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Rethinking Tibeto-Burman:
Linguistic Identities and Classifications
in the Himalayan Periphery

Mark Turin
University of Cambridge & Cornell University
© Mark Turin

‘To be human you must have a tribe. To have tribe you must have mother tongue’ stated a Shona tribesman, when asked by the fieldworker John Hofman for a definition of his identity (1977: 289). While by no means a universal truth, this assertion encapsulates a widespread sentiment held by both indigenous peoples and those who study them that language and identity are inextricably linked. In this short article, I offer some structured reflections on linguistic identities along the Tibetan margins and the classificatory tools that are used to define them. In particular, I argue against the uncritical extension of models of linguistic classification to categorise ethnic communities in the Himalayan periphery.

Invoking and debunking Tibeto-Burman
It is common practice for scholars to refer to many of the minority ethnic groups of the greater Tibetan and Himalayan region as ‘Tibeto-Burman’. The terms ‘Tibeto-Burman ethnic group’ and ‘Tibeto-Burmese people’ often appear as erroneous short cuts for an array of standard characteristics believed to be shared by various peoples: being more egalitarian, consuming alcohol and meat, practising shamanism and animism, and generally not being part of one of the ‘great’ religious traditions of Hinduism or Buddhism which surround them.

The incorrect deployment of linguistic terminology to convey ethnic or social characteristics is extremely common in Himalayan studies, as illustrated by the following few examples. The anthropologist James Fisher writes that the ‘predominantly rural population at the periphery, whether Tibeto-Burmese [sic] or Indo-Aryan, was too remote, scattered, poor, and uneducated to launch an effective movement against the powerful groups which controlled the centre’ (1997: 13). The French scholar Gérard Toffin addresses the ‘classifications of the Tibeto-Burman hill tribes into Tamang, Gurung, Magar, Rai, Thakali…’ (1981: 39, cited in Gellner et al. 1997: 15), while Christian Schicklgruber suggests that ‘the Khumbo’ are distinct from ‘many other Tibeto-Burman ethnic groups’ in terms of marriage practices (1993: 343). The Nepali intellectual Prayag Raj Sharma describes the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley as being of ‘mixed Indo-Aryan and Tibeto-Burman extraction’ (1993: 364) and the British-trained anthropologist Gil Daryn describes the Magar and Rai communities as ‘both of Tibeto-Burmese [sic] origin’ (2003: 171). Health care professionals are also wont to conflate linguistic with ethnic classifications, as illustrated by Pratima Poudel Acharya and Fiona Alpass who posit that their ‘data analysis showed Indo-Aryan and lower caste ethnic groups had significantly lower weight babies than Tibeto-Burman and Newar groups’ (2004: 40). As a final example of the imprudent mainstreaming of linguistic classification to map ethnic or social categories we need look no further than the Encyclopædia Britannica, the bastion of trusted popular information, from which we learn that:
Of the three principal ethnic groups in the Indian subcontinent—Indo-Europeans, Tibeto-Burmans, and Dravidians—the first two are well represented in the Himalayas, although they are mixed in varying proportions in different areas. (2004)

Although widely used and generally accepted, such uses of the term ‘Tibeto-Burman’ warrant closer examination and critical re-evaluation. First of all, no group or person can be said to be, or speak, ‘Tibeto-Burman’, since Tibeto-Burman is simply the language family which comprises all extant and extinct languages under its umbrella. Tibeto-Burman is therefore neither an ‘ethnic’ category nor is it a classification which can be used to impute socio-cultural behaviour. Just as nobody actually speaks ‘Romance’, or is ‘Germanic’, so too there are there no speakers of a language called ‘Tibeto-Burman’ and no clear set of cultural characteristics which can be attributed to all ethnic communities who speak languages belonging to this family. Instead, we may simply say that the Himalayan region is home to millions of mother-tongue speakers of languages which are part of the Tibeto-Burman language family. Finally, the term ‘Tibeto-Burmese’, illustrated in two of the above examples, is as linguistically inaccurate as it is ethnically dubious. While referring to the language family as ‘Sino-Tibetan’ or ‘Sino-Bodic’ rather than ‘Tibeto-Burman’ implies that one is taking a stance on the genetic affiliations of subgroupings within the language family, the term ‘Tibeto-Burmese’ is simply incorrect and conveys no specific cultural or linguistic meaning.

There are several reasons why the above point is worth making. First, the phrase ‘Tibeto-Burman (speaking) ethnic group’ betrays a widespread misunderstanding of linguistic classification and a reluctance on the part of many non-linguists to examine what the term actually conveys in the greater Himalayan context. Second, and more importantly, the proliferation of this vague ethnolinguistic category implies a sense of cohesion between an ancestral origin and a contemporary, spoken mother tongue, when in fact such cohesion rarely exists. Similarly, just because English and German are related languages, it does not necessarily follow that this close linguistic relationship engenders an intimate social tie or shared cultural worldview between English and German speakers.

In the context of Nepal, for example, a case in point are the Newar, who speak a Tibeto-Burman language but whose culture has been so profoundly influenced by values from the south, that it would be incorrect to represent the whole Newar population as sharing cultural traits with ethnic groups in Yúnnán—who also speak Tibeto-Burman languages—solely on the basis of linguistic classification. This point was succinctly made by the Newar linguist Kamal Prakash Malla when he spoke of Newar literature being the ‘most tangible evidence of the symbiosis between a Tibeto-Burman language and the Indo-Aryan culture’ (1982: 4).

Malla’s example is particularly apt since the term ‘Tibeto-Burman speaking’ is often used to convey the sense that a community has no historical literary tradition or documented written culture. The Newar of the Kathmandu valley and beyond, with their ornate architecture, refined art and classical language, are thus Tibeto-Burman in linguistic classification only and share few of the typical or ascribed characteristics of minority ethnic communities who speak Tibeto-Burman languages. Similarly, aside from linguists, it is distinctly rare for scholars of or from Tibet to refer to Tibetans as speaking a ‘Tibeto-Burman language’, even though the classification would be correct. Literate forms, such as Tibetan and Burmese, are thus commonly held to be the parent languages from which other spoken tongues derive, placing them hierarchically above modern ‘Tibeto-Burman languages’.


I am grateful to Professor Dr. George van Driem, Dr. Daniel Barker, Heleen Plaisier and Sara Shneiderman for their valuable comments on earlier versions of this paper. Sections of this paper were presented at the Agenda of Transformation: Inclusion in Democracy conference in Nepal in April 2003, then under the title ‘The many tongues of the nation: ethnolinguistic politics in post-1990 Nepal’.

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