Austronesian languages explained

Region:Maritime Southeast Asia, Oceania, Madagascar, Taiwan
Family:one of the world's major language families; although links with other families have been proposed, none of these has received mainstream acceptance
Child1:Formosan (composed of many branches)

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, 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 according to the traditional comparative method.

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 the main island of Taiwan, 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 {{Harvcol|Peiros|2004}}.]

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

Austric and Austro-TaiGenealogical links have been proposed between Austronesian and various families of Southeast Asia in what is generally called an Austric phylum, mostly on the evidence of typological data. Paul K. Benedict, extended the Austric theory to include the Kradai family of Southeast Asia and the Miao-Yao (Hmong-Mien) family of China, together forming an Austro-Tai superfamily.

A competing more constrained Austro-Tai hypothesis supported by Weera Ostapirat, Roger Blench, and Laurent Sagart, based on more traditional comparative method, links Austronesian to the Kradai languages. In this newer framework, Ostapirat (2005) proposes a series of regular correspondences linking Kradai with Austronesian and assumes a simple model of a primary split, with Kradai speakers being the Austronesians who stayed behind in their migrations. Blench (2004) suggests that, if the more constrained Austro-Tai connection is valid, the relationship is unlikely to be one of two sister families, as has been proposed by Ostapirat. Rather, he suggests, following Sagart (2005), that proto-Kradai speakers migrated back across from the northern Philippines to the region of Hainan island; hence their distinctiveness, resulting from radical restructuring following contact with Hmong-Mien and Sinitic. Sagart's own proposal, which may have some support from human population genetics (Li 2005), is that the proto-Kradai language was fundamentally an early Austronesian language that may have back-migrated from northeastern Taiwan to the southeastern coast of China thousands of years ago, subsequent to the migration of a pre-Austronesian population or populations from coastal East China to the island of Taiwan and the evolution of the proto-Austronesian language on that island. The apparently cognate forms in Kradai and Austronesian could then be explained as either commonly inherited vocabulary or prehistoric loanwords from this hypothetical and unknown (but perhaps proto-Malayo-Polynesian-related) Austronesian language into proto-Kradai. Sagart also suggests that the Austronesian language family (of which he claims proto-Kradai is one subgroup) 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.

The Austro-Tai hypothesis has recently gained broader acceptance in the linguistic community. (See Austro-Tai.)

JapaneseIt has also 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 Islands and Kyūshū) 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 Japan 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 analyses place Japanese into the family of Altaic languages; however, these analyses are also controversial.


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 . 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 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. The first comprehensive classification to reflect this was Dyen (1965).

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.

Below that is a consensus view of Malayo-Polynesian, with the Western Malayo-Polynesian classification based on Wouk & Ross (2002).

Formosan classification


Austronesian(clockwise from the southwest)

It is commonly assumed that the Austronesian languages settled Formosa from mainland China, though there are no surviving languages on the mainland, and little historical evidence. Whether Formosa was a hostland or a homeland to the Austronesian family is open to debate Mutsu Hsui, Shu-Juo Chen 2004

The Eastern Formosan Basay, Kavalan and Amis share a homeland motif that has them coming originally from an island called Sinasay or Sanasay Paul Jen-kuei Li 2004 . 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.George Taylor 1888

Malayo-Polynesian classification



A well-supported family that includes all the Austronesian languages of Melanesia from Jayapura east, Polynesia, and most of Micronesia

The entire family can be schematized as,


The Austronesian language family is 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 Maori). 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.

Major languages

See main article: List of major and official Austronesian languages.

See also


Further reading