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date: 29 October 2020

Morphology in Sino-Tibetan Languageslocked

  • Giorgio Francesco ArcodiaGiorgio Francesco ArcodiaDepartment of Asian and North African Studies, Ca' Foscari University of Venice
  •  and Bianca BascianoBianca BascianoDepartment of Asian and North African Studies, Ca' Foscari University of Venice


Sino-Tibetan is a highly diverse language family, in which a wide range of morphological phenomena and profiles may be found. The family is generally seen as split into two major branches, i.e., Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman, but while Sinitic is a fairly homogeneous group in terms of morphology, the so-called Tibeto-Burman branch of the family includes isolating languages like Karen, languages with transparent and regular agglutinative morphology (Lolo-Burmese, Tibetic, and Boro-Garo), but also paradigmatically complex languages, with elaborate argument indexation and transitivity management systems; while in some languages morphological complexity is mostly a conservative trait (e.g., Rgyalrongic and Kiranti), other languages developed innovative paradigms, with only few vestiges of the archaic system (Kuki-Chin). Some notable morphological phenomena in modern Tibeto-Burman languages are verb stem alternation, peculiar nominalization constructions, and long sequences of prefixes, which in some languages (Chintang) may even be freely permutated without any relevant change in meaning.

Also, while Sinitic languages are normally taken to be a prototypical example of the (ideal) isolating morphological type (with virtually no inflection, stable morpheme boundaries, no cumulative exponence, and no allomorphy or suppletion), phenomena of strong reduction of morphemes, blurring of morpheme boundaries and fusion between root and suffix, and nonconcatenative morphology, as well as allomorphy and (proto-)paradigmatic organization of morphology, are attested in some Chinese dialects, mostly concentrated in an area of Northern China (Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, Hebei, and Shandong provinces). Moreover, ‘Altaic-type’ agglutinative morphology, including case marking, is found in Sinitic languages of the so-called Qinghai-Gansu Sprachbund; in this case, the development of agglutination, as well as other typological traits (as SOV word order), is clearly the product of intense and prolonged contact between Northwestern Chinese dialects and Tibetic and Mongolic languages of China. On the other hand, Southern Chinese dialects have developed in closer contact with Hmong-Mien, Tai-Kadai, and Austroasiatic languages, and are thus closer to the typology of Mainland Southeast Asian languages, with a very strong isolating profile.


  • Historical and Diachronic Linguistics
  • Language Families
  • Grammar, Syntax and Morphology

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