Sinitic and Tibetic

« previous post | next post »

In a discussion we were having about the Tibetan evidential particle yin, Nathan Hill sent me an article by Nicholas Tournadre entitled "Arguments against the Concept of 'Conjunct' / 'Disjunct' in Tibetan" from Chomolangma, Demawend und Kasbek, Festschrift für Roland Bielmeier (2008), 281-308.  As I started reading through the article with the hope of finding how yin functions as a sort of equational verb or copula, I was caught up short by some preliminary remarks about the classification of Tibetan that Tournadre makes at the beginning of his paper.

Based on his 20 years of field work throughout the Tibetan language area and on the existing literature, Tournadre estimates that there are 220 "Tibetan dialects" derived from Old Tibetan and currently distributed across five countries:  China, India, Bhutan, Nepal, and Pakistan.  In a forthcoming work, Tournadre states that these "dialects" may be classed within 25 "dialect groups," i.e., groups that do not permit mutual intelligibility.  According to Tournadre, the notion of "dialect group" is equivalent to the notion of "language," but does not entail standardization.  Consequently, says Tournadre, if the concept of standardization is set aside, it would be more appropriate to speak of 25 languages derived from Old Tibetan rather than 25 "dialect groups."

Tournadre maintains that this is "not only a terminological issue but it gives an entirely different perception of the range of variation.  When we refer to 25 languages, we make clear that we are dealing with a family comparable in size to the Romance family which has 19 groups of dialects."  (These Romance "groups" are named in footnote 2:  Portuguese, Spanish, Asturian-Leonese, Aragonese, Catalan, Gascon, Provençal, Gallo-wallon, French, Nones-Cadorino, Friulian, Venetan, Lombardo, Corsican, Italian, Napolitan-Sicilian, Sardinian, Aromanian, and Daco-Romance.)  I would prefer to call Romance a "branch," reserving "family" for Indo-European.  The main thing to keep in mind, though, is that, when we refer to 25 "languages," we make clear that we are dealing with a collective entity ("branch" in my terminology) that is comparable in size to Romance which has 19 "groups."

To quote Tournadre directly, "This perspective is quite different from dealing with several dialects of a single language.  So I propose to adapt the terminology to reflect the linguistic diversity of the area and speak of Tibetic languages (or groups of dialects) derived from Old Tibetan."

Tournadre goes on to list the twelve major Tibetic languages and the thirteen minor Tibetic languages.  Some of the latter consist of only a single dialect and between a few hundred and a few thousand speakers.

These views are by no means idiosyncratic with Tournadre, but reflect the thinking of a major research team headed by Roland Bielmeier at the University of Bern that works on Tibetan dialects.  The position of the dozen or so scholars who have been working at The Tibetan Dialects Project of the Institute of Linguistics at Bern is that "Tibetic is a very useful term to designate a very precise group of languages all directly derived from Old Tibetan."

I believe that it is time for Sinologists to take a cue from the Tibetologists.  Out of a total population of more than 1.3 billion in the People's Republic of China, there are supposedly almost 1.2 billion speakers of "Chinese."  This is held to be a single "language," not a "family," "branch," or "group" of languages, but a monumental, monolithic LANGUAGE consisting of multitudinous "dialects."  Since many of these so-called "dialects" are mutually unintelligible, language taxonomists fudge a bit by calling some of them "major dialects," "sub-dialects," and so forth.  However, several of the "major dialects" — all of which are mutually unintelligible — have upwards of 20 million speakers:  Mandarin (c. 850 million), Wu (nearly 100 million), Cantonese or Yue (around 90 million), Min (over 50 million), Xiang and Hakka (approximately 35 million each), Gan (roughly 20 million), and Jin ([a disputed subdivision of Mandarin] about 45 million).  Moreover, many of these huge "major dialects" comprise scores of "dialects" that have a very low degree of mutual intelligibility (or none at all) and a highly complex set of internal relationships.  For example, Min is divided into Eastern Min, Southern Min, Central Min, and so forth, and these branches are further subdivided into varieties that are quite different among themselves.  For instance, Southern Min is made up of Quanzhou, Zhangzhou, Amoy (Xiamen), Teochew (Chaozhou), Leizhou, and Hainanese, all of which are significantly dissimilar.

Whether or not Sinitic and Tibetic are genetically related, how can it be that there is only a single Sinitic "language" with 1.2 billion speakers of innumerable "dialects," while Tibetic — with somewhere around two million speakers worldwide — is divided into 25 "languages"?

All the usual arguments in favor of Sinitic or "Chinese" being a single language (common culture, common script, common history, common ethnicity, common polity, and so forth) do not hold water.  For instance, Chinese characters have been used to write Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese, but that certainly does not make Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese Sinitic languages.  Conversely, there are Sinitic languages written in other scripts (e.g., Dungan, which is written in Cyrillic), yet they are Sinitic nonetheless.  Comparable arguments may be brought forward against all of the other "common" features that are frequently adduced in favor of there being only a single "Chinese" language consisting of a myriad "dialects."  In any event, when making a case against the indivisibility of Sinitic, it is not necessary to rebut each of these "common" features individually, since they are largely or wholly extralinguistic.

If we were to apply the same principles of classification to Sinitic that have been applied to Indo-European, Semitic, Austronesian, Austroasiatic, and so forth, we would soon enough find that — like them — Sinitic is a family of languages that may be organized into branches and groups.  Adopting such an approach to Sinitic would help not only to illuminate many problems in the historical development of Sinitic itself, but would contribute to enhanced comparison with other language families.


  1. Brian Vandiver said,

    March 30, 2010 @ 7:23 pm

    You are a Tibetan fox surrounded by Chinese hedgehogs. For the analogy to really work, I guess it would have to be One Giant Chinese Hedgehog.

    But then you wouldn't be surrounded. I digress.

    When in doubt, classify. Lumpers are not interested in advancing knowledge. I think the fear lumpers have is that they will lose control. As if separating and naming distinct things will result in bookshelves being overworked and eventually imploding.

  2. Yonatan Zunger said,

    March 30, 2010 @ 7:44 pm

    Yes… but I suspect that such a view, while extremely useful from a scientific point of view, is considered harmful by Some from a political point of view. And since so many linguists who work on Sinitic languages live in a country where proposing scientific ideas which are harmful from a political point of view can be harmful from a personal point of view, I suspect that we'll be stuck with this "um, it's a dialect!" business for quite some time to come.

  3. John Cowan said,

    March 30, 2010 @ 7:49 pm

    Taking a quick look at Ethnologue and the Tibetan Dialect Projects web site, this group of 25 seems to more closely resemble the group of 53 languages that Ethnologue calls Tibetan rather than the larger group of 72 languages they call Tibetic.

  4. J. Goard said,

    March 30, 2010 @ 9:11 pm

    Well, if China can be a "People's Republic" where the populace doesn't determine the leadership, why can't it speak one "language" where lexis and grammar varies a lot and many people don't understand one another?

  5. J. Chittleborough said,

    March 30, 2010 @ 11:59 pm

    Re: J. Goard:

    This leads to the question of whether things are any different in Taiwan, with the politically preferred classification of Standard Mandarin and the local form of Min.

  6. Dan T. said,

    March 31, 2010 @ 12:05 am

    A repressive government can declare any part of reality to be whatever the Glorious Leaders say it is, and censor or imprison anybody who says otherwise.

  7. Nick Lamb said,

    March 31, 2010 @ 7:59 am

    Victor writes: “how can it be that there is only a single Sinitic "language" with 1.2 billion speakers of innumerable "dialects,"”

    Ignoring the politics for a moment, this particular line of argument seems spurious. We don't pretend that American English and British English are separate languages just because there are millions of Californians and they don't speak the same way as folk from Norfolk. The existence of a large population using a dialect does not transform it into a language, the test must surely be an objective measure, and the most obvious choice is mutual intelligibility. That's a fuzzy line, but it is a line.

  8. language hat said,

    March 31, 2010 @ 9:23 am

    Ignoring the politics for a moment, this particular line of argument seems spurious. We don't pretend that American English and British English are separate languages just because there are millions of Californians and they don't speak the same way as folk from Norfolk.

    You don't seem to understand the basic point here, which is that the various "dialects" of Chinese are in fact mutually unintelligible, as much so as the various Romance languages. What surprises me is Victor's saying "This is held to be a single 'language,'" apparently meaning "held by Sinologists." I have never met anyone who knew anything about language who held this silly view, and I assumed it was only propagated by people who shared the Chinese government's overriding interest in emphasizing the putative unity of the country at the expense of scientific reality.

  9. Elena said,

    March 31, 2010 @ 9:44 am


    Even the Chinese know these "dialects" are different languages, even if the official position states otherwise. Lots of university students would make comments such as:

    "My Mandarin is poor because I studied school in my local language."
    "The 'talk' here is too different from my local 'talk'; I can't understand it."
    "Every city in China has its own language, so when you travel, we cannot understand each other."

    My other foreign friends while I was in China would tell stories of "translating" between Chinese from different regions. This is more an accent issue than a dialect issue, but their regional accent was so strong that they couldn't understand each other, but the untrained foreign ear could pick out the Mandarin phrases.

  10. Charlie C said,

    March 31, 2010 @ 9:45 am

    Although I'm not a linguist, I would favor any approach which clarifies and emphasizes the enormous range of the various Chinese dialects/languages/whatever currently in use. I've lived in China long enough to know that it is anything but a homogeneous environment — the ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity is enormous. Almost all of my Chinese acquaintances are trilingual: Mandarin, home town language, and English. When they go home to visit their parents, their spouses are often relegated to watching TV while they chat with their parents in their home town language, which is totally unintelligible to the spouses. We're not talking about down-Maine vs. cowboy-Texas confusion here, it's more like mutual German-Spanish intelligibility problems. The idea that everyone in Chinese speaks the "Chinese Language" all the time, eats "Chinese food", and looks "Chinese" is a stereotype that no amount of politics (or ignorance) can support. It is just is not true.

  11. Ellen K. said,

    March 31, 2010 @ 10:05 am

    I don't think Nick Lamb's post is evidence that he doesn't understand the point that the "dialects" are mutually unintelligible. Understanding that point doesn't change the number of people who speak English, which is considered a language, not a group of languages. I agree that his appeal to numbers doesn't support his point. At least not without some qualifications that weren't given.

  12. Ellen K. said,

    March 31, 2010 @ 10:37 am

    Oops… pardon the switching referents with the "he".

  13. vanya said,

    March 31, 2010 @ 1:23 pm

    " I have never met anyone who knew anything about language who held this silly view"

    I agree with LH. Anybody who studies a Chinese language in the US is usually very clear on the fact that they're studying either Mandarin or Cantonese or Classical Chinese (other Sinitic languages aren't very commonly studied as far as I can tell). When I lived in Taiwan some people may have paid lip service to the idea that Taiwanese and Mandarin were the same language, but most Taiwanese consider them separate languages – probably similar to the way that Portuguese and Spanish speakers certainly feel they share a close connection, but would never say they speak the same language.

  14. Mark F said,

    March 31, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

    Tournadre seems to be making a useful effort to fill a terminological void. I'm not sure "dialect group" is most perspicacious choice to fill it, but it might do. Language identity is so tied up in nationality that it's politically difficult to impose a consistent rule that two dialects are part of the same language iff they are mutually intelligible. Having a term like "dialect group" allows you to say that Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian are part of the same dialect group without having to argue that they're "really the same language." It also lets you talk about the different dialect groups of Chinese without running afoul of the Chinese government. The problem with this particular term is that most dialect groups only have one member, which makes "group" seem a poor choice of words.

    I'm ignoring the issue that there's a continuum of degrees of mutual intelligibility, but I assume people handle that just by recognizing that some dialect groups are fairly well-defined and some are less so.

  15. language hat said,

    March 31, 2010 @ 6:06 pm

    When I lived in Taiwan some people may have paid lip service to the idea that Taiwanese and Mandarin were the same language

    Boy, they must have been hard-core nationalists. Taiwan is the perfect place to prove to yourself and others the idiocy of the "one language" idea, because Mandarin and Hokkien are really, really mutually unintelligible. Hokkien speakers frequently use it around "mainlanders" specifically so they won't be understood. (I shared an apartment in Taipei with a native speaker of Mandarin and two native speakers of Hokkien, so I've seen this in action. And anyone who for whatever reason doesn't care for the term "Hokkien" should feel free to substitute "Taiwanese.")

  16. -- said,

    March 31, 2010 @ 7:05 pm

    I agree with LanguageHat — the idea that Chinese is one language is an entirely political notion; there's not a single linguist in the world who believes it to be true. The dialects/languages of China have all been well classified in numerous books and studies. So I'm not sure what the point of this post is.

  17. abd-ul-satya said,

    April 1, 2010 @ 12:08 am

    John Cowan,

    Tournadre points out in a footnote in this paper that another researcher has used the term "Tibetic languages" to refer to a group consisting of the descendants of Old Tibetan plus some other languages, such as Kinnauri and Tamang; and that ethnologue has followed this terminology. However, Tournadre prefers to limit "Tibetic" to refer more specifically the to descendants of Old Tibetan.

  18. Peter T said,

    April 1, 2010 @ 12:37 am

    I think Chinese feel about "one country" much the same as monotheists feel about "one god". The movie "Hero" gets this feeling across, as does the term "splittist" (eg, of the Dalai Lama).

  19. Julen said,

    April 1, 2010 @ 2:25 am

    Whether or not Sinitic and Tibetic are genetically related, how can it be that there is only a single Sinitic "language" with 1.2 billion speakers of innumerable "dialects," while Tibetic — with somewhere around two million speakers worldwide — is divided into 25 "languages"?

    I don't disagree with the main thesis in the post, but I do take issue with this paragraph: I don't think it is so strange to see large populations with less linguistic variation than smaller ones. On the contrary, it often happens this way due to political reasons.

    For example, 60 million French speak a very uniform language, whereas among the neighbouring ~0.5 million native Basque speakers living in a tiny area, each valley uses different words, and there are at least a few distinct dialects that would have a lot of trouble to understand each other.

    It is the effect of political power standardizing the language over a long period of time. In China it is still not uniform because the country is so large and the central power was not concerned with the language of the common people until recently. But with the linguistic policies of the CCP and the influence of mass media, I am guessing in one or two generations it will have become almost as uniform as French.

  20. minus273 said,

    April 1, 2010 @ 9:14 am

    Most Tibetologists in China speak of Tibetan dialects, anyway.

  21. vanya said,

    April 1, 2010 @ 9:36 am

    And anyone who for whatever reason doesn't care for the term "Hokkien" should feel free to substitute "Taiwanese".

    Actually I rarely heard anyone in Taiwan call it "Hokkien" – almost always "Taiwanese". "Hokkien" is what mainlanders call it.

  22. vanya said,

    April 1, 2010 @ 9:45 am

    "When I lived in Taiwan some people may have paid lip service to the idea that Taiwanese and Mandarin were the same language"

    Boy, they must have been hard-core nationalists.

    Not necessarily. I think those people are simply using a different definition of "language". To them language is an ethnic continuum – intelligibility and ease of communication are secondary considerations. I think, if pressed, they believe Mandarin and Hokkien are both dialects of a platonic ideal of Chinese which is the "real" language of all Han people. You probably find this underlying attitude among many Chinese, not just nationalists.

  23. Franz Bebop said,

    April 1, 2010 @ 10:39 am

    Many Chinese people I talk to do not think of spoken Chinese as "the language" at all, but instead see the written characters as the real "language." People who think this way regard different spoken dialects as negligible variations, because all speech is secondary to the writing system.

    Many times I have heard Chinese individuals dismiss differences between Mandarin words and equivalent words in other Chinese languages by saying "same word, different pronunciation," where pronunciation is understood to be something of little interest.

    It's not just the ugly politics of the People's Republic, it's also the writing system which bears a lot of the blame for concealing the diversity of speech in China. The use of Chinese characters makes it hard to spot languages, hard to spot dialects, and hard to spot the variety of individual words in China.

    People may differ about the definition of "language" vs. "dialect," but there is another dimension along which opinions might differ, namely, just what comprises a language in the first place: Is it speech, is it writing, is it speech and writing together, or what?

    It would be nice if we had an (English) term to refer unambiguously to the Chinese writing system, as distinct from speech and dialects. It would make conversations about this topic easier. Russian uses Cyrillic, Korean uses Hangul. Japanese uses Katakana, Hiragana and Kanji. What does Mandarin use? There is no word for this system, in English. Calling this system "Chinese" allows the conversation to inherit all the same familiar ambiguities. It needs a better name.

  24. Leonardo Boiko said,

    April 1, 2010 @ 11:25 am

    @Franz Bebop: If we refer to the Chinese part of the Japanese writing system as “Kanji”, is there a problem in calling the Chinese writing system “Hànzì”? (Ok, it would lose the tones in English, but still…)

  25. Franz Bebop said,

    April 2, 2010 @ 1:23 am

    @Leonardo: Sure, as long as its meaning is unambiguous for Mandarin-speakers. Can Hanzi refer to all the characters as a whole writing system? If I claim in English that "Russian uses Cyrillic, but Mandarin uses Hanzi," would that be a misuse of the word?

  26. Bob Violence said,

    April 2, 2010 @ 6:19 am

    People who think this way regard different spoken dialects as negligible variations, because all speech is secondary to the writing system.

    I've seen this idea taken to ludicrous extremes — I once got into a forum argument with a guy who claimed Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese were previously dialects of Chinese because they were once written entirely in characters.

  27. Ellen K. said,

    April 3, 2010 @ 5:49 pm

    One thing I wonder, is how does the level of mutual comprehension compare in spoken languages/dialects versus written languages/dialects in China.

  28. Jongseong Park said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 7:14 am

    How does all this compare with the classification of another macrolanguage, Arabic? Spoken across dozens of countries with a variety comparable to the Sinitic languages or Romance languages, but with most speakers sharing a common Standard Arabic and the vernacular forms being rarely written down… The political considerations are obviously different, but I would suspect there are similarities with Sinitic languages/Chinese dialects.

    I think popular notions of language/dialect distinctions are much influenced by extralinguistic criteria such as political standardization, not just in China but all over the world. The Chinese term Fangyan (方言) refers to any speech variety used in a regional context, no matter how mutually intelligible with the standard dialect, and thus corresponds more with folk conceptions of language classification rather than with that of linguists.

    What's special about China is that several centuries of political unification led to a popular notion of a single Chinese language whereas in the Romance-speaking regions for example political fragmentation made it easy to accept the reality of different languages descending from Vernacular Latin. In short, the Chinese government may be perpetuating the myth due to political considerations, but they are not responsible for creating it.

  29. John Cowan said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 5:26 pm

    Leonardo Boiko: It's common among Unicode folk to speak of hanzi, kanji, and (in Korean) hanja, but it's equally useful to just use the English translation of all these names: "Chinese characters". Much better than ideographs, logographs, morpho-syllabographs, etc. etc.

  30. 暗生番 said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 11:12 pm

    The gov'ts of the PRC, ROC and Singapura are adamant about their claim that all Sino languages are dialects of one language, or even "dialects of Mandarin." …

    But it does not start nor end with the gov'ts.

    At the core of NE Asian religion–inc. as exported to SE Asian regions such as South China–is ancestor worship…

    At the core of NE Asian politics is the concept of NATION AS CLAN: by extension, KING AS GRANDFATHER. Also, KING AS SON OF GOD.

    The gravest crime under any NE Asian regime is rebellion. Thus 反 and 逆 are tied to 叛. This last aspect may have been rejected by the Vietnamese while they adopted most of Chinese culture in favor of whatever they had/used before. Thus the worship of god-heroes who helped the king (SON OF GOD) subjugate various regions of what is today China.

    So we see that even when there is no political pressure, people who consider themselves part of this super-political Chinese nation nevertheless subscribe to the notion that their Sino languages are "dialects of Mandarin". Sino Malaysians are the best example.

    The Cantonese themselves have a strong "religious" complex regarding their own language. They adopt the weak-form notion that all Sino languages are "dialects of Chinese", and reject the notion of Cantonese being a dialect of Mandarin. Maybe for this reason, Cantonese is the only Sino language besides Mandarin whose vocabulary keeps up with technological advancements, etc.

    I think Prof Mair's point is that while the masses and their rulers may have all kinds of reasons to see the Sino languages as one language, the language experts among them should know better. Yet they don't seem to.

    I think it's b/c they are just as caught up in the cultural "purity of the Chinese race" as anybody else around them. The notion that Holo-Hokkien and Teochew are just as far apart as Spanish and Portuguese DOES NOT REALLY REGISTER in their brains–b/c HH and Teochew are "Chinese", while español and português are "foreign", and that means that by definition they must be considered using different sets of tools, theories, and structures.

    It's all good and well for uncivilized tribes in the river valleys of SW China to be officially split into different ethnic groups based on differences in language and economic activity. After all, those people are children, not only relative to the rulers of China, but also relative to the ruling people of China (the Han). NATION AS FAMILY, KING AS GRANDFATHER. The Han are at ground zero of the CHINESE NATION AS CHINESE FAMILY analogy. How can they be one family if they belong to different tribes? And if they belong to one tribe, then how could they not speak the same language?

    I have even seen accounts of Chinese dialects by Chinese scholars which were in fact non-Sino languages spoken within the bounds of Chinese power.

    The bottom line … is that while scholars in western Europe (+diaspora) "have been supposed to" inquire and "incise" into the truth for hundreds of yrs, in China it is still important for scholars to remain within the bounds of what is acceptable to the NATION/FAMILY. This is decided by the KING/GRANDFATHER, not by the scholars. And God forbid anybody commit the ultimate crime, rebellion.

    Things are looking up in Japan and Taiwan. But they're not really there yet. Almost all power structures in Taiwan still ultimately funnel into the hands of old, male Chinese Nationalists in North City (Taibei). Something similar probably exists in Japan, but w/o the colonialist element, and in Singapore too, with a former house slave named Lee Kuanyew at the top.

    What's going on with the Arabic languages? Something linguistically similar is going on there, under a totally different set of circumstances.

  31. ohwilleke said,

    April 12, 2010 @ 6:07 pm

    The notion of a common written language with unimportant pronunciation differences isn't entirely bogus.

    What language am I writing in?


    Does it matter if I enunciate this in Greek, English or Mandarin in my head?

    I also wonder if mutual intelligibility is always the best standard to distinguish languages. The actual "key" to distinguish between two dialects may be one Grimm's law shift, a two dozen irregular common words, and a shift to reversed accent rules and word phasing rules. The total content of the differences between the two dialects may be capable of fitting on three pages of paper and learned in a week or two. Lots of the most divergent dialects of English (e.g. South Asian v. American v. the "Ebonics" scene in Airplane) are of this nature, but can lack mutual intelligibility to an untrained ear, especially if spoken quickly. It doesn't take much to bolix intelligibility.

    To grossly oversimplify, mutual intelligibility doesn't cut it to distinguish between pig latin and real latin to the untrained ear. Yet, the former is a mere cipher of English, while the latter is a full fledge separate language. One would like a standard to distinguish between languages that requires both mutual unintelligibility and a set of content differences between the languages that are material.

  32. Mooreus said,

    April 13, 2010 @ 10:38 pm

    @ohwilleke – Mathematical symbols are not a language.

    Are you really trying to claim that Greek, English and Mandarin are all dialects of the same language, just because you can write mathematical equations using numerals?

    You can have the opinion that these languages (these mere pronunciations, feh) are "unimportant" in comparison to the underlying mathematical truths, but if you feel this way, then you are apathetic towards the entire object of study of the science of linguistics. You may not care that "4 + 4" reads "four plus four," but linguists absolutely do care.

RSS feed for comments on this post