All In The Language Family: The Austroasiatic Languages

The Austroasiatic language family: over 100 million speakers in 9 different countries. Let’s take a closer look.
July 22, 2020
All In The Language Family: The Austroasiatic Languages

Austroasiatic languages (also known as the Mon-Khmer languages) are one of Southeast Asia’s largest language families. The family contains a whopping 160 distinct languages, spoken over a broad geographical area. The best-known Austroasiatic language is Vietnamese. It has the largest number of speakers and the biggest diaspora outside of Southeast Asia. Expect us to take a close look at this one!

Overall though, the diverse Austroasiatic languages are scattered throughout 9 different countries. These are: Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, China, Bangladesh, and India. This is in sharp contrast to Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, and Sino-Tibetan languages, which are more geographically contained.

How Many People Speak Austroasiatic Languages?

Around 117 million people speak Austroasiatic languages. More than 70% of these — 90 million — speak Vietnamese. A significant diaspora of Vietnamese speakers also lives throughout the world. You’ll often hear the language spoken in Australia, the US, Canada, France, and Germany. Curiously, Vietnamese is even recognized as an official minority language in the Czech Republic. This gives speakers the right to use it in many official settings.

The next most-spoken Austroasiatic language is Khmer, the official language of Cambodia. It has 16 million speakers across Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. After that, we have Santali. This has approximately 7.5 million speakers in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and India. Mon and Wa come next, with around a million speakers each. And while there are over 100 more languages in this diverse family, most have fewer than a million speakers throughout Southeast Asia.

Why Are They Called Austroasiatic Languages?

This is an interesting one. The term Austroasiatic is actually an Anglicization of the Latin term austro (meaning “south”) prefixed to the adjective asiatic. However, the name is a colonial one — a western label, commonly used in academic circles. Calling it the Mon-Khmer language family would be more accurate. Although this is used less often, it’s how locals would refer to the language family and is more respectful of its roots.

How Similar Are The Austroasiatic Languages?

Given the sheer number of Austroasiatic languages, there’s a fair bit of difference between them. For starters, there’s variety in how these languages are written. Vietnamese, for instance, is the only Austroasiatic language that uses the Latin alphabet. This is a relatively recent development, though. It was imposed in the 20th century during French colonial rule. Before this, Vietnamese used a modified Chinese character system, called chữ Nôm. Other Austroasiatic languages use a variety of scripts. Khmer, Thai, Lao, and Burmese each have their own idiosyncrasies and modifications.

Despite the differences, there are many similarities between the languages. For one thing, Austroasiatic languages tend to have large vowel inventories. This is just another way of saying that the languages have many vowel sounds. Other Asian language families (like Dravidian, Sino-Tibetan, Austronesian, and Altaic) have far fewer vowels. Germanic languages — including English — tend to have far more. English has as many as 21 distinct vowel sounds. While it’s hard to pin down exactly, Vietnamese has around 28 vowel sounds, and Khmer has an impressive 31!

There are also some similar words across the Austroasiatic languages. Although these words have the same origin, they’re not always obvious. Let’s take a look at a small selection. For instance, “hand” is ដៃ (day) in Khmer and tay in Vietnamese. The word “root” is ឫស (rɨh) in Khmer and rễ in Vietnamese. Meanwhile, “louse” is ចៃ (cay) in Khmer and chấy in Vietnamese. See what we mean?

As with most related languages, numbers are also a great place to look for similarities. In Khmer, “one” is មួយ (muoy), while it’s một in Vietnamese, and mit’ in Santali. “Three” is បី (bei) in Khmer, ba in Vietnamese, and pe in Santali. “Four” is បួន (buon) in Khmer, bốn in Vietnamese and pon in Santali. We could go on, but you get the idea!

Are They Related To Any Other Language Families?

There’s no evidence to suggest that Austroasiatic languages are related to any other Asian language families. That said, history has seen plenty of exchange between languages of the region. This often comes with the exchange of religious ideas. For example, Khmer was heavily influenced by Sanskrit and Pali (both dead Indo-European languages) from the 7th to 9th centuries. This occurred as Buddhism spread from the Indian subcontinent to what is modern-day Cambodia. As a result, Khmer has many words borrowed from these now-dead languages.

Which Austroasiatic Language Should You Learn?

From a practical viewpoint, Vietnamese is the best language to learn. It has the largest number of speakers and the biggest diaspora. It also has the largest cultural output of all the Austroasiatic languages, meaning you’ll easily find resources and learning materials. That said, Vietnamese is a tonal language (meaning that tone is as important for meaning as consonants and vowels). This means it can be tricky to pick up. Non-tonal languages, such as Mon or Santali, have fewer speakers but could be easier to learn. Whichever you choose though, you can rest easy knowing you’ll be helping keep this lovely language family thriving.

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Author Headshot
Sam Wood
Sam is a vegan travel blogger, freelance writer, social media manager, former English teacher, linguist and occasional guest university lecturer from London, now living in Berlin. He is fascinated with the phonetics of the many varieties of English from all over the world, both from a pedagogical and historical point of view and as well speaks German, Spanish and French plus smatterings of Swedish, Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese. In his free time he enjoys watching Star Trek, doing yoga, baking delicious vegan cakes and performing as a drag queen.
Sam is a vegan travel blogger, freelance writer, social media manager, former English teacher, linguist and occasional guest university lecturer from London, now living in Berlin. He is fascinated with the phonetics of the many varieties of English from all over the world, both from a pedagogical and historical point of view and as well speaks German, Spanish and French plus smatterings of Swedish, Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese. In his free time he enjoys watching Star Trek, doing yoga, baking delicious vegan cakes and performing as a drag queen.

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