A new study by Menghan Zhang at Fudan University in Shanghai and his colleagues recently published in Nature explored the origin of Sino-Tibetan languages and determined they may have originated in China rather than India as previously believed. The Sino-Tibetan language family comprises more than 400 languages including Chinese, Tibetan, Burmese, Mandarin, and Cantonese. The group of languages is spoken by over 20% of the world’s population, second to only Indo-European, which includes English and Spanish.
The authors used data on cognate terms that have been assembled over the past 30 years in a project called the Sino-Tibetan Etymological Dictionary and Thesaurus. The team produced an evolutionary tree for the languages similar to those used in biology, from the top down. The branches at the top represented languages that continue to be spoken today, while the languages at the bottom represented Sino-Tibetan proto-languages. The researchers used genetic and linguistic data and computational biology and anthropology along with historical information about migration patterns. They found that the Sino-Tibetan language family likely originated in northern China over 6,000 years ago and spread south. The results also suggested that there was a major split between the Sinitic languages and the Tibeto-Burman languages before each of these split into further branches, which contrasts previous models that suggest the branches did not form from a major initial bifurcation.