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Related Topics:Santali languageMunda languagesMon-Khmer languagesKhmer languageJahaic languages...(Show more)

Austroasiatic languages, also spelled Austro-Asiatic, stock of some 150 languages spoken by more than 65 million people scattered throughout Southeast Asia & eastern India. Most of these languages have numerous dialects. Khmer, Mon, and Vietnamese are culturally the most important and have the longest recorded history. The rest are languages of nonurban minority groups written, if at all, only recently. The stock is of great importance as a linguistic substratum for all Southeast Asian languages.

Superficially, there seems to be little in common between a monosyllabic tone language such as Vietnamese and a polysyllabic toneless Muṇḍā language such as Muṇḍārī of India; linguistic comparisons, however, confirm the underlying unity of the family. The date of separation of the two main Austroasiatic subfamilies—Muṇḍā và Mon-Khmer—has never been estimated và must be placed well back in prehistory. Within the Mon-Khmer subfamily itself, 12 main branches are distinguished; glottochronological estimates of the time during which specific languages have evolved separately from a common source indicate that these 12 branches all separated about 3,000 to lớn 4,000 years ago.


Relationships with other language families have been proposed, but, because of the long durations involved và the scarcity of reliable data, it is very difficult lớn present a solid demonstration of their validity. In 1906 Wilhelm Schmidt, a German anthropologist, classified Austroasiatic together with the Austronesian family (formerly called Malayo-Polynesian) to form a larger family called Austric. Paul K. Benedict, an American scholar, extended the Austric theory khổng lồ include the Tai-Kadai family of Southeast Asia và the Miao-Yao (Hmong-Mien) family of China, together forming an “Austro-Tai” superfamily.

Regarding subclassification within Austroasiatic, there have been several controversies. Schmidt, who first attempted a systematic comparison, included in Austroasiatic a “mixed group” of languages containing “Malay” borrowings & did not consider Vietnamese to lớn be a member of the family. On the other hand, some of his critics contested the membership of the Muṇḍā group of eastern India. The “mixed group,” called Chamic, is now considered to lớn be Austronesian. It includes Cham, Jarai, Rade (Rhade), Chru, Roglai, & Haroi & represents an ancient migration of Indonesian peoples into southern Indochina. As for Muṇḍā and Vietnamese, the works of the German linguist Heinz-Jürgen Pinnow on Khaṛiā and of the French linguist André Haudricourt on Vietnamese tones have shown that both language groups are Austroasiatic.

Classification of the Austroasiatic languages

The work of classifying & comparing the Austroasiatic languages is still in the initial stages. In the past, classification was done mainly according lớn geographic location. For instance, Khmer, Pear, & Stieng, all spoken on Cambodian territory, were all lumped together, although they actually belong to three different branches of the Mon-Khmer subfamily.

Khmer & Vietnamese are the most important of the Austroasiatic languages in terms of numbers of speakers. They are also the only national languages—Khmer of Cambodia, Vietnamese of Vietnam—of the Austroasiatic stock. Each is regularly taught in schools and is used in mass truyền thông media and on official occasions. Speakers of most other Austroasiatic languages are under strong social và political pressure to become bilingual in the official languages of the nation in which they live. Most groups are too small or too scattered to lớn win recognition, & for many the only chance of cultural survival lies in retreating lớn a mountain or jungle fastness, a strategy that reflects long-standing Austroasiatic tradition.

Linguistic characteristics

Phonological characteristics

The sound systems of Austroasiatic languages are fairly similar to lớn each other, but Vietnamese và the Muṇḍā languages, under the influence of Chinese and Indian languages respectively, have diverged considerably from the original type. The usual Austroasiatic word structure consists of a major syllable sometimes preceded by one or more minor syllables. A minor syllable has one consonant, one minor vowel, and optionally one final consonant. Most languages have only one possible minor vowel, but some have a choice of three (e.g., a, i, or u) or even use vocalic nasals (m or n) và liquids (l or r) as minor vowels. Major syllables are composed of one or two initial consonants, followed by one major vowel và one final consonant. Many languages—e.g., Khmer, Mon, & Bahnar—allow major syllables without final consonants, but no Austroasiatic language allows combinations of two or more final consonants.


A typical feature of Mon-Khmer languages, uncommon in the Muṇḍā subfamily, is khổng lồ allow a great variety of two-consonant combinations at the beginning of major syllables. Khmer is especially notable for this. At the kết thúc of a word, the inventory of possible consonants is always smaller than at the beginning of the major syllable & is considerably smaller when liên hệ with Tai-Kadai or Sino-Tibetan languages has been extensive. These two properties combine to lớn give Mon-Khmer words their characteristic rhythmic pattern, rich và complicated at the beginning, simple at the end.

Several Mon-Khmer languages—e.g., Khmer, Katu, Mon, & some forms of Vietnamese—allow implosive

b̑ and
d̑ at the beginning of major syllables. These sounds, pronounced with a brief suction of the air inward, have sometimes been called pre-glottalized, or semi-voiceless, sounds. They probably existed in the ancestral language called Proto-Mon-Khmer but have disappeared in many modern languages.

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A series of aspirated consonants, ph, th, ch, & kh, pronounced with a small puff of air, is found in several branches or subbranches of Mon-Khmer (Pearic, Khmuic, South Aslian, Angkuic), but this is not a typical feature of the family, & it probably did not exist in the ancestral language.

Most Austroasiatic languages have palatal consonants (č or ñ) at the end of words; they are produced with the blade of the tongue touching the front part of the palate. Austroasiatic languages stand apart from most other languages of Asia in having final consonants of this type.


Typical of Mon-Khmer languages is an extraordinary variety of major vowels: systems of trăng tròn to 25 different vowels are quite normal, while several languages have 30 và more. Nasal vowels are sometimes found, but in any one language they do not occur very frequently. Four degrees of height are usually distinguished in front and back vowels, as well as in the central area. The variety of Khmer spoken in Surin (Thailand) distinguishes five degrees of height, plus diphthongs, all of which can be either short or long, for a total of 36 major vowels.


Most Austroasiatic languages, notably Khmer, Mon, Bahnar, Kuay, and Palaung, vày not have tones. This is noteworthy, considering that the language families found to the north—Tai-Kadai, Sino-Tibetan, và Hmong-Mien (Miao-Yao)—all have tones. The few Austroasiatic languages that are tonal—e.g., Vietnamese, the Angkuic subbranch, và the Pakanic branch—are found in the northern geographic range of the family. They have acquired tones independently from each other, in the course of their own history, as a result of liên hệ and bilingualism with language families khổng lồ the north. Tones are not posited for any ancient stage of Mon-Khmer or Austroasiatic.


Much more characteristic of the Austroasiatic stock is a contrast between two or more series of vowels pronounced with different voice qualities called registers. The vowels may have, for example, a “breathy” register, a “creaky” register, or a clear one. This feature, which is fairly rare the world over, is found, for example, in Mon, Wa, and Kuay, which distinguish breathy from clear vowels; in some Katuic languages, which distinguish creaky vowels from clear ones; and in the Pearic branch, which cumulates both distinctions. These registers have a variety of historical origins; for some languages (such as Mon) they are a fairly recent innovation, but for others (such as Pearic) they may be very ancient, perhaps dating khổng lồ the ancestral language called Proto-Austroasiatic.

Grammatical characteristics


In morphology (word formation), Muṇḍā and Vietnamese again show the greatest deviations from the norm. Muṇḍā languages have an extremely complex system of prefixes, infixes (elements inserted within the body toàn thân of a word), & suffixes. Verbs, for instance, are inflected for person, number, tense, negation, mood (intensive, durative, repetitive), definiteness, location, & agreement with the object. Furthermore, derivational processes indicate intransitive, causative, reciprocal, & reflexive forms. On the other hand, Vietnamese has practically no morphology.

Between these two extremes, the other Austroasiatic languages have many common features. (1) Except in Nicobarese, there are no suffixes. A few languages have enclitics, certain elements attached khổng lồ the over of noun phrases (possessives in Semai, demonstratives in Mnong), but these vì chưng not constitute word suffixes. (2) Infixes and prefixes are common, so that only the final vowel and consonant of a word root remain untouched. It is rare to lớn find more than one or two affixes (i.e., prefixes or infixes) attached lớn one root; thus, the number of syllables per word remains very small. (3) The same prefix (or infix) may have a wide number of functions, depending on the noun or verb class to which it is added. For instance, the same nasal infix may turn verbs into nouns và mass nouns into count nouns (noun classifiers). (4) Many affixes are found only in a few fossilized forms & often have lost their meaning. (5) Expressive language & wordplay are embodied in a special word class called “expressives.” This is a basic class of words distinct from verbs, adjectives, và adverbs in that they cannot be subjected to logical negation. They describe noises, colours, light patterns, shapes, movements, sensations, emotions, và aesthetic feelings. Synesthesia is often observable in these words and serves as a guide for individual coinage of new words. The forms of the expressives are thus quite unstable, and the additional effect of wordplay can create subtle and endless structural variations.


In syntax, possessive & demonstrative forms & relative clauses follow the head noun; if particles are found, they will be prepositions, not postpositions (elements placed after the word khổng lồ which they are primarily related), và the normal word order is subject–verb–object. There is usually no copula equivalent khổng lồ the English verb “be.” Thus, an equational sentence will consist of two nouns or noun phrases, separated by a pause. Predicates corresponding lớn the English “be + adjective” usually consist of a single intransitive (stative) verb. Ergative constructions (in which the agent of the action is expressed not as the subject but as the instrumental complement of the verb) are quite common. Also noteworthy are sentence final particles that indicate the opinion, the expectations, the degree of respect or familiarity, và the intentions of the speaker. Muṇḍā syntax, once again, is radically different, having a basic subject–object–verb word order, lượt thích the Dravidian languages of India. It is quite conceivable that the complexity of Muṇḍā verb morphology is a result of the historical change from an older subject–verb–object to the present subject–object–verb basic structure.


The composition of the vocabulary of the Austroasiatic languages reflects their history. Vietnamese, Mon, and Khmer, the best-known languages of the family, came within the orbit of larger civilizations & borrowed without restraint—Vietnamese from Chinese, Mon & Khmer from Sanskrit và Pāli. At the same time, they have lost a large amount of their original Austroasiatic vocabulary. It is among isolated mountain và jungle groups that this vocabulary is best preserved. But other disruptive forces are at work there. For instance, animal names are subject khổng lồ numerous taboos, và the normal name is avoided in certain circumstances (e.g., hunting, cooking, eating, và so on). A nickname is then invented, often by using a kinship term (“Uncle,” “Grandfather”) followed by a pun or an expressive adverb describing the animal. In the course of time, the kinship term is abbreviated (thus many animal names begin with the same letter), the normal name is forgotten, và the nickname becomes standard. As such, it is then in turn avoided, và the process is repeated. There are also taboos on proper names; e.g., after a person’s death, his name và all words that resemble it are avoided and replaced by metaphors or circumlocutions. These replacements may explain why, for instance, the Nicobarese languages, which seem closely related, have few vocabulary items in common. In general, new words and fine shades of meanings can always be introduced by wordplay and from the open-ended phối of expressive forms. Borrowings from the nearest majority languages are also common.

Writing systems and texts

Two Austroasiatic languages have developed their own orthographic systems and use them to lớn this day. For both scripts, the letter shapes & principles of writing were borrowed from Indian alphabets (perhaps those of the Pallava dynasty in South India) that were in use in Southeast Asia at the time. Both Austroasiatic groups modified these alphabets in their own way, khổng lồ suit the complex phonology of their languages. The most ancient inscriptions extant are in Old Mon and Old Khmer in the early 7th century. The monuments of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, & Cambodia have preserved a large number of official inscriptions in these two languages. Both alphabets were in turn used as models by other peoples for writing their own languages, the bầu speakers using Khmer letters & the Burmese speakers using mon letters. The religious literature in Old & Middle tháng played a very important role in the spreading of Theravāda Buddhism to lớn the rest of Southeast Asia.

Because Vietnam was a Chinese province for a thousand years, the Chinese language was used & written there for official purposes. In the course of time (perhaps as early as the 8th century ad), a system called Chunom (popular writing) was developed for writing Vietnamese with partly modified Chinese characters. About 1650, Portuguese missionaries devised a systematic spelling for Vietnamese, based on its distinctive sounds (phonemes). It uses the Latin (Roman) alphabet with some additional signs and several accents to lớn mark tones. At first, & for a long time, the use of this script was limited khổng lồ Christian contexts, but it spread gradually, and in 1910 the French colonial administration made its use official. Now called quoc-ngu (national language), it is learned & used by all Vietnamese.

Most other Austroasiatic languages have been written for less than a century; the literacy rate remains very low with a few exceptions (e.g., Khāsī). Dictionaries & grammars have been written only for the most prominent languages, with traditional và often insufficient methods. Many languages have only been described briefly in a few articles, and many more are little more than names on the map.