To those who are specialists (or even have a passing knowledge) in the state of Sino-Tibetan lexical reconstruction, are you able to provide off the top of your head a rough number (round to hundreds) and percentage of lexical reconstructions that are not in dispute, i.e. sound changes are regular and can account for the synchronic cognate forms between the Sinitic languages on one hand and Tibeto-Burman languages on the other, ignoring for a moment whether they are borrowings or not?

I was reading the Wikipedia entry of Sino-Tibetan language family, and the quote below says that initial consonant reconstructions are irregular/unpredictable. The majority but unsubstantiated explanation is that this is due to unrecoverable lost prefixes, which is unfalsifiable and thus unscientific. The alternative, more parsimonious minority explanation is that most of the reconstructed words are borrowings from Sinitic to Tibeto-Burman (i.e. relexification), and thus Sino-Tibetan is not a real language family.

Although the initial consonants of cognates tend to have the same place and manner of articulation, voicing and aspiration is often unpredictable. This irregularity was attacked by Roy Andrew Miller, though Benedict's supporters attribute it to the effects of prefixes that have been lost and are often unrecoverable. The issue remains unsolved today. It was cited together with the lack of reconstructable shared morphology, and evidence that much shared lexical material has been borrowed from Chinese into Tibeto-Burman, by Christopher Beckwith, one of the few scholars still arguing that Chinese is not related to Tibeto-Burman.

Also, which side, Sinitic or Tibeto-Burman, has the unpredictable reflexes? Lastly, is there a website (similar to Austronesian Comparative Dictionary) where one can peruse such reconstructions ?

  • This is a very good question, but two things: 1) Supposing prefixes is not unscientific just because it’s not currently testable. It’s a working hypothesis, rather than a theory, but those aren’t unscientific as such. The same is true of the relexification model, incidentally. // 2) I don’t think your last question is really answerable. Both hypotheses entail that we do not know the exact original forms, and therefore do not know what the predictable outcome would be in both branches – as such, we inherently also do not know for sure if, when or in which branch a given form is not regular. Jul 2 at 8:41
  • @Janus Bahs Jacquet: I guess if the claimed "lost prefixes" were only working hypothesis, that makes the genetic relationship between Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman unproven. Because the default position is that they are unrelated (the comparative method's main goal is to prove relatedness) then the relexification model only describe the current state of affairs. It is not making an extra claim not supported by data but could be falsified by presenting evidence that the sound correspondence are in fact regular. Jul 3 at 9:42
  • In fact, from the quoted text, Beckwith claims that much shared lexical material has been borrowed from Chinese into Tibeto-Burman. You are right though that it is unanswerable which of Sinitic or Tibeto-Burman has the unpredictable reflexes. Jul 3 at 9:49


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.