The Sino-Tibetan language family consists of more than 400 languages spoken by around 1.4 billion speakers worldwide, including major world languages like Chinese, Tibetan and Burmese. However, despite the importance of these languages for understanding the prehistory of East Asia, their relationships and origins remain controversial. A study by an international team provides new evidence for the origin of the language family, pointing to Sino-Tibetan originating with north Chinese millet farmers around 7,200 years ago
But how do they know?
In order to shed light on the complex history of these languages, the scholars assembled a lexical database containing core vocabulary from 50 Sino-Tibetan languages. This database, published here for the first time, includes ancient languages spoken 1000 and more years ago, such as Old Chinese, Old Burmese, and Old Tibetan, as well as modern languages documented by field work.
“In order to compare these languages in a transparent way, we developed a specific annotation framework that allows us not only to mark which words we identify as sharing a common origin, but also which sounds in the words we think are related,” says Johann-Mattis List of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, who led the study. “A particular problem in identifying the truly related words were the numerous cases where languages borrowed words from each other,” mentions Jacques. “Luckily, we know the history of particular languages rather well and could rely on techniques that we developed before to reveal the true history concealed by these borrowings.”
Using powerful computational phylogenetic methods, the team inferred the most probable relationships between these languages and then estimated when these languages might have originated in the past. “We find clear evidence for seven major subgroups with a complex pattern of overlapping signals beyond that level,” says Simon J. Greenhill of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. “Our estimates suggest that the ancestral language has arisen around 7,200 years ago.” Paper. (open access) – Laurent Sagart, Guillaume Jacques, Yunfan Lai, Robin J. Ryder, Valentin Thouzeau, Simon J. Greenhill and Johann-Mattis List. Dated language phylogenies shed light on the ancestry of Sino-Tibetan. PNAS, 2019 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1817972116 More.
What we don’t know is how language itself arises. Not at all. Every human group already speaks a language.
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