonkha : Lepcha : Mizo : Manipuri
Tai Branch
Thai : Lao : Chuang : Puyi : Tung : Nung
Shan : Kam-Sui : Zhuang : Li : Be
Southern Branch (Hmong-Mien)
Hmong : Yao : She


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