Evolution of World's Second-largest Language Family Began 6,000 Years Ago

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Chinese pictograph, calligraphy tablet of Huang Tingjia. Getty Images

Some 1.5 billion people across the world speak one of the Sino-Tibetan languages, a family of languages linguists believe originated in Asia almost 6,000 years ago.

The Sino-Tibetan family is made up of more than 400 languages and dialects, including Chinese, Tibetan and Burmese. That makes it the second most commonly spoken set of languages, after Indo-European, which includes English, Armenian and Italian. For years, linguists have debated the origins of the Sino-Tibetan tongue, and how the different but related languages emerged. The dominating arguments are split into the northern-origin and the southwestern-origin hypotheses.

According to the northern-origin hypothesis, as the Yangshao and or Majiayao Neolithic cultures developed between 4,000 to 6,000 years ago in the Yellow River basin of northern China, so too did the language family. But proponents of the rival hypothesis believe the language originated at least 9,000 years ago to the southwest of East Asia in China's Sichuan province or northeast India.

The authors of a study published in the journal Nature analyzed the root words of 109 Sino-Tibetan languages spoken across China, Southeast Asian countries including Myanmar, and South Asian nations such as India, Nepal and Bhutan.

The data supported the northern-origin hypothesis, concluding the languages most likely diverged around 5,900 years ago as agricultural practices spread in China.

Study co-author Dr. Menghan Zhang, of the MOE Key Laboratory of Contemporary Anthropology at Fudan University, China, told Newsweek: "Language, together with genetic composition and archaeological relics, are three windows through which we delve into the prehistorical human populations.

"Our work makes a brick of the linguistic basis for understanding the past of East Asia. This would help to understand the contemporary relationships among the populations, and become the standpoint for further studies in language contact, human genetics, cultural evolution and sociology. Without knowing the relationship between the huge numbers of human populations, it is hard or even impossible for those further studies."

However, Zhang acknowledged the study was limited by factors, including the fact that the Hmong-Mien and Tai-Kadai languages were not included in the study, and neither was the relationship between the Sino-Tibetan and its neighbor language families such as Altaic, Austroasiatic and Austronesian.

Dr. Nathan W. Hill, reader in Tibetan and Historical Linguistics at SOAS, University of London, who did not work on the study, did not see the study as significant, but rather a contributor to an ongoing dialogue.

"The use of the new methods is in itself an important advance and is part of the overall process of historical linguistics taking a 'quantitative turn.'" However, he said it is premature to conclude that the findings are definitive, either about the ultimate homeland or the shape of the family tree.

"There are two other research groups that are also working on this question with the same methods. I expect everyone will end up with the views they started with," he said.

Hill also pointed out several limitations, including the ways the team used software, and that they did not provide underlying research data which would make the work reproducible. "This is bad practice, and, in fact, ethically suspect," he said.

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Chinese pictograph, calligraphy tablet of Huang Tingjia. Getty Images