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Presentation of the language by Guillaume Jacques

"Japhug (Chabao 茶堡) is a Rgyalrong language spoken in the north-east of Mbarkhams/Maerkang 马尔康 county ( district). (...) In spite of being genetically related to Chinese, the Rgyalrong languages are typologically quite divergent from the isolating type. They are the only fully polysynthetic languages in China, or even in the entire Asia if we except isolated languages of the sub-polar and polar regions such as Ket, Ainu or Chukchi. These languages are of exceptional interest for both linguistic typology and historical linguistics. 

Unlike modern Chinese languages which have a very simple syllable structure with few or no initial clusters, Rgyalrong languages have the most complex syllabic structure of all Sino-Tibetan languages. Rgyalrong languages typically have large consonant inventories; for instance, Japhug has a consonantal system with 49 phonemes. (...) More than 340 consonant clusters are attested in Japhug, and including groups with up to three or even four consonants. Some of the complex clusters of Old Tibetan which are preserved in none of the attested modern Tibetan languages are still present in Rgyalrong. For instance, Old Tibetan bsgyur(d) ‘to change (past stem)’ appears as βzɟɯr in Japhug. (...) Japhug has an intriguing five-way contrast between /velar stop+j/ as in kjo ‘to cause to glide’, palatal stops as in co ‘valley’, /dental affricates+j/ as in ɯ-mtsjoʁ ‘beak’, alveolo-palatal affricates as in tɕoʁtsi ‘table’ and /uvular stop+j/ as in qjoʁ ‘to vomit’. Palatal stops can be followed by -ɣ-, -r- or -l- as in ɲcʰɣaʁ ‘birch bark’. (...)

Rgyalrong languages have a complex verbal morphology, unlike anything else found in the Sino-Tibetan family. They present all the characteristics of polysynthetic languages: 1) A high word to morpheme ratio (most verbal forms include at least three morphemes, and can have up to eight). 2) Head-marking typology (grammatical
relationship marked mainly on the verb and within the noun phrase, possession marked on the possessed rather than on the possessor), verbal agreement with two arguments. 3) Presence of nominal incorporation. (...)

In derivational morphology, Rgyalrong languages preserve many affixes and morphological processes which may be reconstructible to proto-Sino-Tibetan, such as the causative sɯ-, sɯɣ-, z- (it has three regular and four irregular allomorphs), the anticausative prenasalizations and the oblique nominalization prefix sɤ-, and others which are not accepted by all scholars such as agent or patient nominalization kɯ-/kɤ-, action noun nominalization in tɯ-, passive a- < *ŋa- etc.

In inflexional morphology, Rgyalrong languages constitute an important piece of evidence in the debate regarding the antiquity of verbal agreement in the Sino-Tibetan
family. The Rgyalrong agreement system presents many similarities with Kiranti, a group of Sino-Tibetan languages spoken in Nepal, and most scholars accept the fact that at least some of the verbal morphology found in Rgyalrong and Kiranti is cognate.

Given the considerable interest of these languages for both typology and comparative linguistics, it is surprising that so few scholars engage in the description of these highly endangered languages, whose importance for the study of the Sino-Tibetan family as a whole can be aptly compared to the role of Sanskrit in Indo-European. They open radically new perspectives for Old Chinese historical phonology and morphology."

(From the "Rgyalrong" entry
in the Encyclopedia of Chinese Language and Linguistics
edited by Rint Sybesma, Wolfgang Behr, Zev Handel & C.T. James Huang. Leiden: Brill.)

Some links: 

A bibliography of rGyalrong linguistic studies

"rGyalrongic languages" entry in Wikipedia

A list of '' members following the "rGyalrong" research interest


Latest update: 2015