The Language Families of East and Southeast Asia

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Language is an ever-evolving concept, and it is one that holds a significant position in every culture around the world. As with the cultures these languages belong to, there are a lot of differences in the languages that exist around the world, many of which can seem very strange to English speakers.

A chalkboard showing Japanese lettering and a Japanese flag.
Languages across the world are very diverse. Some languages in East and Southeast Asia have a lot of peculiar characteristics that separate them from Indo-European languages.
(Image: nito/Shutterstock)

Language always has a very long history that goes hand in hand with the history and culture of a place or the geography of a place. Take, for instance, the remnants of the Silk Road, which goes across China and keeps moving toward East and Southeast Asia, where the language is vastly different from the way it is generally construed to be by the speakers of Indo-European languages, which is what most of the western languages are, such as English, German, and French. 

To understand the differences in language systems, an English speaker who is interested in linguistics can study the Japanese language, just to get a sense of how different languages can be. The Japanese language can also be used as a wonderful example of how different languages come with different cultures.

The Diversity of Japanese Culture

Japanese is not actually too hard for English speakers to learn, once some things which seem very odd in the beginning are dealt with. In fact, most Japanese people try to be nice to those who speak the language incorrectly. This is a great example of how cultures around the world differ. In contrast to the Japanese culture, there are some cultures where people are infamous for being very strict with the usage of their language. The people of the Netherlands, for instance, do not take kindly to anyone who speaks Dutch any way other than perfectly. Instead, they prefer to communicate in English, which they are, in fact, very good at. On the other hand, Japanese people are known to be alright, and, in fact, even take it in great stride when foreign speakers speak their language in a funny way. 

Although the Japanese language and culture is one that is really far away from the languages and culture that Indo-European language families are generally associated with, it is not even close to the only language and culture that represents the diversity of the different language systems in the world. The East and Southeast Asian languages, for instance, are very different from the Indo-European language family.

Learn more about the Indo-European language family.

The Languages of East and Southeast Asia

If someone was to go to East and Southeast Asia in an attempt to study the languages of the region, they would discover that there is actually no such thing as the Asian family of languages.

What they would actually have to deal with is the existence of many different groups. There exists the Sino-Tibetan language group, which includes Chinese languages and Tibetan. There is also the Austroasiatic language group, which includes languages such as Vietnamese and Cambodian, also known as Khmer. In addition, there is the Tai-Kadai group, that has the Thai and Laotian languages in it. Finally, scattered amongst all these different language groups is the group of languages which is called Miao-Yao, which includes languages such as Hmong. 

These are four completely different language groups; there is no one Asian language family. However, despite this fact, there are certain similarities amongst the languages in these groups. 

These similarities, in fact, go on to show the different ways in which languages function. 

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

The Telegraphic Nature of Asian Languages

An example of a similarity that binds a lot of Asian languages is the fact that they are very telegraphic as compared to what we think is necessary as part of language. In other words, these languages leave out a lot of words to be filled by context. Things that would otherwise be marked when communicating are just left out in these languages, and it becomes clear that a lot of these things do not really need to be communicated explicitly, and can actually be left to context, as these languages do.  

Chinese calligraphy on beige paper with brush
A common feature found in many Asian languages is that a lot of meaning is left to be filled by context.
(Image: Sophy Ru/Shutterstock)

Normally, language contains separate words for he and she. It is considered important to point out the salient difference between man and woman, but these languages very rarely do so. In a lot of Asian languages, he, she, and it are all denoted by the same word. There are no words for a and the, regardless of whether the object of conversation has been brought up before or is just being introduced. Further, there are no distinctions drawn between I and my either. If someone uses I instead of my with an object they possess, the meaning is implied and understood in these languages given the right context. 

As a result of this and other peculiarities in these languages, an ordinary sentence in one of these languages, such as Cantonese Chinese, for instance, is quite different from what a speaker of an Indo-European language might imagine it to be. To say he’s my classmate in Cantonese, then the word for word translation would go in quite a strange manner. The first word would be kéuih, which means he, she, or it, depending on the context. The word itself has no gender. Further, and even more strangely, there is no word in place of is. In fact, on scrutinizing its usage, the absence of the verb to be, of which is is a conjugation, makes logical sense! The association between the subject and the object of being can be quite self-explanatory when said alongside one another and can be understood from the context.

Getting back to the sentence in Cantonese, there is he/she/it, then there is no is, and then, in place of my, there is muh, which actually is also the word for I. So, the language does not possess any separate word to denote possession. This is because the usage of possessive pronouns is so common that their usage can be left to context. Finally, the word for classmate is tùhnghohk. Stringing it all together, therefore, the English phrase he is my classmate, when translated word for word to Cantonese, results in something like he/she/it I classmate.

Finally, a little word, lèihga, is put at the end of the sentence. It has a similar meaning as the English speakers’ phrase you know at the end of a common fact: it is the sort of thing that may be considered to be natural, or assumed, when communicated often. Further, it adds to the context of the sentence, it connects the fact to the rest of the world. In this example, the speaker probably did not point out their classmate out of the blue one fine day—they were likely asked for that detail in the real world or felt that it added context in the real world. 

There are many other features in different language families that are perplexing to western speakers. But there is nothing unnatural about either of the sides. This is how language naturally evolves—this is the organic flow of evolution of language and culture that has taken place over centuries and centuries, resulting in the vast diversity of cultures, and languages, that we can witness in the world today. 

Learn more about diverse language structures.

Common Questions About East and Southeast Asian Language Families

Q: What is the Asian language family?

There is actually no Asian language family that exists. Instead, there are smaller groups of language families, such as the Sino-Tibetan family and the Austroasiatic language family.

Q: What are some differences between certain Asian languages and Indo-European languages?

Some languages of the Asian language families, such as Cantonese, are very telegraphic in nature. They omit a lot of words from sentences, leaving their meanings to be filled from context.

Q: Why are some extra words used in languages such as Cantonese?

In some Asian language families, including languages such as Cantonese, certain words are added to the end of sentences. For instance, the word lèihga is added to add a connotation of common knowledge, or assumption, to a sentence.

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