In this lecture we discuss the reconstruction of Proto Mon, and the development of Modern Mon and Nyah Kur.

The Monic Branch

The Monic branch consists of two languages, Mon and Nyah Kur, spoken today by minorities in Myanmar and Thailand. These communities are the remnants of the great civilisation of Dvaravati (< Sanskrit "which has gates" [Diffloth 1984:2]) that flourished in central and northeastern Thailand from the 6th to the 9th centuries, the language revealed by inscriptions that include the name of the kingdom. Dvaravati was characterised by moated cities, Theravada Buddhism, and a great artistic tradition. They used a script that is essentially the Pallava system, derived from the Ashokan Brahmi that also produced the Devanagari used for writing Sanskrit. The Dvaravati scribes used this system to write Sanskrit, Pali and Old Mon, preserved today in monumental inscription and on coins.

Dvaravati society abruptly disappears from history as it is overrun by the Khmers, and later colonised by the Thais, who absorbed much of the Old Mon culture into their own. The extent and importance of the Mon cultural accomplishment is only appreciated now-a-days thanks to the efforts of 20th century archaeologists, historians and linguists.

Although there is an abrupt end to Dvaravati inscriptions in central Thailand, from the 11th century Mon inscriptions begin to appear in Lower Burma. It appears that refugees from the the collapse of Dvaravati re-established themselves in Burma, firstly at Thaton and later at Pegu, where Mon civilization continues down to the present day, although now politically dominated by Burmese. Europeans' first contacts in Burma were with Pegu, and early descriptions of the language refer to it as "Peguan" (e.g. Haswell 1874, Stevens 1896), others call it "Talaing". From the 16th century onward the Peguan Mons were caught up is the rivalry between the Burmans and the Thais, causing many to emigrate into Thailand, where they live today as another minority community.

However, the Monic people who remained in central Thailand were not completely extinguished or absorbed with the end Dvaravati, and to this day their descendents still constitute a distinct ethnos and language, the Nyah Kur. The Nyah Kur language was identified by researchers as a distinct variety of Mon-Khmer speech in the early 20th century, but only recognised as having a special relationship with Mon when Thomas & Headley (1970) did their landmark lexicostatistical classification of MK language groups.

The Nyah Kur live along a roughly north-south strip that separates the central and northeastern plains of Thailand — historically a forested zone not so suitable for cultivation, so they were basically left to themselves by the conquering Thais. Outwardly there is little but their language to distinguish them from other Thai villagers, and they have no tradition of being related to the Mon or descended from Dvaravati. Instead they simply identify as being the original inhabitants of their forest region, as their self-designation [ñah kur] 'people (of the) forest/hills' descriptively captures.

The Nyah Kur language has no written tradition, and it is different enough from Mon to be classified as distinct, rather than a variant or dialect of Modern Mon. In fact the differences are so great, and have such specific characteristics, that they must have separated during the time of the Dvaravati Old Mon language, according to Diffloth (1984:29) such that the comparative reconstruction based upon Mon and Nyah Kur yields the same language as that attested in the Dvaravati Old Mon inscriptions.

The Old Mon Dvaravati / Proto Monic Language

Using the inscriptional materials, comparison of written and Modern spoken Mon, Nyah Kur, and the evidence of borrowings from and into neighbouring languages, it is possible to make a fairly complete and accurate reconstruction of Dvaravati Old Mon or Proto Monic (as the comparative reconstruction is more properly called), and two scholars have done this, Ferlus (1983) and Diffloth (1984), both reaching similar results. The following summary of Proto Monic can be offered:

The initial consonants were as follows:

Proto-Monic Initial Consonants

Note that we have the very typical MK feature of labial and apical imploded stops, which in this case appear to be etymological. In the Dvararvati script special signs were used to distinguish these from the other oral stops, and their reflexes in Mon today are still imploded.

Initial clusters of stop+liquid/glide were common. In addition word onsets consisting of stop+nasal and stop+nasal/liquid+nasal/liquid/glide, many formed by affixation, also existed and were presumably syllabified to form minorsyllables. The subsequent simplification of these clustered onsets, in various ways, plays a major role in the development of the languages and their special phonological characteristics.

Proto Monic vowels are reconstructable, but the system has many asymmetries, as the vowels pattern differently according to the final consonant, and it is possible is such circumstances to offer a variety of analyses. The explain this more clearly I have tabled the Old Mon rimes reconstructed by Diffloth (1984:299) below, reorganised to show the patterning:

Proto-Monic rimes (according to Diffloth 1984)

Of itself the vowel inventory underlying the above is typical for a conservative MK language, and thus typologically reasonable, even though many possible rimes do not occur (or at least are not reconstructed). For example, the relative infrequency of front vowels is not particularly unusual, and thus is not in itself a reason to question the reconstruction. However, the comparative and epigraphic evidence is open to some interpretation.

The reconstruction of Proto Monic vocalism by Ferlus (1982) is superficially different, especially if we simply compare the total inventory:

Proto-Monic vowels (according to Ferlus 1982)

Ferlus' *uo corresponds directly to Diffloth's *oo, which is effectively a notational difference only. More striking is Ferlus' treatment of *ɛɛ/*ia and *ɔɔ/*ua, which include systemic and epigraphic considerations. Most obviously, even seen in Diffloth's data, *ɛɛ and *ia are in complementary distribution (the former in open syllables, the latter in closed) a fact that actually prevails in many MK languages, and strongly suggests an historical relationship between the two. In this case the reconstruction is based upon the Nyah Kur reflexes, which are [ia] or [iɛ], while in Written Mon they are <e>, which is typically diphthongised to [ea] or [ɛa] in Modern Spoken Mon. Ferlus' analysis is to admit the possibility (without taking sides) that the two sounds reflect a single phoneme, which the Old Mon scribes more or less correctly wrote as <e>. Diffloth on the other hand prefers to separate the two, and to clinch his argumentation cites two etyma, *t[l]mb[ɛɛ/aa]t 'flattened' and *k[ ]/ɛɛm 'clear one's throat' as establishing, at least marginally, a phonemic contrast. It is obvious that both etyma are problematic — the phonology of the vowel of the former is questionable, while the latter is clearly imitative, and does not belong to the core phonology.

The analysis of *ɔɔ/*ua is similarly problematic. The two sounds are also in complementary distribution, and this time the patterning is more complex -*ɔɔ occurs before labials, velars and glottals while *ua occurs before apicals and palatals. Nyah Kur reflexes are the model for Diffloth's reconstruction, while Written Mon tends to indicate <o> or <wo>.

The problem in these cases revolves around whether these distributions are the result of phonetic mergers or splits, i.e. did *ia and*ɛɛ both exist in closed syllables, and then*ɛɛ diphthonged and merged with*ia? We cannot answer without an even deeper level of comparative reconstruction. Almost exactly this same issue presents itself in Bahnaric and other MK sub-groups.

On balance, when the differences of approach are taken into account, the Proto Mon reconstructions of Ferlus and Diffloth are underlyingly compatible.

The subsequent development of Monic phonology

After the loss of Dvaravati and the separation of the Monic peoples into Early Mon and Early Nyah Kur linguistic communities, independent parallel phonological developments took place. In Early Mon the voiced stops became devoiced and merged with the voiceless series, while in Early Nyah Kur the voiced stops devoiced and became aspirated, merging with the aspirated series. Compare the following examples from Diffloth (1984:335):

As happened in Khmer, there developed a contrast between breathy and clear vowels, the former following voiced initials, although initial clusters with voiceless stops in them blocked the spread of breathy phonation to vowels. Once vowels became breathy, and voiced stops had devoiced, breathiness became phonemic. This can be diagrammed as follows:

In Mon and Nyah Kur this 'register' distinction continues to the present day, and both languages agree in register for almost all words, although the vowels themselves have developed in different ways. These facts suggests that breathy phonation developed in Old Mon times, but did not become phonologically important until after the break up of the linguistic community.

Subsequently in Mon the length contrast was lost, and there was extensive diphthongisation, particularly a lowering of the onsets of high vowels in clear voice, and a raising of the onsets of low vowels in breathy voice, consistent with the overall trend for clear vowels to be lower than breathy vowels. The exactly developments vary according to the different rimes, and I offer a partial illustration with the example of rimes with final glottal stop:

Early Mon > Modern Spoken Mon

Diffloth has coined the term 'vowel warping' for this diphthongisation, which sometimes created vowels with not just two but three or even four audibly distinct vowel targets. However, I don't believe that we need to distinguish this phenomenon with a new term, as traditional terms such as diphthongisation or 'vowel breaking' surely include these types of developments which are after all rather normal for languages with large vowel systems, not just Mon-Khmer.

In Nyah Kur the length distinction was maintained, and the formation of diphthongs was not as extensive as in Mon, in fact as we discussed above, Nyah Kur vocalism can be analysed as very conservative if we accept that it faithfully reflects Proto Mon diphthongs, with the only real change being the development of breathy phonation. Ferlus records the vowels of Chayaphum Nyah Kur as follows:

Nyah Kur vowels (Ferlus 1982)

With each of the above pronounced with breather or clear register. Compared to Proto Mon the inventory is expanded somewhat by loans from Thai and Khmer. Generally the vowels agree remarkably well with the reading suggested by Old Mon inscriptions.

More dramatic have been the simplifications and mergers in the clusters of initial consonants, which have gone well beyond the loss of voice distinction in stops.

In Mon and Nyah Kur there is considerable simplification of Cl/r clusters:

And very different outcomes of C+/ onsets:

Three consonant onsets evidence massive simplification in Mon. e.g.:

And many other examples of simplification of initials could be extracted from the published data. According to Diffloth, in some dialects of Mon now only two minorsyllables are possible, ʔə and , a far cry from the more than fifty attested in Old Mon.

References & further reading

  • Bauer, C. 1982 Morphology and Syntax of Spoken Mon. PhD Dissertation, University of London. 29, 585 pp.
  • Blagden, C.0. 1940. Certain words of Pegu language. Journal of the Burma Research Society, 30. Rangoon
  • Coédès, G. 1964. Les Môns de Dvâravatî. Esseys offered to G.H. Luce, Artibus Asiae 2: 112-7, Ascona
  • Diffloth, G. 1984. The Dvaravati Old-Mon language and Nyah Kur. Chulalongkorn University Printing House, Bangkok.
  • Dupont, P. 1959. L'archéologie Mône de Dvâravatî. Publications de I'Ecole Française d'Extréme-Orient 41. Paris
  • Ferlus, M. 1983. Essai de phonétique historique du Môn. Mon-Khmer Studies 15: 1-90
  • Halliday, R. 1917. The Talaings. Governement Press, Rangoon
  • Halliday, R. 1922. A Mon-English Dictionary. Siam Society, Bangkok; reprinted in 1955 by the Mon Cultural Section, Ministry of Union Culture, Government of the Union of Burma, Rangoon.
  • Halliday, R. 1930. Les inscriptions Môn du Siam. Bulletin de I'Ecole Française d'Extrême-Orient 30: 81-105, Paris
  • Haswell, J.M. 1874. Grammatical notes and vocabulary of the Peguan language. American Baptist Press, Rangoon. 2nd edition: 1901
  • Huffman, F.E. 1990. "Burmese Mon, Thai Mon and Nyah Kur: a synchronic comparison" Mon-Khmer studies 16-17, pp. 31-64
  • Sakemoto, Y. 1976. Mon vocabulary (in Japanese). Institute for research on the languages of Asia and Africa, Tokyo University of foreign languages, Tokyo.
  • Sakemoto, Y. 1994. Mon-Japanese Dictionary. Study of languages and cultures of Asia and Africa, Monograph series No.29. Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. Tokyo. 1219 pp.
  • Shorto, H.L. 1962. A Dictionary of Modern spoken Mon. London, Oxford University Press.
  • Shorto, H.L. 1965. The interpretation of archaic writing systems, illustrated by the analysis of the phonological systems in early Mon dialects. Indo-Pacific Linguistic Studies 1: 98-97
  • Shorto, H.L. 1966. Mon vowels, a problem in phonological statement" in C.E. Bazell et al. In Memory of J. R. Firth. London, Longmans.
  • Shorto, H.L. 1971. A Dictionary of the Mon inscriptions from the sixth to the sixteenth centuries, incorporating materials collected by the late C. 0. Blagden. London Oriental Series, 24. Oxford University Press, London, 406 pp.
  • Stevens, E. 0., 1896. A Vocabulary, English and Peguan, to which are added a few pages of geographical names. Rangoon, American Baptist Mission Press
  • Thongkum, Theraphan L. 1984. Nyah Kur (Chao Bon) - Thai - English Dictionary. Bangkok, Chulalongkorn University Printing House.

Jump back to Mon-Khmer Languages Page & lecture index

Copyleft Paul Sidwell.
Last updated Sept. 2006.
This text was prepared for teaching purposes: it may be freely downloaded, and/or reproduced with appropriate author citation, on condition that any document prepared with the benefit of this text is similarly made freely available.

The Australian National University CRICOS Provider Number is 00120C