Let’s take a deeper look at the linguistic differences of Southeast Asia’s language families.
Originating in southern China, Austro-Tai bifurcated thousands of years ago. Those who remained on the mainland speak languages in the Tai-Kadai family, while those who ventured off into the ocean speak Austronesian. Eventually another language clan came down from the North, the Chinese. To be more precise, linguists actually call this the Sinitic language family, to differentiate it from Chinese language groups, which are so diverse. For the sake of familiarity, we shall employ the words ‘Chinese’ and ‘Sinitic’ relatively interchangeably.
Chinese has had such a heavy influence on the Tai language that linguists used to think they belonged to the same family. But recent discoveries have shown otherwise. By studying words, rather than grammar, linguists eventually realized that the Tai clan was not part of the Sinitic clan at all, but was actually a sibling of Austronesia.
Although linguistic siblings, Austronesian speakers are quite different from their long lost-relatives, the Tai speakers. China has had such a huge effect on Tai speakers that their spoken language sounds Chinese. For instance, both languages are monosyllabic, tonal and rely heavily on word order for meaning.
Despite these auditory similarities, the Tai-Kadai language family is overlaid on an ancient substrate of words, which is not at all Chinese. These words from the distant past actually link Austronesian and Tai together.
This same pattern holds true with Mon-Khmer and Vietic (formerly Viet-Muong). For ease of reference and familiarity, we shall refer to Vietic as Vietnamese. Mon/Khmer and Vietnamese also contain an ancient substrate of similar words that testify to their ancestral linkage to the Austroasiatic language family. However, linguists originally thought that Vietnamese belonged to the Chinese language family.
An adventurous branch of the Austroasiatic clan migrated to the eastern coast of Southeast Asia’s mainland (Vietnam) thousands of years ago. Their ancestral language morphed into Vietnamese. The Mon-Khmer and the Vietnamese have been apart for so long that they actually have very little in common anymore.
Ruled by the Chinese for many years, the Vietnamese language picked up many of their language characteristics. Like Chinese, Vietnamese is also monosyllabic and tonal. Despite these external similarities, Vietnamese and Chinese do not belong to the same family. Typologically at least, the Chinese, Tai, and Vietnamese language families all have the same external characteristics. Belonging to the Sinitic language family, Burmese also shares these same characteristics. Summarizing: Due to geographical proximity combined with cultural blending, Tai, Vietnamese, and Chinese sound similar but belong to different language families. In addition to language similarities, the Vietnamese and the Tai speakers have coupled with the Chinese for so long that they have many of the Mongoloid features, including heavy eyelids and no body hair.
The spoken languages of the Mon/Khmer of the mainland and Austronesian cultures of the islands also share many external similarities, but belong to different language families. Both languages are disyllabic, non-tonal, with grammatical affixes to determine meaning. In fact, the two languages sound so similar in so many ways that early linguists thought they were separate branches of the same family, which they called Austric.
However, the two language families are similar like friends, not like family. Their ancestral words are quite different. Austronesian has many more fishing words, as a testament to their prowess at sea. As good friends for so long, they have grown together culturally and spiritually, as we shall see.
The two language cultures have merged racially as well. They have commingled for so long that they look similar to each other and to the Indians. Lest there be any misunderstanding due to the substantial Thai influence in the area in modern times, the residents of the original Mon/Khmer kingdoms were not of the Mongoloid body type characteristic of China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, Vietnam and Thailand. Instead they had racial characteristics closer to the Hindus of India.
Due to regular interaction with India, Southeast Asian culture picked up many of their words. The Khmer picked up a lot of Sanskrit words because of their affiliation with Hinduism. Their cousins, the Mon, picked up many Pali words because of their affiliation with Theravada Buddhism. Their linguistic friends, the Austronesians, also borrowed many of Indian words and were influenced in a similar fashion.
While employing some Indian words and even sharing a similar script, Mon-Khmer is a unique language. Mon-Khmer speakers have 30 - 35 vowels determined by length and 3 registers. More importantly, Mon-Khmer has a unique word class called ‘expressives’. These are sentence adverbials which describe sensory impressions and emotions with symbolism reminiscent of synesthesia.
Synesthesia is the mixing of sensory descriptors, For instance, ‘the taste of the sunset is sweet’ – ‘the music has a delicious fragrance’. These ‘expressives’ are the perfect way to describe the integrated experience of art and life that is characteristic of Southeast Asian culture.
Southeast Asians don’t tend to separate things into parts as much as Westerners. For instance, there is no differentiation between secular and religious art. Instead of creating art for art’s sake, they create art for the beautification of the planet. Their dancers wear colorful costumes, performing their delicate movements to local instrumentation. Many times the dances tell stories, both historical and religious. Art, religion, and music are so mixed into their lives that it is impossible to separate them into parts. In Southeast Asia, religion, art and culture are blended in a seamless fashion. This holds true of the Austronesian islanders and the mainlanders, whether speaking Mon-Khmer, Tai, Burmese, or Vietnamese.
Tibeto-Burman is Southeast Asia’s final language family. Tibetans migrated over the Himalayas into Myanmar from the north. Because of a millennia long separation from Tibet, the language morphed into Burmese. As such, the Burmese and Tibetans are linguistic cousins. They speak the two main languages of the Tibeto-Burmese language family. Most linguists believe that Tibeto-Burman is a branch of the larger Sino-Tibetan language family, but this has not been demonstrated conclusively. Burmese is spoken primarily in Myanmar on the west of the mainland.
The following map shows the distribution of the Tibeto-Burman speakers. Green represents congregations of people who speak the Tibetan language, while yellow represents Burmese speakers.
Although Burmese speakers migrated into Southeast Asia relatively recently, scholars believe that cultures who spoke languages in the Tibeto-Burman family have lived in the area since Neolithic times. Indeed current speculations suggest that these cultures may have introduced more sophisticated rice-growing techniques to the indigenous Austroasiatic cultures. Based upon archaeological as well as linguistic evidence, it is thought that Tibeto-Burman speakers migrated from the Yunnan province of south-west China into northeastern India with their rice technology. Occupying the Southeast Asian mainland to northeast India, the Austroasiatic culture may have learned more sophisticated rice growing techniques from the Tibeto-Burmans and then passed it on to their relatives in Southeast Asia.
As exhibited, Southeast Asia is certainly a linguistically and culturally diverse section of the planet. Austroasiatic was probably the indigenous language of Southeast Asia. This ethno-linguistic culture bifurcated into Mon-Khmer and Vietnamese. For a time, the Khmer were the dominant culture of the mainland, but have since been isolated in what is now Cambodia. While unrelated linguistically, Vietnamese has many Sinitic elements due to proximity to the Chinese culture. Austronesian speakers live on all the islands and most of Malaysia. Tai speakers live in Thailand and Laos, but migrated from southern China. Like the Vietnamese, the Tai language and race has developed many Chinese attributes due to proximity. Burmese speakers live in Myanmar, the west of Southeast Asia’s mainland, but trace their roots to Tibet. Even though the language families are very different, they have one thing in common. They all have a complex system of status related personal pronouns. This is probably due to the hierarchical influence of Hinduism.
This concludes our brief linguistic sketch of Southeast Asia.