Katuic is a large and complex branch of the Mon-Khmer family - around 15 distinct languages are spoken by more than a million people living in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. However, the vast majority (maybe a million) of Katuic speakers belong to the Kui-Bru ('West Katuic') subgroup, living mostly in eastern Thailand and Cambodia. The greatest diversity of Katuic languages lies in the Salavan and Sekong provinces of Laos and adjacent border areas of Vietnam, where the patchwork of ethnic communities also includes Bahnaric and Tai groups.

The historical investigation of Katuic languages already has quite a tradition, although there has been a lack of coordination between researchers, and published results conflict markedly. Proto-Katuic reconstructions presented include:

  • Thomas, Dorothy. 1967. A phonological reconstruction of Proto East Katuic. MA thesis, University of North Dakota, SIL microfiche publications.
  • Efimov, Aleksandr. 1983. A phonological reconstruction of Proto Katuic (in Russian). PhD thesis, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Moscow.
  • Diffloth, Gérard. 1982. Registres, dévoisement, timbres vocaliques: leur histoire en Katouique. Mon-Khmer Studies 11:47-82.
  • Peiros, Ilia. 1996. Katuic Comparative Dictionary. Pacific Linguistics Series C-132. Canberra, Australian National University.
  • Thongkum, Theraphan. 2001. Languages of the Tribes in Xekong Province Southern Laos. The Thailand Research Fund.
  • Sidwell, Paul. 2005. Katuic Languages: classification, reconstruction and comparative lexicon. Munich, LINCOM.

Until the 1960's there was no conception in western scholarship of a distinct Katuic branch of MK. Then Thomas (1966) and Thomas & Headley (1970) reported lexicostatistical investigations of Mon-Khmer identified 10 coordinate branches sharing between 20% and 30% of basic vocabulary. These investigations revealed (amongst other things) a grouping of languages which we identify with the term Katuic.

Thomas & Headley (1970) offered the following numbered list of Katuic languages (original spellings):

  1. Katu
  2. Kantu, High Katu
  3. Phu'ang (Hu'u River Vân Kiêu)
  4. Bru (Leu, Qangtri Vân Kiêu, Galler, Makong, Tri)
  5. Pacoh (Bô River Vân Kiêu)
  6. Ta'oih
  7. Ngeq, Nkriang
  8. Kataang
  9. Kuy
  10. Lor, Klor
  11. Leun
  12. Ir
  13. Tong
  14. Souei
  15. So
  16. Alak
  17. Kasseng, Talieng
Map of Katuic Languages

The last two in the list, Alak and Kasseng/Talieng, are actually Bahnaric languages, but this was not clear at the time due to lack of data. In terms of internal classification, they remarked that Katu appears to be isolated within Katuic, and suggested a north-south division (Katu = South Katuic, the rest = North Katuic). This lexicostatistical analysis was the basis of the classification offered by Diffloth in his 1974 Encyclopedia Britannica entry, which was subsequently widely cited.

At the time that Thomas & Headley were making their study, the extent of the Katuic family was not well documented. The very populous lowland languages such as Kui and Bru were already known from Thailand, and details of more isolated montagnards such as the Katu and Pacoh were emerging from field work conducted from (then) South Vietnam by scholars such as Nancy Costello and Richard Watson. But the zone in between that lies in the mountainous areas of Laos, traversed by the Ho Chi Minh Trail, was very much out of bounds. Many of the named languages were simply taken from in colonial sources and the Lao administrative designations, but the sheer lack of accurate linguistic data meant that speculation and guesswork still informed the language classification.

One effect of having incomplete data was that until recently the best documented Katuic languages were not particularly representative of the family, and various attempts at genetic classification and historical reconstruction were therefore skewed. For example, thanks to the excellent descriptive work of Thai scholars substantial dictionaries of Kui (Sriwises 1978) and Bru (L-Thongkum & Puengpa 1980) were published, and these heavily informed the classification and reconstruction of Peiros (1996). However, these languages are actually the most phonologically innovative of the entire family, and have also taken in numerous Khmer and Thai borrowings, and as a result, his Proto Katuic resembles Khmerisised Bru more than it does any of the more conservative Katuic languages (such as Katu). The somewhat simpler phonology of other Katuic languages was treated as resulting from historical mergers, and Peiros (1996:v) wrote: "The phonological correspondences do not provide any information that helps in classifying the languages" and on the basis of lexicostatistics a simple family tree with 2 branches was offered:

  • Katu
  • Kui, Bru, Pacoh

The earlier classification of Ferlus (1974b) and Diffloth (1982) was already much better, as it was based upon the recognition of the Kui-Bru group as innovative. The scheme divides the family into two subgroups as follows:

  • East Katuic: Katu, Kantu, Phuong, Pacoh, Ta'Oi, Kriang etc.
  • West Katuic: Kui, Souei, Bru, So

Miller & Miller 1996 presented a major lexicostatistical study, comparing 50 Katuic word lists. Their classification identifies seven groups as follows:

  • Katuic North Katuic: So, Bru, Tri, Makong/Mangkong, Siliq, Katang
  • West Katuic: Sui/Suoi/Suai, Nheu, Kui, Kuay
  • Pacoh
  • Central Katuic: Ong, Ir
  • Ngeq
  • Katu (Laos)
  • Katu (Vietnam)

It is only since the Lao PDR opened up to internal travel and research cooperation that much better data has become available, and a more balanced account of the Katuic family is possible. The most important step in this direction came with the publication in 2000 of Thongkum's Languages of the Tribes in Xekong Province Southern Laos, which provides extensive and accurate lexical data for the under-documented Katuic languages of Laos, including Chatong, Dakkang, Triw and Kantu. Thongkum does include a classification and Proto Katuic reconstruction, but ironically the latter is skewed towards the Ta'Oi-Kriang subgroup which her work now marvelously reveals (and like Peiros, assumes that the complexity of the subgroup in focus is representative of Proto Katuic).

Thongkum's classification includes a basic West-East division. However, she actually splits 'West-Katuic', placing Bru and So into her North Central subgroup, creating the following scheme:

  • West Katuic: Kui, Souei
  • North East Katuic: Bru, So, Pacoh
  • Central East Katuic: Ta'Oi, Chatong, Kriang
  • South East Katuic: Dakkang, Triw, Kantu, Katu

This classification is based upon the distribution of various lexical and phonological isoglosses, rather than a proper reconstruction, and the result is basically geographical rather than genetic.

I have synthesised the comparative data of the works mentioned above with the aim of producing a comprehensive and representative classification and reconstruction of the Katuic family (and I now have a book length ms. ready for publication). The results of my analysis indicate that Katuic is properly divided into four coordinate subgroups, based upon the patterning and sequencing of phonological innovations. Contra the view of Peiros, which is based upon the narrow idea that complexity indicates archaism, I find that the Katuic languages are generally and ingeniously innovative in their phonologies. It is possible to identify a number of sound changes which cannot be strictly ordered, but overlay in a complex pattern of isoglosses that indicate four distinct dialect areas underlying the breakup of Proto Katuic. These results essentially confirm that Ferlus (1974b) and Diffloth (1982) were correct in identifying a fundamental east-west division, but inadequate data perhaps stopped them from going further and recognising that sub-groupings within the 'West-Katuic' languages are as fundamental as the east-west divide.

The pattern of correspondences justifying this new classification can be partly illustrated in the following table, taken from Sidwel (2005). West Katuic data is not included. Various distinctive developments of Pacoh vocalism are clear. Ta'Oi and Katu subgroups are underlyingly very similar in their vocalism, but differ in other ways, especially in respect of Katu uniquely retaining *voiced stops.

Admitting more languages and etymologies into the analysis we can fill out the classification, identifying four groups as follows:

  1. Pacoh
  2. Katu, Kantu, Phuong, Dakkang, Triw
  3. Ta-oi, Talan/Ong/Ir, Chatong, Ngeq/Kriang
  4. Kui, Souei, Bru, So

Henceforth I will refer to these subgroups with the following designations: Pacoh subgroup, Katu subgroup, Ta'Oi-Kriang subgroup, Kui-Bru subgroup

Katuic Registers
Among Katuic languages three systems of voice quality (register) have independently developed:

Kuy-Bru: In Kuy-Bru the developments followed the Khmer model, with all vowels splitting into breathy vs. clear series after voiced and voiceless initials, along with extensive diphthongisation. The result is a very complex vowel inventory: in the case of Bru 22 monophthongs and 5 diphthongs occur in both breathy and clear registers, allowing for some asymmetries there are still more than 40 distinct vowels.

Pacoh: In Pacoh there is a distinction of tense and lax specifically among the mid-vowels and diphthongs. The system is structurally similar to the North Bahnaric registers, and probably has a similar origin. The inventory of vowels can be diagrammed as follows:

The voice quality is not connected with the sonority of initial consonants, instead it appears to have developed directly out of the vowel system as non-high vowels tend to towards tense/creaky phonation, and vowel quality shifts increased the salience of voice quality.

Ong/Talan: Various dialects of Ta'Oi contrast a glottalisation of vowels which is realised as a weak glottal stop during or towards the end long vowels in both open and closed syllables. Ferlus (1974c) discussed this in respect of Ong, and Diffloth (1989) in respect of Talan. I have compared their lexicons of these named dialects, and allowing for notational differences they appear to agree completely, so that they are the same language. Ferlus in his unpublished fieldnotes also occasionally marks the same glottalisation in Katang forms, but the significance of this is not clear - Katang as evidenced from the data available to me and my own field impressions is a Bru dialect, however Katang speakers do live amongst Ta'Oi people around Salavan and mutual influences are strong.

The origins of the Ong/Talan glottal register are obscure still, and it may yet turn out to be very ancient. Diffloth (1989) suggested that is reflects a Proto-Austroasiatic creaky voice. The latter is problematic because there is no regular correspondence between the occurrence of this feature in Ong/Talan and cognate vocabulary in other MK languages. Also glottalised rimes are found in innovated lexicon, including Katuic innovations and borrowings from Lao and Khmer. The full details of the historical processes involved remain obscure until more detailed is done and we can offer an account for these facts.


References and further reading

  • Alves, Mark. 2001. A Pacoh Analytic Grammar. PhD thesis, University of Hawai'i.
  • Chazée, Laurent. 1999. The Peoples of laos: rural and ethnic diversities. Bangkok, White Lotus.
  • Costello, Nancy A. 1966. Affixes in Katu. Mon-Khmer Studies 1:63-86.
  • Costello, Nancy A. 1971. Katu vocabulary. Vietnam Montagnard Language Series 5. Saigon, Department of Education (Summer Institute of Linguistics Dallas Microfiche).
  • Costello, Nancy A. 1991. Katu Dictionary (Katu-Vietnamese-English). Dallas, Summer Institute of Linguistics.
  • Cubuat and Richard Watson. 1976. Pacoh language lessons. Huntington Beach California, Summer Institute of Linguistics.
  • Diffloth, Gérard. 1974. Austro-Asiatic Languages. Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  • Chicago/London/Toronto/Geneva, Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. pp 480-484.
  • Diffloth, Gérard. 1976a. Mon-Khmer Numerals in Aslian Languages. Linguistics Special Publication 174:31-38.
  • Diffloth, Gérard. 1982. Registres, dévoisement, timbres vocaliques: leur histoire en Katouique. Mon-Khmer Studies 11:47-82.
  • Diffloth, Gérard. 1989. Proto-Austroasiatic Creaky Voice. Mon-Khmer Studies 15:139-154.
  • Efimov, Aleksandr. 1983. A phonological reconstruction of Proto Katuic (in Russian). PhD thesis, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Moscow.
  • Ferlus, Michel. 1972. Note sur les dialectes austroasiens du sud-Laos. Asie du Sud-Est et Monde Insulindien, 3.2: 35-41.
  • Ferlus, Michel. 1974a. Delimitation des groupes linguistiques austroasiatiques dans le centre indochinois. Asie du Sud-Est et Monde Insulindien 5.1:15-23.
  • Ferlus, Michel. 1974b. Lexique souei-français. Asie du Sud-Est et Monde Insulindien 5.1: 141-159.
  • Ferlus, Michel. 1974c. La langue Ong, mutations consonantiques et transphonoloisations.. Asie du Sud-Est et Monde Insulindien 5.1: 24-38.
  • Gainey, Jerry. 1985. A Comparative Study of Kui, Bruu and So Phonology from a Genetic Point of View. Masters Thesis, Chulalongkorn University.
  • Gregerson, Kenneth. 1976. Tongue-root and Register in Mon-Khmer. In Jenner et al. (1976a), pp 323-370.
  • Huffman, Franklin E. 1985. Vowel Permutations in Austroasiatic Languages. Linguistics of the Sino-Tibetan Area: The State of the Art. Pacific Linguistics Series C-No.87. Canberra: Australian National University, pp141-45.
  • Jenner, Philip N., Laurence Thompson and Stanley Starosta (eds.). 1976a. Austroasiatic Studies, Volume 1. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  • Jenner, Philip N., Laurence Thompson and Stanley Starosta (eds.). 1976b. Austroasiatic Studies, Volume 2. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  • Thongkum, Theraphan. 2000. Languages of the Tribes in Xekong Province Southern Laos. The Thailand Reseach Fund.
  • Miller, Carolyn and Nuan. 1974. Bru language lessons. Trilingual Language Lessons, No.13, part 2. Manila, Summer Institute of Linguistics.
  • Miller, Carolyn. 1964. The substantive phrase in Brôu. Mon-Khmer Studies 1: 63-80.
  • Miller, John & Caroline Miller. 1996. Lexical Comparison of Katuic Mon-Khmer languages with special focus on Su-Bru group in Northeast Thailand. Mon-Khmer Studies 26:255-290.
  • Miller, John and Carolyn Miller. 1996. Lexical comparison of Katuic Mon-Khmer languages with special focus on So-Bru groups in Northeast Thailand. Mon-Khmer Studies 26:255-290.
  • Miller, John. 1964. Word classes in Brôu. Mon-Khmer Studies 1: 41-62.
  • Nguyên, Hu'u Hoành. 1995. Katu Language Word Formation. Data Papers on Minority Languages of Vietnam: Hanoi-Leiden Series, Hanoi.
  • Parkin, Robert. 1991. A Guide to Austroasiatic Speakers and Their Languages. Oceanic Linguistics Special Publications No.23. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press.
  • Peiros, Ilia. 1996. Katuic Comparative Dictionary. Pacific Linguistics Series C-132. Canberra, Australian National University.
  • Piat, Martine. 1962. Quelques correspondances entre le Khmer et le Bru, langue montagnard du Centre Vietnam. Bulletin de la Société des Études Indochinoises, 37: 311-323.
  • Prachakij-karacak, Praya. 1995. Some Languages of Siam. Translated and annotated by David Thomas & Sophana Srichampa. Bangkok, Mahidol University.
  • Kenneth, D. 1992. The -VC Rhyme Link Between Bahnaric and Katuic. Mon-Khmer Studies 18-19: 109-59.
  • Sidwell, Paul. 2005. Katuic Languages: classification, reconstruction and comparative lexicon. Munich, LINCOM.
  • Sriwises, Prasert 1978. Kui (Suai)-Thai-English dictionary. Indigenous Languages of Thailand Research Project, Chulalonghorn University Language Institute.
  • Thomas David. 1973a. A Note on the Branches of Mon-Khmer. Mon-Khmer Studies 4:139-40.
  • Thomas, David & Robert Headley. 1970. More on Mon-Khmer subgroupings. Lingua 25:398-418. Thomas, David. 1966. Mon-Khmer subgroupings in Vietnam. In Zide (ed.) (1966), pp 194-202.
  • Thomas, Dorothy. 1967. A phonological reconstruction of Proto East Katuic. MA thesis, University of North Dakota, SIL microfiche publications.
  • Thurgood, Graham, 1999. From Ancient Cham to Modern Dialects: two thousand years of language contact and change. Honolulu, University of Hawai'i Press.
  • Wallace, J. M. 1966. Katu Personal Pronouns. Mon-Khmer Studies 2:55-63.
  • Watson, O. K. 1966. Verbal Affixation in Pacoh. Mon-Khmer Studies 2:15-31.
  • Watson, Richard and Saundra K. Watson. 1976. Pacoh ethnographic texts. Dallas, Summer Institute of Linguistics microfiche publications.
  • Watson, Richard, Saundra K. Watson and Cubuat. 1979. Pacoh Dictionary: Pacoh-Vietnamese-English. Trilingual Language Lessons, No.25, part 1. Manila, Summer Institute of Linguistics.
  • Watson, Richard. 1966. Clause to sentence gradations in Pacoh. Lingua 16:166-189.
  • Watson, Saundra K. 1964. Personal pronouns in Pacoh. Mon-Khmer Studies 1:81-98.
  • Watson, Saundra K. 1976. The Pacoh noun phrase. Mon-Khmer Studies 5:220-231.
  • Zide, Norman (e.d). 1966. Studies in Comparative Austroasiatic Linguistics. London/Paris/The Hague, Mouton.

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Last updated Sept 2006.
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