An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Overview. Southeast Asia is a region of great linguistic and geographic diversity where hundreds of languages, belonging to five different families, are spoken. Mainland Southeast Asia includes Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Peninsular and Insular Southeast Asia include Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, East Timor and Philippines. In the east of Mainland Southeast Asia Mon-Khmer predominates, in the center Tai-Kadai, in the west Tibeto-Burman; in Peninsular and Insular Southeast Asia, Austronesian.

Families and Languages. Mon-Khmer is indigenous to Mainland Southeast Asia, having existed in the region for many millennia. Two of its members, Khmer and Vietnamese, are the national languages of Cambodia and Vietnam but most of the others are spoken by small communities scattered in remote mountainous regions.

    Tibeto-Burman is probably related to Chinese and might be a descendant from a hypothetical ancestral language (Proto-Sino-Tibetan) which would have been spoken in the Yellow River valley at least 6,000 years ago. Migrations carried what would become the Tibetan languages to the Tibetan Plateau, while others following a southwesterly direction along the river valleys into Myanmar, India, and Nepal produced a dozen different branches. Burmese is the national language of Myanmar but the other Tibeto-Burman languages of Southeast Asia are mostly spoken by minority ‘‘hill tribes’’ distributed in northern and eastern Myanmar, and in pockets in northern Thailand, Laos, and south China.

    Tai-Kadai is a relative newcomer which originated, probably, in the border area between southern China and northern Vietnam, and spread into eastern Myanmar, Thailand and Laos at the beginning of the second millennium CE. Thai and Lao are national languages; other members of the family are spoken by smaller numbers of people in the northern regions of Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar.

    The arrival of Hmong-Mien to the region is even more recent. From southern China, it was pushed by the expansion of the Han population, in the 19th and 20th centuries, to north Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, but after the end of the Vietnam War, many of its speakers migrated outside Asia.

    Austronesian languages are thought to descend from a single ancestor, probably spoken on Taiwan around 5,000 years ago. They extend from the islands of Oceania in the east, across Insular Southeast Asia and up to the African island of Madagascar in the west. Malay is the national language of Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, Javanese and Sundanese are large regional languages of Java while Tagalog has been chosen as the national language of the Philippines. The Chamic languages of south Vietnam, south Cambodia and the Chinese island of Hainan are located, exceptionally, on the mainland.

    From a genetic point of view the languages spoken in Southeast Asia are varied but they exhibit similarities in phonology, morphology, vocabulary, semantics and language usage.


  1. Phonology

  2. -Word structure. Mainland Southeast Asian languages are monosyllabic or have a tendency towards monosyllabic words. Tai-Kadai, Hmong-Mien and most Tibeto-Burman language words are monosyllabic, except for compounds and loanwords. The usual Mon-Khmer 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. In contrast to all of the above, Austronesian is essentially disyllabic.

  1. -Consonants. Many languages of the region have severe restrictions in the possible final-consonants of a syllable, and in some languages none is possible (i.e., only syllables ending in a vowel are permitted). At the beginning of a syllable, there are usually no restrictions of particular consonants but in many languages consonant clusters (two or more consonants together) are not permitted.

  1. -Tones. Tai-Kadai, Hmong-Mien and many Tibeto-Burman languages have tones which serve to make lexical distinctions. Among Mon-Khmer languages, Vietnamese has tones, which is atypical for the family, probably due to Chinese influence. For example, Burmese has 4 tones, Thai 5, Vietnamese 6 and Hmong 8. In Austronesian, tonal contrasts are almost absent. In some languages, like, Burmese and Hmong, tones may be accompanied by changes in voice quality described as 'breathy' or  'creaky'; in Vietnamese they may be glottalized.

  1. Morphology

  2. -Lack of inflection. Most Southeast Asian languages are isolating i.e., they lack inflection at nominal and verbal levels; there is no nominal marking for case, gender or number and no verbal conjugation. Tense, aspect or modality may be expressed with the aid of adverbs, auxiliary verbs, affixes or particles.

  1. -Lack of articles. Languages of mainland Southeast Asia do not have definite or indefinite articles. Often, they use demonstrative words instead. In contrast, Austronesian languages have articles.

  1. -Use of numeral classifiers. They exist in all of the families of Southeast Asia. They are words or (less frequently) affixes required when referring to more than one object. They accompany numerals, but also quantifying words (‘several, many’) and demonstratives. Most numeral classifiers do not have any obvious semantic correlation with their nouns.

  1. -Variety of pronouns and systems of address. When addressing someone in Southeast Asia a multitude of factors, like age, sex, kinship and social position, have to be taken into account. Different sorts of pronouns exist which are adequate in a particular social context but not necessarily in others. Sometimes, it is even inadequate to use any pronoun at all and is more convenient to prescind entirely from them. An alternative strategy is to refer to someone by his personal name, or through a kinship designation, or by his occupation, or, simply, avoid all explicit reference to the speaker or to the interlocutor.

  1. Syntax

  2. - Word order. As they have no inflections, a more or less strict word order is important in Southeast Asian languages to indicate syntactical function. The vast majority of them is subject initial. In Mon-Khmer, Tai-Kadai, Hmong-Mien and in two of the major Austronesian languages (Javanese and Malay) the order is Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) while in Tibeto-Burman is predominantly SOV (Karen languages adopted SVO under Khmer and Thai influence). The much rarer verb initial order (VOS, VSO) is found in Tagalog (a major Austronesian language of Philippines).

  3.     Besides word order, adpositions help to establish the function of different parts of a clause. SVO languages use mainly prepositions, and verb-final languages postpositions. In many Southeast Asian languages there is no special order for questions. For example, in Thai the SVO order of the affirmative sentence remains the same in the question:

  1. She is cooking vegetables.

  1. She is cooking what?

  1. In contrast, some languages like Malay have a special order for some types of question. 

  1. -Topic prominence. In colloquial speech, the organization of a sentence can change in some languages, like Thai and Tagalog, to reflect the focus of interest of the speaker and/or the context of the discourse. In other words, the concept of subject is less important than that of topic. Thus, the topic tends to appear at the beginning of the clause.

  1. -Serial verb constructions are common in mainland languages. In them, two or more verbs sharing the same subject are juxtaposed in a single clause without intervening conjunctions. They usually express a series of closely related actions which may be quasi-simultaneous.

  1. -Final-sentence particles. Southeast Asian languages have at their disposal a variety of particles to be used at the end of the sentence. They play different roles, expressing politeness or familiarity, adding emphasis, posing a question or giving a command. 

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -The Languages of East and Southeast Asia. C. Goddard. Oxford University Press (2005).

  2. -Linguistic Epidemiology: semantics and grammar of language contact in mainland Southeast Asia. N. J. Enfield. Routledge (2003).

  3. -'Southeast Asia as a Linguistic Area'. W. Bisang. In Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World, 1009-1016. K. Brown & S. Ogilvie. Elsevier (2009).

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Languages of Southeast Asia

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