On the Southeast Asian Sprachbund

Dec 12, 2011 by

BY MIGUEL SAN PEDRO (“Languages of the World”)

Over the past few decades, the fields of contact linguistics and historical linguistics have been enriched thanks to linguistic areas, regions where languages share common features regardless of whether they originated from a single proto-language. In a linguistic area, also called a Sprachbund, neighboring languages exhibit similar grammatical, syntactic, and phonological characteristics. Every inhabited continent contains at least one Sprachbund; linguistic areas lie in Ethiopia, the Balkans in southeastern Europe, and northern California. N. J. Enfield (2005) writes extensively about the Sprachbund of Mainland Southeast Asia (“MSEA”) and its characteristics. He notes how this region is particularly remarkable for two reasons. Unlike Ethiopia and the Balkans, it did not have a centralized sociopolitical structure governing its entire area [1]. Moreover, its languages’ structural changes over time have provided evidence to overturn traditional theories about historical and contact linguistics.

Enfield defines MSEA as a region containing Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, eastern Burma, northwestern Malaysia, and southwestern China. Within the area, lowlanders, particularly speakers of Tai languages like Thai, have traditionally displaced populations in neighboring areas while searching for and settling in suitable farmland in plains and rivers. These native populations, who spoke Sino-Tibetan or Mon-Khmer languages, either were assimilated into Tai-speaking cultures or retreated to higher-altitude areas. Those that were absorbed had to learn the language of the dominating peoples. Contemporarily, Tai-speakers have exerted linguistic and cultural influence over highlanders through education, literature, and mass media. Meanwhile, from outside, Chinese culture has penetrated present-day Vietnam, while Indian artistic and religious elements found their way into present-day Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. In both spheres of influence, foreign cultures fused with native cultural elements rather than replacing them altogether. Moreover, a few centuries ago, Hmong-Mien speakers migrated from China into countries in MSEA, coming into contact with the dominant cultures of the area. No single geopolitical unit has dominated the entire region. As a result, MSEA has become a patchwork of languages that have influenced each other lexically and grammatically thanks to population movements, cultural diffusion and hegemony, and most importantly, the presence of multiple spheres of influence (Indic, Tai, Chinese) and centers of government rather than a single one (Enfield 2005).

MSEA contains languages from five families, all of which, except the Hmong-Mien family and excluding modern-day overseas immigration, are found both inside and outside MSEA. Some examples of these languages are (Enfield 2005; Clark 1989; Lyovin 1997):

  • Tai-Kadai: Thai, Lao, Nung (N Vietnam, S. China) in MSEA; Zhuang outside
  • Austronesian, Cham (S Cambodia, Vietnam) in MSEA; Indonesian and Hawaiian outside
  • Sino-Tibetan: Lisu, Akha, Yi, Naxi (N Laos) in MSEA; Mandarin and Burmese outside
  • Mon-Khmer: Khmer (Cambodia) and Vietnamese in MSEA; Khasi outside, in NE India
  • Hmong-Mien: Hmong in SW China, Laos, and N Thailand; Mien languages outside, in S China

All the families mentioned,. Hence, languages in each of these families in MSEA can be compared to their linguistic relatives outside MSEA; if an MSEA language shares significant linguistic features (other than vocabulary) with other genealogically unrelated languages in MSEA but not with related languages outside MSEA, we have compelling evidence that this language belongs to a Sprachbund in MSEA (Enfield 2005). Indeed, we can demonstrate this is the case for a few languages, markedly in terms of phonology, syntax, and morphology.

The most obvious evidence for a linguistic area in MSEA is the similarities between vowel inventories of Khmer, of Lao, and of Cham. Below are the vowel systems of each of these languages (Enfield 2005).

All three languages here contain at least the same nine vowel qualities (Khmer additionally has [ɑ]), most or all of which additionally have a length distinction. Cham is particularly remarkable for being unlike its Austronesian relatives, which typically have much fewer vowels; for instance, while it still has vowel length, Hawaiian has only five vowel qualities, [i e a o u] (Lyovin 1997, p. 259).

Moreover, MSEA languages typically have complex diphthongs but few possibilities for syllable-final consonants. Words are mainly monosyllabic, but some are disyllabic with an initial syllable with a neutral vowel quality. Many of these languages also distinguish vowels with tone, phonation (creaky or breathy), or both.

Regarding syntax, many MSEA languages exhibit parallel constructions. For instance, sentence-final particles can express a speaker’s attitude in a statement, as in the following examples from Clark (1989, p. 182):

Moreover, some verbs, called “locus verbs,” can doubly act like prepositions with a related meaning. The glosses translate the same words differently to reflect the words’ dual usage (Clark 1989, pp. 190-93):

The examples above show clear influence, if not striking coincidence, between the languages presented. Given that these languages belong to several different families, it seems unlikely that these similar syntactic constructions developed independently. Rather, it is possible that speakers of each of these languages dominated over peoples who spoke languages of a single family that had syntactic devices like those above.  As these conquered peoples learned to speak the dominating people’s languages, they used their native syntactic rules to form sentences with their newly-learned vocabulary. This type of linguistic influence has already been observed in Russian, a Slavic language that contains Finnic grammatical qualities not present in other Slavic languages that had no contact with Finnic-speaking peoples (Pereltsvaig 2011); this phenomenon may have feasibly occurred in the languages of MSEA also.

Besides syntactic and phonological affinities, many MSEA languages contain similar morphological qualities. They are isolating: verbs do not take affixes for tense, aspect, or subject agreement, and nouns are not marked for case or number. These shades of meaning are handled syntactically and pragmatically. Derivational morphology does exist but is limited and unproductive. Khmer can form nouns from some verbs: cuəl ‘to rent’ > cnuəl ‘rent’; Thai acts similarly: truat ‘to inspect’ > tamruat ‘police officer’ (Enfield 2005, p. 188).

MSEA languages and their history offer evidence to contradict traditional theories of language. In the Mon-Khmer family, Vietnamese employs tones, while Khmer does not. Comparisons between these and other languages in the Mon-Khmer family suggest that Vietnamese developed tones from foreign-language contact. Enfield (2005) recounts that before this discovery, Maspero (1912) thought Vietnamese could not possibly have been a Mon-Khmer language because he assumed a language cannot exhibit tone if it did not inherit tone from an ancestor language. At this time, languages were perceived as having a “genetic code,” as Enfield describes (p. 193); languages acquired grammatical qualities only from their progenitors. Hadricourt (1954) overturned this finding in demonstrating how Vietnamese could have developed tones independently. This conclusion led Li (1986) and Thurgood (1996) to suggest that language contact could have driven this tonogenesis. Taking this idea one step further, Thomason and Kaufman (1988, p. 12) asserted, “Any linguistic feature can be transferred from any language to any other language.” While this last claim are still under debate and require a more solid base of sociolinguistic and historical data across languages, as Enfield points out, Vietnamese contact-induced tonogenesis provides supporting evidence.

Though Enfield provides a rich overview of the astonishing similarities between unrelated MSEA languages, he still points out that many of the region’s languages await further substantial study and that a proper investigation of areal linguistics in MSEA calls for experiments and working models of historical-sociolinguistic phenomena and the diffusion of linguistic characteristics. For Enfield, social dynamics is crucial to understanding how exactly linguistic variants, especially foreign ones, spread across populations. However, it is also crucial to find examples of linguistic characteristics found in MSEA languages but not in related languages outside the area. A more in-depth look from this perspective is necessary, especially for Hmong-Mien and Mon-Khmer languages, for which languages outside MSEA and their speakers are few in number (Enfield 2005; Lyovin 1997). If studies were carried out on these outside languages and we discover precisely to what extent they are different from their MSEA relatives, we could find far clearer evidence on how strong the linguistic affinities actually are within the MSEA Sprachbund. Should the evidence for a Sprachbund be more rigorous, we may arrive at new and fascinating conclusions in linguistics across the board.

[1] The Balkans were ruled by the Ottoman Empire from the 15th century to the 19th (Encyclopædia Britannica 1997).

Clark, Marybeth. “Hmong and Areal South-East Asia.” In South-East Asian Syntax in Papers in South-East Asian Languages in Pacific Linguistics 1989, David Bradley, ed. 11:175-230. Canberra: The Australian National University, 1989.
Encyclopædia Britannica. “Decline of the Ottoman Empire.” 1997.
———. “Expansion of the Ottoman Empire.” 1997.
Enfield, N. J. “Areal Linguistics and Mainland Southeast Asia.” In Annual Review of Anthropology 2005. 34:181-206.
Hadricourt, A.-G. « De l’origine des tons en viêtnamien. » J. Asiat. 1954, 242:69-82.
Li, C. N. “The rise and fall of tones through diffusion.” Berkeley Linguist. Soc. 1986, 12:173-85.
Lyovin, Anatole V. An Introduction to the Languages of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Maspero, H. Phonétique historique de la langue annamite: les initiales. Bull. Ecole Fr. Extrême-Orient.
Pereltsvaig, Asya. “The Lost ‘Middle Finns.’”
Thomason, S. G., and T. Kaufman. Language Contact, Creolization, and Genetic Linguistics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Thurgood, G. From Ancient Cham to Modern Dialects: Two Thousand Years of Language Contact and Change. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 1996.

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