Linguistic diversity in Greater Tibet

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Arif Dirlik called my attention to a wonderful article entitled "'Speak Tibetan, Stupid': Concepts of Pure Tibetan & the Politics of Belonging" in the Lhakar Diaries.

At the heart of the article is this powerful 16-minute video entitled "Linguistic Diversity on the Tibetan Plateau":

The large number of Tibetan languages and bewildering variety of languages from other groups are strikingly demonstrated in this clear video presentation.

What are the implications of this obvious linguistic diversity within Tibetan for our understanding of the linguistic diversity within the Sinitic group / family of languages and their classification? This is a conundrum of large proportions that we have often grappled with on Language Log, e.g., "Is Cantonese a language, or a personification of the devil? (with links to other posts and resources; see especially herehere, and here  and this chapter on the classification of Sinitic in the Festschrift for Alain Peyraube).

Since the video takes time to view and because the questions it raises are so numerous and substantial, I will refrain from discussing it at greater length here, but I do hope for a lively discussion on the nature and classification of Tibetic and Sintic languages.

N.B.: The number of Tibetic speakers amount to approximately 8 million (plus 200,000 or so in exile), yet they are divided into so many different languages and dialects; the number of Sinitic speakers amount to roughly 1.3 billion, yet politically minded partisans insist that there is only a single Sinitic language and that all of its countless varieties, even those that are mutually completely unintelligible, are but dialects of it.


  1. Victor Mair said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 10:15 pm

    …this chapter on the classification of Sinitic in the Festschrift for Alain Peyraube:

    "The Classification of Sinitic Languages: What is 'Chinese'?"
    Victor H. Mair (梅 維恒)

  2. Randy McDonald said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 11:56 am

    "The number of Tibetic speakers amount to approximately 8 million (plus 200,000 or so in exile), yet they are divided into so many different languages and dialects"

    Do speakers of Tibetic languages insist that they speak a single language, perhaps with different spoken variants?

  3. Mara K said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 2:48 pm

    As somebody once said, a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.

  4. Stephan Stiller said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 5:26 pm

    @ Mara K

    The reason why I don't like this dictum is that – while popular understanding of the language-dialect distinction certainly has a political dimension – it distracts from the fact that it's a meaningful distinction. Many people misunderstand or abuse the Weinreich dictum to conclude that there is nothing to discuss and thereby dismiss any meaningful exploration of the topic.

    To the contrary: There is plenty to say about these things, and the recognition of different languages hidden beneath macro-linguistic labels ("Chinese", "Tibetan", …) is an important step to recognizing linguistic diversity, which is a prerequisite for addressing real issues such as literacy.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 6:41 pm

    @Mara K

    This fallacious and tired old dictum is one that we've discussed repeatedly and in great detail on Language Log, e.g.:

    …, and there are many others.

  6. minus273 said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 10:14 am

    Do speakers of Tibetic languages insist that they speak a single language, perhaps with different spoken variants?

    Of course they do! Even non-Tibetic languages like rGyalrong are claimed as a little archaic dialects of Tibetan.

  7. Eidolon said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 5:28 pm

    Language politics – and the vocabulary used in the service of these politics – in East Asia are a direct product of the 19th and 20th century nationalist movements in the region. Linguistic homogeneity is seen to be conducive to nation-building, as a nation is seen to be "a people, race, or tribe; those having the same descent, language, and history." One of the core weaknesses identified by Chinese nationalist thinkers at the turn of the 20th century is the disunity of the Chinese nation, which they believed was responsible for China's failures to modernize ala Japan and to respond concertedly to external threats. The decision to rectify this problem by promoting one Sinitic language – Standard Mandarin – at the expense of others is deliberate. The diversity within Sinitic is thus underplayed in order to facilitate pan-Sinitic nation-building; the diversity within Tibetic is, on the other hand, allowed to flourish because it weakens pan-Tibetic nationalism.

    Nationalism – it doesn't go a lot deeper than that. In East Asia, China's direct competitors – Japan and Korea – are basically linguistically homogeneous, with the former achieving it in the last few hundred years. Their national unity is believed to be strong as a consequence. China desires the same national unity, and so its policies are designed to accomplish the same eventuality, though lately there have been counter-reactions, especially from local authorities, to try and save China's disappearing 'dialects.'

  8. Dan Lufkin said,

    May 6, 2014 @ 9:49 pm

    Striking that none of these teens would look out of place at our local mall. How did clothing become so standardized?

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 6:46 am

    @Dan Lufkin

    I felt the same way when I was in a very remote part of northern Kazakhstan about 15 years ago, and that feeling extended not just to their clothing, hairstyles, and mannerisms, but to the music they listened to as well.

  10. Oholibamah said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 8:34 am

    I'm baffled at Victor Mair's dismissal of the dictum "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy."

    Surely the whole point of the dictum is that it ridicules the notion that there is any firm distinction between a language and a dialect, and proposes that some dialects are simply elevated to offical status by historical happenstance, and if a dialect happened to be used by a group which possessed institutions with greater political clout, then it could very easily be officialised.

    People trot out the dictum precisely to say that the disinctions are arbitrary and power-based, and that peoples whose topolects are not officially recognised are speaking a language in just the same way as those groups of people who happen to stalk the corridors of power.

    So, I'm genuinely and sincerely wondering why Victor Mair reads it in this way, since I and everyone I've heard use the dictum have used it in exactly the opposite way to that meaning to which he seems to object.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 10:10 am


    No need for you to be baffled.

    I am opposed to people trotting out this tired old dictum because:

    1. It is empirically false.

    2. It tends to sanction the continuation of the status quo in China, where all Sinitic languages are referred to as "dialects" for political reasons.

    3. It wreaks havoc with linguistic classification and taxonomy.

    We have often grappled with these issues on Language Log. For a few references, see the links provided in this sentence of the original post above:


    "Is Cantonese a language, or a personification of the devil? (with links to other posts and resources; see especially here, here, and here and this chapter on the classification of Sinitic in the Festschrift for Alain Peyraube).


    Also see in these posts for discussions of dialect, topolect, and language in relation to the army and navy dictum: (see esp. the first reference)

    Happy reading!

  12. Stephan Stiller said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 5:04 pm

    1. We don't know the intentionality of the inventor of the dictum.
    2. As for the intentionality of the users of the dictum: Most people who I encounter using it don't seem to know what they're talking about.
    3. It is the case that the choice of topolect that ends up being called "language" (with the others being called "dialects") can be political, but it doesn't have to be ((1) a country can recognize multiple languages; (2) there is – in certain other scenarios – no harm in admitting that one's language is in some sense identical to a neighbor's), it often isn't, and it shouldn't (in most cases of linguistic inquiry). It's simply not a helpful thing to say to a linguist who wants to argue for better terminology and usage based on the idea of mutual intelligibility (which is admittedly not without problems, but it's a start). The linguist knows that people's usage may be based in politics, and that's precisely why he or she is arguing about it. So the Weinreich dictum doesn't add to the linguist's knowledge in a conversation: he or she already knows and wants to move the discussion forward by thinking about classification, taxonomy, mutual intelligibility, … .

  13. Lane said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 6:53 am

    According to Wikipedia and other sources, we know almost exactly who said this, and of course we do know exactly who made it famous and why. Max Weinreich claims a boorish visitor to one of his lectures on Yiddish said this to him (meaning the dictum to be taken mostly seriously), and Weinreich spread the word to show how many people were ignorant on the subject and how much work was to be done in educating them.

    I personally have never heard anyone but a language specialist use the phrase. Google the phrase and the top results are dominated by intelligent and informed discussions of the actual issues involved. Almost none of them supports the "army-and-navy" dictum as a truth – the top Google result I could see doing something close came on the second page, in a student essay. (Google having changed their ways, your search results may vary.)

  14. Allan Beatty said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 12:12 am

    I've always taken that dictum to be a statement about politics, not about linguistics.

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