choose a language or topic »|Wednesday, October 18, 2017
You are here: Home » Austronesian » Austronesian Language Family
  • Follow Us!

Austronesian Language Family 

austronesian

The Austronesian language family stretches halfway around the world, covering a wide geographic area from Madagascar to Easter Island, and from Taiwan and Hawai’i to New Zealand. The family includes most of the languages spoken on the islands of the Pacific with the exception of the indigenous Papuan and Australian languages. The name “Austronesian” comes from the Greek words for ‘south’ and ‘island.’ Austronesia includes Madagascar, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan and the Pacific islands of MelanesiaMicronesia and Polynesia. With 1268 languages, Austronesian is one of the largest and the most geographically far spread language families of the world.

Austronesian languages are spoken in Brunei, Cambodia, Chile, China, Cook Islands, East Timor, Fiji, French Polynesia, Guam, Indonesia, Kiribati, Madagascar, Malaysia, Marshall Islands, Mayotte, Micronesia, Myanmar, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Suriname, Taiwan, Thailand, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, USA, Vanuatu, Viet Nam, Wallis and Futuna. The total number of speakers of Austronesian languages is estimated at 311,740,132 with a median of 3,384 speakers per language (Ethnologue).

The existence of the Austronesian language family was first discovered in the 17th century when Polynesian words were compared to words in Malay. Despite extensive research into Austronesian languages, their origin and early history remain a matter of debate. Some scholars propose that the ancestral Proto-Austronesian language originated in Taiwan (Formosa), while other linguists believe that it originated in the islands of Indonesia.

The Austronesian language family is usually divided into two branches: Malayo-Polynesian and Formosan. The Malayo-Polynesian branch is by far the largest of the two. It is traditionally divided into two main sub-branches.

  • The Western sub-branch includes 531 languages spoken in Madagascar, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, parts of Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Two languages of Micronesia (Chamorro and Palauan) are also included in this group. This branch represents over 300 million speakers and includes such widely spoken languages as JavaneseMalay, and Tagalog.
  • The Central-Eastern sub-branch, sometimes referred to as Oceanic, contains around 706 languages spoken in most of New Guinea, and throughout the 10,000 or more islands of MelanesiaMicronesia, and Polynesia. Despite its diversity and geographic spread, this branch represents only under 2 million speakers. The aboriginal languages of Australia and the Papuan languages of New Guinea are not included in this branch.

Below is a list of the Austronesian languages with the largest number of speakers in their respective branches.

Malayo-Polynesian (1248 languages)
Language Number of speakers (in millions) Where spoken primarily
Western (531 languages)
75.5
Indonesia
27
Indonesia
23
Indonesia
20
Philippines
17.6
Malaysia
Tagalog (Pilipino, Filipino)
15.9
Philippines
Madurese (Madura) 13.7 Indonesia
Ilocano (Ilokano)
8
Philippines
Hiligaynon 7 Philippines
6.5
Sumatra, Indonesia
6
Madagascar
5.9
Indonesia
3.9
Indonesia
Bugis (Buginese) 3.5 Philippines
3.1
Thailand
3
Indonesia
Bikolano (Bikol) 2.5 Philippines
Waray-Waray 2.4 Philippines
2.1
Indonesia
Batak 2 Indonesia
1.9
Indonesia
Kapamgangan 1.9 Philippines
1.1
Madagascar
Central-Eastern (Oceanic) 706 languages
371,000
Samoa
334,000
Fiji
124,000
Tahiti
105,000
Tonga
77,000
Guam, Northern Mariana Islands
50,000 to 70,000
New Zealand
68,000
Kiribati
44,000
Marshall Islands
Rarotongan 42,700 Cook Islands
3,500
Easter Island
1,000
Hawai’i, U.S.A
Formosan (20 languages, all but 2 extinct)
Language Number of speakers (in millions) Where spoken primarily
138,000
Taiwan
4,750
Taiwan

Many of the languages included in the Austronesian family have only a handful of speakers each. For instance, in Melanesia, the average is roughly one language for every 1,500 people. The indigenous people of Taiwan (Formosa) spoke a number of Austronesian languages prior to the arrival of Chinese settlers in the 17th century. Today, only 7 of these aboriginal languages survive. Of these, 3 are almost extinct with 1-5 speakers remaining.

Status
The following Malayo-Polynesian languages have official status in their respective countries. These languages are widely spoken and understood as native or as second languages in their respective countries.

Carolinian Northern Mariana Islands
Chamorro Guam
Fijian Fiji
Filipino/Tagalog Philippines
Hawai’ian state of Hawai’i, U.S.A.
Indonesian Indonesia
Kiribati (Gilbertese) Kiribati
Malagasy Madagascar
Malay Malaysia
Marshallese Marshall Islands
Nauruan Nauru
Samoan Samoa
Tahitian French Polynesia
Tongan Tonga
Tuvaluan Tuvalu

Dialects

Structure

Most Austronesian languages have 4-5 vowels. and 16-20 consonants. Hawai’ian has the second smallest inventory of phonemes of any known languages with 5 vowels and only 8 consonants.

Sound system
Despite the size and diversity of the Austronesian language family, its members share some commonalities in their sound systems. Their sound inventories range from very simple to average. For instance, Hawai’ian has only 13 phonemes.

Vowels
The vowel systems of Austronesian languages are very simple with 4-5 vowel phonemes, i.e., sounds that differentiate word meaning. A typical 5-phoneme system is given below.

Open
i
cxxx
u
Mid
e
o
Close
a

Consonants
Most Austronesian languages have between 16 and 20 consonant phonemes, i.e., sound that distinguish word meaning. They allow only a restricted number of consonant clusters, of which nasal + stop is the most common. Most do not allow final consonant clusters or allow a very restricted number of consonants in final position. With 1268 languages, it is not surprising that some of them also feature fairly unusual and rare consonants:

Stress
Stress in most Austronesian languages can fall on any syllable of a word. It is unpredictable, and serves to differentiate the meaning of otherwise identical words or different forms of a word, e.g., díla ‘tongue’ and dilá ‘big talker’ in Batak Toba spoken in Sumatra. Only a few languages are tonal, e.g., Eastern Cham (under the influence of Vietnamese) and Tsat (influenced by Chinese and Tai-Kadai languages of Hainan Island).

Grammar
Austronesian languages are agglutinative, i.e., they form words attaching prefixes or suffixes to roots with basic meanings to create derivatives. Words can be very long. They also use reduplication to mark grammatical relations.

Nouns

  • Most Austronesian languages are Ergative-Absolutive. Subjects of intransitive verbs and direct objects of transitive verbs are both marked with the absolutive case, as opposed to subjects of transitive verbs marked with the ergative case.
  • Nouns are not marked for gender. In some languages, only some nouns borrowed from Spanish are marked for gender, e.g., in Ilocano doktór (masculine) and doktóra (feminine).
  • Nouns are divided into personal and common. They are marked by different articles.
  • Plural can be expressed in two ways: (1) by a plural form of the article, e.g., in Ilocano, ti baláy ‘the house’ and dagití baláy ‘the houses’; (2) by reduplication, e.g., in Bahasa Indonesia anak ‘child’ and anak anak ‘children.’
  • A number of languages of Indonesia and the Pacific use classifiers in counting nouns, e.g., in Indonesian se-orang-guru ‘one + person classifier + teacher’. Some languages have dozens of classifiers based on characteristics of counted objects, such as their shape, size, function, etc. The use ofclassifiers is also common in Sino-Tibetan languages, such as Chinese.

Pronouns
Some typical features of Austronesian pronouns are listed below:

  • Most Austronesian languages distinguish two forms of ‘we’: an inclusive form that includes the listener, and an exclusive form does not. Many languages of the Philippines also have an special dual inclusive form which means ‘you and me’. Some Oceanic languages have a dual number, e.g., ‘we two,’ ‘you two,’ etc.
  • Gender is not marked in 3rd person singular personal pronouns, i.e., there is no distinction between ‘he’ and ‘she.’
  • There are three demonstrative pronouns: proximal, medial, and distal. Proximal is equivalent to the English this, medial is equivalent to the Englishthat, and distal is equivalent to the English yonder.
  • Most pronouns are marked for familiarity and formality.

Verbs

  • There is a division between stative and dynamic (action) verbs. Stative verbs are more or less equivalent to adjectives in English.
  • Verbs can be prefixedinfixed, or suffixed to mark transitivity, voice, and focus.
  • An interesting feature of verbs is the focus system which has been debated by linguists for almost a hundred years. Thus, a sentence can focus on the actor (subject), patient (object), location, instrument, or beneficiary. The focus is reflected in the verb.
  • In many languages verbs are not marked for person or tense. These categories are inferred from context or expressed by adverbs, time words or clauses.

Registers
An important aspect of Austronesian languages is the use of speech registers, or styles. Each style depends on social context and employs its own vocabulary, grammar, and even intonation. Javanese, for instance, uses three speech levels distinguished by vocabulary: Kromo, used when speaking to socially superior persons, Ngoko, used when speaking to inferiors or equals, and Madya, a mixture of Kromo and Ngoko. The use of registers is not unique to Austronesian languages since other Asian languages such as KoreanJapanese and Thai also use them.

Word order
Austronesian languages exhibit several patterns of word order:

  • Languages of the Philippines, e.g., CebuanoIlocanoTagalog, as well as Malagasy, have a verb-initial word order with the order of the other sentence constituents being relatively free, depending on pragmatic considerations.
  • Languages of Indonesia, e.g., Bahasa MelayuBahasa Indonesia, and Javanese have a Subject-Verb-Object word order.
  • Languages of Polynesia, e.g., Hawaiian, have a Verb-Subject-Object word order.

Vocabulary
The vocabulary of Austronesian languages is of common Austronesian stock with borrowings from other languages such as ArabicSanskritPortuguese,SpanishDutch, and English. The sources of borrowing vary from language to language.

A comparison of a few common words in a variety of Austronesian languages shows the wide divergence in their vocabulary (see Comparison of Austronesian Languages)

sun
island
water
banana
Indonesian matahari (mata ‘eye,’ hari ‘day’) pulau air pisang
Javanese srengenge, Surya pulo banyu, Toya pisang
Balinese matanai, Surya pulau, nusa yeh, Tirta, Toya gedhang
Sundanese panonpoe pulau, nusa cai cau
Acehnese mata uroe pulo ie pisang
Tagalog araw pulo, isla tubig saging
Hiligaynon adlaw polo, isla tubig saging
Maori ra motu wai maika
Fijian siga yanu-yanu wai jaina
Hawaiian la moku wai mai’a
Malagasy masoandro (maso’ ‘eye,’andro ‘day’) nosy rano akondro

Below are the numerals 1-10 in five Austronesian languages.

Tagalog

Cebuano

Ilokano

Indonesian

Malay

Hawaiian
one

isa

usá

maysa

safu

satu
‘ekahi
two

dalawa

duhá

dua

dua

dua
‘elua
three

tatlo

tulú

tallo

tiga

tiga
‘ekolu
four

apat

upát

uppat

empat

empat
‘eha
five

lima

limá

lima

lima

lima
‘elima
six

anim

unúm

innem

enam

enam
‘eono
seven

pito

pitú

pito

tuju

tujuh
‘ehiki
eight

walo

walú

walo

delapan

lapan
‘ewalu
nine

siyam

siyám

siam

sembilan

sembilan
‘eiwa
ten

sampu

napúlu

sangapulo

sepuluh

sepuluh
‘umi

Writing

Austronesian languages are written with different writing systems, some being based on the Roman alphabet and others on alphabets derived from Indian or Arabic scripts. Several examples are given below.

Balinese Balinese syllabic alphabet derived from the Brahmi script of ancient India by way of the Pallava and Old Kawi scripts is still in use for religious purposes.
Latin alphabet.
Javanese Javanese syllabic alphabet derived from the Brahmi script of ancient India by way of the Pallava and Old Kawi scripts of ancient India is still in use for religious purposes.
Latin alphabet
Hawai’ian Latin alphabet.
Hiligaynon Latin alphabet.
Indonesian Latin alphabet
Malay Formerly written with the Arabic alphabet which was replaced with the Latin alphabet in the 17th century.
TagalogCebuano,
Ilocano
These languages used to be written with the Baybayin syllabic alphabet developed from the Kawi script of Java, Bali and Sumatra which descended from the Pallava script, one of the southern Indian scripts, in turn, derived from the Brahmi script. Baybayin was replaced with the Latin alphabet in the 16th century. It is used today for only for decorative purposes.

Difficulty

Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Austronesian languages?
Data is available for Tagalog which is considered to be a Category II language in terms of difficulty for speakers of English, Indonesian and Malay which are considered to be more difficult than Category I languages, requiring 36 weeks of instruction to reach ILR level S3 in speaking.

19 Responses to Austronesian Language Family

  1. Sinjoro ENG

    The Indonesian language is from Malay but they use it as the official language of the nation and thus called Indonesia. The Malay in Malaysia is from Indonesia Malay tribal language but the pronounciation is being changed to Riau Malay.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Thank you for your comments. See our revised Malay page.

       
    • Fred Maramis

      It’s not just from Malay, Indonesian is INDEED a standardized Malay dialect. This site is seeing languages from the linguistic view, not political. So let’s call the language as Malay here.

       
  2. injury statistics

    I like the valuable info you supply in your articles.
    I’ll bookmark your weblog and check again here frequently.
    I’m moderately sure I will be told many new stuff proper right here!
    Good luck for the next!

     
  3. reuseman

    just correcting the typo,
    ‘one’ in Indonesian is ‘satu’, not ‘safu’

    Thanks for the great website

     
  4. tian

    Bugis (Buginese) -> Philippines

    Bugis was a tribe from south sulawesi ( indonesia )

    would you like to explain why do you refer it to Philippines?

     
  5. search engine

    For hottest news you have to visit the web and on web I found
    this website as a finest web page for most up-to-date updates.

     
  6. Tarmizi Bustamam

    Just correcting,

    Just correcting,

    Indonesian:

    – tujuh
    – delapan

    Malay:

    – tujuh
    – delapan/lapan (colloquial)

     
  7. Pingback: JAMORABON NAME | Jamorabon - The Family Network

  8. roxanna Choay

    you have to be specific on which island in Micronesia your talking about, because there is four and they all have different languages.

     
  9. Pingback: Languages of the Pacific Islands -

    • Irene Thompson

      We will approve your comment just this time, but in the future please don’t refrain from posting promotional material no matter how well-intentioned. We would like to see only comments that improve and authenticate the information provided on our pages. Thank you.

       
  10. Karlo Qui

    HI i am from The Philippines. i wonder if Pangasinan region dialect called pangasinense belongs to the Austro polynesian language and from what specific branch?
    Thank you.

     
  11. Kencot

    Great article, but I would like you to correct some Javanese words, the Javanese word for ‘banana’ is ‘gĕdhang’ (gedhang) not ‘pisang’, the word pisang is belongs to Indonesian & Malay, not Javanese

     
  12. www.mnicolau.com

    Admiring the persistence you put into your blog and in depth information you provide.
    It’s good to come across a blog every once in a while that
    isn’t the same old rehashed information. Excellent read! I’ve bookmarked your site and I’m adding your RSS feeds to my Google account.

     

Add a Comment