Southeast Asian languages

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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Southeast Asian languages

Southeast Asian languages, family of languages, sometimes also called Austroasiatic, spoken in SE Asia by about 80 million people. According to one school of thought, it has three subfamilies: the Mon-Khmer languages, the Munda languages, and the Annamese-Muong subfamily. There is considerable evidence but as yet no definite proof that these groups are derived from a single ancestor language, which is the essential requirement for classification in the same linguistic family.

The use of the term Southeast Asian languages in this article is based on linguistic considerations; however, the term is also employed by some scholars in a geographical sense to include three distinct language families of the region, namely, Malayo-Polynesian languages, Sino-Tibetan languages, and Mon-Khmer languages. A grouping together of the Malayo-Polynesian and Southeast Asian (or Austroasiatic) languages into a single Austric family has also been proposed on the basis of certain phonetic, lexical, and grammatical similarities, but this grouping has not yet been generally accepted.

The Mon-Khmer Subfamily

Languages of the Mon-Khmer subfamily include Cambodian (or Khmer), Mon (or Talaing), and a number of other languages, such as Cham of Cambodia and southern Vietnam, Semang and Sakai of the Malay Peninsula, Nicobarese of the Nicobar Islands, and Khasi of Assam in India. Grammatically, the Mon-Khmer languages make great use of affixes (prefixes, infixes, and suffixes). They are agglutinative in that different linguistic elements, each of which exists separately and has a fixed meaning, are often joined to form one word. Cambodian and Mon have their own scripts, which are descended from alphabets of India. Both are written from left to right.

The Munda Subfamily

The languages of the Munda subfamily are spoken in parts of N and central India and comprise more than 20 tongues, the most important of which is Santali. The Munda languages use affixes extensively and are agglutinative. There are two genders for nouns in most of the Munda tongues, animate and inanimate. Most Munda languages also have three numbers—singular, dual, and plural. Suffixes and particles placed after the noun are used to express such features as number and possession, which are often indicated in Indo-European tongues by case inflection.

The Annamese-Muong Subfamily

The Annamese-Muong subfamily is composed of Muong and Vietnamese (also called Annamese). Vietnamese is basically monosyllabic, but it has many words of two or more syllables. It is also tonal, with six tones that frequently help to distinguish homonyms. Vietnamese uses particles but has no prefixes and suffixes. Word order is very important for showing grammatical relationships since there is no inflection. The vocabulary has many loanwords from Chinese. An alphabet based on Roman letters and adapted for Vietnamese, as by adding diacriticals, is generally used today in place of the traditional Chinese-type writing of the past. The classification of Vietnamese is still disputed; some regard it as a Mon-Khmer tongue, others as a Tai (or Thai) language (see Sino-Tibetan languages), and still others as a language unrelated to any other known tongue.


See N. H. Zide, ed., Studies in Comparative Austroasiatic Linguistics (1966).

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Southeast Asian languages


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