Malagasy and the Austronesian Language Family

Dec 12, 2011 by

BY STEVEN BURNETT (“Languages of the World”)

Located 250 miles off the coast of East Africa, the island of Madagascar is home to over 20 million people and comprises an area roughly the size of France. However, many might be surprised to hear that despite its close proximity to the East African coast—home to the birthplace of humanity—Madagascar was one of the last major landmasses on the planet to be settled by humans (“About Madagascar”). Archeological evidence indicates that the first wave of settlers to Madagascar likely did not arrive before 0 AD, while the main wave of migrants to the island did not arrive until around the 7th century AD. Furthermore, the inhabitants of Madagascar are not solely African, but are also descended from Asian ancestors that crossed the Indian Ocean by boat (Adelaar 1-2). This fact manifests itself linguistically, as the language spoken in Madagascar—called Malagasy—is generally considered to be a member of the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family (Blust 31).

The Austronesian Language Family

The linguistic similarities between Malagasy and other Austronesian languages were already recognized in the first half of the 16th century, not long after Portuguese sailor Diogo Dias became the first European to discover the island in 1500 AD (Allibert 8). However, the first formal proposal of a genetic link between Malagasy and Austronesian was presented by Otto Dahl in 1951. Dahl would later argue that Malagasy was specifically a member of the Southeast Barito subgroup of the Austronesian language family. The SE Barito subgroup exists in the Southeast corner of Kalimantan—the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo. Of the SE Barito languages, Dahl (and many other contemporary linguists) argues that the language known as Maanyan is most closely related to Malagasy, based on lexicostatistical data (Dahl 11).

Southeast Barito Languages in Indonesia

The linguistic relationship between Malagasy and the Austronesian language family becomes apparent through the use of the comparative method. Using the comparative method, one can demonstrate that Malagasy and other members of Austronesian possess a correspondence of sounds in cognates (words of the same meaning). This implies that the words in both languages come from a common ancestor language (a proto-language), and then separately underwent different sound changes as the languages broke off from that ancestor. For example, consider the following table, which contains translations of words in both Malagasy and Malay (also known as Bahasa Indonesia)—the most widely spoken member of the Austronesian family:

Table 1 – Malagasy and Malay (“Chapter 7”)
                                   Malagasy        Malay
1.      ‘fire’                 /afu/                 /api/
2.      ‘ten’                 /fulu/                /sə-puluh/
3.      ‘four’               /efatʃa/             /əmpat/
4.      ‘feather’           /vulu/                /bulu/
5.      ‘fruit’               /vua/                /buah/
6.      ‘new’               /vau/                /baru/

In table 1, one can see several sound correspondences between the two languages. For instance, every time a /b/ appears in Malay, a /v/ appears in Malagasy. The same holds true for their unvoiced equivalents /p/ and /f/. This clearly demonstrates that Malagasy and Malay share sound correspondences and thus likely derive from a common ancestor.

But once we have concluded that Malagasy is a member of the Austronesian family, how can we hypothesize about which language it is most related to? In order to attempt this, one must search for subgroups of languages in the Austronesian family tree that have undergone the same phonetic innovations as Malagasy. Luckily, Dahl has already done this for us and concluded that, as previously mentioned, Malagasy is a member of the Southeast Barito language family. In order to see evidence of this, we examine in the following table the sound correspondences between Malagasy, Maanyan (its SE Barito sibling), and Malay, which is not a member of the SE Barito subgroup. Additionally, forms have been provided of each word in reconstructed Proto-Austronesian, the theoretical ancestor of all Austronesian languages.

Table 2 – Words in PAN, Malagasy, Maanyan, and Malay (“Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database”)
     Proto-Austronesian      Malagasy         Maanyan          Malay
1.      ‘rope’               *CaliS                  /tády/                /tadi/                /tali/
2.      ‘to buy’           *beli                      /mi-vídy/            /midi/               /mem-beli/
3.      ‘five’                *lima                     /dimy/               /dimy/              /lima/
4.      ‘ear’                *Caliŋa                  /tadíny/             / siluʔ/              /teliŋa/

In this table, there are many examples of sound changes that occurred in the development of Maanyan and Malagasy to the exclusion of Malay. In forms 1 through 3, the /li/ in Proto-Austronesian becomes /di/ in both Malagasy and Maanyan, but remains as /li/ in Malay. (The /i/ must be included, as we will later see that the phoneme /d/ alone undergoes a separate change).

The following table provides a few additional examples of sound changes that must have occurred after the split between the ancestors of Bahasa Indonesia and the SE Barito subgroup.

Table 3 – PAN, Malagasy, Maanyan, and Malay #2 (“Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database”)
                        Proto-Austronesian    Malagasy        Maanyan         Malay
1.      ‘two’                *duSa               /róa/                 /rueh/               /dua/
2.      ‘water’             *daNum           /ráno/               /ranuʔ/              /air/
     3.     ‘ten’                 *sa-puluq         /folo/                /sa-puluh/         /se-puluh/

Now one can see why it is necessary to include the /i/ in the previously discussed rule, as in forms 1 and 2 the phoneme /d/ on its own changes to /r/ in SE Barito languages (but not in Malay). These forms all also demonstrate the sound change /u/ > /o/ in Malagasy, which must have occurred after the SE Barito speakers left Borneo for Madagascar, as /u/ remains unchanged in the other Barito languages.

The examples provided thus far have shown with a high degree of certainty that Malagasy is more closely related to the SE Barito subgroup of the Austronesian family than it is to Malay. If we were to continue using this comparative method with other Austronesian languages and Malagasy as several linguists have done, we wound find that the set of changes shared by Malagasy and the SE Barito languages distinguishes them in some way from all other Austronesian subgroups—not just Malay (Dahl 12).

The story does not end there, however. By continuing to analyze linguistic data, which we unfortunately lack the time to discuss here, historical linguists have been able to piece together much more about the history of the Malagasy language and people. For example, a current postulate is that sometime around the 7th century AD, as the Srivijayan kingdom was expanding throughout Indonesia, a group of Maanyan speakers was transported by Malay seafarers from Borneo to the East African coast, with which Southeast Asians had already possessed some form of contact for over half a millennium. After mixing with the local Bantu population, the Southeast Asians proceeded to Madagascar, systematically settling the island in the 8th century AD (Adelaar 18-19). While this reconstructed history of Madagascar is only hypothetical and involves some degree of speculation, the fact that one can lay the foundations for such a detailed and far-reaching history simply by employing linguistic analysis speaks to the power and importance of the field. Hopefully, linguists will continue their reconstructive work among the world’s lesser-studied language families, reconciling their theories with newly emerging non-linguistic evidence in the pursuit of recounting our past.

Works Cited
“About Madagascar.” 2009. Web. 30 May 2011.
Allibert, C. “Austronesian Migration and the Establishment of the Malagasy Civilization: Contrasted Readings in Linguistics, Archaeology, Genetics and Cultural Anthropology.” Diogenes 55.2 (2008): 7-16. Print.
Adelaar, Alexander. “The Indonesian Migrations to Madagascar: Making Sense of the Multidisciplinary Evidence. in Adelaar, Austronesian Diaspora and the Ethnogenesis of People in Indonesian Archipelago, LIPI PRESS.” Austronesian Diaspora and the Ethnogenesis of People in Indonesian Archipelago. Melbourne: LIPI, 2006. Web.

Blust, R. A. The Austronesian Languages. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, 2009. Print.
Dahl, Otto Chr. Migration from Kalimantan to Madagascar. Oslo: Norwegian Univeristy, 1991. Print.
“Maanyan, Malagasy, Proto Austronesian, and Indonesian.” Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database. 2011. Web. 30 May 2011.

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