25 Tibetan languages?
Victor Mair has an article on Language Log that discusses a favorite Sinoglot topic: the scope of language in China. The information on Tibetan is fascinating:
Tournadre estimates that there are 220 “Tibetan dialects” derived from Old Tibetan and currently distributed across five countries: China, India, Bhutan, Nepal, and Pakistan. In a forthcoming work, Tournadre states that these “dialects” may be classed within 25 “dialect groups,” i.e., groups that do not permit mutual intelligibility. According to Tournadre, the notion of “dialect group” is equivalent to the notion of “language,” but does not entail standardization. Consequently, says Tournadre, if the concept of standardization is set aside, it would be more appropriate to speak of 25 languages derived from Old Tibetan rather than 25 “dialect groups.”
Mair uses the analysis of Tibetan as a jumping off point for a rhetorical question about “Chinese”:
Whether or not Sinitic and Tibetic are genetically related, how can it be that there is only a single Sinitic “language” with 1.2 billion speakers of innumerable “dialects,” while Tibetic — with somewhere around two million speakers worldwide — is divided into 25 “languages”?
For Sinoglot and our perspicacious readers, this is hardly news. The linguistic diversity within “Chinese” (even moreso within China) is part of who we are. Still, it’s always good to see this idea shown to a wider audience from a new angle.