Samiksha Jaiswal (Editor)

Austronesian languages

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Proto-language:  Proto-Austronesian
Glottolog:  aust1307
ISO 639-2 / 5:  map
Austronesian languages

Geographicdistribution:  Maritime Southeast Asia, Oceania, Madagascar, Taiwan, Andaman archipelago, East Asia/Japan
Linguistic classification:  One of the world's primary language families
Subdivisions:  Rukai (Formosan)Tsou (Formosan)Puyuma (Formosan)Nuclear Austronesian     Other Formosan languages     (several primary branches)      Malayo-Polynesian

The Austronesian languages are a language family that is widely dispersed throughout Maritime Southeast Asia, Madagascar and the islands of the Pacific Ocean, with a few members in continental Asia. Austronesian languages are spoken by about 386 million people, making it the fifth-largest language family by number of speakers, behind only the Indo-European languages, the Sino-Tibetan languages, the Niger-Congo languages, and the Afroasiatic languages. It is on par with Indo-European, Niger–Congo, and Afroasiatic as one of the best-established language families. Major Austronesian languages with the highest number of speakers are Malay (Indonesian and Malaysian), Javanese, and Filipino (Tagalog). The family contains 1,257 languages, which is the second most of any language family.


Otto Dempwolff was the first researcher to extensively explore Austronesian using the comparative method. Another German, Wilhelm Schmidt, coined the German word austronesisch which comes from Latin auster "south wind" plus Greek nêsos "island". The name Austronesian was formed from the same roots. The family is aptly named, as the vast majority of Austronesian languages are spoken on islands: only a few languages, such as Malay and the Chamic languages, are indigenous to mainland Asia. Many Austronesian languages have very few speakers, but the major Austronesian languages are spoken by tens of millions of people and one Austronesian language, Malay (incl. Indonesian and Malaysian), is spoken by 250 million people, making it the 8th most spoken language in the world. Twenty or so Austronesian languages are official in their respective countries (see the list of major and official Austronesian languages).

Different sources count languages differently, but Austronesian and Niger–Congo are the two largest language families in the world, each having roughly one-fifth of the total languages counted in the world. The geographical span of Austronesian was the largest of any language family before the spread of Indo-European in the colonial period, ranging from Madagascar off the southeastern coast of Africa to Easter Island in the eastern Pacific. Hawaiian, Rapa Nui, and Malagasy (spoken on Madagascar) are the geographic outliers of the Austronesian family.

According to Robert Blust (1999), Austronesian is divided in several primary branches, all but one of which are found exclusively on Taiwan. The Formosan languages of Taiwan are grouped into as many as nine first-order subgroups of Austronesian. All Austronesian languages spoken outside Taiwan (including its offshore Yami language) belong to the Malayo-Polynesian branch, sometimes called Extra-Formosan.

Most Austronesian languages lack a long history of written attestation, making the feat of reconstructing earlier stages – up to distant Proto-Austronesian – all the more remarkable. The oldest inscription in the Cham language, the Đông Yên Châu inscription, dated to the mid-6th century at the latest, is also the first attestation of any Austronesian language.


It is difficult to make generalizations about the languages that make up a family as diverse as Austronesian. Very broadly, one can divide the Austronesian languages into three groups: Philippine-type languages, Indonesian-type languages and post-Indonesian type (Ross 2002):

  • The first group includes, besides the languages of the Philippines, the Austronesian languages of Taiwan, Sabah, North Sulawesi and Madagascar. It is primarily characterized by the retention of the original system of Philippine-type voice alternations, where typically three or four verb voices determine which semantic role the "subject"/"topic" expresses (it may express either the actor, the patient, the location and the beneficiary, or various other circumstancial roles such as instrument and concomitant). The phenomenon has frequently been referred to as focus (not to be confused with the usual sense of that term in linguistics). Furthermore, the choice of voice is influenced by the definiteness of the participants. The word order has a strong tendency to be verb-initial.
  • In contrast, the more innovative Indonesian-type languages, which are particularly represented in Malaysia and western Indonesia, have reduced the voice system to a contrast between only two voices (actor voice and "undergoer" voice), but these are supplemented by applicative morphological devices (originally two: the more direct *-i and more oblique *-an/-[a]kən), which serve to modify the semantic role of the "undergoer". They are also characterized by the presence of preposed clitic pronouns. Unlike the Philippine type, these languages mostly tend towards verb-second word-orders. A number of languages, such as the Batak languages, Old Javanese, Balinese, Sasak and several Sulawesi languages seem to represent an intermediate stage between these two types.
  • Finally, in some languages, which Ross calls "post-Indonesian", the original voice system has broken down completely and the voice-marking affixes no longer preserve their functions.
  • The Austronesian languages tend to use reduplication (repetition of all or part of a word, as in wiki-wiki or agar-agar). Like many East and Southeast Asian languages, most Austronesian languages have highly restrictive phonotactics, with generally small numbers of phonemes and predominantly consonant–vowel syllables.


    The Austronesian language family has been established by the linguistic comparative method on the basis of cognate sets, sets of words similar in sound and meaning which can be shown to be descended from the same ancestral word in Proto-Austronesian according to regular rules. Some cognate sets are very stable. The word for eye in many Austronesian languages is mata (from the most northerly Austronesian languages, Formosan languages such as Bunun and Amis all the way south to Māori). Other words are harder to reconstruct. The word for two is also stable, in that it appears over the entire range of the Austronesian family, but the forms (e.g. Bunun rusya, lusha; Amis tusa; Māori tahi, rua) require some linguistic expertise to recognise. The Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database gives word lists (coded for cognateness) for approximately 1000 Austronesian languages.


    The internal structure of the Austronesian languages is complex. The family consists of many similar and closely related languages with large numbers of dialect continua, making it difficult to recognize boundaries between branches. However, it is clear that the greatest genealogical diversity is found among the Formosan languages of Taiwan, and the least diversity among the islands of the Pacific, supporting a dispersal of the family from Taiwan or China. The first comprehensive classification to reflect this was Dyen (1965).

    The seminal article in the classification of Formosan—and, by extension, the top-level structure of Austronesian—is Blust (1999). Prominent Formosanists (linguists who specialize in Formosan languages) take issue with some of its details, but it remains the point of reference for current linguistic analyses, and is shown below. The Malayo-Polynesian languages are frequently included within Blust's Eastern Formosan branch due to their shared leveling of proto-Austronesian *t, *C to /t/ and *n, *N to /n/, their shift of *S to /h/, and vocabulary such as *lima "five" which are not attested in other Formosan languages.

    There appear to have been two great migrations of Austronesian languages that quickly covered large areas, resulting in multiple local groups with little large-scale structure. The first was Malayo-Polynesian, distributed across the Philippines, Indonesia, and Melanesia. The Central Malayo-Polynesian languages are similar to each other not because of close genealogical relationships, but rather because they reflect strong substratum effects from non-Austronesian languages. The second migration was that of the Oceanic languages into Polynesia and Micronesia (Greenhill, Blust & Gray 2008).

    In addition to Malayo-Polynesian, thirteen Formosan families are broadly accepted. Debate centers primarily around the relationships between these families. Of the classifications presented here, Blust (1999) links two families into a Western Plains group, two more in a Northwestern Formosan group, and three into an Eastern Formosan group, while Lee (2008) also links five families into a Northern Formosan group. The Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database (2008) accepts Northern, rejects Eastern, links Tsouic and Rukai (two highly divergent languages), and links Malayo-Polynesian with Paiwan in a Paiwanic group. Ross (2009) splits Tsouic, and notes that Tsou, Rukai, and Puyuma fall outside of reconstructions of Proto-Austronesian.

    Other studies have presented phonological evidence for a reduced Paiwanic family of Paiwanic, Puyuma, Bunun, Amis, and Malayo-Polynesian, but this is not reflected in vocabulary. The Eastern Formosan peoples Basay, Kavalan, and Amis share a homeland motif that has them coming originally from an island called Sinasay or Sanasay (Li 2004). The Amis, in particular, maintain that they came from the east, and were treated by the Puyuma, amongst whom they settled, as a subservient group (Taylor 1888).

    Blust (1999)


    (clockwise from the southwest)

  • Tsou language.
  • Saaroa language.
  • Kanakanabu language.
  • Thao language, AKA Sao. Brawbaw and Shtafari dialects.
  • Central Western Plains
  • Babuza language: Taokas, Poavosa dialects; old Favorlang language.
  • Papora-Hoanya language: Papora, Hoanya dialects.
  • Saisiyat language: Taai and Tungho dialects.
  • Pazeh language AKA Kulun.
  • Atayal language.
  • Seediq language: AKA Truku and Tarok.
  • Northern (Kavalanic languages).
  • Basay language: Trobiawa and Linaw–Qauqaut dialects.
  • Kavalan language.
  • Ketagalan language, or Ketangalan.
  • Central (Ami).
  • Amis proper.
  • Nataoran language: North Amis.
  • Sakizaya dialect.
  • Siraya language.
  • Mantauran, Tona, and Maga dialects of Rukai are divergent.
  • Li (2008)

    This classification retains Blust's East Formosan, and unites the other northern languages. Li proposes a Proto-Formosan (F0) ancestor and equates it with Proto-Austronesian (PAN), following the model in Starosta (1995). Rukai and Tsouic are seen as highly divergent, although the position of Rukai is highly controversial.

  • F0: Formosan = Austronesian
  • Mantauran
  • Maga–Tona, Budai–Labuan–Taromak
  • F1
  • Tsou
  • Southern Tsouic
  • Saaroa
  • Kanakanabu
  • F2
  • Northwestern (Plains)
  • Saisiyat–Kulon–Pazeh
  • Western
  • Thao
  • West Coast (Papora–Hoanya–Babuza–Taokas)
  • Atayalic
  • Squliq Atayal
  • Ts'ole' Atayal (= C'uli')
  • Seediq
  • Kavalan–Basay
  • Siraya–Amis
  • ? Southern [uncertain]
  • Isbukun
  • Northern and Central (Takitudu and Takbanuaz)
  • Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database (2008)

    This investigation keeps Li's Northern Formosan, but breaks up Blust's East Formosan, and suggests Paiwan may be the closest to Malayo-Polynesian. It also unites Tsouic and Rukai, the two most divergent languages in Li.


    This is an obvious, low-level grouping

  • Basay (Trobiawan, Linaw–Qauqaut dialects)
  • Kavalan
  • Ketagalan
  • These groups are linked with an estimated 97% probability.

  • Thao (a.k.a. Sao. Brawbaw, Shtafari dialects)
  • Western Plains
  • Babuza (a.k.a. Favorlang. Taokas, Poavosa dialects)
  • Papora-Hoanya (Papora, Hoanya dialects)
  • Saisiyat (Taai, Tungho dialects)
  • Pazeh (a.k.a. Kulun)
  • Atayalic
  • Atayal (Squliq, C’uli’)
  • Seediq (a.k.a. Truku, Taroko)
  • Another low-level grouping

  • Sakizaya
  • Nataoran (North Amis)
  • Amis
  • Bunun
  • Tsou and Rukai are connected with moderate confidence, estimated at 85% probability.

  • Tsouic
  • Tsou
  • Saaroa
  • Kanakanabu
  • Rukai (Mantauran, Tona, and Maga dialects are divergent)
  • Siraya (Taivoan, Makatao dialects)
  • Puyuma
  • Malayo-Polynesian and Paiwan are linked with a low level of confidence (74%).

  • Paiwan (southern tip of Formosa)
  • Malayo-Polynesian
  • Ross (2009)

    In 2009, Malcolm Ross proposed a new classification of the Austronesian language family based on morphological evidence from various Formosan languages. He proposed that the current reconstructions for Proto-Austronesian actually correspond to an intermediate stage, which he terms "Proto-Nuclear Austronesian". Notably, Ross' classification does not support the unity of the Tsouic languages, instead considering the Southern Tsouic languages of Kanakanavu and Saaroa to be a separate branch. This supports Chang's (2006) claim that Tsouic is not a valid group.

  • (Mantauran and Tona–Maga dialects are divergent)
  • Subdivisions not addressed, apart from Saaroa–Kanakanabu being separate from Tsou.
  • Austronesian comparison chart

    Below is a chart comparing list of numbers of 1-10 and thirteen words in Austronesian languages; spoken in Taiwan, the Philippines, the Mariana Islands, Indonesia, Malaysia, Chams or Champa in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, East Timor, Papua, New Zealand, Hawaii, Madagascar, Borneo and Tuvalu.


    The protohistory of the Austronesian people can be traced farther back through time than can that of the Proto-Austronesian language. From the standpoint of historical linguistics, the home (in linguistic terminology, Urheimat) of the Austronesian languages is the main island of Taiwan, also known as Formosa; on this island the deepest divisions in Austronesian are found, among the families of the native Formosan languages. According to Robert Blust, the Formosan languages form nine of the ten primary branches of the Austronesian language family Blust (1999). Comrie (2001:28) noted this when he wrote:

    At least since Sapir (1968), linguists have generally accepted that the chronology of the dispersal of languages within a given language family can be traced from the area of greatest linguistic variety to that of the least. For example, English in North America has large numbers of speakers, but relatively low dialectal diversity, while English in Great Britain has much higher diversity; such low linguistic variety by Sapir's thesis suggests a more recent origin of English in North America. While some scholars suspect that the number of principal branches among the Formosan languages may be somewhat less than Blust's estimate of nine (e.g. Li 2006), there is little contention among linguists with this analysis and the resulting view of the origin and direction of the migration. For a recent dissenting analysis, see (Peiros 2004).

    To get an idea of the original homeland of the Austronesian people, scholars can probe evidence from archaeology and genetics. Studies from the science of genetics have produced conflicting outcomes. Some researchers find evidence for a proto-Austronesian homeland on the Asian mainland (e.g., Melton et al. 1998), while others mirror the linguistic research, rejecting an East Asian origin in favor of Taiwan (e.g., Trejaut et al. 2005). Archaeological evidence (e.g., Bellwood 1997) is more consistent, suggesting that the ancestors of the Austronesians spread from the South Chinese mainland to Taiwan at some time around 8,000 years ago. Evidence from historical linguistics suggests that it is from this island that seafaring peoples migrated, perhaps in distinct waves separated by millennia, to the entire region encompassed by the Austronesian languages (Diamond 2000). It is believed that this migration began around 6,000 years ago (Blust 1999). However, evidence from historical linguistics cannot bridge the gap between those two periods. The view that linguistic evidence connects Austronesian languages to the Sino-Tibetan ones, as proposed for example by Sagart (2002), is a minority one. As Fox (2004:8) states:

    Linguistic analysis of the Proto-Austronesian language stops at the western shores of Taiwan; any related mainland language(s) have not survived. The only exceptions, the Chamic languages, derive from more recent migration to the mainland (Thurgood 1999:225).

    Hypothesized relations

    Genealogical links have been proposed between Austronesian and various families of East and Southeast Asia.


    A link with the Austroasiatic languages in an 'Austric' phylum is based mostly on typological evidence. However, there is also morphological evidence of a connection between the conservative Nicobarese languages and Austronesian languages of the Philippines. Paul K. Benedict extended the Austric proposal to include the Tai–Kadai and Hmong–Mien families, but this has not been followed by other linguists.


    A competing Austro-Tai proposal linking Austronesian and Tai–Kadai is supported by Weera Ostapirat, Roger Blench, and Laurent Sagart, and is based on the traditional comparative method. Ostapirat (2005) proposes a series of regular correspondences linking the two families and assumes a primary split, with Tai–Kadai speakers being the Austronesians who stayed behind in their Chinese homeland. Blench (2004) suggests that, if the connection is valid, the relationship is unlikely to be one of two sister families. Rather, he suggests that proto-Tai–Kadai speakers were Austronesians who migrated to Hainan Island and back to the mainland from the northern Philippines, and that their distinctiveness results from radical restructuring following contact with Hmong–Mien and Sinitic.


    French linguist and Sinologist Laurent Sagart considers the Austronesian languages to be related to the Sino-Tibetan languages, and also groups the Tai–Kadai languages as more closely related to the Malayo-Polynesian languages. He also groups the Austronesian languages in a recursive-like fashion, placing Tai–Kadai as a sister branch of Malayo-Polynesian. His methodology has been found to be spurious by his peers.


    Several linguists have proposed that Japanese may be a relative of the Austronesian family. Some linguists think it is more plausible that Japanese might have instead been influenced by Austronesian languages, perhaps by an Austronesian substratum. Those who propose this scenario suggest that the Austronesian family once covered the islands to the north as well as to the south. Alexander Vovin calls his reconstruction of Proto-Japanese suggestive of a Southeast Asian origin of the Japonic languages. Several Japanese linguists classify Japanese as "Para-Austronesian".


    It has recently been proposed that the Austronesian and the Ongan protolanguage are the descendants of an Austronesian–Ongan protolanguage (Blevins 2007).

    Writing systems

    Most Austronesian languages have Latin-based writing systems today. Some non-Latin-based writing systems are listed below.

  • Brahmi script
  • Kawi script
  • Balinese alphabet - used to write Balinese and Sasak.
  • Batak alphabet - used to write several Batak languages.
  • Baybayin - used to write Tagalog and several Philippine languages.
  • Bima alphabet - once used to write the Bima language.
  • Buhid alphabet - used to write Buhid language.
  • Hanunó'o alphabet - used to write Hanuno'o language.
  • Javanese alphabet - used to write the Javanese language and several neighbouring languages like Madurese.
  • Kerinci alphabet (Kaganga) - used to write the Kerinci language.
  • Kulitan alphabet - used to write the Kapampangan language.
  • Lampung alphabet - used to write Lampung and Komering.
  • Lontara alphabet - used to write the Buginese, Makassarese and several languages of Sulawesi.
  • Sundanese alphabet - used to write the Sundanese language.
  • Rejang alphabet - used to write the Rejang language.
  • Rencong alphabet - once used to write the Malay language.
  • Tagbanwa alphabet - once used to write various Palawan languages.
  • Lota alphabet - used to write the Ende-Li'o language.
  • Cham alphabet - used to write Cham language.
  • Arabic script
  • Pegon alphabet - used to write Javanese, Sundanese and Madurese as well as several smaller neighbouring languages.
  • Jawi alphabet - used to write Malay, Acehnese, Banjar, Minangkabau, Tausug, Western Cham and others.
  • Sorabe alphabet - once used to write several dialects of Malagasy language.
  • Hangul - once used to write the Cia-Cia language but the project is no longer active.
  • Dunging - used to write the Iban language but it was not widely used.
  • Avoiuli - used to write the Raga language.
  • Eskayan - used to write the Eskayan language, a secret language based on Boholano.
  • Woleai script (Caroline Island script) - used to write the Carolinian language (Refaluwasch).
  • Rongorongo - possibly used to write the Rapa Nui language.
  • Braille - used in Filipino, Malaysian, Indonesian, Tolai, Motu, Māori, Samoan, Malagasy, and many other Austronesian languages.
  • References

    Austronesian languages Wikipedia