Austro-Asiatic Languages

Austro-Asiatic Languages, important language family with two subfamilies: Munda, 21 languages spoken by several million people in India; and Mon-Khmer, divided into 8 branches (with many further subdivisions), 168 languages spoken by some 35 to 45 million people in South East Asia. Few of the languages have a written history. Among Mon-Khmer languages are Khmer, the national language of Cambodia; Mon, a related language spoken in parts of Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand; the six Nicobarese languages spoken by several thousands on the Nicobar Islands; and Vietnamese.

The Munda languages are polysyllabic and differ from other Austro-Asiatic languages in their word formation and sentence structure (see Indian Languages). In the Mon-Khmer subfamily, Khmer and Mon have borrowed many words from the Indian languages Sanskrit and Pali. In the Viet-Muong branch of Mon-Khmer, Vietnamese was heavily influenced by Chinese; it is monosyllabic and has a complex tone system, as do other Viet-Muong languages. A few other Mon-Khmer languages have simple tone systems; much more common, however, are differentiations of vowel quality—breathy, creaky, or normal. The sound systems of Austro-Asiatic languages are unusual in that they contain a large number of vowel sounds, often up to 35. Suffixes are not found in Mon-Khmer languages, but prefixes and infixes are common. In sentences, final particles may indicate the speaker’s attitude, and special modifiers called expressives convey images of colours, noises, and feelings. Some languages lack voiced stops such as g, d, and b. Words may end with palatized consonants such as ñ. Other distinctive sounds include imploded d and b, produced by suction of breath.

Mon and Khmer are written with Indic-derived alphabets which have been modified to suit their more complex phonology. Vietnamese was written for centuries with modified Chinese characters. In 1910, however, a system was adopted that uses the Roman alphabet with additional signs; invented in 1650, it was the earliest writing system to notate tones, for which it uses accent marks. Most other Austro-Asiatic languages have been written for less than a century, and, generally, literacy rates remain quite low.

Selected statistical data from Ethnologue: Languages of the World, SIL International.

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