The extent of the Sino-Tibetan (ST) family is limited to China proper, mainland Southeast Asia, Taiwan and a small portion of India. But it includes the language that has more speakers than any other, Mandarin Chinese, with over 1.1 billion speakers. Another important ST language is Cantonese, which is spoken in Hong Kong and many Chinese communities around the world. The genetic affiliation between the Sinitic (Chinese) languages is readily apparent, but their association with the other languages of Asia has only started to become clear in the past fifty years. Linguists once believed that Thai was part of the ST family, but most experts now place Thai in a family of its own that includes Shan (Tai Yaai), Lao and Chuang. Vietnamese, a language that sounds remarkably like some dialects of Chinese, is not an ST language, although it was strongly influenced by Chinese and has a large stock of Chinese loanwords. Vietnamese is now considered part of the Mon-Khmer family.
Anthropologists believe that early Sino-Tibetan speakers lived on the Tibetan plateau and in western China. Early in their history, ST speakers divided into two groups: the proto Tibeto-Burman speakers and the Sinitic speakers. They later migrated down the great river valleys into their present locations. The ST languages with the largest number of speakers are Mandarin, Shanghainese and Cantonese. Other important languages are Burmese, Tibetan and Karen. Karen has about 5 million speakers, most of whom live along the mountainous border between Thailand and Burma. Click here to see a map (200KB) of where the Karen people live.
The Sino-Tibetan languages are tonal languages. Each word is pronounced at a certain relative pitch to distinguish it from words that are otherwise identical. The classic example is the word "ma" in Mandarin which can mean "mother", "hemp", "horse", or "to swear " depending on how it is pronounced.
For the most part I have ignored tone markings since they are difficult to represent in the basic HTML character set.
The Karen words are from the Bwe dialect.
I have simplified the Karen and Burmese spellings to make the words easier for English speakers to read.
I have chosen to use the names "Burma" and "Burmese" as they are the names preferred by Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's National League for Democracy.
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