Mark W. Post

Research Centre for Linguistic Typology, La Trobe University




Prosody and typological drift from Austroasiatic to Tibeto-Burman


The Tibeto-Burman area exhibits an overall cline in typological organization:

Towards the Western Himalaya, we find a complex morphological word, finiteness asymmetries, extensive suffixing, polysyllabic prosody, simple onsets, and monophthongal vocalism.

Towards Mainland South-East Asia, we find a simple morphological word, verb serialization, prefixation, syllabic prosody, onset clustering, and complex diphthongs.

These broad differences have usually been ascribed to language contact, namely with Indic speakers in the West and with Sinitic speakers in the East. Popularlized by the labels Indosphere and Sinosphere (Matisoff 1991; Bradley, LaPolla et. al. 2003), this view has rarely if ever been questioned.

While certainly diagnostically useful, the problem is the assumption of a directionality of influence (Indic > TB, Sinitic > TB), which in many cases not only cannot be positively demonstrated, it is contradicted by the bulk of evidence available.

I argue that a more powerful explanation, and one which is more responsible to the data, is provided by Donegan and Stampe (1983; 2004) in their characterization of a similar set of typological differences in Mon-Khmer. Following D/S, I suggest that contrasts in areally-acquired rhythmic prosodies are both demonstrable and sufficiently explain the bulk of typological differences among “Indospheric” and “Sinospheric” TB langauges.

Although ultimate Indic and Sinitic sources for these differing areal rhythmic profiles cannot be ruled out, neither should they be assumed (and much less assumed to be dominant). Rather, a far more complex set of areal interactions – quite probably including a large pre-historic Austroasiatic-Tibeto-Burman contact area situated roughly in modern-day North East India – need to be considered.