1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Tibeto-Burman Languages

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TIBETO-BURMAN LANGUAGES. The Tibeto-Burman family comprises a long series of dialects spoken from Tibet in the north to Burma in the south, and from the Ladákh wazárat of Kashmir in the west to the Chinese provinces of Sze-ch‛uen and Yunnan in the east. In the first place we have the various Tibetan dialects, spoken all over Tibet and in the neighbouring districts of India and China. Another series of dialects, the Himalayan group, is spoken in the southern Himalayas, from Lahul in the west to Bhutan in the east. Some of these dialects approach Tibetan in structure and grammatical principles, while others have struck out newlines of development, probably under the influence of the dialects spoken by an older population. East of Bhutan, to the north of the Assam valley, we find a third small group, the North Assam group, which consists of three dialects. A fourth group, the Bodo group, can be followed in a series of dialects from Bhutan in the north to the Tippeera state in the south. They have at one time extended over most of Assam west of Manipur and the Nāgā hills, and even far into Bengal proper. To the west of the Bodos, in and in the neighbourhood of the Nāgā hills we find a fifth group, the so-called Nāgā group. It comprises dialects of very different kinds. Some of them approach Tibetan and the dialect of the North Assam group. Others lead over to the Bodo languages, and others again connect the Nāgā dialects with their Tibeto-Burman neighbours to the south and east. To the south of the Nāgā hills, in the long chain of hills extending southwards under various names such as the Lushai hills, the Chin hills and the Arakan Yoma, we find a sixth group, the Kuki-Chin dialects. The old Meitei language of Manipur lies midway between this group and the easternmost branch of the Tibeto-Burman family, the Kachin group. The Kachins inhabit the tract of country to the east of Assam and to the north of Upper Burma, including the headwaters of the Chindwin and the Irrawaddy. The Kachins have not as yet settled down, and are still pushing southwards. The Kachins and the Kuki-Chins gradually and finally merge into Burmese, the language of the ancient kingdom of Burma.

It is impossible to bring the relationship existing between all these various groups under one single formula. The dialects spoken in the Himalayas and in Assam can be described as a double chain connecting Tibetan with Burmese, which are the two principal languages of the family. In the first place the Kachin group runs from the easternmost Tibetan dialects in Sze-ch‛uen down to the Burmese of Upper Burma. The second chain has a double beginning in the north. We can trace one line through the North Assam group, the Nāgā, Bodo and Kuki-Chin groups. Another line can be followed from Tibetan through the Himalayan and Bodo groups into Kuki-Chin. The latter dialects finally merge into Burmese.

The original home of the Tibeto-Burman race seems to have been on the Upper Hwangho and the Upper Yangtsze-kiang in the Chinese provinces of Sze-ch‛uen and Yünnan. The oldest invaders followed the Tsangpo into Tibet and became the Tibetans of the present day. Other hordes crossed the Brahmaputra and settled in the hills on the southern slopes of the Himalaya range. From the headwaters of the Irrawaddy and the Chindwin successive waves entered Assam and Further India. Some followed the course of the Brahmaputra and settled in the hills to the south and east of the great bend of the river. Others entered the Nāgā hills, while numerous tribes must have followed the Chindwin into Manipur and the hills to the south. The inhabitants of Burma have probably come down along the Chindwin and the Irrawaddy, and the latest immigrants, the Kachins, have only in modern times begun their wanderings southwards through the hills. The tribes settled in the hills north of the Assam valley appear to possess a mixed character. Their home can be considered as a kind of backwater which has been overflowed by the waves of successive invasions.

In their original home the Tibeto-Burmans were the neighbours of Chinese and Tai tribes. Their languages are also closely related to Chinese and Tai, more closely to the former than to the latter. The agreement is apparent in the phonetical system, in vocabulary and in grammar. The principal point in which they differ is the order of words. The Tibeto-Burman family arranges the words of a sentence in the order of subject, object, verb, while the order in Chinese and Tai is subject, verb, object. Together all these languages form one great family, which is usually called Indo-Chinese.

The Indo-Chinese family is usually considered as a typical instance of the so-called isolating languages. The single words do not consist of more than one syllable. They are incapable of inflexion because there are no form-words, which merely denote relation in time and space. Grammatical relations are therefore not indicated by inflexion, but simply by putting together, according to fixed rules, words of which each retains its independence. Thus a sentence such as “the father struck the boy” would be translated “father agent son striking completion.” This state of affairs, which is the prevailing condition in Chinese, is not, however, the original one. While the bases of the words are monosyllabic, i.e. each word consists of one syllable, comparative philology shows that these bases were often preceded by prefixes, short additions, the meaning of which cannot always be ascertained, but which modified the meaning of the base in the same way as the terminations of other languages. Such prefixes were not accented, and in the course of time they were commonly reduced and often dropped altogether, so that each word (i.e. the prefix plus base) itself came to be monosyllabic. Such words were then pronounced in a higher tone, and this gave rise to the development of a complicated system of tones in Chinese, Tai and some Tibeto-Burman languages. The existence of old prefixes can therefore still be inferred from the tones.

This development can still be followed in the Tibeto-Burman languages. They have, to some extent, retained the old prefixes. This is, for example, the case in Old Tibetan and some modern Tibetan dialects, while the prefixes have been dropped in the modern dialect of Central Tibet. Compare Old Tibetan b-dun, Balti ab-dun, but Central Tibetan dün, seven. The connexion between the dropping of prefixes and the development of tones can be seen from the fact that Balti, which has, to some extent, preserved the prefixes, is devoid of tones, while Central Tibetan has developed a system of tones corresponding to that prevailing in Chinese. The same is the case with Kachin and some Nāgā dialects, while the remaining Tibeto-Burman languages apparently agree with such Tibetan dialects as are devoid of tones. The development of tones in many dialects was probably counteracted by the influence of the speech of the former inhabitants whom the Tibeto-Burman found in possession of the country when they invaded their present habitat. Remnants of such old inhabitants are still found in the Khasi hills of Assam, in the midst of the Tibeto-Burman territory. Traces of the speech of an old, non-Tibeto-Burman population, can also be found in some dialects belonging to the Himalayan group.

Through the dropping of old prefixes several different words coincided in form. The same result was effected by another tendency, which is apparent in all Indo-Chinese languages, viz. to harden soft consonants. Thus Tibetan ba, cow, is often pronounced bha and pa. The confusion which might arise from this double tendency is counteracted by the system of tones and the fixed rules for the order of words.

The vocabulary is richly varied. Thus the different varieties of some animal are often denoted by separate words. On the other hand, there are few general terms or such as denote abstract ideas.

All these features of Tibeto-Burman speech tend to make the difference between the dialects considerable, and the changes within one and the same dialect bewildering. Instances are said to be on record where one small tribe has changed its language in the course of a couple of generations so as to be unrecognizable. This fact, if fact it be, can however be accounted for by assuming that the male individuals in question have robbed their wives from some other tribe. At all events, the changes are not so important in cases where we are able to compare the existing vocabulary of a tribe with words noted down, say, a century ago.

The different classes of words are not clearly distinguished, and many instances occur in which a word can be used at will as a noun, as an adjective or as a verb. The verb can, on the whole, be described as a noun of action, and we find phrases such as “my going is” instead of “I go.” Inflexion is often effected by isolation. Thus gender is commonly denoted by adding words meaning “male,” “female,” respectively; number is indicated by means of numerals and words meaning “many,” “heap”; and there is no relative pronoun and no clear distinction between the various verbal tenses. Many of the words added in order to indicate relation in time, space, &c., have, however, ceased to be used as separate words, and have become what can for all practical purposes be called case and tense affixes. The inflexion is therefore at the present date, to a great extent, effected by agglutination, i.e. by adding modifying particles to the base, which itself remains unchanged. Such particles are only put once if there are more than one word put together in the same relation. Thus an adjective and a qualified noun only takes one “case-suffix.” Several dialects have in this way developed a complicated system of grammatical forms, partly perhaps under the influence of non-Tibeto-Burman languages.

Bibliography.—J. Leyden, “On the Languages and Literature of the Indo-Chinese Nations,” Asiatic Researches (1808), x. 209 sqq., reprinted, with bibliographical notes, by Dr R. Rost, in Miscellaneous Papers Relating to Indo-China, i. 86 sqq. (London, 1886); Max Müller, “Letter to Chevalier Bunsen on the Classification of the Turanian Languages,” p. 97 sqq. (London, 1854) (reprinted from vol. iii. of Bunsen's Christianity and Mankind); J. Logan, “The West Himalaic or Tibetan Tribes of Assam, Burma and Pegu,” Journal of the Indian Archipelago (1858), ii. 100 sqq. and 230 sqq.; B. H. Hodgson, Essays on the Languages, Literature and Religion of Nepal and Tibet: together with further papers on the Geography, Ethnology and Commerce of those countries (London, 1874); Miscellaneous Essays relating to Indian Subjects, vols. i., ii. (London, 1880); Ernst Kuhn, Ueber Herkunft und Sprache der transgangetischen Völker. Festrede (München, 1881); B. Houghton, “Outlines of Tibeto-Burman Linguistic Palaeontology,” Journ. of the Roy. Asiatic Soc. (1896), p. 23 sqq.; August Conrady, Eine indochinesische Causativ-Denominativ-Bildung und ihr Zusammenhang mit den Tonaccenten. Ein Beitrag zur vergleichenden Grammatik der indochinesischen Sprachen insonderheit des Tibetischen Barmanischen Siamesischen und Chinesischen (Leipzig, 1896); “Sten Konow” in Grierson's Linguistic Survey of India, vol. iii.; Tibeto-Burman Family, pt. i., General Introduction, Specimens of the Tibetan Dialects, the Himalayan Dialects and the North Assam Group (Calcutta, 1906); part ii., with G. A. Grierson, Specimens of the Bodo, Nāgā, and Kachin Groups (Calcutta, 1903); pt. iii., Specimens of the Kuki-Chin and Burma Groups (Calcutta, 1904).  (S. K.)