An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Overview. Austroasiatic languages are indigenous to Southeast Asia constituting a large and heterogeneous family. In prehistoric times some Austroasiatic groups migrated into South Asia producing a major division between the Munda languages of India and the Mon-Khmer languages which remained in their homeland. Though having a common lexicon, the two sub-families differ greatly in their structures, Mon-Khmer is predominantly isolating while Munda is inflective.

    Most Austroasiatic languages are spoken by small communities scattered in remote mountainous regions and have no written traditions, but Mon, Khmer and Vietnamese have a long recorded history and are culturally the most important.

Distribution. Austroasiatic languages are found in mainland Southeast Asia and in northeastern and central India. In Southeast Asia they predominate in Cambodia and Vietnam but in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and peninsular Malaysia they are in the minority being overshadowed by much larger languages of the Tai-Kadai, Tibeto-Burman and Austronesian families.

Classification. The Austroasiatic family is traditionally divided into small Munda and large Mon-Khmer subfamilies. The Aslian languages of Malaysia and the Nicobarese languages of the Nicobar islands (a part of India) have been tentatively included within Mon-Khmer but their classification is disputed. The Mon-Khmer subfamily has more than one hundred languages and a number of branches whose mutual relation is also controversial. Some recent classifications make Austroasiatic and Mon-Khmer coterminous, considering Munda as just another branch of the family. For the moment, we retain the traditional division of Austroasiatic into two subfamilies, each composed of several branches:

  1. Map of Austroasiatic languages branches

  1. Mon-Khmer

  2. Khmeric       

  3. Bahnaric

  4. Monic

  5. Katuic

  6. Pearic

  7. Khmuic

  8. Palaung-Wa

  9. Khasic

  10. Vietic

  11. Aslian

  12. Nicobarese

  1. Munda

  2. Northern

  3. Kherwarian

  4. Korku

  1. Southern

  2. Kharia-Juang

  3. Koraput


  5.                                                                              Click on the map to enlarge

  6. (Munda languages are not shown here but in their own page)

Khmeric consists of two languages:

Central or Standard Khmer, the national language of Cambodia, and Northern Khmer, spoken in southeast Thailand. The first one, with 15 million speakers, is the second largest Austroasiatic language after Vietnamese, and is one of the oldest recorded languages of Southeast asia. The second one is spoken by 1.4 million people.

Bahnaric is a large group of languages, spoken by about one million people, in southern central Vietnam, southern Laos, and eastern Cambodia. The main languages are Bahnar with 160,000 speakers, Sre (or Koho) with 130,000, Mnong with 120,00 and Sedang with 100,000.

The Monic branch have just two languages, Mon of southeastern Myanmar and central Thailand, and Nyahkur of Thailand. The number of Mon speakers reported varies wildly, ranging from 100,000 to one million. Mon possesses a long written record, attested for the first time in the kingdom of Dvaravati. When it was destroyed by the Khmers in the 10th century, the majority of Mon migrated to what is today Myanmar. The few remaining speakers of Nyahkur are the descendants of those Mon who stayed in Thailand.

Katuic languages are spoken mainly in southern Laos and adjacent regions of Vietnam, plus pockets in Thailand and Cambodia. The total number of Katuic speakers is approximately 1.5 million. Main languages are Eastern Bru (140,000) and Upper Ta'oih (60,000) of Laos and Vietnam, Kataang (110,000) of Laos, Eastern Katu (60,000) of Vietnam, (20,000) of Laos and Thailand, Kuy (500,000) of Thailand and Cambodia.

The Pearic languages of western Cambodia and southeastern Thailand are spoken by very small populations and are all endangered.

The Khmuic branch consists of approximately a dozen languages located in northern Laos and neighboring regions of Thailand and Vietnam. Khmu with some 600,000 speakers is the largest.

The two dozen Palaung-Wa languages are scattered throughout Myanmar, northern Thailand, northern Laos and the Yunnan province of China. The two most important ones, Wa with 1.4 million speakers and Palaung with, perhaps, 600,000, are distributed in Myanmar and Yunnan.

Khasic languages constitute a small group confined almost to the province of Meghalaya in northeastern India. They include Khasi spoken by about one million people, Pnar with 100,000 speakers, and the smaller War Jaintia divided between Bangladesh and Meghalaya with 30,000 speakers.

The Vietic branch is spoken in Vietnam with minorities in Laos and Cambodia. Foremost is Vietnamese, the largest Austroasiatic language, with 79 million speakers, followed by Muong with 1.3 million speakers, and several minor languages.

The more than a dozen Aslian languages, spoken by close to 100,000 people, are found in the mountain ranges of the Malay peninsula and in pockets of southern, peninsular, Thailand. The best known are Semai and Temiar with 45,000 and 27,000 speakers, respectively.

Nicobarese comprises half a dozen endangered languages spoken by about  25,000 people in the Nicobar Islands, situated in the eastern Indian Ocean and belonging to India.

Munda languages of northeastern and central India are divided into northern and southern groups. Northern Munda languages have the most speakers and are the more conservative. They include Santali with 7.5 million speakers, Mundari and Ho with 1.5 and 1.2 million, and Bhumij with half a million speakers; Korku of central India with also half a million speakers constitutes on its own a separate sub-group. Southern Munda languages have the greatest internal divergence. They are divided into Kharia-Juang and Koraput sub-groups whose more important languages are, respectively, Kharia and Sora with about 300,000 speakers each.

Speakers and Major Languages. About 117 million people speak an Austroasiatic tongue. The largest languages are (numbers in millions):


  1. 1.Some scholars give a much lower number of Mon speakers.

Status. Khmer and Vietnamese are the national languages of Cambodia and Vietnam. Many Austroasiatic languages are spoken by small minorities which tend to inhabit relatively inaccessible regions where they seek shelter from the predominant cultures. A good number of them are endangered or in the verge of extinction.


  1. Phonology

  2. -The usual Austroasiatic word structure consists of a major syllable, sometimes preceded by one or more minor unstressed 'half-syllables'. The range of consonants and vowels of the minor syllable is severely restricted.

  1. -Large vowel inventories of 20 to 25 vowels are common with four, or even five, degrees of vowel height. Many languages make a register or phonation type distinction between breathy, creaky or clear voice. For example, Mon contrasts between clear and breathy vowels.

  1. -Mon-Khmer allows consonant clusters in initial position, particularly of a stop followed by a  sonorant (a glide, a liquid or a nasal consonant) or of a stop followed by h. However, influenced by Chinese, Vietnamese does not allow initial consonant clusters. Neither do the Munda languages whose phonology differs substantially from the Austroasiatic mainstream. In all members of the family consonant clusters are not permitted in final position.

  1. -Many Mon-Khmer languages are remarkable for having words ending in palatal consonants. Some languages have implosive consonants at the beginning of major syllables.

  1. -In contrast to other language families of South-East Asia (Tai-Kadai, Hmong-Mien, Tibeto-Burman), most Austroasiatic languages do not have tones. One major exception is Vietnamese which developed tones due to prolonged contact with Chinese.

  1. Morphology

  2. -Most Mon-Khmer languages use affixes (mainly prefixes and infixes) attached to nouns and verbs to achieve some morphological variety. In contrast, Nicobarese have also suffixes. Words remain small because only one, or at most two, affixes are allowed.

  1. -Vietnamese and Munda languages are quite different. The first has virtually no morphology while the second ones have a more complex morphology than the average Austroasiatic language, specially evidenced in their verbal system, employing reduplication, prefixes, infixes, and suffixes.

  1. Syntax

  2. -Mon-Khmer languages have Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) constituent order. Adjectives, demonstratives and possessives follow the nouns they modify. Prepositions and word order indicate syntactical relations. Munda syntax is different having a basic SOV word order.

  1. -Ergative constructions are not infrequent.

  1. -Serial verb constructions (two or more adjacent verbs sharing the same subject) might express a temporal sequence or the direction, objective, manner, means or result of an action.

  1. -A variety of particles may be placed at the end of sentences to express familiarity or respect as well as the intentions of the speaker.


  1. -Mon and Khmer borrowed amply from the Indic languages, Sanskrit and Pali, while Vietnamese did it from Chinese. The most isolated mountain and jungle languages of Southeast Asia have preserved more of the core Austroasiatic vocabulary, though frequently distorted by taboos forbidding certain animal names, and deceased personal names.

  1. -Many Austroasiatic languages have a especial kind of words, different from nouns and verbs, called expressives or ideophones, in which sound and meaning are inextricably intertwined. They describe, often overlapping, sensory perceptions, feelings and bodily sensations, and are distinguished not only by certain morphological features (reduplication, infixes) but also by unique syntactical properties.

Writing Systems

  1. -The Mon and Khmer peoples developed, early, alphabets derived from South Indian ones and ultimately from Brāhmī. The Mon established the Indianized kingdom of Dvarāvatī, located in what is now southern Thailand, and devised a script (attested from the 6th century) that, later, was adapted by the Burmese to write their own language. Similarly, the Khmer kingdom of Angkor was influenced culturally by India and its script served for inscriptions, in Sanskrit as well as in Khmer, starting in the 7th century (the former in verse and religious or propagandistic in nature, the latter in prose and mainly administrative).

  1. -As Vietnam was for a thousand years under Chinese rule, initially all writings were in Chinese. After its independence in the 10th century, the Vietnamese developed a “southern script” which used Chinese characters pronounced in the vernacular to write their language. This was replaced by a romanized script created by the Jesuits in the 17th century, still employed today after a number of modifications.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -'Austroasiatic Languages'. G. Diffloth. In Encyclopedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite (2011).

  2. -'Mon-Khmer Languages'. G. D. S. Anderson. In Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World, 724-730. K. Brown & S. Ogilvie (eds). Elsevier (2009).

  3. -Linguistic Comparison in South-east Asia and the Pacific. H. L. Shorto (ed). School of Oriental & African Studies, London (1963).

  4. -A Guide to Austroasiatic Speakers and their Languages. R. Parkin. University of Hawaii Press (1991).

  5. -Studies in Comparative Austroasiatic Linguistics. N. Zide (ed). Mouton (1966).

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