What I’ve Learned about the Malayo-Polynesian Family of Languages

Melinda Fillmore
Summer 1999

Smart people today prefer to call the Malayo-Polynesian family the "Austronesian" family because they feel it is more inclusive and accurate. This family is the second largest in the world (I believe the Afro-Asiatic family is actually larger)—a judgement not based on population of speakers but number of languages within the family, estimated at some 1,200 (Encyclopedia Britannica 722). Before European expansion in the past five centuries, Austronesian languages spanned all the way from Madagascar to Easter Island—some 2,200 miles (EB). The language is geographically concentrated in the South Pacific islands and parts of southern Asia including the Philippines, Madagascar, much of Malaysia, and the Central and South Pacific island groups (excluding Australia).

The Austronesian language family is broken up into subgroups which have been debated and modified over the years. Although Katzner divides this language family into four subgroups (5), under the heading "Languages of the World," the 1998 Encyclopedia Britannica breaks up Austronesian languages into five separate groups claiming that the traditional four are too heavily dependant on geography rather than linguistic evidence. Britannica lists the groups as: Formosan, West Malayo-Polynesian, Central Malayo-Polynesian, Western New Guinean, and Oceanic (739). These categories mean nothing to me. I like the original ones listed in Katzner’s book The Languages of the World because they’re easier to understand and seem more familiar. Geographical or not, I prefer those subgroups, which include Indonesian, Micronesia, Melanesian, and Polynesian. The family looks something like this:








Indonesian, Malay, Javanese, Sundanese, Madurese, Tagalog, Visayan, Malagasy

Minor Languages

Minangkagau, Achinese, Batak, Buginese, Balinese, Panagasian, Igorot, Maranoa, Jaria, Rhode

Marshallese, Gilbertese, Chamorro, Panapean, Yapese, Palau, Trukese, Nauruan

Fijian, Motu, Yabim

Maori, Uvea, Samoan, Tongan, Niuean, Rarotongan, Tahitian, Tuamotu, Marquesan, Hawaiian

Astonishing as it may seem, Proto-Austronesian was probably spoken in Taiwan around 4000 BC (EB 722). Neolithic settlers from China introduced grain agriculture, pottery, and domestic animals to the island, and by 3500 BC cultural resemblances were apparent in populations as far as the Philippines and later traces throughout Indonesia (EB 740). From there, linguistic evidence indicates a steady movement south and eastward to the coast of New Guinea and on to the western Pacific about 2000 BC. Using their trusty outrigger canoes, Austronesian speakers spanned out to many islands. We can track the rate of their settlement archaeologically with the distribution of Lapita pottery throughout Melanesia and the Polynesian islands (EB 740).

This is however, just one explanation the origin of natives. Polynesians themselves believe they were created and dispersed from one island within the broad reaches of Polynesia. "The poets sing of a green and cherished place, a legendary homeland" (Sinclair xv). This island they call Hawa’iki, for which the island group of Hawaii is now named. Was this cherished homeland Taiwan? I suppose we’ll someday find out.

Micronesian Islands: Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, Caroline Islands

The subgroup Micronesian includes languages like Marshallese, Gilbertese, Chamorro, and Panapean, These are mutually unintelligible languages closely related to Melanesian and Polynesian languages. Micronesian languages are all phonologically and structurally similar, but among the languages no more than 25% of the vocabulary is shared (EB v.8). Marshallese has about 20.000 speakers mostly in the Marshall Islands, and its alphabet includes the ampersand (&), representing a vowel sound somewhere between e and i (Katzner 248). Chamorro is spoken on Guam by approximately 40,000 speakers out of a 87,000 total population. Many Spanish words have pervaded into Chamorro following a three hundred year Spanish rule in Guam (247).

Indonesian islands: Sumatra, Java, Bali, Lombak, Sumbawa, Flores, Timor, Borneo, Celebes, etc.

Indonesian was declared the national language of the Republic of Indonesia in 1945, and today about three fourths of the population understand it, although only 12 million of the 125 million people speak it as their mother tongue. Indonesian and Malay are virtually the same language, differing only in a few minor orthographic variations. The Dutch developed the Malaysian spelling system while the British were responsible for the Indonesian; and therefore, the Indonesian j is y in Malay, dj is j, tj is ch, and sj is sh (Katzner 233). The language of Javanese is spoken in Java (the most populated island of Indonesia) by about 45 million people. A special Java script was passed down from southern India and is slowly being replaced by Roman characters (234). Sundanese is also spoken in Java, on the western side by some 13 million people. It can be written in both Javan and Roman alphabets (235). Eight million people speak Madurese on the island of Madura adjacent to Java (236), and Buginese is spoken on Celebes where 2 ˝ million speakers live on the western peninsula. On Sumatra, people speak Batak which is distictive because it has its own alphabet made of sixteen basic characters modified with certain marks (239). I wish I could show it to you now because it’s really an interesting-looking system.

Languages of the Philippine Islands also fit with the Indonesian category. Luzon is the main island followed by Mindanao, the Visayan Group, Mindors, and Palawan. Tagolog was made the country’s national language in 1962. About ten million people claim it as their mother tongue—most live in the southern Luzon area that includes Manila. Over 75% of the population understands the language. As mentioned before, the three century long Spanish rule left its mark in the language of Tagolog as well; a few hundred Spanish words were integrated into their vocabulary (243). "Visayan" refers to Cebuano, Hiligaynon, and Samaran collectively—three closely related but mutually unintelligible languages used mainly on the middle Philippine islands like Cebu, Bohol, Panay, and Samar (244).

Slight historical detour now, if I may—in 1565 the Spanish commenced a 350 year long galleon trade with Manila, Philippines. A trade network had already been established between Luzon and southern China and the Malay traders from Indonesia. Malay was spoken by all parties, and when more ports began to open and wider traffic pass through Manila, Malay became the language of trade. Still today it serves as the lingua franca for trade in those regions (EB v9).

Melanesian Islands: Papua New Guinea, Bismark, Solomon Islands, Santa Cruz, Vanuatu, Fiji, Norfolk

We’ll just look at Fijian for our example of a Melanesian language. About 200,000 people on the independent island of Fiji speak Fijian. Its native alphabet lacks h, x, z, f, j, and p (the last three used only with foreign words). The letter b is pronounced mb, d sounds like nd, g is ng, and q is also ng (Katzner 249). Under British rule the language of Motu was simplified, and because of heavy contact with English 19th century plantations, it was creolized and became Melanesian Pidgin or Tok Pisin—one of the national languages. Ask Terry Crowley about this one. He seems to be a big fan of Tok Pisin. Melanesian pidgin uses only about 1500 words of which 90% stem from English (EB v7).

Polynesian islands: New Zealand, Western and American Samoa, Tonga, Rarotonga, Hawaii, and French Polynesian islands of Tahiti, Marquises, and Kiribati

We’ve arrived at my favorite part—the Polynesian islands. Samoan is spoken by about 150,000 people in American and Western Samoa. Its alphabet has only fourteen letters—five vowels and nine consonants (Katzner 250). The Samoan language is packed with simple compounds expanding its limited vocabulary, and it has borrowed and fa’asamoa (‘samoanized’) many terms from the imperialistic English. Tahiti is one of the Society Islands in the South Pacific Ocean where about 50,000 speakers use Tahitian. Typical of Polynesian alphabets, this one only contains thirteen letters—the five vowels and only eight consonants (251). Tongan is spoken in the Kingdom of Tonga by about 75,000 speakers (252). It is similar to Samoan phonetically and grammatically. And finally, Hawaiian, the indigenous language of the Hawaiian Islands. The ubiquitous English language threatens as the number of Hawaiian speakers balances delicately around 75,000 people—only one percent of the islands’ populations. Isolationists on the private island of Ni’ihau preserve the language with a few hundred native speakers who are kept from contact with the outside world. Hawaiian is considered one of the most musical languages in the world. After all, its alphabet contains only five vowels and seven consonants. Every Hawaiian syllable must end in a vowel, and therefore many interesting translations take place as English is assimilated into the language like Mele Kilikimaka for Merry Christmas (255).


Some scientists make the exciting link between Polynesian and Austronesian islands with the Americas. With the accurate nature of their long-distance boat travel carefully navigated between wide expanses of ocean (which travel we know lasted well into 19th century), it seems ridiculous to believe native Polynesians were oblivious to the giant American continent spanning from pole to pole on their east. There must have been contact. Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl researched this interaction in his 1950’s book American Indians of the Pacific and happily discovered amazing cultural similarities—an eye-opener to many authors and scientists of the day (Schuhmacher ix). Unfortunately very little linguistic interaction apparently took place between the two cultures as far as we know today, but perhaps further research will prove otherwise.

News of this sort linking Oceana to the Americas comes as a welcome testimony to us as Latter-Day Saints who claim that Hagoth the ship builder spoken of in Alma 63 of the Book of Mormon is an ancient progenitor of these Austronesian peoples. "…Hagoth, he being an exceedingly curious man, therefore he went forth and built him an exceedingly large ship…and launched it forth by the narrow neck which led into the land northward" (Alma 63:5). Addressing the saints of Polynesia, President Joseph F. Smith said, "You brethren and sisters from New Zealand, I want you to know that you are from the people of Hagoth (Book of Mormon Student Manual 34). Wouldn’t Heyerdahl be excited had he been a member of our church?

Perhaps the subgroups used here aren’t the most accurate available, but until researchers can find more substantial ties the question of grouping within the family will be debated. However, despite scientific arguments, one fact remains: covering extensive geographic and linguistic miles, the Austronesian family of languages dominates as one of the largest families in the world.

Works Cited

Book of Mormon Student Manual. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: Salt Lake City, 1989.

Katzner, Kenneth. The Languages of the World. Funk & Wagnalls: New York, 1975.

New Encycloedia Britannica, The: Macropaedia. Volumes 1, 6, 7, 8, & 9, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc: Chicago, 1998.

Schuhmacher, W. Wilfried, F. Seto, J. Villegas Set, Juan R. Francisco. Pacific Rim: Aurtronesian & Papuan Linguistic History. Carl Winter Universit@ tsverlag: Heidelberg, 1992.

Sinclair, Marjorie. The Path of the Ocean: Traditional Poetry of Polynesia. University of Hawaii Press: Honolulu, 1982.

For maps— http://www.lib.utexas.edu/Libs/PCL/Mapx_collection.html

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Brigham Young University
Last Updated: Monday, September 6, 1999