Temporal Concepts and Formulations of Time in Tibeto-Burman Languages

Mark Turin and Ben Chung


As a vast and diverse linguistic grouping, Tibeto-Burman languages vary in their usage of time constructs, both morphologically and semantically. Even between genetically related languages within the Tibeto-Burman language family, approaches to elements such as suffixation vary widely, while vocabulary from Indo-Aryan and distantly related Sinitic languages is differently incorporated and borrowed. In this article, we identify trends that only become apparent through the process of data collation and the careful comparison of numerous grammatical sketches and dictionaries. We further expand this rich, if understudied, area through the incorporation of original fieldwork data from the Thangmi/Thami-speaking communities of Nepal undertaken by one of the co-authors, and supplemented by the researcher’s residence in the Himalayan region from 1996 to 2009.

The literature review and linguistic scope of this survey includes multiple grammars of languages spoken across the Greater Himalayan region, with specific emphasis on the Rāī-Kiranti sub-branch of languages autochthonous to eastern Nepal. In our comparative analysis, we focus on apparent cognates and shared paradigms with an emphasis on systems of segmental time measurement (e.g. ‘two days hence’, ‘this year’) rather than on relative ones (e.g. ‘now’, ‘then’). Through this compilation, the relationship between Tibeto-Burman languages and their often-dominant regional Indo-Aryan counterparts becomes more visible, mediated by a better understanding of the shared yet conflicting epistemological, astrological, and organisational views of time held by the communities who speak Tibeto-Burman languages.

Features of note include the assimilation of Chinese and Indian religious and spiritual systems, as well as imported vocabulary that does not always replace—but is in fact sometimes incorporated into—the lexicon of a 36 given language by the speech community. It is our observation that in Tibeto-Burman languages, Indigenous concepts, categories and classifications of time are usually grammatically encoded in adverbial forms, while the influential Indo-Aryan languages of the region mostly make use of nominal morphology in order to express temporal concepts. In addition, reflexes of Proto-Tibeto-Burman (hereafter PTB) nouns are still evident across the language family. To conclude, we position this survey as a comparative and analytical contribution which focuses attention on the region’s rich linguistic variation and the importance of rigorous documentation, conservation and revitalisation programs for Indigenous languages of the Tibeto-Burman family, as the communities who speak these languages continue to grapple with severe socio-political challenges and face the hegemonic pressures of linguistic assimilation.