Tibeto-Burman Languages of China

This introductory course aims to provide participants with knowledge of the characteristic features of Tibeto-Burman (TB) languages spoken in China.

Tibeto-Burman languages are one of the two major branches of the Sino-Tibetan language family (Benedict 1972; Matisoff 2003; Thurgood & LaPolla 2017). Spoken over a vast area — including parts of East and South Asia and peninsular Southeast Asia — they are traditionally analyzed as belonging to the Sinosphere and Indosphere, that is, the Chinese and Indian spheres of cultural and linguistic influences.

The course takes a closer look at a subset of TB languages of the Sinosphere, defined by their geographical location (China) and their historical and present ties with Sinitic languages. The goals of the course are:

  1. to get acquainted with characteristic Sinospheric features as found in most local languages (such as the presence of tone, monosyllabicity, isolating morphology, classifier systems)
  2. to look beyond standard Sinospheric features to explore considerable typological diversity among local groups in the context of their contact history with Chinese

In the first five meetings, we will start with an overview of the relevant groups (Tibetic, Lolo-Burmese, Na, Qiangic, Baic, Jingpo-Nungish-Luish), and unclassified languages such as Tujia or Caijia. We will focus on their distribution, typological profiles, and contact history.

In the second five meetings, we will focus on a number of characteristic features shared across local groups, including tone, differential subject and object marking, evidentiality and epistemicity marking, verb serialization, and topic and focus strategies.

The course will include both topicalized lectures and class discussions based on daily reading assignments, listening to recording excerpts of a number of TB languages, and analysis of interlinearized texts.

Level and Requirements

There are no requirements for this course, except a good knowledge of basic linguistic concepts.

Reading materials

Selected texts from Tibeto-Burman linguistic sources, including language sketches, phonology, morphology, syntax, sociolinguistics, contact studies, and historical linguistics. Reading materials will be provided in class.


  • Benedict, Paul K. 1972. Sino-Tibetan: a Conspectus. Contributing Editor, James A. Matisoff. (Princeton-Cambridge Studies in Chinese Linguistics #2). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bradley, David, Randy J. LaPolla, Boyd Michailovsky, & Graham Thurgood (eds.). 2003. Language Variation: Papers on Variation and Change in the Sinosphere and in the Indosphere in Honour of James A. Matisoff. Canberra, Pacific Linguistics.
  • Matisoff, James A. 1991. Areal and Universal Dimensions of Grammatization in Lahu. In Elizabeth C. Traugott and Bernd Heine (eds.), Approaches to Grammaticalization, Vol. II, pp. 383-453. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
  • Matisoff, James A. 2003. Handbook of Proto-Tibeto-Burman: System and philosophy of Sino-Tibetan reconstruction. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Matisoff, James A. 2015. Tibeto-Burman languages. Encyclopedia Britannica, 13 Mar. 2015.
  • Thurgood, Graham & Randy J. LaPolla. 2017. The Sino-Tibetan Languages (Second Edition). New York: Routledge.