An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Overview. Munda are atypical Austroasiatic languages whose speakers might have migrated westerly in prehistoric times into India from their Southeast Asia homeland. Their marked divergence from mainstream Austroasiatic at the phonological, morphological and syntactical level, coupled with the incorporation of a number of Munda words into Sanskrit, suggest that this migration is very ancient. Munda speakers are tribal peoples who inhabit, mostly, northeastern India, seeking shelter in jungles and hills where they subsist by practicing a primitive sort of agriculture.

Distribution. Munda languages are spoken mainly in northeastern and central India with a few communities in Nepal and Bangladesh. Within northeast India, they predominate in the recently created state of Jharkhand and they are also quite numerous in Orissa, Bihar and West Bengal. In central India, one Munda language (Korku) is spoken in a small area striding over the border between Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

  1. Map of Munda languages distribution


Classification and Speakers. Munda languages belong to the Austroasiatic family. Some authors consider them as a subfamily coordinate with Mon-Khmer. But a recent trend is to classify them just as another branch of Austroasiatic; Mon-Khmer becoming, thus, coterminous with Austroasiatic. Munda languages are spoken by about 12 million people or about 0.8 % of the total population of South Asia. They are divided into northern and southern groups, each divided in two subgroups:

Most northern Munda languages belong to the Kherwarian sub-group found in Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal as well as in some areas of Orissa, Bangladesh and Nepal. Santali, its major language, is spoken by one of the largest tribal populations of India. Surpassing seven million, they are the third largest Austroasiatic group after Vietnamese and Khmers. They live above all in the Chota Nagpur Plateau though 200.000 reside in Bangladesh and 50.000 in Nepal.

After Santali, come the very similar Mundari and Ho with more than one million speakers each in Orissa and Jharkhand. Except for Bhumij, the remaining members of the group count with just a few thousand individuals. Korku is more eccentric geographically and linguistically constituting a sub-group on its own; it straddles the border between the states of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

Southern Munda is divided, like Northern Munda, into two sub-groups. Kharia-Juang includes a major language (Kharia), spoken in southwestern Jharkhand and northwestern Orissa, and a minor one (Juang) spoken in a small area of north Orissa.

Within the Koraput sub-group, only Sora is prospering in some measure while the other members are threatened of displacement by Indo-Aryan or Dravidian languages. In spite of their precarious status, these minority tongues are invaluable to trace the history and evolution of Munda because they are the most ancient and divergent. Sora and Gorum are quite similar but remarkably different from Gutob and Remo and Gta’.

This classification follows that of Diffloth in Encyclopaedia Britannica (1974) though Anderson rejects the existence of the Koraput group and proposes that South Munda is divided into three: Kharia-Juang, Gutob-Remo-Gta’, and Sora-Gorum.

Status. Munda languages are predominant in the Indian state of Jharkhand where three of them (Santali, Mundari and Ho) are official. Books are published in these same three major languages. On the other hand, the minor ones are at risk because of acculturation.


  1. Phonology

  2. -Munda vowel systems are generally much simpler than the highly complex ones typical of Austroasiatic.

  1. -Initial and final consonant clusters are not permitted. Very distinctive is the occurrence of preglottalized consonants. Some languages have prenasalized stops. Dravidian languages have influenced Munda phonology leading to the acquisition of some retroflex consonants by languages of the Northern group.

  1. -Munda languages are non-tonal, though Korku syllables show a distinction between high and low tone.

  1. Morphology

  2. -Munda morphology is much more complex than that of an average Austroasiatic language. It is essentially agglutinating. Furthermore, it employs reduplication and a variety of affixes (prefixes, infixes and suffixes) to form nominal and verbal derivatives.

  1. -There are two gender classes, animate and inanimate, the first divided into human and non-human. And three numbers are distinguished: singular, dual and plural. It is noteworthy the existence of inclusive/exclusive forms of the first person plural pronoun i.e., there are two kinds of 'we', one includes the speaker, the other excludes him.

  2. -Verbs agree in person, gender and number with the subject by incorporating affixes or by adding them to the word that immediately precedes the verb.

  1. -A variety of suffixes marks mood, time and aspect. Besides suffixes, constructions with auxiliary verbs may be employed to express tense. Like in many other languages, time and aspect are intimately related but their relative importance is different in northern and southern languages: in the first ones aspect is prevalent, in the second ones tense.

  1. -There are different voices: middle, passive, reflexive, reciprocal, benefactive and causative.

  1. Syntax

  2. -Munda syntax is very different from that of other Austroasiatic languages. Instead of Subject-Verb-Object (SVO), Munda languages have a Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) basic word order. In this respect they are closer to Dravidian languages of India, though in contrast with them their order is quite strict. There is evidence that a preexisting SVO order shifted to the current one by Dravidian influence.


Munda lexicon has been influenced by neighboring Indo-Aryan languages which have had, however, little impact at the structural level. The opposite can be said of Dravidian languages.

Basic Vocabulary

The degree of similarity between Munda languages is revealed in their shared lexicon. In the following table some basic words are shown, starting with some northern languages of the Kherwarian group (Santali, Mundari, Ho) followed by the only representative of the other northern branch (Korku). After them, figure the southern languages including members of the Kharia-Juang group (Kharia, Juang) as well as those of  the Koraput group (Sora, Gorum, Gutob, Remo, Gta’).

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -The Munda Languages. G. D. Anderson. Routledge (2006).

  2. -Studies in Comparative Munda Linguistics. S. Bhattacarya. Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (1975).

  3. -'Munda and non-Munda Austroasiatic languages'. H. N. Zide. Current Trends in Linguistics. Vol. V. 411-430 (1969).

  4. -The Munda Verb: Typological Perspectives. G. D. Anderson. Mouton de Gruyter (2007).

  5. -Munda Languages Project. Living Tongues. Institute for Endangered Languages. Available online at:

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