Austro-Asiatic languages

Austro-Asiatic languages
South and Southeast Asia
Linguistic classification: One of the world's major language families
Proto-language: Proto-Mon–Khmer
ISO 639-5: aav
Se asia lang map.png
Austro-Asiatic languages

The Austro-Asiatic (Austroasiatic) languages, in recent classifications synonymous with Mon–Khmer, are a large language family of Southeast Asia, also scattered throughout India and Bangladesh. The name Austro-Asiatic comes from the Latin words for "south" and "Asia", hence "South Asia". Among these languages, only Khmer, Vietnamese, 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. Ethnologue identifies 168 Austro-Asiatic languages. These are traditionally divided into two families, Mon–Khmer and Munda. Several recent classifications have abandoned Mon–Khmer as a valid node, or made it synonymous with the larger family (Diffloth 2005, Sidwell 2009).

Austro-Asiatic languages have a disjunct distribution across India, Bangladesh and Southeast Asia, separated by regions where other languages are spoken. It is widely believed[citation needed] that the Austro-Asiatic languages are the autochthonous languages of Southeast Asia and the eastern Indian subcontinent, and that the other languages of the region, including the Indo-European, Tai–Kadai, Dravidian, Austronesian, and Sino-Tibetan languages, are the result of later migrations of people.



The Austro-Asiatic languages are well known for having a "sesqui-syllabic" pattern, with basic nouns and verbs consisting of a reduced minor syllable plus a full syllable. Many of them also have infixes.


Much work has been done on the reconstruction of Proto-Mon–Khmer in Harry L. Shorto's Mon–Khmer Comparative Dictionary. However, very little work has been done on Proto-Austro-Asiatic itself, since the Munda languages are not well documented. If Mon–Khmer is not a valid taxon, as some recent classifications would have it, then Proto-Mon–Khmer becomes synonymous with Proto-Austro-Asiatic.

Sidwell (2005) reconstructs the consonant inventory of Proto-Mon–Khmer as follows:

*p *t *c *k
*b *d
*m *n
*w *l, *r *j
*s *h

This is identical to earlier reconstructions except for . is better preserved in the Katuic languages, which Sidwell has specialized in. Sidwell (2007, 2009) suggests that the likely homeland of Austro-Asiatic/Mon–Khmer is near central Vietnam, and that the family is not as old as frequently assumed.


Linguists traditionally recognize two primary divisions of Austro-Asiatic: the Mon–Khmer languages of Southeast Asia, Northeast India and the Nicobar Islands, and the Munda languages of East and Central India and parts of Bangladesh. However, no evidence for this classification has ever been published.

Each of the families that is written in boldface type below is accepted as a valid clade. By contrast, the relationships between these families within Austro-Asiatic is debated. In addition to the traditional classification, two recent proposals are given, neither of which accept traditional "Mon–Khmer" as a valid unit. However, little of the data used for competing classifications has ever been published, and therefore cannot be evaluated by peer review.

Sidwell (2009)

Sidwell (2009a), in a lexicostatistical comparison of 36 languages which are well-known enough to exclude loan words, 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. He therefore takes the conservative view that the thirteen branches of Austro-Asiatic should be treated as equidistant on current evidence.

= Mon–Khmer 














Gérard Diffloth (2005)

Diffloth compares reconstructions of various clades, and attempts to classify them based on shared innovations, though like other classifications the evidence has not been published. As a schematic, we have:






















Or in more detail,

  • Koraput: 7 languages
  • Core Munda languages
  • Kharian–Juang: 2 languages
  • North Munda languages
Kherwarian: 12 languages
  • Khasi–Khmuic languages (Northern Mon–Khmer)
  • Khasian: 3 languages of eastern India and Bangladesh
  • Palaungo-Khmuic languages
  • Khmuic: 13 languages of Laos and Thailand
  • Palaungo-Pakanic languages
Pakanic or Palyu: 4 or 5 languages of southern China and Vietnam
Palaungic: 21 languages of Burma, southern China, and Thailand
  • Nuclear Mon–Khmer languages
  • Khmero-Vietic languages (Eastern Mon–Khmer)
  • Vieto-Katuic languages ?[1]
Vietic: 10 languages of Vietnam and Laos, including the Vietnamese language, which has the most speakers of any Austro-Asiatic language. These are the only Austro-Asiatic languages to have highly developed tone systems.
Katuic: 19 languages of Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand.
  • Khmero-Bahnaric languages
  • Bahnaric: 40 languages of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
  • Khmeric languages
The Khmer dialects of Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Pearic: 6 languages of Cambodia.
  • Nico-Monic languages (Southern Mon–Khmer)
  • Asli-Monic languages
Aslian: 19 languages of peninsular Malaysia and Thailand.
Monic: 2 languages, the Mon language of Burma and the Nyahkur language of Thailand.

This family tree is consistent with recent studies of migration of Y-Chromosomal haplogroup O2b-M95. However, the dates obtained from DNA studies are several times older than that given by linguists.[2] The route map of the people with haplogroup O2b, speaking this language can be seen in this link.[1]

Ilia Peiros (2004)

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

AustroAsiatic tree Peiros2004.png

Diffloth (1974)

Diffloth's widely cited original classification, now abandoned by Diffloth himself, is used in Encyclopædia Britannica and—except for the breakup of Southern Mon–Khmer—in Ethnologue.

See also


  1. ^ a b Sidwell (2005) casts doubt on Diffloth's Vieto-Katuic hypothesis, saying that the evidence is ambiguous, and that it is not clear where Katuic belongs in the family.
  2. ^ Kumar, Vikrant et al, Y-chromosome evidence suggests a common paternal heritage of Austro-Asiatic populations, BMC Evol Biol. 2007, 7: 47.


  • Adams, K. L. (1989). Systems of numeral classification in the Mon–Khmer, Nicobarese and Aslian subfamilies of Austroasiatic. Canberra, A.C.T., Australia: Dept. of Linguistics, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University. ISBN 0-85883-373-5
  • Byomkes Chakrabarti, A Comparative Study of Santali and Bengali, 1994
  • Diffloth, Gérard (2005). "The contribution of linguistic palaeontology and Austroasiatic". in Laurent Sagart, Roger Blench and Alicia Sanchez-Mazas, eds. The Peopling of East Asia: Putting Together Archaeology, Linguistics and Genetics. 77–80. London: Routledge Curzon.
  • Filbeck, D. (1978). T'in: a historical study. Pacific linguistics, no. 49. Canberra: Dept. of Linguistics, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University. ISBN 0-85883-172-4
  • Hemeling, K. (1907). Die Nanking Kuanhua. (German language)
  • Peck, B. M., Comp. (1988). An Enumerative Bibliography of South Asian Language Dictionaries.
  • Peiros, Ilia. 1998. Comparative Linguistics in Southeast Asia. Pacific Linguistics Series C, No. 142. Canberra: Australian National University.
  • Shorto, Harry L. edited by Sidwell, Paul, Cooper, Doug and Bauer, Christian (2006). A Mon–Khmer comparative dictionary. Canberra: Australian National University. Pacific Linguistics. ISBN 0-85883-570-3
  • Shorto, H. L. Bibliographies of Mon–Khmer and Tai Linguistics. London oriental bibliographies, v. 2. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.
  • Sidwell, Paul (2005). "Proto-Katuic Phonology and the Sub-grouping of Mon–Khmer Languages". In Sidwell, ed., SEALSXV: papers from the 15th meeting of the Southeast Asian Linguistic Society.
  • Sidwell, Paul (2009a). The Austroasiatic Central Riverine Hypothesis. Keynote address, SEALS, XIX.
  • Sidwell, Paul (2009b). Classifying the Austroasiatic languages: history and state of the art. LINCOM studies in Asian linguistics, 76. Munich: Lincom Europa.
  • Zide, Norman H., and Milton E. Barker. (1966) Studies in Comparative Austroasiatic Linguistics, The Hague: Mouton (Indo-Iranian monographs, v. 5.).

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