This paper reports on the themes and variations in the northern tier of SW Tai languages found in Myanmar and to a lesser extent that found in adjoining areas of China.1 The term northern tier of SW Tai was used in Edmondson and Solnit 1997 to describe those languages whose historical lineage goes through the root of Tai settlements on the Shweli River between Myanmar and China as early as the 6th c. and who then began to expand to the west, south, and north, reaching a high point of migration in the 13th c. The analysis to be presented below will investigate how contemporary linguistic data can help determine the various subgroups within the northern tier languages and, at the same time, my analysis will contrast northern tier languages to those from a few nearby SW Tai groups, which in regard to history, culture, and in the eyes of the speakers themselves, are regarded as not belonging to northern tier language. I will claim that none of these non-northern tier groups participates in the same polylectal, historical, cultural, and social lineage descended from the Shweli culture of the 13th century I call Shan. If one is trying to determine who belongs to the Shan and how non-Shan languages of the area differ, then the autonym is not helpful, as all these people call themselves simply Tai plus some modifier designating a geographic places or a distinctive feature. The exonym for the people and language, Shan, has become more distinctive, as this is the term used by the Burmese ¶Srf; and Chinese ᦌ shàn ‘an old name for a group associated with contemporary Dai people of Yunnan’ to refer to just these groups. In English as well, Shan has specialized to refer to the Tai groups of Burma and western China, since Cushing’s dictionary and handbook (1888a and 1888b). As for the subgroupings within
Shan, this present work must be considered a first step as much greater bodies of linguistic data, information from local monasteries and archives, and social history of the Shan in various places would be required. I begin this task by discussing where the data for this paper were collected.