The Austroasiatic languages,[note 1] in recent classifications synonymous with Mon–Khmer, are a large language family of Mainland Southeast Asia, also scattered throughout India, Bangladesh, Nepal and the southern border of China, with around 117 million speakers. The name Austroasiatic comes from the Latin words for "South" and "Asia", hence "South Asia". Of these languages, only Vietnamese, Khmer, and Mon have a long-established recorded history, and only Vietnamese and Khmer have official status as modern national languages (in Vietnam and Cambodia, respectively). In Myanmar, the Wa language is the de facto official language of Wa State. The rest of the languages are spoken by minority groups and have no official status.
Ethnologue identifies 168 Austroasiatic languages. These form thirteen established families (plus perhaps Shompen, which is poorly attested, as a fourteenth), which have traditionally been grouped into two, as Mon–Khmer and Munda. However, one recent classification posits three groups (Munda, Nuclear Mon-Khmer and Khasi–Khmuic) while another has abandoned Mon–Khmer as a taxon altogether, making it synonymous with the larger family.
Austroasiatic languages have a disjunct distribution across India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Southeast Asia, separated by regions where other languages are spoken. They appear to be the extant autochthonous languages of Southeast Asia (if Andaman islands are not included), with the neighboring Indo-Aryan, Tai–Kadai, Dravidian, Austronesian, and Sino-Tibetan languages being the result of later migrations.
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Regarding word structure, Austroasiatic languages are well known for having an iambic "sesquisyllabic" pattern, with basic nouns and verbs consisting of an initial, unstressed, reduced minor syllable followed by a stressed, full syllable. This reduction of presyllables has led to a variety among modern languages of phonological shapes of the same original Proto-Austroasiatic prefixes, such as the causative prefix, ranging from CVC syllables to consonant clusters to single consonants. As for word formation, most Austroasiatic languages have a variety of derivational prefixes, many have infixes, but suffixes are almost completely non-existent in most branches except Munda, and a few specialized exceptions in other Austroasiatic branches. The Austroasiatic languages are further characterized as having unusually large vowel inventories and employing some sort of register contrast, either between modal (normal) voice and breathy (lax) voice or between modal voice and creaky voice. Languages in the Pearic branch and some in the Vietic branch can have a three- or even four-way voicing contrast. However, some Austroasiatic languages have lost the register contrast by evolving more diphthongs or in a few cases, such as Vietnamese, tonogenesis. Vietnamese has been so heavily influenced by Chinese that its original Austroasiatic phonological quality is obscured and now resembles that of South Chinese languages, whereas Khmer, which had more influence from Sanskrit, has retained a more typically Austroasiatic structure.
Much work has been done on the reconstruction of Proto-Mon–Khmer in Harry L. Shorto's Mon–Khmer Comparative Dictionary. Little work has been done on the Munda languages, which are not well documented. With their demotion from a primary branch, Proto-Mon–Khmer becomes synonymous with Proto-Austroasiatic.
Paul Sidwell (2005) reconstructs the consonant inventory of Proto-Mon–Khmer as follows:
This is identical to earlier reconstructions except for *ʄ. *ʄ is better preserved in the Katuic languages, which Sidwell has specialized in. Sidwell (2011) suggests that the likely homeland of Austroasiatic is the middle Mekong, in the area of the Bahnaric and Katuic languages (approximately where modern Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia come together), and that the family is not as old as frequently assumed, dating to perhaps 2000 BCE.
Linguists traditionally recognize two primary divisions of Austroasiatic: the Mon–Khmer languages of Southeast Asia, Northeast India and the Nicobar Islands, and the Munda languages of East and Central India and parts of Bangladesh, parts of Nepal. However, no evidence for this classification has ever been published.
Each of the families that is written in boldface type below is accepted as a valid clade.[clarification needed] By contrast, the relationships between these families within Austroasiatic are debated. In addition to the traditional classification, two recent proposals are given, neither of which accepts traditional "Mon–Khmer" as a valid unit. However, little of the data used for competing classifications has ever been published, and therefore cannot be evaluated by peer review.
In addition, there are suggestions that additional branches of Austroasiatic might be preserved in substrata of Acehnese in Sumatra (Diffloth), the Chamic languages of Vietnam, and the Land Dayak languages of Borneo (Adelaar 1995).
Peiros is a lexicostatistic classification, based on percentages of shared vocabulary. This means that languages can appear to be more distantly related than they actually are due to language contact. Indeed, when Sidwell (2009a) replicated Peiros's study with languages known well enough to account for loans, he did not find the internal (branching) structure below.
Diffloth compares reconstructions of various clades, and attempts to classify them based on shared innovations, though like other classifications the evidence has not been published. As a schematic, we have:
|Austro - Asiatic||
Or in more detail,
This family tree is consistent with recent studies of migration of Y-Chromosomal haplogroup O2a1-M95. However, the dates obtained from by Zhivotovsky method DNA studies are several times older than that given by linguists. The route map of the people with haplogroup O2a1-M95, speaking this language can be seen in this link. Other geneticists criticise the Zhivotovsky method.
Other languages with proposed Austroasiatic substrata are:
John Peterson (2017) suggests that "pre-Munda" languages may have once dominated the eastern Indo-Gangetic Plain, and were then absorbed by Indo-Aryan languages at an early date as Indo-Aryan spread east. Peterson notes that eastern Indo-Aryan languages display many morphosyntactic features similar to those of Munda languages, while western Indo-Aryan languages do not.
Paul Sidwell (2009a), in a lexicostatistical comparison of 36 languages which are well-known enough to exclude loan words, finds little evidence for internal branching, though he did find an area of increased contact between the Bahnaric and Katuic languages, such that languages of all branches apart from the geographically distant Munda and Nicobarese show greater similarity to Bahnaric and Katuic the closer they are to those branches, without any noticeable innovations common to Bahnaric and Katuic. He therefore takes the conservative view that the thirteen branches of Austroasiatic should be treated as equidistant on current evidence. Sidwell & Blench (2011) discuss this proposal in more detail, and note that there is good evidence for a Khasi–Palaungic node, which could also possibly be closely related to Khmuic. If this would the case, Sidwell & Blench suggest that Khasic may have been an early offshoot of Palaungic that had spread westward. Sidwell & Blench (2011) suggest Shompen as an additional branch, and believe that a Vieto-Katuic connection is worth investigating. In general, however, the family is thought to have diversified too quickly for a deeply nested structure to have developed, since Proto-Austroasiatic speakers are believed by Sidwell to have radiated out from the central Mekong river valley relatively quickly.
Integrating computational phylogenetic linguistics with recent archaeological findings, Paul Sidwell (2015) further expanded his Mekong riverine hypothesis by proposing that Austroasiatic had ultimately expanded into Indochina from the Lingnan area of southern China, with the subsequent Mekong riverine dispersal taking place after the initial arrival of Neolithic farmers from southern China. Sidwell (2015) tentatively suggests that Austroasiatic may have begun to split up 5,000 years B.P. during the Neolithic transition era of mainland Southeast Asia, with all the major branches of Austroasiatic formed by 4,000 B.P. Austroasiatic would have had two possible dispersal routes from the Pearl River watershed of Lingnan, which would have been either a coastal route down the coast of Vietnam, or downstream through the Mekong River via Yunnan. Both the reconstructed lexicon of Proto-Austroasiatic and the archaeological record clearly show that early Austroasiatic speakers around 4,000 B.P. cultivated rice and millet, kept livestock such dogs, pigs, and chickens, and thrived mostly in estuarine rather than coastal environments. At 4,500 B.P., this "Neolithic package" suddenly arrived in Indochina from the Lingnan area without cereal grains and displaced the earlier pre-Neolithic hunter-gatherer cultures, with grain husks found in northern Indochina by 4,100 B.P. and in southern Indochina by 3,800 B.P. However, Sidwell (2015) found that iron is not reconstructable in Proto-Austroasiatic, since each Austroasiatic branch has different terms for iron that had been borrowed relatively lately from Tai, Chinese, Tibetan, Malay, and other languages. During the Iron Age about 2,500 B.P., relatively young Austroasiatic branches in Indochina such as Vietic, Katuic, Pearic, and Khmer were formed, while the more internally diverse Bahnaric branch (dating to about 3,000 B.P.) underwent more extensive internal diversification. By the Iron Age, all of the Austroasiatic branches were more or less in their present-day locations, with most of the diversification within Austroasiatic taking place during the Iron Age.
Roger Blench (2017) suggests that vocabulary related to aquatic subsistence strategies (such as boats, waterways, river fauna, and fish capture techniques), can be reconstructed for Proto-Austroasiatic. Blench (2017) finds widespread Austroasiatic roots for 'river, valley', 'boat', 'fish', 'catfish sp.', 'eel', 'prawn', 'shrimp' (Central Austroasiatic), 'crab', 'tortoise', 'turtle', 'otter', 'crocodile', 'heron, fishing bird', and 'fish trap'. Archaeological evidence for the presence of agriculture in northern Indochina (northern Vietnam, Laos, and other nearby areas) dates back to only about 4,000 years B.P. (2,000 B.C.), with agriculture ultimately being introduced from further up to the north in the Yangtze valley where it has been dated to 6,000 B.P. Hence, this points to a relatively late riverine dispersal of Austroasiatic as compared to Sino-Tibetan, whose speakers had a distinct non-riverine culture. In addition to living an aquatic-based lifestyle, early Austroasiatic speakers would have also had access to livestock, crops, and newer types of watercraft. As early Austroasiatic speakers dispersed rapidly via waterways, they would have encountered speakers of older language families who were already settled in the area, such as Sino-Tibetan.
Other than Latin-based alphabets, many Austroasiatic languages are written with the ancient Khmer alphabet, Thai alphabet and Lao alphabet. Vietnamese divergently had an indigenous script based on Chinese logographic writing. This has since been supplanted by the Latin alphabet in the 20th century. The following are examples of past-used alphabets or current alphabets of Austroasiatic languages.
According to Chaubey et al., "Austro-Asiatic speakers in India today are derived from dispersal from Southeast Asia, followed by extensive sex-specific admixture with local Indian populations."[note 2] According to Riccio et al. (2011), the Munda people are likely descended from Austroasiatic migrants from southeast Asia. According to Zhang et al. (2015), Austroasiatic migrations from southeast Asia into India took place after the last Glacial maximum, circa 10,000 years ago. Arunkumar et al. (2015) suggest Austroasiatic migrations from southeast Asia occurred into northeast India 5.2 ± 0.6 kya and into East India 4.3 ± 0.2 kya.
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