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The Austronesian languages are a family of languages widely dispersed throughout the islands of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, with a few members spoken on continental Asia. Malagasy is a geographic outlier, which is spoken on Madagascar. Austronesian has ten primary subgroups, nine of them found in Taiwan (the Formosan languages, unrelated to Chinese) and one ancestral to all other members of the family (Malayo-Polynesian languages). Austronesian is one of the largest language families in the world, both in terms of number of languages (1244 according to Ethnologue) and in terms of the geographical extent of the homelands of its languages (from Madagascar to Easter Island).
The name comes from the Greek Austronesia, meaning "southern islands".
The Formosan languages are spoken on the island of Taiwan, and some neighbouring islands. The Malayo-Polynesian languages are scattered across the huge area described above. The Malayo-Polynesian (MP) languages are divided into two major subgroups, the Western MP and the Central-Eastern MP. Western has 300 million speakers; Eastern has about 1 million speakers.
Comparative reconstruction, confirmed by archaeology, has shown that the original homeland of the linguistic ancestors of all these languages was in south-eastern or eastern China, from which they emigrated to the island of Taiwan. On this island the deepest divisions in Austronesian are among families of native Formosan languages. The older term 'Malayo-Polynesian' is sometimes still used for the entire non-Taiwanese branch of Austronesian.
Some linguists believe the Tai languages probably deserve a place within an expanded version of this family. Yet others have attempted to show a genetic relationship between Austronesian and Austroasiatic languages, forming an Austric superfamily. Neither the Austro-Tai, nor the Austric superfamilies have gained general acceptance in the linguistic community.
The Malayo-Polynesian languages tend to use reduplication (repetition of all or part of a word - such as wiki-wiki), and have highly restrictive phonotactics, with small numbers of phonemes and predominantly consonant-vowel syllables, so that texts are quite repetitive in terms of the frequency of sounds.
- Javanese (>80 million)
- Indonesian (35 million native speakers)
- Tagalog (22 million native)
- Cebuano (18 million native)
- Malay (18 million native)
- Malagasy (10 million)
- Ilokano (7 million native)
- Fijian (337,000)
- Samoan (200,000? but many speak English also)
- Maori (160,000 but nearly all speak English also)
- Tongan (108,000)
- Gilbertese (Kiribati) (100,000)
- It is theorized by some linguists that Japanese is either a member of or has been heavily influenced by the Austronesian language family.
The internal structure of the Austronesian languages is difficult to work out, as the family consists of many very similar languages with large numbers of dialect chains . In the best classifications available today, many of the groups in the Philippines and Indonesia are geographic conveniences rather than reflections of relatedness. However, it is clear that the greatest genealogical diversity is found among the Formosan languages of Taiwan, and the least among the islands of the Pacific, supporting a dispersal of the family from Taiwan. Below is a consensus opinion, with the Western MP classification based on Fay Wouk and Malcolm Ross (ed.), The history and typology of western Austronesian voice systems, Australian National University, 2002.
- Atayalic (Formosan)
- Tsouic (Formosan, includes Rukai)
- Paiwanic (Formosan, includes Ami)
- Malayo-Polynesian ["MP"]
- Outer Hesperonesian [or Outer Western Malayo-Polynesian] (Borneo and the Philippines: Many small groups of languages, the most important languages being Ilokano, Kapampangan, Tagalog, Cebuano, Malagasy)
- Nuclear Malayo-Polynesian (possibly dispersed from Sulawesi)
- Sunda-Sulawesi [or Inner Western Malayo-Polynesian] (Western Indonesia: Javanese, Sundanese, Malay (Malaysian/Indonesian), Cham (of Vietnam), Balinese, Buginese (of Sulawesi), Chamorro (of Guam), Palauan)
- Central-Eastern Malayo-Polynesian
- Central Malayo-Polynesian (around the Banda Sea: languages of Timor, Sumba, Flores, and the Malukus)
- Eastern Malayo-Polynesian [or "Melanesian", taken to subsume Micronesian and Polynesian]
- Halmahera-Geelvink Bay (languages of Halmahera and western Irian Jaya, the most important being Buli and Biak)
- Ethnologue report for Austronesian.
- Comparative vocabulary data from 280 Austronesian Languages.
- Austronesian Language Resources
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