Tibeto-Burman languages

The Tibeto-Burman family of languages (often considered a sub-group of the Sino-Tibetan language family) is spoken in various central and south Asian countries, including Myanmar (Burma), Tibet, northern Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, parts of central China (Guizhou, Hunan), northern parts of Nepal, north-eastern parts of Bangladesh, Bhutan, western Pakistan (Baltistan), and various regions of India (Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, and both the Ladakh and Kargil regions of Jammu and Kashmir).

The subfamily includes approximately 350 languages; Burmese has the most speakers (approximately 32 million). Approximately 8 million Tibetans and related peoples speak one of several related Tibetan dialects or languages.

Recently George van Driem has advocated elevating "Tibeto-Burman" to displace "Sino-Tibetan" as the top-tier language family, with the Chinese languages (Sinitic) classified as a sub-branch within the Tibeto-Burman/Sino-Tibetan family. This proposal has not been widely accepted.


There have been two major classifications: Shafer (1966) and Benedict (1972). Since then, many languages previously inadequately documented have received more attention with the publication of new grammars, dictionaries, and wordlists. This new research has greatly benefited comparative work. Bradley (1997) is a newer classification that incorporates the newer data.

Bradley (1997)

I. Bodic (a.k.a. Western)

A. Bodish
i. Central Bodish (a.k.a. Tibetan)
a. Western Tibetan
b. Central Tibetan
i) Western
ii) mNgaẖris
iii) gTsang
iv) dBus (a.k.a. 'Central' Central Tibetan)
v) Southern Tibetan
c. Amdo Tibetan (a.k.a. Northeastern Tibetan)
d. Khams Tibetan (a.k.a. Southeastern Tibetan)
ii. West Bodish (a.k.a. Gurung, Tamang)
iii. East Bodish (a.k.a. Bumthang)
iv. Tshangla (a.k.a. East Bodic)
v. West Himalayish (a.k.a. Kanauri)
B. Himalayan
i. Central
ii. Kiranti

II. North-East India (a.k.a. Sal)

A. Bodo-Garo
i. Northern Naga
B. Jinghpaw
C. Luish (a.k.a. Sak)
D. Pyu

III. Kuki-Chin

A. Southern Naga
B. Kuki
C. Chin
D. Arleng

IV. Central

A. Lepcha
B. Western Arunachal
C. Adi-Galo-Mishing-Nishi (a.k.a. Abor-Miri-Dafla, Tani group of people believed to be descendants of ABOTANI, first Human being)
D. Digarish 'Mishmi'
E. Keman 'Mishmi'
F. Rawang (a.k.a. Nungish)

V. North-Eastern

VI. South-Eastern

A. Burmese-Lolo (a.k.a. Burmic)
i. Mru
ii. Gong
iii. Burmish
iv. Loloish
a. Northern
b. Central
c. Southern
B. Karen

Benedict (1972)

A very influential classification (although tentative) is that of Benedict (1972). This was a collaborated effort of Paul Benedict and Robert Shafer (completed around 1942-1943) with editing by James Matisoff. This classification puts Tibeto-Burman under a larger Sino-Tibetan phylum:

# Chinese
# Tibeto-Karen
#* Karen
#* Tibeto-Burman

The Tibeto-Burman sub-family is then composed of 7 main branches:

I. Tibetan-Kanauri (a.k.a. Bodish-Himalayish)

A. Bodish (in eastern & southern Tibet)
B. Himalayish
i. "major" Himalayish (in western Tibet, western India)
ii. "minor" Himalayish (in Uttarakhand)
iii. Dzorgai (in Sichuan) ?
iv. Lepcha (in Sikkim) ?
v. Magari (in Nepal) ?

II. Bahing-Vayu (a.k.a. Kiranti) (in Nepal)

A. Bahing
B. Khambu
C. Vayu-Chepang
D. Nepal Bhasa ?

III. Abor-Miri-Dafla (a.k.a. Mirish, North Assam) (in Sikkim, northern Assam)

IV. Kachin (in northern Myanmar)

V. Burmese-Lolo (a.k.a. Burmish) (in Sichuan, Yunnan, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam)

A. Burmese-Maru
B. Southern Lolo
C. Northern Lolo
D. Kanburi Lawa (Kanchanaburi, Thailand)
E. Moso (a.k.a. Nakhi) (in western Yunnan)
F. Hsi-fan (in western Sichuan)
G. Tangut (in northwestern China)
H. Nung ?

VI. Bodo-Garo (a.k.a. Barish) {in northern Assam, northern Myanmar)

A. Bodo
B. Garo
i. Garo A
ii. Garo B
C. "Naked Naga" (a.k.a. Konyak) ?
D. Chairel ?

VII. Kuki-Naga (a.k.a. Kukish) (in southern Assam-Myanmar area)

A. Central Kuki
B. Northern Kuki
C. Old Kuki
D. Southern Kuki
E. Northern Naga
F. Southern Naga

In this classification,

Dzorgai, Lepcha, and Magari seem to be most similar to the Tibetan-Kanauri branch. Lepcha may be a separate transitional branch like Kachin. Margari is also similar to Bahing-Vayu.

Nepal Bhasa (Newari) shares similarities to both Bahing and Khambu. Aka (a.k.a. Hrusso) may belong to Abor-Miri-Dafla. Digaro, Miju, and Dhimal may also be Abor-Miri-Dafla, but this even more uncertain. Kachin seems to be a transitional branch containing features similar to all other branches. Kadu-Andro-Sengmai (a.k.a. Luish) and Taman may belong to Kachin.

Nung may belong to Burmese-Lolo, but it also has similarities to Kachin. Pyu is similar to Nung.

Deori Chutiya (northern Assam) belongs to Bodo-Garo, although to which sub-group is uncertain.

Shafer (1966-1974)

Unlike Benedict (1972), Shafer's tentative classification does not separate Sino-Tibetan into two branches: Chinese and Tibeto-Burman. Rather, Chinese (Sinitic) is placed on the same level as Benedict's subgroupings of Tibeto-Burman.


I. Sinitic

II. Daic

III. Bodic

IV. Burmic

V. Baric

VI. Karenic


I. Bai

II. Himalayish

A. Mahakiranti
i. Kham-Magar-Chepang-Sunwari
a. Chepang
b. Kham
c. Magar
d. Sunwari
ii. Kiranti
a. Tomyang
b. Eastern
c. Western
iii. Newar
B. Tibeto-Kanauri
i. Dzalakha
ii. Lepcha
iii. Western Himalayish
iv. Tibetic
a. Tshangla
b. Dhimal
c. Tamangic
d. Tibetan
C. Baima (unclassified)

III. Jingpho-Konyak-Bodo

A. Jingpho-Luish
B. Konyak-Bodo-Garo

IV. Karen

A. Pa’o
B. Zayein
C. Pwo
D. Sgaw-Bghai
i. Bghai
ii. Brek
iii. Kayah
iv. Sgaw
E. Zayein Karen (unclassified)

V. Kuki-Chin-Naga

A. Kuki-Chin
i. Central
ii. Northern
iii. Southern
B. Naga
i. Angami-Pochuri
ii. Ao
iii. Tangkhul
iv. unclassified Naga
v. Zeme

VI. Lolo-Burmese

A. Burmish
i. Northern
ii. Southern
iii. unclassified Burmish
B. Loloish
i. Northern
a. Lisu
b. Samei
c. Yi
i. Southern
ii. unclassified Loloish
C. Naxi
D. Phula (unclassified)

VII. Meitei

VIII. Mikir

IX. North Assam

A. Deng
B. Tani

X. Nungish

XI. Tangut-Qiang

A. Qiangic
B. rGyarong

XII. Tujia

XII. unclassified Tibeto-Burman

XIV. West Bodish

XV. Mru



  • Benedict, Paul K. (1972). Sino-Tibetan: A conspectus. J. A. Matisoff (Ed.). Cambridge: The University Press. ISBN 0-521-08175-0.
  • Bradley, David. (1997). Tibeto-Burman languages and classification. In D. Bradley (Ed.), Papers in South East Asian linguistics: Tibeto-Burman languages of the Himalayas (No. 14, pp. 1-71). Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.
  • Shafer, Robert. (1966). Introduction to Sino-Tibetan (Part 1). Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
  • Shafer, Robert. (1967). Introduction to Sino-Tibetan (Part 2). Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
  • Shafer, Robert. (1968). Introduction to Sino-Tibetan (Part 3). Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
  • Shafer, Robert. (1970). Introduction to Sino-Tibetan (Part 4). Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
  • Shafer, Robert. (1974). Introduction to Sino-Tibetan (Part 5). Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.

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