2: Southeast Asia's Language Families

(Chapter 7 in the 1st book: Completely rewritten complete with new title)


How did Southeast Asia end up consisting of 11 countries? What cultural and historical developments led to the current state of affairs? Why are there so many diverse languages spoken in such a relatively small space? What is the artistic and religious background that provided the foundation for their magnificent architectural achievements? In short, how did Southeast Asia’s modern civilization come to be? These are the primary questions that drive this investigation.

To begin to answer these questions, let us explore what the scientific community knows about Southeast Asia’s prehistory. Physical remains, i.e. bones, metal craft and stone ruins, provide us with most of what we know about these ancient times. Are physical artifacts such as these the only way we can know anything about these prehistoric humans?

There are certainly no written sources, as script developed thousands of years later. No eyewitnesses either. Additional revelations regarding the ancient cultures must be from indirect sources.

5 language families of Southeast Asia

One of the primary sources of information concerning the nature of prehistoric cultures has been derived from the study of linguistics. Linguists analyze groups according to language similarities. Common words indicate common roots.

Using linguistic analysis, scholars have differentiated some common language groups, which they call families of languages. These language families consist of many members. Spanish, French, and Italian belong to the family of Romance languages. English and German belong to the Germanic language family. Even though language families share some similarities, significant differences render them mutually unintelligible. In other words, those who speak only English or German cannot understand each other, even though these languages belong to the same language family.

There are literally thousands of mutually unintelligible languages spoken throughout Southeast Asia. However, they can be joined into five major families. The location and grouping of these language families tell us much about character of Southeast Asia.

Miao-Yao is the 1st language family of Southeast Asia that we will consider. Many of the Hill Tribes of Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam speak languages belonging to this family. The Hmong, recent immigrants from Vietnam, speak a language in the Miao-Yao family. Because of their relative isolation, the Hill Tribes have maintained their cultural and linguistic independence from the mainstream. At least in Thailand, they have not been discouraged from pursuing their unique traditions and have indeed been encouraged to maintain their own culture.

Mon-Khmer, a 2nd language family, is spoken in Cambodia and Vietnam. Cambodians speak the Khmer language, while the Vietnamese speak languages in the Vietic subfamily (previously Viet-muong). Khmer is a branch of the Austroasiatic language family. ‘Austro’ means south in Greek, while ‘asiatic’ refers to Asia. Hence Austroasiatic refers to a language family of ‘southern Asia’.

Austronesian, a 3rd language family of Southeast Asia, is spoken by the islanders. This includes the inhabitants of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Phillipines. Most speak languages in the Malayo-Polynesian subfamily of Austronesian. Again the root words of Austronesia are ‘southern islands’, to indicate that it is the language family of Southeast Asia’s islands.


A 4th language family, Tibeto-Burman, is spoken by the people of Burma, modern day Myanmar. It is a subset of the larger Sino-Tibetan language family. None of the other language families belong to this family. As such, Tibeto-Burman is more closely related to the Sinitic language family of China than it is to the other major language groups of Southeast Asia.

Tai-Kadai, a 5th language family, is spoken in Thailand and Laos. Note that these five language groups are as different as Arabic and Chinese, rather than the difference between French and Italian. This factoid raises an immediate question: Why did distinct countries with their own unique language families emerge in this relatively small geographical area?  

While sharing many cultural similarities, these countries have been traditional military rivals up through modern times. The rival cultures expand their territories when their opponents are weak and shrink when their opponents are strong. In this way, the history of Southeast Asia and Europe is very similar.

Language Pockets indicate relative time-frame of Cultural Groups.

After grouping separate languages into families, linguists construct maps that reveal where the different languages are spoken. If there are isolated pockets of the language, then scholars surmise that the given language was probably more widespread before being overwhelmed by a more aggressive culture. In other words, the people/tribes that spoke a particular language family were separated from each other by the invaders.  The remaining language pockets are remnants of a time when the culture occupied a larger area. With this piece of information alone, many insights can be gained into historical patterns. Let's see what insights we can glean from Southeast Asia's linguistic map.

The black represents geographical areas where Miao-Yao is the predominant language family. The purple indicates territories where the Austroasiatic language family predominates. The blue represents the congregations of the Tai-Kadai speakers and the yellow represents the Sino-Tibetan speakers. Tibeto-Burman, the language that concerns us in Southeast Asia, is a significant branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. The white areas in the south indicate areas where languages in the Austronesian family are spoken.

Note that there are isolated groups of Miao-Yao speakers (black) found all the way from southern China to the mountains of the northern portion of Southeast Asia. This includes parts of Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. They are called Hill Tribes, because they favor existence in high places. They live as hunter-gatherers with limited agriculture. In prehistoric times, this forest culture was probably widespread, covering a large geographic area. With the encroachment of other cultures, they became isolated from each other and so only small pockets remain. The Hmong even claim that they were the original inhabitants of China until isolated or forced out by the Chinese. The isolated language pockets of the Hill Tribes indicate that they are probably indigenous, maybe even the descendants of the original inhabitants of the mountainous regions of Southeast Asia and Southern China.

The purple areas, predominantly in the south, indicate places where the primary spoken languages are in the Austroasiatic language family. Khmer of Cambodia and Vietic of Vietnam are significant branches of this family.

From a casual inspection of the map, we can induce that the encroachment of Tai-Kadai speakers (blue) and Tibeto-Burman speakers (yellow) seem to have separated the Miao-Yao speakers into small isolated pockets in the north. The Austroasiatic speakers (purple) seem to have been isolated into larger linguistic pockets in the west and south by the same cultures. Shown at the bottom of the map on the Malay Peninsula, Austronesian speakers (white) seem to have separated Austroasiatic speakers from the rest of their family. The linguistic evidence seems to indicate that the Miao-Yao and Austroasiatic cultures were indigenous to Southeast Asia and that the Tai-Kadai, Tibeto-Burman and Austronesian cultures arrived later.


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