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Proto-Tibeto-Burman language

(may be equivalent to Proto-Sino-Tibetan)
Reconstruction ofTibeto-Burman languages
Lower-order reconstructions

Proto-Tibeto-Burman (commonly abbreviated PTB) is the reconstructed ancestor of the Tibeto-Burman languages, that is, the Sino-Tibetan languages, except for Chinese. An initial reconstruction was produced by Paul K. Benedict and since refined by James Matisoff. Several other researchers argue that the Tibeto-Burman languages sans Chinese do not constitute a monophyletic group within Sino-Tibetan, and therefore that Proto-Tibeto-Burman was the same language as Proto-Sino-Tibetan.



Reconstruction is complicated by the immense diversity of the languages, many of which are poorly described, the lack of inflection in most of the languages, and millennia of intense contact with other Sino-Tibetan languages and languages of other families. Only a few subgroups, such as Lolo-Burmese, have been securely reconstructed. Benedict's method, which he dubbed "teleo-reconstruction", was to compare widely separated languages, with a particular emphasis on Classical Tibetan, Jingpho, Written Burmese, Garo, and Mizo.[1] Although the initial consonants of cognates tend to have the same place and manner of articulation, voicing and aspiration are often unpredictable.[2] Matisoff attributes this to the effects of prefixes that have been lost and are often unrecoverable.[3] The reconstruction also features "allofams", variant forms of a root postulated to explain inconsistent reflexes in daughter languages.[4] The reconstruction of such "allofams" has been heavily criticized by other researchers in the field.[5]



Contrary to other hypotheses suggesting a Proto-Sino-Tibetan homeland in the Yellow River valley of northern China,[6] Matisoff (1991,[7] 2015) suggests that the Proto-Sino-Tibetan (PST) homeland was located "somewhere on the Himalayan plateau," and gives Proto-Tibeto-Burman a date of approximately 4000 B.C., which is roughly on a par with the age of Proto-Indo-European. Language diversification occurred as speakers then moved downstream through various river valleys.[8]



The phonology of Proto-Tibeto-Burman here is from Matisoff's 2003 reconstruction, much of which is based on Benedict's earlier reconstructions.



Proto-Tibetan–Burman has at least 23 consonants (Matisoff 2003:15). Some descendants of Proto-Tibetan–Burman, especially the Qiangic languages, have developed dozens of sibilant fricatives and affricates.

Proto-Tibeto-Burman consonants
Labial Alveolar Palatalized
Palatal Velar Glottal
Voiceless stop p t k
Voiced stop b d g
Nasal m n ŋ
Fricative s, z ś, ź h
Affricate ts, dz tś, dź
Lateral l
Tap or trill ɾ, r
Approximant w j

According to Matisoff, Proto-Tibeto-Burman also has many final nasals, stops, and liquids.



In Matisoff's reconstruction, Proto-Tibeto-Burman vowels can be split into primary and secondary sets. Modern-day Tibeto-Burman languages have anywhere from five vowels (Written Tibetan and Jingpho) to dozens of monophthongs and diphthongs (Loloish and Qiangic languages) (Matisoff 2003:157). Matisoff (2003) also notes that languages which have greatly simplified or eliminated final consonants tend to have more vowels. The open front unrounded vowel *a is by far the most common and stable vowel in Tibeto-Burman languages.

Matisoff (2003) reinterprets diphthongs from Paul Benedict's reconstruction as long vowels.

Proto-Tibeto-Burman primary vowels
Height Front Central Back
Close ī (iy, əy) ū (uw, əw)
Mid ē (ey) (-ə) ō (ow)
Open a
ay aw
āy āw
Proto-Tibeto-Burman secondary vowels
Height Front Back
Close ī ū
Mid ē ō

Preservation of stops


According to Matisoff, Sino-Tibetan languages go through a series of four stages in which final stops and nasals gradually decay (Matisoff 2003:238-239).

  1. The six final stops and nasals, *-p, *-t, *-k, *-m, *-n, *-ŋ, are all intact. Written Tibetan, Lepcha, Kanauri, Garo, and Cantonese are currently on this stage.
  2. One or more final consonants have been reduced or dropped. In Jingpho and Nung, the velars (*-k) are replaced by glottal stops (), while in other languages they are completely dropped. In Mandarin Chinese, all final stops are dropped, and *-m has merged with *-n.
  3. All finals stops become glottal stops or constrictions (such as creaky voices), and final nasals may be replaced by nasality in the preceding consonant. Languages currently in this stage include modern Burmese and Lahu.
  4. There are no glottal or nasal traces of the former final consonants left in the syllables.



Proto-Tibeto-Burman was a verb-final (subject–object–verb or SOV) language.

Most modern-day Tibeto-Burman branches also display SOV word order. However, due to syntactic convergence within the Mainland Southeast Asia linguistic area, three Tibeto-Burman branches, Karenic, Mruic, and Bai, display SVO (verb-medial) word order. This syntactic realignment has also occurred in Sinitic, which Scott DeLancey (2011) argues to be a result of creolization through intensive language contact and multilingualism during the Zhou Dynasty.[9]



Syllable structure


According to James Matisoff, Proto-Tibeto-Burman syllables typically consist of the following structure (Matisoff 2003:11-13).

(P2) — (P1) — Ci — (G) — V(:) — Cf — (s)

  • P1: first prefix - optional
  • P2: second prefix - optional
  • Ci: initial consonant
  • G: glide - optional
  • V: vowel (optionally lengthened)
  • Cf: final consonant
  • s: suffix - optional

The following types of changes in syllable structure have been attested in Tibeto-Burman languages (Matisoff 2003:155). (Note: Sesquisyllable, otherwise known as a minor syllable, is a word coined by James Matisoff meaning "one-and-a-half syllables.")

  • disyllable
    • disyllable → sesquisyllable
    • disyllable → complex monosyllable
    • disyllable → simple monosyllable
  • sesquisyllable
    • sesquisyllable → disyllable
    • sesquisyllable → complex monosyllable
    • sesquisyllable → simple monosyllable
  • complex monosyllable
    • complex monosyllable → sesquisyllable
    • complex monosyllable → simple monosyllable
  • simple monosyllable
    • simple monosyllable → disyllable

Below are the sources of the syllable changes (i.e., reversal of the list above).

  • disyllable
    • from sesquisyllable
    • from simple monosyllable
  • sesquisyllable
    • from disyllable
    • from complex monosyllable
  • complex monosyllable
    • from disyllable
    • from sesquisyllable
  • simple monosyllable
    • from disyllable
    • from sesquisyllable
    • from complex monosyllable

However, Roger Blench (2019) argues that Proto-Sino-Tibetan did not have sesquisyllabic structure; instead, sesquisyllabicity in present-day Sino-Tibetan branches had been borrowed from Austroasiatic languages due to typological convergence.[10]



According to many authors such as James Bauman, George van Driem and Scott DeLancey, a system of verbal agreement should be reconstructed for proto-Tibeto-Burman. Verbal agreement has disappeared in Chinese, Tibetan, Lolo-Burmese and most other branches, but was preserved in Kiranti languages in particular. This is a topic of scholarly debate, however, and the existence of a PTB verbal agreement system is disputed by such authors as Randy LaPolla.[11]



Matisoff postulates the following derivational prefixes.

  • *s- — This prefix is used for the directive, causative, or intensive. It also appears in words for animals and body parts.
  • *ʔa- / *(ʔ)ə / *ʔə̃ / *ʔaŋ / *ʔak — This glottal prefix is used for kinship functions and the third person possessive.
  • *m- — Before verb roots, this prefix signifies inner-directed states or actions, such as stativity, intrasitivity, durativity, and reflexivity. Before noun roots, it is used as a third person possessive prefix.
  • *r- — Before verbs, this prefix is used as a "directive." It is also used before a wide variety of semantically unrelated noun roots.
  • *b- — This prefix is often used before transitive verbs, and usually marks the past (with suffix *-s, creating a *b- -s circumfix) and future (with a null suffix).
  • *g- — This velar prefix has a third person pronominal function before noun roots. It is also used before a wide variety of semantically unrelated noun roots. Before verb roots, it is used for the present and future tenses. In Proto-Lolo–Burmese, the unvoiced velar prefix *k- is used commonly used before animal names.

Other constructed prefixes include *l- and *d-.



Circumfixes have also been reconstructed for Proto-Tibeto-Burman.

In Written Tibetan, s- -n and s- -d are collective circumfixes used in kinship terms (Matisoff 2003:453).



According to Matisoff, three Proto-Tibeto-Burman dental suffixes, *-n, *-t, and *-s, are highly widespread, but their semantics are difficult to reconstruct (Matisoff 2003:439). The suffixes *-s, *-h, and *-ʔ are often developed into tones in many Tibeto-Burman languages, and are thus highly "tonogenetically potent" (Matisoff 2003:474).

  • *-n – This suffix has a variety of functions, including nominalizing, transitivizing, and collectivizing (or pluralizing). The nominalizing function is attested in Lepcha as -m or -n and in Written Tibetan as -n. The transitivizing form is rare, and has only been attested in Kanauri. Finally, the collectivizing/pluralizing function is found not only in many modern-day Tibeto-Burman languages but also in Old Chinese as well.
  • *-t – This suffix is used as a nominalizer. It occurs in Jingpho as -t and Written Tibetan as -d. Other functions include verbalizing noun roots and making intransitive or stative verbs into transitive or causative ones (Matisoff 2003:457). In other cases, *-t appears to have no obvious function. The *-t suffix also occurs in Old Chinese, but its semantic function is unclear.
  • *-s – Not easily distinguishable from *-t, this proto-suffix is preserved in written Tibetan, West Himalayish languages, Chepang, Kuki-Chin languages (as -ʔ) and some Qiangic languages. It can serve as a nominalizer (Qiang and Tibetan), locative, subordinator (Kuki-Chin languages), a stative, inner-directed, or "middle" meaning (Himalayish languages such as Kanauri), and causative (Kiranti and Kuki-Chin languages).
  • *-k – This velar suffix occurs in the Kukish languages and also in Old Chinese. Its semantic function is still unknown. However, Pulleyblank assigns a distributive sense to the *-k suffix, but only in relation to pronominal forms (LaPolla 2003:26).
  • *ʔay – This proto-morpheme means "to go", and can be attached to various roots as a palatal suffix to signify motion away from the deictic center. This fully syllabic proto-morpheme has now been grammaticalized and reduced to palatal offglides in modern-day Tibeto-Burman languages.
  • *ya / *za / *tsa / *dza – Meaning "child" or "little one", this proto-morpheme appears in Tibeto-Burman languages as a palatal suffix (-j), and has also been reconstructed in several ways. Its purpose is mainly diminutive. Matisoff (2003) also notes that high front vowels tend to be used for diminutive functions.
  • *-way / *-ray – This proto-copula can also appear as a palatal suffix (-j) and occurs in roots carrying abstract grammatical meanings, such as articles, pronouns, and deictics (Matisoff 2003:487).



Among other researchers, Paul K. Benedict and James Matisoff have proposed reconstructed vocabulary items for Proto-Tibeto-Burman. Matisoff's Proto-Tibeto-Burman reconstruction is by far the most cited, and with his last version published in the final release of the Sino-Tibetan Etymological Dictionary and Thesaurus (2015).[12][13] Allofams (a term coined by Matisoff to mean alternate proto-forms) are marked using ⪤.

Stable roots


Matisoff (2009)[14] lists 47 stable Tibeto-Burman roots (i.e., etyma that have cognates widely distributed in branches throughout the family) and their Proto-Tibeto-Burman reconstructions.

  • Body parts (10 words): blood; bone; ear; eye; hair (body)/fur/feather; hand; nose; tail; tongue; tooth
  • Animals (5 words): animal; dog; fish; pig; snake
  • Numerals (6 words): three; four; five; six; eight; hundred
  • Natural objects and units of time (5 words): day (of 24 hours); fire; moon; smoke; sun/daytime
  • People and habitation (6 words): child/son; grandfather/elder brother; house; husband/male; man/person; name
  • Plants and ingestibles (2 words): medicine/juice/paint; poison
  • Pronouns (2 words): I (1st person); thou (2nd person)
  • Verbs (8 words): bitter; die; dream; eat; ill; kill; lick; steal
  • Abstract (3 words): copula; negative; negative imperative
Body parts
  • *s-hywəy 'blood' (STEDT #230)
  • *s-rus ⪤ *m-rus ⪤ *g-rus 'bone' (STEDT #232)
  • *r-na 'ear' (STEDT #811)
  • *s-mik ⪤ *s-myak 'eye' (STEDT #33)
  • *mil ⪤ *mul 'hair (body)/fur/feather' (STEDT #363)
  • *l(y)ak ⪤ *dyak; [*k(r)ut] 'hand' (STEDT #377; #712)
  • *may ⪤ *mey ⪤ *mi 'tail' (STEDT #1288)
  • *l(y)a ⪤ *lay ⪤ *ley 'tongue' (STEDT #621)
  • *g-na 'nose' (STEDT #803)
  • *swa; [*džway] 'tooth' (STEDT #632; #635)
  • *sya-n 'animal/meat/flesh' (STEDT #5711, 34)
  • *kʷəy 'dog' (STEDT #1764)
  • *ŋ(y)a 'fish' (STEDT #1455)
  • *pʷak 'pig' (STEDT #1006)
  • *s-b-ruːl 'snake/vermin' (STEDT #2623)
  • *g-sum 'three' (STEDT #2666)
  • *b-ləy 'four' (STEDT #2409)
  • *b-ŋa ⪤ *l-ŋa 'five' (STEDT #2623)
  • *d-k-ruk 'six' (STEDT #2621)
  • *b-r-gyat ⪤ *b-g-ryat 'eight' (STEDT #2259)
  • *b-r-gya 'hundred' (STEDT #2258)
Natural objects and units of time
  • *r(y)ak 'day (24 hours)/spend the night' (STEDT #2636)
  • *mey; [*bar ⪤ *par] 'fire' (STEDT #2136; #2152)
  • *s-la ⪤ *g-la 'moon/month' (STEDT #1016)
  • *kəw ⪤ *kun ⪤ *kut 'smoke' (STEDT #2361)
  • *nəy 'sun/daytime' (STEDT #85)
People and habitation
  • *tsa ⪤ *za 'child/son' (STEDT #2727)
  • *bəw ⪤ *pəw 'grandfather/elder brother' (STEDT #2582)
  • *k-yim ⪤ *k-yum 'house' (STEDT #1612)
  • *pʷa 'husband/male' (STEDT #1612)
  • *r-mi(y) 'human/person' (STEDT #1002)
  • *r-miŋ; [*s-braŋ] 'name' (STEDT #2450; #2169)
Plants and ingestibles
  • *tsəy; [*s-man] 'medicine/paint/juice' (STEDT #5427; #5434)
  • *duk ⪤ *tuk 'poison' (STEDT #2530)
  • *ŋa-y; [*ka-y] '1st person' (STEDT #2530)
  • *naŋ ⪤ *na '2nd person' (STEDT #2489)
  • *ka-n 'bitter' (STEDT #229)
  • *səy 'die' (STEDT #27)
  • *r-maŋ 'dream' (STEDT #126)
  • *dzya 'eat' (STEDT #36)
  • *na ⪤ *nan ⪤ *nat 'ill' (STEDT #160)
  • *g-sat 'kill' (STEDT #1018)
  • *m-lyak; *s-lyam 'lick/tongue' (STEDT #629)
  • *r-kəw 'steal' (STEDT #2365)
  • *way ⪤ *ray 'copula' (STEDT #1821)
  • *ma 'negative' (STEDT #2436)
  • *ta ⪤ *da 'negative imperative' (STEDT #2681)

Reconstructed branches


Proto-language reconstructions for Tibeto-Burman branches include:

See also



  1. ^ Handel (2008), p. 434.
  2. ^ Handel (2008), pp. 425–426.
  3. ^ Matisoff (2003), p. 16.
  4. ^ Matisoff (2003), pp. 3, 16.
  5. ^ Fellner, Hannes and Hill, Nathan W. (2019) 'Word families, allofams, and the comparative method'. Cahiers de Linguistique Asie Orientale, (48) 2, pp 91-124.
  6. ^ Sagart, Laurent; Jacques, Guillaume; Lai, Yunfan; Ryder, Robin; Thouzeau, Valentin; Greenhill, Simon J.; List, Johann-Mattis (2019), "Dated language phylogenies shed light on the history of Sino-Tibetan", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116 (21): 10317–10322, Bibcode:2019PNAS..11610317S, doi:10.1073/pnas.1817972116, PMC 6534992, PMID 31061123.
  7. ^ Matisoff, James A. (1991), "Sino-Tibetan Linguistics: Present State and Future Prospects", Annual Review of Anthropology, 20: 469–504, doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.20.1.469, JSTOR 2155809.
  8. ^ Matisoff, James A. 2015. The Sino-Tibetan Language Family: Description of the Sino-Tibetan Language Family. The Sino-Tibetan Etymological Dictionary and Thesaurus.
  9. ^ DeLancey, Scott. 2011. "On the Origins of Sinitic." Proceedings of the 23rd North American Conference on Chinese Linguistics (NACCL-23), 2011. Volume 1, edited by Zhuo Jing-Schmidt, University of Oregon, Eugene. Pages 51-64.
  10. ^ Blench, Roger. 2019. If sesquisyllabic structures in Sino-Tibetan (Trans-Himalayan) are a result of contact then existing reconstructions are compromised.
  11. ^ LaPolla, Randy J. (1992). "On the Dating and Nature of Verb Agreement in Tibeto-Burman" (PDF). Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 55 (2): 298–315. doi:10.1017/s0041977x00004638. hdl:10356/100281. JSTOR 619625. S2CID 144632981. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2017-06-10. Retrieved 2017-04-18.
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  23. ^ Schorer, Nicolas. 2016. The Dura Language: Grammar and Phylogeny. Leiden: Brill.
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Book reviews


Further reading

Data sets
  • Laurent Sagart, Jacques, Guillaume, Yunfan Lai, and Johann-Mattis List. (2019): Sino-Tibetan Database of Lexical Cognates. Jena, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. doi:10.5281/zenodo.2581321
  • CLDF dataset derived from Sūn's "Tibeto-Burman Phonology and Lexicon" from 1991. Zenodo. doi:10.5281/zenodo.3535008
  • CLDF dataset derived from Satterthwaite-Phillips "Phylogenetic Inference of the Tibeto-Burman Languages" from 2011. Zenodo. doi:10.5281/zenodo.3535000
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Proto-Tibeto-Burman language
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