Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, LINGUISTICS (linguistics.oxfordre.com). (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 23 October 2018

Summary and Keywords

Several language families and a few language isolates are represented in the Himalayas, the world’s greatest massif, running a length of over 3,600 km. The most well-represented language family in this region happens to be the Trans-Himalayan language family, whose very centre of gravity and phylogenetic diversity is situated within the Eastern Himalaya. This most populous language family on our planet in terms of numbers of speakers used to be known as Tibeto-Burman but, in some circles, the family formerly also went by the names “Indo-Chinese” or “Sino-Tibetan”, the latter two labels actually designating empirically unsupported and now obsolete models of language relationship. The study of Trans-Himalayan historical grammar began with Brian Houghton Hodgson in the 1830s, who during this time served at Kathmandu as the British Resident to the Kingdom of Nepal. Periodically, minor studies devoted attention to several of the more salient morphosyntactic phenomena of Trans-Himalayan historical grammar, but Stuart Wolfenden contributed the first major monograph to the subject in the 1920s. Finally, the historical morphosyntax of the Trans-Himalayan language family came to be the focus of numerous linguistic studies from the 1970s onward, and since that time our understanding of the historical grammar of the language family has changed drastically.

As ever more languages out of the hundreds of previously undocumented Trans-Himalayan tongues came to be described and analysed in great detail, it came to be understood that the flamboyant verbal agreement morphology observed in languages such as the Kiranti languages of eastern Nepal and the rGyalrongic languages of southwestern China were neither grammatically innovative nor represented typological flukes, but instead represented the most grammatically conservative languages within the entire language family. Subsequently, cognate inflectional systems or vestiges of cognate conjugational morphology were discovered in most other branches of the language family as well. The geographical centre, as well as the centre of phylogenetic diversity of the Trans-Himalayan language family, was identified as the highland arc of the Eastern Himalaya. Sinitic languages, although representing by far the most populous single branch of the Trans-Himalayan family, were now understood as constituting just one out of many subgroups, not more divergent from other branches than any one of the four dozen other subgroups making up the language family. The various types of epistemic marking systems observed sporadically throughout the region were shown to be secondary innovations, reflecting a great variety of semantically distinct language-specific grammatical categories. Particularly, languages showing the typology of the Loloish or Sinitic type were shown to be innovative in their grammar, having lost much of the original Trans-Himalayan morphosyntax.

Keywords: language families, morphosyntax, Trans-Himalayan language family, Sinitic languages

Access to the complete content on Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics requires a subscription or purchase. Public users are able to search the site and view the abstracts and keywords for each book and chapter without a subscription. If you are a student or academic complete our librarian recommendation form to recommend the Oxford Research Encyclopedias to your librarians for an institutional free trial.

Please subscribe or login to access full text content.

If you have purchased a print title that contains an access token, please see the token for information about how to register your code.

For questions on access or troubleshooting, please check our FAQs, and if you can't find the answer there, please contact us.