Trans-Himalayan Database

The Trans-Himalayan Database is a research programme at Bern University for the study of the phylogeny of the Trans-Himalayan linguistic phylum and the identification of historical linguistic evidence for the determination of subgrouping. Students and researchers based in Bern are involved in the systematic reconstruction of the Trans-Himalayan proto-language.


Trans-Himalayan is the world’s second most populous language family, straddling the Himalayas along the northern and southern flanks. The Trans-Himalayan linguistic phylum has been known by various names since it was first recognised in 1823, such as Tibeto-Burman, Sino-Himalayan, Indo-Chinese, Sino-Tibetan and Sino-Kiranti, each presuming a different model of phylogenetic relationship.

The database has a flexible hierarchy and operates on the basis of Julius van Klaproth’s original 1823 theory of a Tibeto-Burman language family. In contrast to the many false family trees which have been proposed over the course of time, this agnostic model effectively represents the default hypothesis and provides the optimal starting point for testing alternative models of family tree structure and competing hypotheses about subgrouping relationships.


Naturally more Trans-Himalayan languages and linguistic subgroups are known today than were known back in 1823. The evolving state of our knowledge is captured in the Fallen Leaves model, which undergoes periodic modification to accommodate advancements in the state of our knowledge. Depicted here are the linguistic subgroups in the 2012 version of the Fallen Leaves model.


The rGyalrongic subgroup was proposed and validated by Jackson Sun 孫天心 in 2000. Evidence for Siangic was presented by Mark Post and Roger Blench (2011). The Ersuish subgroup is identified by Dominique Yu (2011). Naic is identified by Guillaume Jacques and Alexis Michaud (2001), who propose that rGyalrongic, Qiāngic, Ěrsūish and Nàic could together form a higher-order subgroup called Nà-Qiāngic.

The Fallen Leaves model does not deny the existence of a family tree. Rather, its agnostic stance with regard to higher-order subgrouping provides the best frame of reference for ascertaining the structure of the Trans-Himalayan tree by historical linguistic methods. Fallen Leaves readily incorporates new insights and accommodates phylogenetic rearrangements of subgrouping and so evolves to reflect our growing understanding of linguistic phylogeny.