The Austronesian Language Family

J. Nicole Stevens
Ling 450
August 2, 1999

The Austronesian Language family includes between 900 and 1000 different languages, possibly more languages than any other language family. It extends from Madagascar to Easter Island, and includes places as far away from one another as Taiwan and New Zealand (O’Grady & Dobrovolsky, 1997, p. 373). This family includes languages as varied as Formosan, Malaysian, Indonesian, Hawaiian, and Maori.

According to Dalby, The proto-Austronesian language was first spoken on the island of Taiwan, and possibly on the coast of South-Eastern China (1998, p. 47). Comrie, Matthews, & Polinsky confirm that archeological evidence also indicates that Proto-Austronesian was spoken in Taiwan and surrounding areas between five and seven thousand years ago (1996, p. 93). Asher, however, gives 4000 years ago as the accepted date (1994, p. 276). Comrie, Matthews, & Polinsky combine linguistic and archeological studies to reconstruct several facts about this early people. They were expert seafaring people, who had sophisticated navigational understanding and well-built sea craft. They depended a great deal on fishing, and also grew crops such as taro, sugarcane, bananas, yams, and coconuts. They may have grown rice, too. They raised pigs, and may have also kept chickens and dogs; however, they did not have herd animals such as sheep or cattle (p. 93).

The people who spoke Proto-Austronesian are thought to have begun to separate into dialectal groups approximately 6000 years ago. The following chart is a representation of the historical separation of the Austronesian languages, adapted from Blust (1978) and Dalby (1998). The division of these language groups historically will be discussed below. The numbers on the chart will be referenced later on in this paper.

(1) Austronesian


˝ ˝

(2) Formosan (3) Proto-Malayo-Polynesian


    • ˝

(4) Western Malayo-Polynesian (5) Central-Eastern Malayo-Polynesian


    • ˝

(6) Central Malayo-Polynesian (7) Eastern Malayo-Polynesian


˝ ˝

(8) South Halmahera-West New Guinea (9) Oceanic

The people who spoke Proto-Austronesian are thought to have begun to separate into four dialectal groups approximately 6000 years ago, three of which became the three language groups of the indigenous peoples of Taiwan. These languages are also referred to as the Formosan languages (1). The fourth group, referred to as proto-Malayo-Polynesian (3), was the mother language for all of the other surviving languages in the Austronesian Family (Dalby, 1998, p. 47).

The first migration of the proto-Malayo-Polynesians (4), noted by Dalby, is thought to have occurred sometime between 3000 and 2000 BC, and to have gone first to the Philippines, then to Guam and down to Western Indonesia. This group also reached the coast of Indochina and even Madagascar. The language spoken by this group is the mother language of today’s Western Malayo-Polynesian languages (Dalby, 1998, p. 49), which include Tagalog, Malay, Javanese, Malagasy, Sundanese, Balinese, and many others (O’Grady & Dobrovolsky, 1997, p. 374).

A second migration brought others from the Philippines to the Moluccas and the Lesser Sunda Islands (5). These were speakers of the mother language of both Central and Eastern Malayo-Polynesian languages today. The Central group (6) remained in the Moluccas and the Lesser Sunda Islands. Part of the Eastern group (6) moved into South Halmahera and Western New Guinea (7), while the other part (8) continued on to Melanesia, then to Micronesia, and in time, throughout Polynesia.

Due to heavy trade in the area, languages in the Austronesian Family have borrowed many terms from languages with which they have come in contact. Comrie, Matthews, and Polinsky (1996) note many of these borrowing situations. Malagasy has borrowed much from the Bantu languages. Because of Islamic influence in Indonesia and Malaysia, the languages of these areas have borrowed many words from Arabic. In addition, because of trade with India, many of the Austronesian languages have borrowed from the Indo-European languages there. However, the Austronesian languages still retain a great deal of core vocabulary in common from proto-Austronesian (Comrie, Matthews, & Polinsky, 1996, p. 96).

Several features are shared by the various languages of the Austronesian language family. The phoneme systems of these languages are generally medium to small compared to other languages (Bright, 1992, p. 144). For example, the Maori alphabet consists of the ten consonants p, t, k, f, h, m, n, _, r, and w, and the five vowels i, e, a, o, and u, which have length contrasts (Bright, 1992, 144). The Pilipino alphabet is larger, and consists of the fourteen consonants b, k, d, g, h, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, w, and y, and the five vowels a, e, i, o, and u (De Guzman, 1968). The Hawaiian alphabet is smaller, and consists of only the eight consonants w, m, p, l, n, k, h, and z, and the four vowels i, a, u, and e.(Comrie, Matthews, & Polinsky, 1996, p. 96).

The word structure in Austronesian languages is generally CVC in the Western Division and CV in the Oceanic, the Oceanic languages having dropped final consonants. Many Austronesian languages use reduplication and infixing (the latter of which is very uncommon in other places) (O’Grady & Dobrovolsky, 1997, p. 374). Many Austronesian languages differentiate between inclusive and exclusive plurals (Comrie, Matthews, & Polinsky, 1996, p. 99). In addition, the SVO word order is very common, except in the Philippines, Taiwan, and Polynesia, where VSO becomes more commonly used (O’Grady & Dobrovolsky, 1997, 374).

It has been very difficult to connect the Austronesian language family with any other language families. The nearest possibility seems to be the Kadai family, which is the family that includes the Thai language. This relationship is still very much debated. The first person to propose this relationship was Paul Benedict. Benedict wrote a series of papers in which he turned down the then-accepted connection of Thai to Chinese, noting that all the similarities could be simply due to borrowing. He proposed instead to connect the Kadai family with Austronesian. He also proposed to connect these two families with another family that includes the languages Miao and Yao, and possibly even with Japanese (Dalby, 1998, 52).

The Austronesian Language Family has a long and varied history. The many different migrations and the seafaring nature of the speakers of these languages provided an excellent environment for a great deal of variation in the languages. These languages have also borrowed many vocabulary and other items from other languages. Still, the Austronesian languages have retained many features in common with each other that provide a strong backbone from which to study the changes that have occurred, and to gain a greater understanding of this family.


Asher, R. E., ed. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. 10 vols. New York: Pergamon Press, 1994.

Blust, Robert A. Austronesian Root Theory: An Essay on the Limits of Morphology. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1978.

Bright, William, ed. International Encyclopedia of Linguistics. 4 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Comrie, Bernard; Matthews, Stephen & Polinsky, Maria, ed. The Atlas of Languages: The Origin and Development of Languages Throughout the World. London: Quarto, Inc., 1996.

Dalby, Andrew. Dictionary of Languages: The Definitive Reference to more than 400 Languages. London: Bloomsburg, 1998.

De Guzman, Maria Odulio. Bagong Diksiyonaryo: Pilipino–Ingles, Ingles–Pilipino. Manila: National Book Store, Inc., 1968.

O’Grady, William & Dobrovolsky, Michael, ed. Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction. 3rd ed. U.S. Edition Prepared by Mark Arnoff. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

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Department of Linguistics
Brigham Young University
Last Updated: Monday, September 6, 1999