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Richard Alekseev
Richard Alekseev

Austro-asiatic Language



The Austroasiatic languages[note 1] /ˌɒstroʊ.eɪʒiˈætɪk, ˌɔː-/, are a large language family in Mainland Southeast Asia and South Asia. These languages are scattered throughout parts of Thailand, Laos, India, Myanmar, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Nepal, and southern China. Austroasiatic constitute the majority languages of Vietnam and Cambodia. There are around 117 million speakers of Austroasiatic languages.[1] Of these languages, only Vietnamese, Khmer, and Mon have a long-established recorded history. Only two have official status as modern national languages: Vietnamese in Vietnam and Khmer in Cambodia. The Mon language is a recognized indigenous language in Myanmar and Thailand. In Myanmar, the Wa language is the de facto official language of Wa State. Santali is one of the 22 scheduled languages of India. The rest of the languages are spoken by minority groups and have no official status.




austro-asiatic language



Regarding word structure, Austroasiatic languages are well known for having an iambic "sesquisyllabic" pattern, with basic nouns and verbs consisting of an initial, unstressed, reduced minor syllable followed by a stressed, full syllable.[6] This reduction of presyllables has led to a variety among modern languages of phonological shapes of the same original Proto-Austroasiatic prefixes, such as the causative prefix, ranging from CVC syllables to consonant clusters to single consonants.[7] As for word formation, most Austroasiatic languages have a variety of derivational prefixes, many have infixes, but suffixes are almost completely non-existent in most branches except Munda, and a few specialized exceptions in other Austroasiatic branches.[8]


The Austroasiatic languages are further characterized as having unusually large vowel inventories and employing some sort of register contrast, either between modal (normal) voice and breathy (lax) voice or between modal voice and creaky voice.[9] Languages in the Pearic branch and some in the Vietic branch can have a three- or even four-way voicing contrast.


However, some Austroasiatic languages have lost the register contrast by evolving more diphthongs or in a few cases, such as Vietnamese, tonogenesis. Vietnamese has been so heavily influenced by Chinese that its original Austroasiatic phonological quality is obscured and now resembles that of South Chinese languages, whereas Khmer, which had more influence from Sanskrit, has retained a more typically Austroasiatic structure.


In addition, there are suggestions that additional branches of Austroasiatic might be preserved in substrata of Acehnese in Sumatra (Diffloth), the Chamic languages of Vietnam, and the Land Dayak languages of Borneo (Adelaar 1995).[11]


Peiros is a lexicostatistic classification, based on percentages of shared vocabulary. This means that languages can appear to be more distantly related than they actually are due to language contact. Indeed, when Sidwell (2009) replicated Peiros's study with languages known well enough to account for loans, he did not find the internal (branching) structure below.


Paul Sidwell (2009), in a lexicostatistical comparison of 36 languages which are well known enough to exclude loanwords, finds little evidence for internal branching, though he did find an area of increased contact between the Bahnaric and Katuic languages, such that languages of all branches apart from the geographically distant Munda and Nicobarese show greater similarity to Bahnaric and Katuic the closer they are to those branches, without any noticeable innovations common to Bahnaric and Katuic.


At 4,500 B.P., this "Neolithic package" suddenly arrived in Indochina from the Lingnan area without cereal grains and displaced the earlier pre-Neolithic hunter-gatherer cultures, with grain husks found in northern Indochina by 4,100 B.P. and in southern Indochina by 3,800 B.P.[15] However, Sidwell (2015c) found that iron is not reconstructable in Proto-Austroasiatic, since each Austroasiatic branch has different terms for iron that had been borrowed relatively lately from Tai, Chinese, Tibetan, Malay, and other languages.


Paul Sidwell (2018)[16] considers the Austroasiatic language family to have rapidly diversified around 4,000 years B.P. during the arrival of rice agriculture in Indochina, but notes that the origin of Proto-Austroasiatic itself is older than that date. The lexicon of Proto-Austroasiatic can be divided into an early and late stratum. The early stratum consists of basic lexicon including body parts, animal names, natural features, and pronouns, while the names of cultural items (agriculture terms and words for cultural artifacts, which are reconstructible in Proto-Austroasiatic) form part of the later stratum.


Hence, this points to a relatively late riverine dispersal of Austroasiatic as compared to Sino-Tibetan, whose speakers had a distinct non-riverine culture. In addition to living an aquatic-based lifestyle, early Austroasiatic speakers would have also had access to livestock, crops, and newer types of watercraft. As early Austroasiatic speakers dispersed rapidly via waterways, they would have encountered speakers of older language families who were already settled in the area, such as Sino-Tibetan.[17]


Sidwell (2018)[20] (quoted in Sidwell 2021[21]) gives a more nested classification of Austroasiatic branches as suggested by his computational phylogenetic analysis of Austroasiatic languages using a 200-word list. Many of the tentative groupings are likely linkages. Pakanic and Shompen were not included.


John Peterson (2017)[32] suggests that "pre-Munda" ("proto-" in regular terminology) languages may have once dominated the eastern Indo-Gangetic Plain, and were then absorbed by Indo-Aryan languages at an early date as Indo-Aryan spread east. Peterson notes that eastern Indo-Aryan languages display many morphosyntactic features similar to those of Munda languages, while western Indo-Aryan languages do not.


Other than Latin-based alphabets, many Austroasiatic languages are written with the Khmer, Thai, Lao, and Burmese alphabets. Vietnamese divergently had an indigenous script based on Chinese logographic writing. This has since been supplanted by the Latin alphabet in the 20th century. The following are examples of past-used alphabets or current alphabets of Austroasiatic languages.


Several lexical resemblances are found between the Hmong-Mien and Austroasiatic language families (Ratliff 2010), some of which had earlier been proposed by Haudricourt (1951). This could imply a relation or early language contact along the Yangtze.[39]


It is suggested that the Austroasiatic languages have some influence on Indo-Aryan languages including Sanskrit and middle Indo-Aryan languages. Indian linguist Suniti Kumar Chatterji pointed that a specific number of substantives in languages such as Hindi, Punjabi and Bengali were borrowed from Munda languages. Additionally, French linguist Jean Przyluski suggested a similarity between the tales from the Austroasiatic realm and the Indian mythological stories of Matsyagandha (from Mahabharata) and the Nāgas.[41]


Larena et al. 2021 could reproduce the genetic evidence for the origin of Basal East Asians in Mainland Southeast Asia, which are estimated to have formed about 50kya years ago, and expanded through multiple migration waves southwards and northwards. Early Austroasiatic speakers are estimated to have originated from an lineage, which split from Ancestral East Asians between 25,000 and 15,000 years ago, and were among the first wave to replace distinct Australasian-related groups in Insular Southeast Asia. East Asian-related ancestry became dominant in Insular Southeast Asia already between 15,000 years to 12,000 years ago, and may be associated with Austroasiatic groups, which however got again replaced by later Austronesian groups some 10,000 to 7,000 years ago. Early Austroasiatic people were found to be best represented by the Mlabri people in modern day Thailand. Proposals for Austroasiatic substratum among later Austronesian languages in Western Indonesia, noteworthy among the Dayak languages, is strengthened by genetic data, suggesting Austroasiatic speakers were assimilated by Austronesian speakers.[45]


A study in November 2021 (Guo et al.) found that modern East-Eurasians can be modeled from four ancestry components, which descended from a common ancestor in Mainland Southeast Asia, one being the "Ancestral Austroasiatic" component (AAA), which is more prevalent among modern Southeast Asians, and making up the exclusive ancestry among Austroasiatic-speaking Lua and Mlabri people. The early Austroasiatic speakers are suggested to have been hunter-gatherers but became rice-agriculturalists quite early, spreading from Mainland Southeast Asia northwards to the Yangtze river, westwards into the Indian subcontinent, and southwards into Insular Southeast Asia. Evidence for these migrations are Austroasiatic loanwords related to rice-agriculture found among non-Austroasiatic languages, and the presence of Austroasiatic genetic ancestry.[46]


Over two-thirds of these languages are seriously endangered, on the brink of extinction, or are already extinct. As you can see from the table below, only 24 (14%) of the 168 languages have populations over 50,000, and only three have populations of over 1 million.


It is not known where the Austro-Asiatic people who speak these languages came from or when they migrated to this part of the world. It is probable that they came from southern or southeastern China some time between 2,000-2,500 BC, and migrated south into the Indo-Chinese peninsula and west into India. Invasions by speakers of other languages split the Austro-Asiatic languages into several groups. As a result of these invasions, few national states ever developed in the areas where these languages were spoken. The only exceptions were Khmer, Mon, and Vietnamese. The rest of the speakers of Austro-Asiatic languages continue to live in small tribal groups even today. 041b061a72


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