5.2 Basics of Tibeto-Burman Grammar

Examples and glosses contributed by Shobhana Chelliah, Patricia McDonough, Samson Lotven, David Peterson, Mary Burke, and James Wamsley.

The following accordion sections outline basic grammatical concepts that are typical for Tibeto-Burman languages. While not exhaustive, this content should help guide you on some of the main concepts you will want to explore during documentation and linguistic analysis.  Do not use these to simply translate from English to the target langauge.  Rather, use the content here to analyze the structure you see in the connected, naturalistic texts.

Clause Structure


Clauses have two main parts -- the verb and any required elements of the verbcalled arguments.  To unpack clause structure, look for the verb and identify its arguments. 

Copulas and Equational Clauses

Verbs which tell us something about an entity (where it is, an inherent quality, a feeling or state) will have one argument.  Here are some examples from Lhasa Tibetan.  Notice how there is a specific verb, a copula, that occurs with such constructions.  One verb may be used to mean 'be' or 'is' and a different one for 'have'.  As seen in (3), the negative (e.g., is not, does not have) is often a different lexeme from the affirmative.

Inherent Quality

(1)  nga     slobma     yin
       1SG      student    EGO.EQ.
        'I am a student.' 

(2)  mi-de-tsho         bodpa                yinbared
      person-DET-PL   Tibetan.person   POT.EQ
      'Those people might be Tibetan.'

(3) potrang    potala     hajang   chenpo      yobared
     Palace     Potala      very      big              EXIST.FACT
     'The Potala Palace is very big.'

(4) pe       yagpo     'dug
     very    good       EXIST.COP.DE
     '(It/he) is very good.'


(5)     ‘di         nga’i         ma-red
           DEM      1S.GEN       NEG-NE.EQ
        'That is not mine.'

(6)  nga-la         dngul         med
     1SG-DAT      money       NEG.EXIST.COP.EGO
     'I don’t have money.' 

(7) nga-‘a         khabar   gnyid    yod
     1S-DAT        phone    two       EXIST.COP.EGO
     'I have two phones.'

(8) da     nga     nang-la       yod
     now  1SG      home-DAT   EXIST.COP.EGO
     ‘I’m home right now.’  

(9) potrang    potala   lhasa-la       yobared
     palace     Potala    Lhasa-DAT   EXIST.COP.FACT
    'The Potala Palace is in Lhasa (I know this because I learned it in school.).' 

(10)  tshongkhang-na     chang         med-ki
         store-LOC               alcohol        NEG.EXIST.COP-DE
         'The store doesn’t have alcohol/there’s no alcohol at the store.'

Subordination and Nominal Clauses

Narratives and conversations will include complex clauses.  We'll consider the following common structures:

  1. Adverbial subordinate clause
  2. Complement subordinate clause  
  3. Relative clause or inflected determiner clause



Basic Embedding Structure

visual of a sentence embedding structure

All diagrams are taken from Genetti 


     Subordinate Sequential
āmun          jāki                    hār-ju
     3SG.ERG     uncooked.rice   bring-3SG.PST
     '...he brought (home) rice.'

     jāki                   hā-ene         māuri=ta        hat-cu
     uncooked.rice  bring-PART   mother=DAT   say-3SG.PST
     'Bringing the rice, he spoke to his mother.'

     Same subject
āmun        jā     na-en      ye-eu            ka
     3SG.ERG   rice  eat-PART  come-3.FUT  ASS
     'He wil eat his meal and come back.'

     Different subject
     mā        khāt=ku     diŋ-an           coŋ-an         kae   bõ=ku         con-a
     mother  bed=LOC    sleep-PART   stay-PART    son   floor=LOC   stay-3SG.PST
     'The mother was sleep on the bed; the son sat on the floor.'

     Embedded Sentence: Subject1 [Subject2 Verb] Verb
     dokhsunuŋ  [kharāyo lipul-e]NP-O    khoŋ-an
     all.ERG         rabbit     return-NR2     see-PART
     'All of them see the rabbit return...' 

     Embedded Sentence: Subject1 [Subject1 Verb] Verb
māuri=n          [jā      chui-i]NP-O      haŋ-ane
     mother=ERG   rice    cook-1.FUT    say-PART
     'The mother said: "I will cook rice"...'
visual of an embedded sentence

     Nominal within a subordinate
[[āmun      hā-en           ta-e]REL      ni-sar             dyābā]NP-O  āmu  chẽ       dani=n           kār-ai
     3SG.ERG    bring-PART   keep-NR2  two-hundred   money          that   house   owner=ERG   take-3SG.PR
     'The householder took the two-hundred rupees that he had brought and kept with him.'

     Clause Chaining (Meithei)
     uhәisiŋ    әdu     heklәbә   mәtuŋdә     mәhakna   yallibә      khau    әdu    thәllәbәgi     mәtuŋdә  kәirak    әdudәgi    kumthәrәktunә  lәibak   mәkhadә    a:                lәiribә       basketsiŋ   әdudә   hapcinlәmmi.
     fruit          that    plucking  after             he              hanging  bag      that     full               after         ladder    that           climbing down   earth    under          hesitation    having     baskets      that       putting/keeping
     'After plucking those fruit, he, after filling the hanging bag, climbing down from that ladder, put them on in the baskets that were on the ground.' 

     Clause Chaining (Tibetan)
     [slob.sbyong byed-tshar]-nas [za.ma    zos-song]
     study             do-finish             food      eat-PST
     ‘[He ate] after [finishing studying].’


Serial Verbs and Quotatives

Here are some of the defining characteristics of serial verb constructions (SVCs):

  • A single clause contains two or more verbs
  • Together they express a single event
  • The two verbs share an argument.
  • The SVC may express direction, goal, completive aspect, purpose, manner, causation
  • No pause between verbs

Additionally, here are some other key points of SVCs:

  • An additional argument may be added to the construction
  • Tense and aspect agree or occur on both verbs
  • Scope of negative is over the whole construction
  • Monoclausal
  • One can be transitive, one intransitive
  • More common in isolating languages

Quotative from Meithei
əynə         upudu                      kəri     yawbəge               (haybədo)          khəŋŋi
əy-nə        u-pu  -tu                  kəri     yaw-pə-ke             hay -pədu          khəŋ –i
I-CNTR       wood -carry-DDET   what    include-NOM-OPT   say -DCOMP       know  -NHYP
I                that box                 what    it wants to include that                    know
‘I know what that box should have in it.'

Serial Verb examples from Amdo
bya-de        phur-bud-thal
bird-DEF      fly-went-PFV.DE
'The bird flew away (I watched it).'

A common construction is Verb-Light Verb sequences, which are restricted to the second position and mich co-occur with a non-auxiliary.

Main verb as a copular verb
     nga     slobma     yin
     1SG      student    EGO.EQ.
     'I am a student.'
     mi-de-tsho         bodpa                 yinbared
     person-DET-PL   Tibetan.person   POT.EQ
     'Those people might be Tibetan.'

     ‘di         nga’i         ma-red
      DEM      1S.GEN       NEG-NE.EQ
     'That is not mine.'

Main verb as an existential copula
     da     nga     nang-la       yod
     now  1SG      home-DAT   EXIST.COP.EGO
     ‘I’m home right now.’ 
     potrang    poTala   lhasa-la       yobared
     palace     Potala    Lhasa-DAT   EXIST.COP.FACT
    'The Potala Palace is in Lhasa (I know this because I learned it in school.).'
     nga-la         dngul         med
     1SG-DAT      money       NEG.EXIST.COP.EGO
     'I don’t have money.' 

Main verb is a copula expressing position or possession
     nga-‘a       dngul         med            
     1SG-DAT     money      NEG.EXIST.COP.EGO    
     ‘I don’t have money.'
     nga-‘a         khabar   gnyid    yod
     1S-DAT        phone    two       EXIST.COP.EGO
     'I have two phones.'
     tshongkhang-na     chang         med-ki
     store-LOC               alcohol        NEG.EXIST.COP-DE
     'The store doesn’t have alcohol/there’s no alcohol at the store.'

Main verb is a copula expressing an inherent quality
     potrang    poTala     hajang   chenpo      yobared
     Palace     Potala      very      big              EXIST.FACT
     'The Potala Palace is very big.'

     pe       yagpo     'dug
     very    good       EXIST.COP.DE
     '(It/he) is very good.'

The main verbal element in a particle
     nga     slobma     yin
     1SG      student    EGO.EQ.
     'I am a student.'



Aikhenvald, Alexandria & R.M. Dixon. (2006). Serial Verb Constructions: A cross linguistic typology. Oxford University Press.

Chhangte, L. (1989). The Grammar of Simple Clauses in Mizo. Papers in South-East Asian Linguistics, no. 11. South-East Asian Syntax. David Bradley eds. Pacific Linguistics, A-77, 93-174

Genetti, C. (1991). From postposition to subordinator in Newari. Retrieved July 28, 2020, from https://benjamins.com/catalog/tsl.19.2.13gen

Peterson, D. (2008). Nominalization in Kuki-Chin and Mru. Paper presented at 41st International Conference on Sino-Tibetan Languages and Linguistics, London.

Tibeto-Burman Verb Inflection


The Verbal Complex

All verbs require the stem + an inflectional mood marker. In addition to this there are many other optional, derivational morphemes that may be used. These morphemes have a specific template to which the adhere.

Example of the verb template in Lamkang
verb template in Lamkang

Example structure of a verb from Meithei
diagram of a Meithei verb

As seen above, there are three levels of derivation.

Level 1 Derivation
8 suffixes, broken into two semantic classes:

  1. extent to with an agent/actor intends or desires to affect an object
  2. direction and manner in which an action is performed

Examples from Meithei

Category Suffix Meaning Gloss
Affect  -khay ‘totally affect’ TOTAF
  -thət ‘partially affect’ PARTAF
  -thek ‘affect with pressure’ PRESAF
  -hət ‘affect with undue psychological/
physical influence’
Direction -sin ‘V inward’ IN
  -thok ‘V outward’ OUT
  -thə ‘V downward’ DOWN
  -khət ‘V upward’ UP

phúbə           →           phúgay
phú-bə                        phú-gay-
beat-NOM                       beat-TOTAF-NOM
'to beat'                       'to beat until bones are broken'

Level 2 Derivation
16 suffixes, 10 categories
Order controlled by scope

Examples from Meithei

Category Suffix Meaning Gloss
1 -min ‘comitative’ TOGETHER
  -nə ‘reciprocal’ RECIP
2 -pi ‘V for someone other than self’ REC
  -čə ‘V for sake of self’ SELF
3 -hən ‘causative’ CAUS
4 -niŋ ‘wish to V’ WISH
5 -mən ‘V to excess’ EXCESS
  -kən ‘V habitually, repeatedly’ REPEAT
6 -həw ‘V in the nick of time’ START
  -khi ‘V ahead or behind expected time’ STILL
7 -ləm ‘indirect evidence’ EVD
8 -lə ‘proximal’ TDIR/PROX
  -lək ‘distal’ DISTAL
  -lu ‘action away from speaker’ ADIR
9 -tə ‘negative’ NEG
10 -lə ‘prospective aspect’ PRO

təwbəni           →           təwhənbəni
təw-pə-ni                       təw-hən-pə-ni
do-NOM-COP                     do-CAUS-NOM-COP
'(We) did the work.'       '(We) caused the work to be done.'

məhák layriksi parəmmí           →           məháknə layriksi pakhirəmmí 
mə-hák   layrik-si      pa-ləm-í                 mə-hák-nə      layrik-si       pa-khi-ləm-í
3-here     book-PDET  read-EVD-NHYP       3-here-CNTR    book-PDET  read-STILL-EVD-NHYP
'He read this book.'                                 'He read this book already.'

Level 3 Derivation
7 suffixes, 3 categories
No variable ordering

Examples from Meithei

Category Suffix Meaning Gloss
Mood 1 -kə ‘potential’ POT
  -loy ‘nonpotential’ NPOT
Mood 2 -tə ‘necessity’ NES
  -təw ‘obligation, probability’ OBLG
  -toy ‘intention’ INTEND
Aspect -li ‘progressive’ PROG
  -lə ‘perfect’ PERF

nóŋ čuroy           →           nóŋ čugəni
nóŋ  ču-loy                       nóŋ  ču-kə-ni
rain  fall-NPOT                   rain  fall-POT-COP
'It will not rain.'                 'It will rain (today).'

Verb Stem Alternation

In many Tibeto-Buran languages, the verb stem will alternate depending on the way the verb is used. In other words, there will be two forms of a single verb, with each form having a slightly different usage.

Here is an example of common meanings for the different verb stems.

Stem 1 Stem 2
independent clauses relative and subordinate clauses
agentive nominalizations other nominalizations
unmarked focus marked narrow focus
  causatives, benefactives, comitatives, and verbs with motion prefixes

Example of verb stem alternation in Lamkang

Stem 1 Stem 1 Gloss
di dit say
dom don carry (by cradling)
haap haa put
hang han go upward

Example of verb stem alternation in Falam Chin

Stem 1 Stem 2 Gloss
pe pek give
that thah kill
hmu hmuh see
nuam nawm be happy


Verb Conjugation

Example of a verb paradigm for the Lamkang verb 'to sleep'

Lamkang verb paradigm chart
Lamkang verb conjugation chart 

Example sentences demonstratning conjugated forms of 'to see' in Lamkang
     nei=yí    nàng        a-k-déé 
     I=AGT     you(SG)  2-1A-see(II) 
     ‘I see you.’ 

     nei=yí     mà     ∅-k-déé
     I=AGT      s/he   3P-1A-see(II) 
     ‘I see him/her.’ 

     nei=yí     nààn         a-k-dèè-ín
     I=AGT       you(NS)   2-1A-see(II)-NS
     ‘I see you (NS).’ 

     nei= yí   máán   ∅-k-dèè-lám
     I=AGT     they     3P-1A-see(II)-3.PL
     ‘I see them. 



Bedell, G. (2013). The Morphosyntax of Verb Stem Alternation. Payap University.

Chelliah, S., Peterson, D., Utt, T., Blair, E., & Khular, S. (2019). Lamkang verb conjugation. Himalayan Linguistics, 18(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.5070/H918143199 Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/7j96j72n

Ngun, T. (2016). Agreement and Verb Stem Alternation in Senthang Chin. Payap University.

Peterson, D. (2010). On the Structure of the Sumi Verbal Complex. Paper presented at the 43rd International Conference on Sino-Tibetan Languages and Linguistics, London.

Postpositionals and Directionals



Postpositions indication positional information about a noun and are added after the noun stem.

  • book-on
  • bottle-in
  • mountain-beside
  • house-on top of
  • bag-inside of
  • man-next to
  • house-at

Examples from Lamkang
     inn        dil’a
     house   behind
     ‘be behind the house’

     ava    cing    arlak          thang    va
     that    hill      between    on         dist    
     ‘between those hills 

     khu        khat    thu
     village    one    at/in    
     ‘at a village’

Postpositions can also be used to indicate possession.
     nupi-gi    layrik
     girl-of     book
     ‘the girl’s book’



In many Tibeto-Burman languages, such as Lamkang, directional information about a verb is a prefix added to the verb root. These directional prefixes are most commonly used with motion verbs, like 'walk', 'run', 'fly', etc.

Examples from Lamkang
     kaari   k-van-thou                               pluu
     car      SBJ:1.NPFV-HORIZ.PERM-drive  exiting across
     'I drove the car into (the tunnel)'

     k-hei-thou                       pthuu
     SBJ:1.NPFV-HORIZ-drive    emitting across
     'I drove (the car out of the tunnel)'

     'Climb up towards me!'

Social distance and proximity are significant in encoding movement between regional, national, and global spaces. Additionally, terrain (hilly vs. flat, etc.) can influence rules for motion verbs and directionals. The speaker can locate an entity, residence, or place of business on the same plane as self, higher than self, or lower than self. For example, in the diagram below if houses A and C were on the same plane but D is higher and B is lower, the motion verbs and directionals would differ for A to B vs. A to D and so on:
figure of houses to demonstrate Lamkang directionals



Chelliah, S. & Utt, T. (2017). The Syntax and Semantics of Spatial Reference in Lamkang Verb. Himalayan Linguistics. 16. 10.5070/H916130760.

Van Bik, K., and Thlasui T. (2017). Directional Pre-verbal Particles in Hakha Lai. Himalayan Linguistics 16.1 (http://escholarship.org/uc/item/26d535zr).

Semantic Role Marking and Information Structure


Role Marking and Semantic Roles

Role marking is when nouns have different forms based on their relationship to the verb. In the two most common types of marking patterns, the verb's transitivity is a key factor. Transitive verbs are those who take an Agent and Patient. The Agent affects the Patient, as in "Jack broke the glass". Intransitive verbs only take an Agent, and there is no Patient, as in "Jack sleeps."

Agent and Patient are what we call semantic roles. An Agent is typically animate and acts deliberately, on purpose, or intentionally. A Patient is also sometimes called an 'undergoer' because it undergoes the verb. In "Jack broke the glass", "Jack" is the Agent and "the class" is the Patient. There are also other types of undergoers, such as someone experiencing something, the location or source or something, etc.


Nominative-Accusative Marking Pattern

Subject = nominative case
Object = accusative case

Examples from English
     I saw him.
     He saw me.
     *Me saw he. (incorrect)
     I sleep.
     *Me sleep (incorrect)


Ergative-Absolutive Marking Pattern

Subject + transitive verb = absolutive
Subject + intransitive verb = ergative
Object = ergative

Examples from Dyirbal
     ŋuma bamaga-n'u
     father returned
     'Father returned'

     yabu bamaga-n'u
     mother returned
     'Mother returned'

     ŋuma yabu-ŋgu bura-n
     father mother     saw
     'Mother saw father'

     yabu    ŋuma-ŋgu bura-n
     mother father        saw
     'Father saw mother'


Differential Marking

Prominent arguments take overt marking.
Non-prominent arguments in the same roles take zero marking.
Prominence is determined by opposing values for animacy, definiteness, volitionally, and kinesis.

Tibeto-Burman Examples

Example of -pu to marking specific patient in Meithei
     niŋthəw‑tu‑nə       jenrəl‑tu-pu               lan‑mí‑təgi       tók‑hən‑khi‑rə‑e.
     king‑DDET‑AGN    general‑DDET-PAT      war‑man‑ABL    stop‑CAUS-STILL-PERF-ASRT
     'The king had that general dismissed from the army.'

Example of -nə to mark noteworthy agentiveness in Meithei
     ə́‑čaw‑bə            layrík‑tu-nə            lum‑í
     ATT‑big‑NOM        book‑DDET‑AGN     heavy‑NHYP
     ‘The big book is heavy (the others are not).’

Example of differential marking in Lhasa Tibetan
     Lopsang-gis      lug        cig   bsad-song
     Lopsang-AGT     sheep   a      kill-PERF
     'Lopsang killed a sheep.'

Examples from Lamkang

       Khuu       thung ki       lu      mo
       village     from   GEN  it.is   INT
       “Is it from the village?”
      ding  arnaa   rek-ka   ding    tun      ki       txhaal      thuh   ktxuu (lu).
      tree   leaves PL-Pat   tree    from    GEN     autumn   in      fall
     “The leaves fall from trees in autumn.”

      Raam-(ma)  mpooi       ktham.
      Ram – (DAT) stomach   3A.feel
      “Ram is hungry.”
      ding   arnaa    rek-ka   ding    tun      ki       txhaal      thuh ktxuu (lu).
      tree    leaves   PL-PAT  tree     from    GEN  autumn    in     fall 
      “The leaves fall from trees in autumn.”
      Tomba   ngi     ding - 'a   teebal   t    -   p   -   laan     da          duul    da.
      Tomba   INST    tree’-PAT  table    INV-CAUS-cross       3A.PFV    slide   3A.PFV
      “Tomba slid the wood across the table.”
      Nei -yi          Jared(ta)      toom  hin    ki          ruung nu.
      1.SG-INST     Jared-(PAT)   bear   to      GEN      1A.PFV
      “I have protected Jared from the bear.”



Chelliah, S. (2017, June 15). Ergativity in Tibeto-Burman. Retrieved July 28, 2020, from https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198739371.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780198739371-e-38

Coupe, Alec. (2020). Case Marking Systems in Tibeto-Burman Languages and their Diachronic Development at International Webinar on Languages of North East India org. by Centre for Naga Tribal Language Studies (CNTLS), Nagaland University. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/miiBasvOYDo.

Mathias, J. & San, T. (2013). Differential subject marking without ergativity: The case of colloquial Burmese. Studies in Language. 37. 10.1075/sl.37.4.01jen. 

Zeisler, B. (2012). Practical issues of pragmatic case marking variations in the Kenhat varieties of Ladakh. Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman area, 35, 75.

Topic, Focus, Definiteness, Demonstratives


Topic and Focus

Topicalization can be syntactic but topics can also be identified with topical morphemes.

Example of topic marker in Lamkang
        Nao-'a     klee('a).
        boy-TOP   play
       “The boy is playing.”

        Nao - 'a    moot        mchaak
        boy-TOP   banana    3A-eat
       “The boy ate a banana.”

Similar to topic, focus can be drawn to a spcific constituent using a focus marker.

Examples of focus marking
focus marking and glossfocus marking and gloss


Definiteness is connected to the familiarity or identifiabiliy of a referent. In English this is often expressed with articles -- "a linguist" vs. "the linguist". In some Tibeto-Burman languages, such as Hakha Chin, definitey articles can correspond to strong and weak definiteness.

Example of the definite article cu in Hakha Chin (marks strong definiteness as uniqueness based on anaphoric discourse familiarity)
Example of the definite article cu in Hakha Chin

Example of the definite article kha in Hakha Chin (marks weak definiteness as uniqueness based on situational conditions)
Example of the definite article kha in Hakha Chin



Demonstratives can often be pre-nominal and post-nominal. This will depend on the language, the demonstrative in question, and its intended use.

Examples of the demonstratives hi, kha, and khi from Hakha Chin

demonstratives in Hakha Chin with English Glossdemonstratives in Hakha Chin with English Gloss


Wamsley, J. (2019). Demonstratives in the Noun Phrase Structure of Hakha Chin. Indiana Working Papers in South Asian Languages and Cultures. 1(1), 1-17.