Austro-Asian languages

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Dissemination of the Austro-Asian languages

The Austro-Asian languages are a family of languages with around 160 languages ​​spoken by around 120 million people in Southeast Asia and Northeast India. Although these languages ​​are common in much of South and Southeast Asia, only two have national language status: Vietnamese and Khmer (Cambodian).

"Austroasiatisch" is an artificial word from the Latin australis (= south) and means "South Asian".

Distribution area

The distribution area of ​​the Austro-Asian languages ​​is not contiguous, the individual languages ​​or language groups are separated by regions in which languages ​​of other language families are spoken. It is believed that the Austro-Asian languages ​​belong to a very early population group in South and Southeast Asia and that the other languages ​​spoken there today only came to this region as a result of later population movements. These include Indo-European , Tai-Kadai and Sino-Tibetan languages.

A genetic and linguistic analysis in 2015 revealed a probable origin in central China , more precisely, along the Yangtze River . From there a southern expansion started to Southeast Asia and South Asia .

Important individual languages

Around 117 million people speak an Austro-Asian language. By far the most important are Vietnamese (84 million) and Cambodian or Khmer (16 million), both of which are the national languages ​​of their countries. Santali (7 million), Mundari (2 million), Ho (2 million), Khasi (2 million), Muong (3 million) and Mon (1 million) also reach or exceed the million speakers -Border. The Austro-Asian language family also includes a large number of small and very small languages ​​in remote areas that are hardly spoken by more than 1000 people.

Relationship with other language families

Some linguists have suggested that the Austro-Asian languages ​​are related to the Austronesian languages and that they form an Australian superfamily with them.


Great structure

Within the Austro-Asian languages, there are usually two, sometimes three main branches: The Mon-Khmer languages in Southeast Asia and the Munda languages in East and Central India, whose speakers are among the most disadvantaged groups in the Indian population. Some researchers consider the Nicobarese languages ​​to be a third main branch, others consider it to be Mon-Khmer. There are about 160 Austro-Asian languages, of which about 130 belong to the Mon Khmer languages, 20 to the Munda languages ​​and 6 to the Nicobarese languages.

The internal classification of the Austro-Asian language family is unclear in detail and is controversial. Newer researchers such as Paul Sidwell question the independence of the Munda languages, as well as "Mon-Khmer" as a subgroup (however defined). Only the individual small groups listed below are recognized by these researchers as valid branches of Austro-Asian, and “Mon-Khmer languages” are thus practically synonymous with “Austro-Asian languages”.

Distribution in detail

The following classification shows the individual branches of Austro-Asian with their most important languages:

Austro-Asian (157 languages, 95 million speakers; Northeast India, Southeast Asia)

  • Munda languages (19 languages, 10 million speakers; Northeast and Central India)
    • North Munda languages (10 languages, 9.5 million) >>> Santali (6 million), Mundari (1 million), Ho (1 million), Korku (500,000).
    • South Munda languages (9 languages, 600,000) >>> Kharia (280,000), Sora (300,000).
  • Mon Khmer languages (132 languages, 85 million speakers)
    • Khasi group (3 languages, 1.1 million speakers; Northeast India) >>> Khasi (1 million), Pnar (100,000).
    • Palaung - Wa group (20 languages, 1.8 million speakers; Myanmar, South China, Laos, Thailand) >>> Rumai (150,000), Shwe (150,000), Pale (300,000), Wa (600,000), Praok (500,000 ).
    • Khmu group (14 languages, 600,000; Laos, Thailand, Vietnam) >>> Khmu (500,000).
    • Khmer (1 language, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand ( Surin )) >>> Cambodian ( Khmer ) (8 million, with second speakers 10 million).
    • Katu group (16 languages, approx. 1 million; Laos, Thailand Vietnam) >>> Kuy-Suei (400,000), So (160,000), Bru (130,000).
    • Bahnar group (36 languages, 1 million; Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) >>> Bahnar (140,000), Ko'ho (Sre) (100,000), Mnong (200,000).
    • Pear Group (6 languages, 12,000; Cambodia).
    • Viet Muong group (10 languages, 88 million; Vietnam, Laos) >>> Vietnamese (84 million), Muong (3–4 million).
    • Mon languages (2 languages, 1 million; Myanmar), Mon (just under 1 million), Nyahkur (max. 10,000).
    • Palyu Pakan Group (5 languages, 15,000; South China).
    • Asli languages (19 languages, 60,000; Malay Peninsula) >>> Semang (10,000), Senoi (20,000).

Languages ​​with at least 1 million speakers in bold . ">>>" refers to "important" individual languages ​​of the respective branch.



The sound systems of the Austro-Asian languages ​​are largely similar. Only Vietnamese (under the influence of Chinese) and the Munda languages ​​(under the influence of Indian languages) have deviated considerably from the basic type.

Syllable structure

Most Austro-Asian words consist of a main syllable that can be preceded by one or more subsidiary syllables . A secondary syllable consists of an initial consonant, a vowel and possibly a final consonant. In most languages ​​there is only one possible vowel in such ancillary syllables, but in some languages ​​there is three or even syllable-forming nasals or liquids. Many languages ​​have main syllables without a final consonant, but no Austro-Asian language has more than one consonant at the end of the syllable.


A typical feature of the Mon-Khmer languages ​​(but not the Munda languages) are the numerous combinations of two consonants at the beginning of main syllables. This is especially true for Khmer. The inventory of possible consonants at the end of a word is significantly smaller, especially for languages ​​that are in contact with Tai-Kadai or Sino-Tibetan languages.

A number of Mon-Khmer languages ​​have the implosive consonants [ɓ] and [ɗ], which are also reconstructed for the original Mon-Khmer; Paul Sidwell even reconstructs a palatal implosive mainly on the basis of the evidence of the Katu languages ​​[ʄ]. A number of aspirated consonants ([pʰ], [tʰ], [cʰ] and [kʰ]) occur in several Mon-Khmer languages, but are not a typical feature of the language family.

In most Austro-Asian languages ​​- in contrast to most other Asian languages ​​- there are also palatal consonants ([c] and [vor]) at the end of the word.


A large number of vowels is typical of the Mon Khmer languages ​​(20 to 25, in some even more than 30).


Most Austro-Asian languages ​​are not tonal languages ; an exception are Vietnamese and some other languages ​​in the north, which developed tones independently of one another, under the influence of the neighboring tone languages ​​(Tai-Kadai, Sinotibetic and Miao-Yao ).



The Munda languages ​​differ from the other Austro-Asian languages ​​because they have a particularly rich morphology with numerous prefixes, infixes and suffixes. Vietnamese is the other extreme and has hardly any morphology.

Apart from these two extremes, the Austro-Asian languages ​​have a lot in common: apart from Nicobarese, they have no suffixes; Prefixes and infixes, however, are common. There are seldom more than two affixes to a word at the same time. An affix can have many functions at a time. Many affixes only occur in frozen forms and are no longer productive. There is a special class of words that differ from verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. They cannot be denied and describe noises, colors, patterns, shapes and feelings. Some authors call them "Expressive" or " Ideophone ".


Possessive and demonstrative elements as well as relative clauses are followed by nouns. In languages ​​that have particles, these are prepositions, not postpositions. The most common sentence order is subject – verb – object. Usually there is no copula that corresponds to the German word "sein". Ergative constructions are common. Particles of sentences that express the speaker's opinion, expectation, respect or familiarity, as well as the intention of the speaker, are common. The Munda languages ​​also differ in this respect from the other languages ​​of this family: They basically have the sentence order subject – object – verb, like the Dravidian languages ​​in India.


Vietnamese has numerous loan words from Chinese, Mon and Khmer from Sanskrit and Pali. The more isolated languages ​​in more remote areas have better preserved the hereditary vocabulary, but in many cases language taboos - for example in the case of animal names and objects that belonged to the deceased - have led to substitutions.

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Austroasiatic. Retrieved February 20, 2018 .
  2. Xiaoming Zhang, Shiyu Liao, Xuebin Qi, Jiewei Liu, Jatupol Kampuansai: Y-chromosome diversity suggests southern origin and Paleolithic backwave migration of Austro-Asiatic speakers from eastern Asia to the Indian subcontinent OPEN . In: Scientific Reports . tape 5 , October 20, 2015, p. 1-8 , doi : 10.1038 / srep15486 ( [accessed July 22, 2018]).
  3. ^ Austroasiatic. Retrieved July 22, 2018 .
  4. a b c d e f g h i j k Gérard Diffloth: Austroasiatic languages. In: Encyclopaedia Britannica, electronic version, accessed June 2009.
  5. Paul Sidwell: Proto-Katuic phonology and the subgrouping of Mon-Khmer languages (PDF; 5.1 MB) SEAlang. Retrieved November 2, 2011.


  • Paul K. Benedict: Austro-Thai Language and Culture. New Haven: HRAF Press, 1975, ISBN 0-87536-323-7 (on the Australian and Austro-Thai hypothesis).
  • Ernst Kausen : Austro-Asian languages . In: The Language Families of the World. Part 1: Europe and Asia . Buske, Hamburg 2013, ISBN 978-3-87548-655-1 , p. 797-898 .
  • Robert Parkin: A Guide to Austroasiatic Speakers and Their Languages. (Oceanic Linguistics Special Publication; 23). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991, ISBN 0-8248-1377-4 .
  • Mathias Jenny and Paul Sidwell (eds.): The Handbook of Austroasiatic Languages. Two volumes. Leiden / Boston: Brill, 2015, ISBN 978-90-04-28295-7 .

Web links

Commons : Austro-Asiatic languages  - collection of images, videos and audio files