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Pre-history of the Sino-Tibetan languages: the sound laws relating Old Burmese, Old Chinese, and Old Tibetan

Pre-history of the Sino-Tibetan languages: the sound laws relating Old Burmese, Old Chinese, and Old Tibetan

Dr Nathan Hill’s British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship project.

Africa, Asia and Middle East • Research Funding

British Academy Postdoctoral FellowshipBurmese script


The award

Dr Nathan Hill was awarded £243,246 to undertake his Fellowship at the School of Oriental and African Studies between 2011 and 2014.

The project

During his Postdoctoral Fellowship Dr Hill investigated the prehistoric language from which Burmese, Chinese and Tibetan descend. His Fellowship allowed him to travel to Burma for advanced language training and provided the time to write his monograph ‘The historical phonology of Tibetan, Burmese and Chinese’, which provides the first reconstruction of the ancestor of these languages, using the techniques honed in the study of Latin, Greek and Sanskrit.

Our funding

The Academy’s funding provided Dr Hill with the opportunity to spend three years dedicated to his research project within the department of Linguistics at SOAS, with minimal time focused on teaching or administrative duties. The primary emphasis of the scheme is to improve an award holder’s prospects of obtaining a permanent lecturing post by the end of the Fellowship, chiefly through the completion of a significant piece of publishable research.


Dr Hill’s project led to the discovery of several dozen previously unknown sound laws, allowing researchers to discuss the relationship of these three languages with greater rigor. In turn, this research has also illuminated the world and worldview of the ancient people who spoke this lost language. In addition to his monograph (currently under discussion with Cambridge University Press), Dr Hill also published ten journal articles and was invited to speak about his research at numerous institutions in the UK, Europe and the US.

His strong publication record has resulted in a number of editorial roles for academic journals. In 2013, in addition to taking up a permanent academic post at SOAS, Dr Hill was also honoured as one of his field’s leading young scholars by the Li Fang-Kuei Society for Chinese Linguistics. In 2014, together with colleagues at the British Museum and British Library, he was awarded a £7m Synergy Grant by the European Research Council to explore the interlocking kingdoms in Asia and their interactions between South, South East and Central Asia.