Is there any research or explanation for the (grammatical, typological) differences among Chinese, Tibetan, and Burmese?

I am thinking of the fact that Chinese is classed as an Analytic, SVO language, Tibetan classed as an Agglutinative, SOV, Ergative language, Burmese, which I know much less about, seems to be Analytic, SOV.

Trying to research this on my own, I have primarily found research on the genetic relationships among Sino-Tibetan languages, not so much on their respective developments.

edit: My question can be phrased as: what is known (or widely believed) about the morphosyntax of Proto-Sino-Tibetan and about how and why various branches changed? I would be interested in any research that addresses this.

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    There is no a priori reason to suppose that related languages will be similar in those types.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 18:16
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    A better question would be, what do we know about the morphosyntax of the proto-language, and how (and why) various branches changed.
    – user6726
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 18:27
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    @user6726 I think that is basically what I am asking for, and it is somewhat clearer. Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 21:02

2 Answers 2


The consensus is the Proto-Sino-Tibetan was SOV and that Sinitic is very innovative in this regard, moving toward SVO, possibly/probably due to language contact with Mon-Khmer / Tai-Kadai / Austroasiatic speakers (possibly linked to the Baiyue 百越). This 2011 paper gives a nice overview of the origins of Sinitic, and supports the Baiyue 百越 coexistence/mixing hypothesis. SOV is still actually fairly common in Old Chinese, but you can see the tension between SOV and SVO structures while reading Classical Chinese, with a lot of flitting between the two. SVO had already become the standard though in the Chinese of the oracle bones.

The loss of agglutination gave rise to what seems to be fairly fixed inflection (see this 2017 paper for a nice overview) pattern in Old Chinese. This is pretty thoroughly lost by Middle Chinese, which has undergone tonogenesis and has monosyllables as the vast majority of its lexemes and morphemes.

Because I am much less familiar with the historical written record of the Tibeto-Burman languages, I can't really comment as much. I do know that Classical Tibetan starts in the 7th century, and so is roughly contemporary to Middle Chinese. It may be worth looking up how much its morphology has changed; modern Tibetan is well known for being quite agglutinative, but Classical Tibetan was relatively analytic. It's one of a few languages whose history has been documented to go from analytic to agglutinative.

Burmese starts to be documented from the 12th century, and it is suggested that it grew up with a lot of strong influence from Mon as well as Sanskrit and Pali. I'm unsure if this would have produced a push toward losing agglutination and adopting isolating morphology, but it's possible (Sanskrit and Pali are both synthetic languages, being Indo-European; Mon is from the Mon-Khmer family, SVO, and seems pretty analytic to me).

  • This is a satisfying and helpful answer. I had not heard that Tibetan has gone from less agglutinative to more, which does defy expectation somewhat. Might you have a reference for this? Or could you give a bit more explanation about how this is the case? Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 20:53
  • @ASchneider Really when you start applying concepts of the grammaticalisation cycle to non-IE languages I've seen it become quite fraught. This tourism website is the clearest example of the claim. Actual evidence: 1) pronoun interaction with the Classical genitive marker na [I] + 'i [genitive] -> na'i [my], now pronounced as /ŋɛ/ in Lhasa Tibetan. But verb morphology has gone a fusional synthetic system to an auxiliary verb system.
    – Michaelyus
    Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 9:23
  • @ASchneider The other major piece of "evidence" is the grammaticalisation of evidentiality from Classical Tibetan to modern Tibetic languages: the Classical language's par-hdug construction is a kind of copula, almost as an auxiliary verb. Then through the 16-17th centuries these evidentials proliferate, and become a full system of conjugation with separate verb classes (volitional vs non-volitional) in Lhasa. These are still in the agglutinative stage.
    – Michaelyus
    Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 10:48
  • Oh look, a new monograph on their phonology is out this year...
    – Michaelyus
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 8:40
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Noted and clarified: the Zhou lasted such a long time! Had to look up what periods I had been referring to as well! Thanks
    – Michaelyus
    Commented Nov 20, 2020 at 20:00

I can give you a grammatical characterization of Tibetan so then you can compare its features with the other two languages and progress your research about typology.
Tibetan is a particular language with some relatively weird grammatical elements.

Its lexical dimension: As in Chinese and Burmese the basic words are mostly monosyllables and the creation of new terms occurs through the process of composition. Like Chinese, it is a language that, when influenced by foreign languages, prefers the use of calques instead of loans. Vocabulary changes depending on the context and there are 3 registers: Vernacular, literary and honorific.

Its grammatical dimension: It is a highly agglutinative language where various particles are used to suffix to words. The nominal declension system is based on ten cases. Verbal auxiliaries are conjugated in time/aspect and evidentiality and show opposition between positive and negative forms, as well as between existential form (transitory phenomena) and essential form (permanent phenomena). There is a great use of functional particles such as nominalizers (they turn a verb into a noun) and verbalizers (vice versa), and use of postpositions. Adjectives can carry special particles according to their functions within a sentence.

Example of agluttinative process: གྲྭ་པ་ནི་དགོན་པ་ན་སློབ་སྦྱོང་བྱེད་པའི་སྒང་ཡིན་ནམ། - Is the monk studying in the temple?
Grwa-pa (monk) + ni [topicalizer] , dgon-pa (temple) + na [locative case] , slob-byongs (studying (noun)) + byed [verbalizer] + pa [funtionalizer] + ‘I [genitive case] + sgang [progressive] + yin [egophoric evidenciality] + nam [interrogative particle]

Note: Despite these agglutinative features, some analytical elements persist in Tibetan grammar. For example words such as <<nas>> or <<rgyu>> has multiple meanings and functions that only the syntax will determine.

Particular elements to highlight:

  1. It is an ergative language, so it is convenient to use a classification of Agent vs. Patient (instead of Subject vs. Object) to understand its phrase structures, as well is a language that use concepts of transitivity and valency to sort out the verbs according to its semantic behavior.
  2. All verbs are classified into volitive or involitive classes. This define the auxiliaries each verb can take.
  3. Most of dialects which has developed tones (more accurate should say “contours”) had lose its voiced sounds as independent consonants and now showing tonal opposition between syllables.
  4. The degree of evidentiality applied in the verbal auxiliary shows the source of the knowledge exposed in a sentence. The most used are 7, here are some examples:
  • Egophoric (subjective knowledge, the perspectives of one's own ego)
  • Assertive (knowledge of an objective source, such as historical, scientific, general facts ...)
  • Testimonial (knowledge based on direct evidence)
  • Epistemic (knowledge based on some deduction by a logical process)
    And so on…
  1. Tibetan uses a topicalizing particle <> that can be exchanged for the noun case of any argument in order to reinforce the idea of central theme.
  2. Verbs change its shape and can have different stems. Many of them come in pairs (resultative and causative), and traditionally each verb has 3 forms (stems): perfective stem (used to form the preterite and the Aorist), imperfective stem (to form the present, future, gerundive and others ..) and the imperative stem (forms multiple types of commands).
    Example: Stems of the verb “to conceal”:
    Its causative pair is གབ་ (khab)
    Its tense stems are:
    Perfective: འགེབས་ (‘gebs)
    Imperfective: བཀབ་ (bkab)
    Imperative: ཁོབས་ (khobs)

Finally, some similarities and differences I can perceive between Chinese and Tibetan are:
Tibetan lacks using of classifiers or measure words, nor use coverbs. The verb always goes to the end of the sentence and is not static as in Chinese, that is, it changes its form in several stems and a great variety of auxiliaries are attached. Chinese has no articles but in Tibetan it can be used the demonstrative pronoun “that” <<de>> as definite article, as well the number “one” in its form <<chig>> can be develop as an indefinite article. Many Tibetan particles can change its spelling according to “Sandhi” rules. The way to mark the feminine and the plural is relativity similar, so the nouns are generally neuter. As well as in Chinese, sometimes the pronoun can be dropped when context allow it.

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