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The Austronesian languages are a language family widely dispersed throughout the islands of Southeast Asia and the Pacificmarker, 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 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 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 (see the list of Austronesian languages). Otto Dempwolff, a German scholar, was the first researcher to extensively explore Austronesian using the comparative method.

There is debate among linguists as to which language family comprises the largest number of languages. Austronesian is clearly one candidate, with 1,268 (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 Madagascarmarker to Easter Islandmarker. Hawaiian, Rapanui, and Malagasy (spoken on Madagascarmarker) are the geographic outliers of the Austronesian family.

Austronesian has several primary branches, all but one of which are found exclusively on Taiwanmarker. 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.


It is difficult to make generalizations about the languages that make up a family as 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 . 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 phenomenon 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.


The Austronesian language family has been established by the linguistic comparative method on the basis of cognate sets, sets of words similar in sound and meaning which can be shown to be descended from the same ancestral word in Proto-Austronesian according to regular rules. Some cognate sets are very stable. The word for eye in many Austronesian languages is mata (from the most northerly Austronesian languages, Formosan languages such as Bunun and Amis all the way south to Māori). Other words are harder to reconstruct. The word for two is also stable, in that it appears over the entire range of the Austronesian family, but the forms (e.g. Bunun rusya, lusha; Amis tusa; Maori tua, rua) require some linguistic expertise to recognise. The Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database gives word lists (coded for cognacy) for approximately 500 Austronesian languages.


The internal structure of the Austronesian languages is complex. The family consists of many similar and closely related languages with large numbers of dialect continua, making it difficult to recognize boundaries between branches. 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. The first comprehensive classification to reflect this was .

The seminal article in the classification of Formosan—and, by extension, the top-level structure of Austronesian—is . Prominent Formosanists (linguists who specialize in Formosan languages) take issue with some of its details, but it remains the point of reference for current linguistic analyses, and is shown below. The Malayo-Polynesian languages are frequently included within Blust's Eastern Formosan branch due to their shared leveling of proto-Austronesian *t, *C to /t/ and *n, *N to /n/, their shift of *S to /h/, and vocabulary such as *lima "five" which are not attested in other Formosan languages.

There appear to have been two great migrations of Austronesian languages that quickly covered large areas, resulting in multiple local groups with little large-scale structure. The first was Malayo-Polynesian across the Philippines, Indonesia, and Melanesia. The second was Oceanic languages into Polynesia and Micronesia .

In addition to Malayo-Polynesian, thirteen Formosan families are broadly accepted. Debate centers primarily around the relationships between these families. Two classifications are presented here, , who links two families into a Western Plains group, two more in a Northwestern Formosan group, and three into an Eastern Formosan group, and the Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database (2008), which links five families into a Northern Formosan group, two in a Tsouic group, and links Malayo-Polynesian with Paiwan in a Paiwanic group.

Other studies have presented phonological evidence for a reduced Paiwanic family of Paiwanic, Puyuma, Bunun, Amis, and Malayo-Polynesian, but this is not reflected in vocabulary. The Eastern Formosan peoples Basay, Kavalan, and Amis share a homeland motif that has them coming originally from an island called Sinasay or Sanasay . The Amis, in particular, maintain that they came from the east, and were treated by the Puyuma, amongst whom they settled, as a subservient group .

Blust (1999)

Families of Formosan languages before Chinese colonization, per Blust (1999).

(clockwise from the southwest)

  • Thao (AKA Sao. Brawbaw, Shtafari dialects)
  • Central Western Plains

  • (Mantauran, Tona, and Maga dialects are divergent)

Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database (2008)

Families of Formosan languages before Chinese colonization, per the Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database .
This investigation breaks up Eastern Formosan, and suggests Paiwan may be the closest to Malayo-Polynesian.

This is an obvious, low-level grouping

These groups are linked with an estimated 97% probability.
  • Thao (AKA Sao. Brawbaw, Shtafari dialects)
  • Western Plains
    • Babuza (AKA Favorlang. Taokas, Poavosa dialects)
    • Popora-Hoanya (Popora, Hoanya dialects)
  • Saisiyat (Taai, Tungho dialects)
  • Pazeh (AKA Kulun)
  • Atayalic

Another low-level grouping
  • Sakizaya
  • Nataoran (North Amis)
  • Amis

Tsou and Rukai are connected with moderate confidence, estimated at 85% probability.

  • Sirayamarker (Taivoan, Makatao dialects)

Malayo-Polynesian and Paiwan and linked with a low level of confidence (75%).

Major languages


Austronesian languages expansion map.
Periods are based on archeological studies, but differences between scientists exist.
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 the main island of Taiwanmarker, also known as Formosa; on this island the deepest divisions in Austronesian are found, among the families of the native Formosan languages. According to Robert Blust, 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 .]

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., ) 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 . It is believed that this migration began around 6,000 years ago . 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 .

Distant relations

Genealogical links have been proposed between Austronesian and various families of East and especially Southeast Asia.
A link with the Austro-Asiatic languages in an 'Austric' phylum is based mostly on typological evidence. However, there is also morphological evidence of a connection between the conservative Nicobarese languages and Austronesian languages of the Philippines. Paul Benedict extended the Austric proposal to include the Kradai and Miao-Yao (Hmong-Mien) families, but this has not been followed by other linguists.


A competing Austro-Tai proposal linking Austronesian and Kradai is supported by Weera Ostapirat, Roger Blench, and Laurent Sagart, and is based on the traditional comparative method. Ostapirat (2005) proposes a series of regular correspondences linking the two families and assumes a primary split, with Kradai speakers being the Austronesians who stayed behind in their Chinese homeland. Blench (2004) suggests that, if the connection is valid, the relationship is unlikely to be one of two sister families. Rather, he suggests that proto-Kradai speakers were Austronesians who migrated to Hainan Island and back to the mainland from the northern Philippines, and that their distinctiveness results from radical restructuring following contact with Hmong-Mien and Sinitic. Sagart's (2005) proposal, which may have some support from human population genetics (Li 2005), is that proto-Kradai was an early Austronesian language that may have back-migrated from northeastern Taiwan to the southeastern coast of China. The apparently cognate words in Kradai and Austronesian might be explained either as commonly inherited vocabulary, or as loanwords from this hypothetical (but perhaps Malayo-Polynesian) language into proto-Kradai. Sagart also suggests that Austronesian, which includes Kradai, is ultimately related to the Sino-Tibetan languages and probably has its origin in a Neolithic community of the coastal regions of prehistoric North China or East China.

It has been proposed that Japanese may be a distant relative of the Austronesian family, but this is rejected by all mainstream linguistic specialists. The evidence for any sort of connection is slight, and many linguists think it is more plausible that Japanese might have instead been 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 Islandsmarker and Kyūshūmarker) as well as to the south. However, 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 them, it is likely to have been one of simple cultural exchange without significant ethnic mixing. In fact, genetic analyses consistently show that the Ryukyuans between Taiwan and the main islands of Japanmarker are genetically less similar to the Taiwanese aborigines than are the Japanese, which suggests that if there was any interaction between proto-Austronesian and proto-Japonic, it occurred on the mainland prior to the extinction of Austronesian languages on mainland China and the introduction of Japonic to Japan, not in the Ryukyus. Other classifications place Japanese in the Altaic language family.

See also


  1. "The Tipuns... are certainly descended from emigrants, and I have not the least doubt but that the Amias are of similar origin; only of later date, and most probably from the Mejaco Simas [that is, Miyako-jima], a group of islands lying 110 miles to the North-east.... By all accounts the old Pilam savages, who merged into the Tipuns, were the first settlers on the plain; then came the Tipuns, and a long time afterwards the Amias. The Tipuns, for some time, acknowledged the Pilam Chief as supreme, but soon absorbed both the chieftainship and the people, in fact the only trace left of them now, is a few words peculiar to the Pilam village, one of which, makan (to eat), is pure Malay. The Amias submitted themselves to the jurisdiction of the Tipuns."


Further reading

  • Bengtson, John D., The “Greater Austric” Hypothesis, Association for the Study of Language in Prehistory.
  • Blust, R. A. (1983). Lexical reconstruction and semantic reconstruction: the case of the Austronesian "house" words. Hawaii: R. Blust.
  • Cohen, E. M. K. (1999). Fundaments of Austronesian roots and etymology. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. ISBN 0858834367
  • Pawley, A., & Ross, M. (1994). Austronesian terminologies: continuity and change. Canberra, Australia: Dept. of Linguistics, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University. ISBN 0858834243
  • Sagart, Laurent, Roger Blench, and Alicia Sanchez-Nazas (Eds.) {2004). The peopling of East Asia: Putting Together Archaeology, Linguistics and Genetics. London: RoutledgeCurzon. ISBN 0-415-32242-1.
  • Tryon, D. T., & Tsuchida, S. (1995). Comparative Austronesian dictionary: an introduction to Austronesian studies. Trends in linguistics, 10. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 110127296
  • Wittmann, Henri (1972). "Le caractère génétiquement composite des changements phonétiques du malgache." Proceedings of the International Congress of Phonetic Sciences 7.807-10. La Haye: Mouton.

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