Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Philippines, Myanmar, Singapore

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Three Hundred Word Lesson on Southeast Asian Languages

The people of Southeast are diverse linguistically as well as nearly every other possible way. You will run into a lot of ethnic, religious, and national variation.  Language affinities can be incredibly important, and if you can understand some of the basic linguist groups your understanding of the human development of Southeast Asia is rich and varied, yet some common linguist backgrounds often unite far-flung communities. There are commonalities as well.  For example, Burmese, Thai, Mon and Khmer all took Sanskrit alphabets--the origin of their letters are the same while the origins of the letters are not.  Similarly, Vietnamese has a Romanized alphabet as does both the Bahasa Languages, Malay and Indonesian.
  • Sino-Tibetan: e.g. Burmese (Myanmar); Tai languages: Thai, Lao
The Sino-Tibetan language family has been defined as also including the Tai and Hmong-Mien languages. In the past, Vietnamese and other Mon-Khmer languages were classified under the Sino-Tibetan tree, however, their similarities to Chinese are currently credited to language contact.
  • Austro-Asiatic: Mon, Khmer (Cambodian); Vietnamese
The Austro-Asiatic languages are a large language family of Southeast Asia, and also scattered throughout India and Bangladesh. The name comes from the Latin word for "south" and the Greek name of Asia, hence "South Asia." Among these languages, only Khmer, and Mon have a long established recorded history, and only Vietnamese and Khmer have official status (in Vietnam and Cambodia, respectively). The rest of the languages are spoken by minority groups.
  • Austronesian
The Austronesian languages are a language family widely dispersed throughout the islands of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, with a few members spoken on continental Asia. It is on par with Bantu, Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic and Uralic as one of the best-established ancient language families. The name Austronesian comes from Latin auster "south wind" plus Greek nĂªsos "island". The family is aptly named, as the vast majority of Austronesian languages are spoken on islands: only a few languages, such as Malay and the Chamic languages, are indigenous to mainland Asia. Many Austronesian languages have very few speakers, but the major Austronesian languages are spoken by tens of millions of people. Some Austronesian languages are official languages.
  • Papuan: Timor
You are unlikely to encounter this unless you head to this local. You'll have to research it on your own.  Various foreign languages are commonly spoken, including the languages of India, especially Tamil but also Telugu, Malayalam, Telugu and Hindi. Chinese dialects (spoken in Singapore and major cities of Southeast Asia) are also widely spoken.  English is commonly spoken, especially in Malaysia and Myanmar, former British colonies.


NChen on January 29, 2010 at 12:24 PM said...

I think there's a consensus now among linguists that the Tai languages and Laotian are not in the Sino-Tibetan macro-family. Thai and Laotian are classified as a sub-group of Tai-Kadai (or "Daic") family of languages considered an independent family. The word cognates Thai and Laotian (and other Tai languages) shares with the Sinitic languages are probably due to word borrowing and are almost entirely non-basic vocabulary. Also, many word cognates are not shared with many of the Tibeto-Burmese languages further indicating a relation of word borrowing rather than genealogical relation.

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