Austronesian languages

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Maritime Southeast Asia, Oceania, Madagascar, Taiwan
one of the world's major language families; although links with other families have been proposed, none of these has received mainstream acceptance
Formosan (composed of many branches)
Human Language Families (wikicolors).png
Map showing the distribution of language families

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 Indo-European and Uralic as one of the best established ancient language families. The name Austronesian comes from Latin auster "south wind" plus Greek nêsos "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 autochthonous to mainland Asia.

There is legitimate debate among linguists as to which language family comprises the largest number of languages. Austronesian is clearly one candidate, with 1268 (according to Ethnologue), or roughly one-fifth of the known languages of the world. The geographical span of the homelands of its languages is also among the widest, ranging from Madagascar to Easter Island. Hawaiian, Rapanui, and Malagasy (spoken on Madagascar) are the geographic outliers of the Austronesian family.

Austronesian has several primary branches, all but one of which are found exclusively on Taiwan. The Formosan languages of Taiwan are grouped into as many as nine first-order subgroups of Austronesian. All Austronesian languages spoken outside Taiwan (including its offshore Yami language) belong to the Malayo-Polynesian branch, sometimes called Extra-Formosan.



The protohistory of the Austronesian people can be traced farther back through time than can that of the Proto-Austronesian language. From the standpoint of historical linguistics, the home of the Austronesian languages is Taiwan. On this island the deepest divisions in Austronesian are found, among the families of the native Formosan languages. According to Template:Harvcoltxt, the Formosan languages form nine of the ten primary branches of the Austronesian language family. Comrie (2001:28) noted this when he wrote:

At least since Sapir (1968), linguists have generally accepted that the chronology of the dispersal of languages within a given language family can be traced from the area of greatest linguistic variety to that of the least. While some scholars suspect that the number of principal branches among the Formosan languages may be somewhat less than Blust's estimate of nine (e.g. Li 2006), there is little contention among linguists with this analysis and the resulting view of the origin and direction of the migration. [For a recent dissenting analysis, see ( [[#CITEREF|]]).]

To get an idea of the original homeland of the Austronesian people, scholars can probe evidence from archaeology and genetics. Studies from the science of genetics have produced conflicting outcomes. Some researchers find evidence for a proto-Austronesian homeland on the Asian mainland (e.g., Melton et al., 1998), while others mirror the linguistic research, rejecting an East Asian origin in favor of Taiwan (e.g., Trejaut et al., 2005). Archaeological evidence (e.g., Template:Harvcolnb) is more consistent, suggesting that the ancestors of the Austronesians spread from the South Chinese mainland to Taiwan at some time around 8,000 years ago. Evidence from historical linguistics suggests that it is from this island that seafaring peoples migrated, perhaps in distinct waves separated by millennia, to the entire region encompassed by the Austronesian languages ( [[#CITEREF|]]). It is believed that this migration began around 6,000 years ago ( [[#CITEREF|]]). However, evidence from historical linguistics cannot bridge the gap between those two periods. The view that linguistic evidence connects Proto-Austronesian languages to the Sino-Tibetan ones, as proposed for example by Sagart (2002), is a minority view. As Fox (2004:8) states:

Linguistic analysis of the Proto-Austronesian language stops at the western shores of Taiwan; the related mainland language(s) have not survived. The sole exception, a Chamic language, is a more recent migrant ( [[#CITEREF|]]).

Distant relations

Genealogical links have been proposed between Austronesian and various families of Southeast Asia in what is generally called an Austric phylum. However, the only one of these proposals that conforms to the comparative method is the "Austro-Tai" hypothesis, which links Austronesian to the Tai-Kadai languages.

Roger Blench (2004:12) said about Austro-Tai that, That is, in the classification below Tai-Kadai would be a branch of the Borneo-Philippines languages. However, none of these wider proposals have gained general acceptance in the linguistic community. It has also been proposed that Japanese may be a distant relative of the Austronesian language family. The evidence for this is slight, and many linguists think it is more likely that Japanese was instead influenced by Austronesian languages, perhaps by an Austronesian substratum. Those who propose this scenario suggest that the Austronesian family once covered the islands to the north of Formosa (western Japanese areas such as the Ryūkyū Islands and Kyūshū) as well as to the south. There is no genetic evidence for an especially close relationship between speakers of Austronesian languages and speakers of Japonic languages, so if there was any prehistoric interaction between speakers of proto-Austronesian and proto-Japonic languages, it is likely to have been one of simple cultural exchange without significant ethnic intermixture. In fact, genetic analyses consistently show that the Ryukyuans of the Ryukyu Islands between Taiwan and the main islands of Japan are genetically more dissimilar to the Taiwanese aborigines than are the Japanese people of the main Japanese islands, which suggests that if there was any interaction between proto-Austronesian and proto-Japonic, it probably occurred somewhere on the East Asian continent prior to the introduction of the Austronesian languages to Taiwan and the Japonic languages to Japan, or at least prior to the hypothetical extinction of Austronesian languages from mainland China and the introduction of Japonic to Japan.


It is very difficult to make meaningful generalizations about the languages that make up a family as rich and diverse as Austronesian. Speaking very broadly, the Austronesian languages can be divided into three groups of languages: Philippine-type languages, Indonesian-type languages and post-Indonesian type ( [[#CITEREF|]]). The first group is characterized by relatively strong verb-initial word order and Philippine-type voice alternations. This phenomenon has frequently been referred to as focus. However, the relevant literature is beginning to avoid this term. Many linguists feel that the phenomena is better described as voice, and that the terminology creates confusion with more common uses of the word focus within linguistics.

The Austronesian languages tend to use reduplication (repetition of all or part of a word, such as wiki-wiki), and, like many East and Southeast Asian languages, have highly restrictive phonotactics, with small numbers of phonemes and predominantly consonant-vowel syllables.

Major languages

Languages with at least 4 million native speakers
Official languages


The internal structure of the Austronesian languages is difficult to work out, as the family consists of many very similar and very closely related languages with large numbers of dialect continua, making it difficult to recognize boundaries between branches. In even the best classifications available today, many of the groups in the Philippines and Indonesia are geographic conveniences rather than reflections of relatedness. However, it is clear that the greatest genealogical diversity is found among the Formosan languages of Taiwan, and the least diversity among the islands of the Pacific, supporting a dispersal of the family from Taiwan or China. Below is a consensus opinion of Malayo-Polynesian, with the Western Malayo-Polynesian classification based on Wouk & Ross (2002). The Formosan languages are listed both with and without subgrouping.

Formosan classification I

The seminal article regarding the subgroupings of Formosan (and by extension, the top-level structure of Austronesian) is Template:Harvcoltxt. His proposed grouping was certainly not the first. In fact, he lists no less than seventeen others, discussing some of their features. Prominent Formosanists (linguists who specialize in Formosan languages) take issue with some of its details. However, it remains the point of reference for current linguistic analyses. Note that the first nine primary branches of Austronesian are composed entirely of Formosan languages:


Formosan classification II


  • Atayalic
  • Tsou-Malayo-Polynesian
    • Rukai-Tsouic
    • Paiwan-Malayo-Polynesian
      • Paiwanic linkage: Amic, Bunun, Kulunic, Paiwan, Puyuma, Saisiyat, Thaoic
      • Malayo-Polynesian (see below)

Malayo-Polynesian classification

Quotations to Template:Harvcoltxt.

Cross-linguistic Comparison Chart

NOTE: All entries are transcribed in IPA and do not reflect the orthography of the language.

Cross-linguistic Comparison Chart
Malayo-Polynesian Gloss Malay Javanese Maori Chamorro Tao<ref name"TaoPeople">The Tao are a people indigenous to Orchid Island, Lanyu Island and the south east coast of Taiwan. Their language is close to Ivatan of the northern Philippines. They are also referred to as Yami.</ref> Malagasy Tagalog Cebuano Ilokano
*anak child anak anak tamaiti patgon anak anaka anak anak anak
*abu ash abu awu puŋarehu apu avuʔ lavenona abu agiw abu
*baRu new baru aɲar ho:u (nuebu Sp.) vajuʔ vao bagu bagʔu baru
*basaʔ wet basah teles ma:ku: fotgon vaṣaʔ kotsa basaʔ basaʔ basa
*buŋa flower buŋa kembaŋ pwa:wai (flores Sp.) hanaʔ<ref name="TaoFlowerJapanese">This is a loan from Japanese</ref>

savosavoŋ<ref name="TaoFlowerIndigenoud">This word is closer to sabong of Ilokano.</ref>

vuni buŋa<ref name="TagalogFlower">bunga means fruit, result in Tagalog. The word for flower is bulaclac.</ref> buŋa buŋa<ref name="IlokoFlower">bunga means fruit, result in Ilokano. The word for flower is sabong, a word closer cognately to Tao's word.</ref>
*dalan path dʒalan dalan ara tʃalan raraʔan lalana daʔan dalan dalan
*daGum needle dʒarum dom (ŋira En.) (haguha Sp.) rajom fanjaitra<ref name="MalagasyNeedle">This is an instrumental compound of the prefix fan- and the root jaitra. Similar compounds can be produced in Tagalog and Ilokano, pannait from pan + daʔit to sew.</ref> karajum dagum dagum
*kanan right (side) kanan teŋen katau


agapaʔ wanan havanana kanan tuʔo kannan
*kutuʔ louse kutu tuma kutu hutu kutuʔ hao kutuʔ kutu kutu
*lelaki male lelaki lanaŋ ta:ne lahi mehakaj lahi lalaki lalaki lalaki
*mata eye mata mata mata mata mata maso mata mata mata
*putiʔ white putih putih ma: aʔpaka malavaŋ fotsi putiʔ puti puraw
*sakit sick/pain sakit lara ma:uiui sageʔ miŋən rari sakit sakit sakit
*SuSuʔ breast susu susu u: susu ṣuṣuʔ nono susuʔ dughan susu
*tawən year tahun tahun tau aɲu


awan taona taʔun tuʔig tawen


*esa/isa one satu sidʒi tahi hatʃa<ref name="ChamorroNumber">These indigenous numbers are no longer used. The Spanish derived system has replaced it.</ref> asa isa isa usa majsa
*duSa two dua loro tua


hawa<ref name="ChamorroNumber"/> ruʔaʔ roa dalawa duha dua
*telu three tiga telu toru tulu<ref name="ChamorroNumber"/> atlo


telo tatlo tulu tallo
*Sepat four empat papat ɸa: fatfat<ref name="ChamorroNumber"/> apat efatra apat upat uppat
*lima<ref name="Five">It is interesting to note that in other Austronesian languages, the number five and hand are synonymous.</ref> five lima lima rima lima<ref name="ChamorroNumber"/> limaʔ<ref name="YamiFive">limaʔ is the Yami word for hand.</ref> dimi

dimampolo<ref name="Malagasy50">dimampolo is fifty.</ref>

lima lima lima
*enem six enam nəm ono gunum<ref name="ChamorroNumber"/> anem enina anim unum innem


*pitu seven tujuh pitu ɸitu fiti<ref name="ChamorroNumber"/> pito fito pitu pitu pitu
*walu eight delapan wolu waru walu<ref name="ChamorroNumber"/> wao valo walu walu walu
*Siwa nine sembilan saŋa iwa siwa<ref name="ChamorroNumber"/> siʔam sivi sjam






*sa-puluʔ (one) ten sepuluh sepuluh ŋahuru<ref name="MaoriTen">Archaic form</ref>

haŋahuru<ref name="MaoriTen"/>


manot<ref name="ChamorroNumber"/> puʔuʔ folo sampuʔ napuluʔ saŋapulu
*sa-Ratus (one) hundred seratus satus rau<ref name="MaoriHundred">A large number (of)</ref> (sjento Sp.) ranaw zato


sandaʔan gatus saŋagasut<ref name="IlokanoHundred">Metathesis of /s/ and /t/, otherwise, */saŋa-gatus/.</ref>
*sa-ribu (one) thousand seribu sewu mano<ref name="MaoriThousand">Multitude</ref> (mil Sp.) řivo arivo sanlibu libu saŋaribu

See also


<references />

Further reading

Original Source

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