Clues to the Past: The Austronesian Language Family

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

There exist over 6,000 recorded languages on earth, and depending on how they are counted, they can be arranged into at least some dozens, and at most hundreds, of language families in the world. The distribution of these families across the world can give a lot of insights into human history and the way population happened on the planet. 

Wooden letter blocks spelling the word 'change' on a wooden background.
The language systems of the world have undergone vast changes over centuries and centuries, which has resulted in the creation of the various language families around the world that we see now. (Image: Sinart Creative/Shutterstock)

The Massive Austronesian Language Group

Austronesian is an interesting language group to study how humans spread. It contains languages that are spoken in Southeast Asia, as well as to the East of Australia, in the area often referred to as the South Seas. It is a huge language family, encompassing about a 1000 recorded languages, which includes various subfamilies: languages of the Philippines, such as Tagalog, Indonesian, which is sort of a derivative of Malay, again Austronesian languages. Both Tagalog and Indonesian further have a lot of related languages, creating a big family tree that these languages represent. 

In the South Seas area, Fijian is an Austronesian language, as are languages of the Polynesian subgroup, like Samoan and Hawaiian, and Tongan. 

Interestingly, one of the Austronesian languages is spoken much farther away geographically from the rest, in Madagascar, which is quite close to Africa, the home of very different language families. 

The Study of Austronesian Languages in Madagascar

The Niger-Congo group of languages spoken in areas close to Madagascar, in Africa, have no relationship to Malagasy, which is spoken on the island. The idea that someone from Southeast Asia had the technology and the fortitude to travel all the way to Madagascar seems counterintuitive now, as many developments of the time do, but it was apparently a successful sail, given the people who currently inhabit the land. The connections between the languages are clearly evident, too. 

For instance, the word for stone in Tagalog is bato, in Malay, it is Batu, and is vatu in Fijian and fatu in Samoan; clearly the same word has undergone changes as it arrived in different places. Then in Malagasy, the word for stone is vato: a clear indication of an underlying connection. Similarly, the word for eye in Malay, Tagalog, Fijian and Samoan is mata, which shows their existence in a family, but it is also maso in Malagasy, which shows how it is different but definitely related.

We also know that the people of Madagascar have a historical relationship with the people of the various islands of Micronesia, Polynesia, Melanesia, as well as New Zealand, where Maori is spoken, based on the similarities in the languages. 

Learn more about language families.

More Lessons from Austronesian

Austronesian can also tell us how a language has spread and from where. There has been a long-standing debate regarding the birth of Proto Indo-European, on whether it originated in Turkey or the southern steppes of Russia. Decoding the origin is easier in the case of Austronesian, based on the degree and geography of language differentiation. 

There are four subfamilies in Austronesian, three of which are spoken in the little island of Taiwan, while the fourth encompasses languages of the Philippines and Borneo, as well as Sulawesi, Indonesian, and all their relative languages found around New Guinea, the languages of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia, and lastly, Malagasy. 

That is interesting because it reiterates the fact that languages change over time, as is evident by the differences among these many languages, although still from the same family. As time passes, not only do languages change, but the changes also become more prominent in comparison to where the languages started. 

This also connects to what has happened to the three subfamilies in Taiwan. Out of the over 1000 languages of this family, three out of four subfamilies exist in Taiwan, yet, only about a dozen of these languages are alive in Taiwan today. As a stark contrast to the hundreds of languages alive in the fourth subfamily, this hints towards the fact that it is in Taiwan that these languages are most ancient. It was probably in Taiwan that a language emerged, and over a huge amount of time, all the subsequent languages became vastly different from one another, so much so as to create three distinctions. Similarly, the settlement that created the fourth subfamily must be much more recent, so that the languages are still so similar to each other. 

Generally when looking at a language group, the area with the greatest diversity is sought, where it is assumed the language group began because diversity is thought to have developed naturally because of the longest passage of time. Almost counterintuitively, Austronesian is assumed to have emerged in Taiwan, where the most endangered language groups are now, and then spread out rapidly to other areas.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Learnings From Polynesian Languages

As a stark contrast to the vastly differing languages of Taiwan, Polynesian languages are extremely close to each other: so much so, that linguists use Polynesian languages to learn comparative reconstruction and historical linguistics, because of their closeness.

For instance, louse in Tongan is kutu. In Samoan, it’s utu, where u is a sound, a glottal stop. English speakers do not consider glottal stops as such because we do not write them, and they do not contribute to our meanings, but they are still present in usage, as in the case of ‘uh-oh’. Glottal stops play much more important roles in many other languages, though.

Just as in Samoan and Tongan, the louse is utu in Tahitian, in Maori it’s kutu, and in Hawaiian, uku. There is clearly a relationship here. In a similar manner, Lizard in Tongan is moko, in Samoan, it’s mo’o, Tahitian mo’o, Maori moko, and Hawaiian mo’o. These are very closely related languages. There aren’t that many Polynesian languages either, perhaps about a couple of dozen. 

Map portraying the dispersion of the Austronesian language family, beginning from Taiwan, all the way to Polynesia.
Studying the characteristics of the Austronesian languages has allowed historians to understand the roots of the language family, which suggest that the languages began from Taiwan, and Polynesia was perhaps the last place it reached to.
(Image: Obsidian Soul/CC BY 4.0/Public domain)

The similarities between these languages suggest their young age within the Austronesian family. This notion is supported by archeology. Evidence suggests that western Polynesia was settled between 1500 and 1200 BC, while the islands farthest from these, such as New Zealand, where Maori is spoken and Hawaii, where Hawaiian is spoken, seem to have been settled between 600 and 1000 AD—1000 AD, a mere couple of centuries before the signing of the Magna Carta. 

Polynesia seems to be the last bastion, the last place that Austronesian speakers spread to after the language family began in Taiwan and spread outward. 

Evidence also points towards cultural ties between the people of Polynesia and Taiwan, the usage of bark beaters for making clothes, for instance. 

Based on the knowledge derived from the languages, we can arrive not only at the genetic relationship between the people of the geographies but also can reconstruct the migratory pattern that took place, by looking at how different and obscure languages are on a particular island, and how similar they are elsewhere. 

Despite the seeming unrelatedness of the populations now, language reveals the common history which binds them together, proving their relation not just as speakers of the same language family, but also perhaps as remnants of a long genetic lineage. 

Learn more about diversity in language structures.

Common Questions about the Austronesian Language Family

Q: What is the Austronesian language family?

Austronesian is a massive language family that is majorly used in Southeast Asia, and East of Australia. It is made up of four subfamilies and includes the languages of countries such as Indonesia, Taiwan, Polynesia, New Zealand, etc.

Q: What language is spoken in Madagascar?

The language of Malagasy is spoken in Madagascar, and it is a part of the Austronesian language family and is vastly different from the Niger-Congo family languages that are more prevalent in the region.

Q: How did Austronesian spread outward?

The most widely accepted theory about the Austronesian family of languages is that it began in Taiwan, from where it began spreading outwards, finally reaching Polynesia, which is believed to be the last node of its propagation.

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