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Austroasiatic Languages

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Austro-Asiatic languages Summary

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Austroasiatic Languages

The Austroasiatic family, the principal linguistic substrate of mainland Southeast Asian languages, exists today as a patchwork of more than a hundred languages spread across an area that ranges from central India to Vietnam and from Yunnan in China to Malaysia and the Nicobar Islands of the Andaman Sea. In only two countries are Austroasiatic languages the official tongues: Cambodia (Khmer, or Cambodian) and Vietnam (Vietnamese). In all other cases they are minority languages, spoken in single villages by only a few hundred people as well as in communities of several million people. Long ago before the domination by groups such as Thais, Burmese, Malays, and Indo-Aryans, the Austroasiatic peoples were probably the main population in Southeast Asia, and their languages may have been spoken even more widely than today, particularly in Indonesia and China.

Evidence of Common Ancestry

The common ancestry of the Austroasiatic languages is shown by their retention of a distinctive basic vocabulary, which readily identifies that group.

Because it was a prehistoric culture, the location of the original Austroasiatic homeland is not known, but some linguists speculate that it was in the hills of southern Yunnan in China, between 4,000 and 6,000 years ago.

Despite their common origins, Austroasiatic languages are structurally diverse, principally because many of them have been influenced by other, very different, language families for a long time. In India the Munda languages, which are in contact with the Aryan and Dravidian languages, have a complicated word structure that permits two or more syllables per word and an extensive system of grammatical affixes for both nouns and verbs. At the other typological and geographical extreme is Vietnamese: its lexicon or vocabulary is basically monosyllabic, and it relies on word order and compounding to express grammatical functions. In this case the direct influence of Chinese is clearly responsible. The great bulk of Austroasiatic languages lie between these extremes, utilizing a combination of affixation and word order.

Common Features

Most Austroasiatic languages have a rather distinctive word structure. Words may have one or two syllables, but in the two-syllable type the first syllable is never stressed, and the vowel in this syllable is normally short and neutral in quality. Words may begin with clusters of three or even four consonants, but the set of possible final consonants is always restricted. The range of word shapes in a typical Austroasiatic language is illustrated with the following examples from Jruq (West Bahnaric, Laos):

C = consonant
V = vowel
simplest:CVka fish
  CVCdak water
  CCVCplaǎj fruit
  CCVCptɛh earth
most complex:CCCVCkbreh blink

By contrast Munda languages permit much more complicated word shapes because many affixes can be used to build a single word or even a sentence, for example (Mundari, India):

suku-le-n-a-koreŋgeʔ-ta-n-a-ɲ
"They had been happy.""I am poor."

The set of distinctive sounds (or phonemes) can be large and have some unusual articulations in comparison to other languages of the world (including imploded and/or glottalized consonants and voiceless nasal and lateral sounds), and there may be tones or so-called registers (distinguishing breathy or creaky vowels). The Austroasiatic languages have the largest inventories of vowels of any language in the world, with some having more than thirty or even forty!

In many Austroasiatic languages the grammar is largely expressed by word order, although there is normally a moderate to large inventory of prefixes and some infixes, which have functions such as word derivation (e.g., deriving nouns from verbs) and marking grammatical relations such as causative (e.g., "to fall" or "to make fall"), reciprocal (e.g., "to hit somebody" or "to hit each other"), or instrumental (e.g., "to hit" or "to hit with something"). The Munda languages go much further, adding affixes to verbs to mark such things as tense (past and present versus future), aspect (complete or incomplete action), and transitivity (whether the sentence has a grammatical object).

Word order in these languages tends to be "leftheaded"—modifying words (for example, adjectives, verbs) occur to the right of the "head" word they modify. Sentence-level word order is usually Subject-Verb-Object, or less often Subject-Object-Verb.

Classifying Austroasiatic Languages

The classification of Austroasiatic languages is a difficult issue, particularly because many of the languages are not well known or studied, while the better-known ones have borrowed significant lexicon and even grammar from unrelated languages such as Chinese, Pali, and Malay. However, field linguists continue to publish new and more detailed descriptions, and progress is being made in historical reconstruction. Most published texts present a classification of Austroasiatic languages based on rather preliminary studies carried out in the 1960s and 1970s with simple statistical methods. Recent research has greatly improved scholars' understanding of the internal structure of the family.

For most of the twentieth century it was thought that the Austroasiatic family consisted of two fundamental divisions: Munda and all other Austroasiatic languages. However this view was based on typological considerations and has not been supported by historical reconstruction. Also, the placement of Vietnamese in the Austroasiatic family was disputed for a long time, with many scholars (even now) believing it to be derived from Chinese. However it has been convincingly shown that the Chinese lexicon in Vietnamese was borrowed during the Middle Chinese period, and the development of tones and monosyllabic structure are internal Vietnamese developments.

TABLE 1
Comparison of words in Austroasiatic languages
  MundariKhasiWaViet.SemaiKhmerBahnar
*chicken             
Bloodmajamsnaːmnhambhiːpmjhaːmphaːm
Birdsim*simsimcimcɛːpmsɛm
Eyemedkhjmatmátmatmat
Handtiktitaiʔtajtəkηtajtiː
Lousesikuksisiʔcə́jcɛːʔcajsiː
Rootredtjnrairiahrʔeːsrikrəːh
Nosekhmutmiihmuhcrəmuhmuːh

Below is the classification of the Austroasiatic language family based on the most recent comparative historical work. There are eleven principal branches listed, but various poorly documented and isolated languages spoken in China may yet turn out to reflect branch-level groupings. Language names are given in italics— the list below is not exhaustive, merely representative.

  1. Aslian (Malaysia, Thailand):
    1. Jahaic: Batek, Chewong, Jehai, Tonga, Kinsiu, Semang
    2. Senoic: Temiar, Semai, Jah Hut
    3. Semelaic: Semelai, Temoq, Semaq Bri
  2. Bahnaric (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia):
    1. North Bahnaric: Sedang, Jeh/Halang, Rengao, Hre
    2. Central Bahnaric
      • Alak
      • Kasseng/Taliang
      • Cua
      • Tampuon, Bahnar
      • South Central: Chrau, Koho, Ma', Mnong, Stieng
    3. West Bahnaric: Loven/Jruq, Nhaheun, Sapuar, Sok, Oi, Cheng, Suq, Brao/ Laveh, Lawi
  3. Katuic (Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia):
    1. Katu of Vietnam
    2. Katu of Laos
    3. Ngeq
    4. Pacoh
    5. North Katuic: So, Bru, Tri, Makong, Siliq, Katang
    6. Central Katuic: Ta-Oi, Ong, Ir
    7. West Katuic: Suei, Nheu, Kuy, Kuay
  4. Khasic (Assam [India]): Standard Khasi, Lyngngam, Synteng, War
  5. Khmeric (Cambodia, Thailand): Cambodian, Surin Khmer
  6. Monic (Myanmar, Thailand): Mon, Nyahkur
  7. Nicobaric (Nicobar Islands [India]):
    1. North Nicobar: Car, Chowra, Teressa
    2. Central Nicobar: Camorta, Nancowry, Trinkut, Katchall
    3. South Nicobar: Great Nicobar, Little Nicobar
  8. Northern (Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, China):
    1. Palaungic
      1. East Palaungic: Danaw, Palaung, Riang, Yinchia
      2. WestPalaungic: Bulang, Lamet, Lawa, Samtao, U, Wa
    2. Khmuic
      1. Khao
      2. Khmu, Mal-Phrai
      3. Ksinhmul
      4. Mlabri
    3. Mangic: Mang
  9. Pakanic (China): Bolyu/Lai
  10. Pearic (Cambodia, Thailand): Chong, Pear, Suoi, Saoch, Samre
  11. Vietic (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia):
    1. Viet-Muong: Vietnamese, Muong
    2. Pong-Chut: Arem, Maleng, Pong, Sach, Thavung

There have been various proposals to link Austroasiatic with other language families of Southeast Asia into an "Austric" macrofamily. The long history of contact between the language families of Southeast Asia has resulted in many areal similarities that make the task of determining wider genetic relations difficult or impossible.

Further Reading

Huffman, Franklin E. (1986) Bibliography and Index of Mainland Southeast Asian Languages & Linguistics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Jenner, Philip N., Laurence Thompson, and Stanley Starosta, eds. (1976) Austroasiatic Studies 1, 2. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.

Parkin, Robert. (1991) A Guide to Austroasiatic Speakers and Their Languages. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.

Peiros, Ilia. (1998) Comparative Linguistics in Southeast Asia. Canberra, Australia: Australian National University.

This is the complete article, containing 1,176 words (approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page).

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