East Asian languages

East Asian languages belong to several language families that are generally believed to be genetically unrelated, but share many features due to interaction. In the Mainland Southeast Asia linguistic area, Chinese varieties and languages of southeast Asia share many areal features, tending to be analytic languages with similar syllable and tone structure. In the first millennium AD, Chinese culture came to dominate east Asia. Literary Chinese was adopted by scholars in Vietnam, Korea and Japan, and there was a massive influx of Chinese vocabulary into these and other neighboring languages. The Chinese script was also adapted to write Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese, though in the first two the use of Chinese characters is now restricted to university learning, linguistic or historical study and artistic or decorative works.

Language families

The languages of Southeast Asia and East Asia belong to several language families.

The Austroasiatic languages include Vietnamese and Khmer, as well as many other languages spoken in areas scattered as far afield as Malaya and eastern India, often in isolated pockets surrounded by the ranges of other language groups. Most linguists believe that Austroasiatic languages once ranged continuously across southeast Asia and that their scattered distribution today is the result of the subsequent arrival of other language groups.[1]

One of these groups were the Tai–Kadai languages such as Thai, Lao and Shan. These languages were originally spoken in southern China, where the greatest diversity within the family is still found, and possibly as far north as the Yangtze valley. As Chinese civilization expanded southward from the North China Plain, many Tai–Kadai speakers became Sinicized, but some migrated to southeast Asia. With the exception of Zhuang, most of the Tai–Kadai languages still remaining in China are spoken in isolated upland areas.[2]

The Miao–Yao or Hmong–Mien languages also originated in southern China, where they are now spoken only in isolated hill regions. Many Hmong–Mien speakers migrated to southeast Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries, triggered by the suppression of a series of revolts in Guizhou.[3]

The Austronesian languages are believed to have spread from Taiwan to the islands of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, as well as some areas of mainland southeast Asia.[4]

The varieties of Chinese are usually included in the Sino-Tibetan family, which also includes Tibeto-Burman languages spoken in Tibet, southwest China, northeast India, Burma and neighbouring countries.

To the north are the Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic language families, which some linguists group as an Altaic family, often also including Japonic and Korean. The languages tend to be atonal, polysyllabic and agglutinative, with subject–object–verb word order and some degree of vowel harmony, and much vocabulary is shared between subgroups.[5] Critics of the Altaic hypothesis attribute the similarities to intense language contact between the languages that occurred sometime in pre-history.[6]

Chinese scholars often group Tai–Kadai and Hmong–Mien with Sino-Tibetan, but Western scholarship since the Second World War has considered them as separate families. Some larger groupings have been proposed, but are not widely supported. The Austric hypothesis, based on morphology and other resemblances, is that Austroasiatic, Austronesian, often Tai–Kadai, and sometimes Hmong–Mien form a genetic family. Other hypothetical groupings include the Sino-Austronesian languages and Austro-Tai languages. Linguists undergoing long-range comparison have hypothesized even larger macrofamilies such as Dené–Caucasian, including Sino-Tibetan and Ket.

Mainland Southeast Asia linguistic area

The Mainland Southeast Asia linguistic area stretches from Thailand to China and is home to speakers of languages of the Sino-Tibetan, Hmong–Mien (or Miao–Yao), Tai-Kadai, Austronesian (represented by Chamic) and Austro–Asiatic families. Neighbouring languages across these families, though presumed unrelated, often have similar typological features, which are believed to have spread by diffusion.[7]

Characteristic of many MSEA languages is a particular syllable structure involving monosyllabic morphemes, lexical tone, a fairly large inventory of consonants, including phonemic aspiration, limited clusters at the beginning of a syllable, plentiful vowel contrasts and relatively few final consonants. Languages in the northern part of the area generally have fewer vowel and final contrasts but more initial contrasts.[8]

A well-known feature is the similar tone systems in Chinese, Hmong–Mien, Tai languages and Vietnamese. Most of these languages passed through an earlier stage with three tones on most syllables (apart from checked syllables ending in a stop consonant), which was followed by a tone split where the distinction between voiced and voiceless consonants disappeared but in compensation the number of tones doubled. These parallels led to confusion over the classification of these languages, until Haudricourt showed in 1954 that tone was not an invariant feature, by demonstrating that Vietnamese tones corresponded to certain final consonants in other languages of the Mon–Khmer family, and proposed that tone in the other languages had a similar origin.[9]

MSEA languages tend to have monosyllabic morphemes, though there are exceptions.[10] Most MSEA languages are very analytic, with no inflection and little derivational morphology. Grammatical relations are typically signalled by word order, particles and coverbs or adpositions. Modality is expressed using sentence-final particles. The usual word order in MSEA languages is subject–verb–object. Chinese and Karen are thought to have changed to this order from the subject–object–verb order retained by most other Sino-Tibetan languages. The order of constituents within a noun phrase varies: noun–modifier order is usual in Tai languages, Vietnamese and Miao, while in Chinese varieties and Yao most modifiers are placed before the noun.[11][12] Topic-comment organization is also common.[13]

Languages of both eastern and southeast Asia typically have well-developed systems of numeral classifiers.[14] The neighbouring Bengali language has numerical classifiers, even though it is an Indo-European language which do not share the other features discussed in this article. Bengali also lacks gender, unlike most Indo-European languages. Bengali (especially the eastern variety) is more phonologically similar to southeastern and eastern languages than those further away from the region, with alveolar consonants replacing the retroflex consonants characteristic of other Indo-Aryan languages. Some dialects bordering southeast Asia such as Chittagonian have even developed phonemic tone. The other areas of the world where numerical classifier systems are common in indigenous languages are the western parts of North and South America, so that numerical classifiers could even be seen as a pan-Pacific Rim areal feature.[15] However, similar noun class systems are also found among most Sub-Saharan African languages.

Influence of Literary Chinese

For most of the pre-modern period, Chinese culture dominated east Asia. Scholars of Vietnam, Korea and Japan wrote in Literary Chinese and were thoroughly familiar with the Chinese classics. Their languages absorbed large numbers of Chinese words, known collectively as Sino-Xenic vocabulary, i.e. Sino-Japanese, Sino-Korean and Sino-Vietnamese. These words were written with Chinese characters and pronounced in a local approximation of Middle Chinese.[16]

Today, these words of Chinese origin may be written in the traditional Chinese characters (Chinese, Japanese, Korean), simplified Chinese characters (Chinese, Japanese), a locally developed phonetic script (Korean hangul, Japanese kana), or a Latin alphabet (Vietnamese). The Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese languages are collectively referred to as CJKV, or just CJK, since modern Vietnamese is no longer written with Chinese characters at all.

In a similar way to the use of Latin and ancient Greek roots in English, the morphemes of Classical Chinese have been used extensively in all these languages to coin compound words for new concepts.[17] These coinages, written in shared Chinese characters, have then been borrowed freely between languages. They have even been accepted into Chinese, a language usually resistant to loanwords, because their foreign origin was hidden by their written form.[18]

Topic–comment constructions

In topic–comment constructions, sentences are frequently structured with a topic as the first segment and a comment as the second. This way of marking previously mentioned vs. newly introduced information is an alternative to articles, which are not found in East Asian languages. The Topic–comment sentence structure is a legacy of Classical Chinese influence on the grammar of modern East Asian languages. In Classical Chinese, the focus of the phrase (i.e. the topic) was often placed first, which was then followed by a statement about the topic. The most generic sentence form in Classical Chinese is "A B 也", where B is a comment about the topic A.

Sinic languages

Classical Chinese example:

Gloss: today GENITIVE dinner I already eat AFFIRMATIVE
Translation: I've already eaten today's dinner. (Topic: today's dinner; Comment: I've already eaten.)

Mandarin Chinese example:

今天 晚飯 已經 吃過 了。
今天 晚饭 已经 吃过 了。
Transcription: Jīntiān de wǎnfàn yǐjīng chīguò le.
Gloss: today GENITIVE dinner I already eat-PERFECTIVE NEWSTATE
Translation: I've already eaten today's dinner. (Topic: today's dinner; Comment: I've already eaten.)

Cantonese example:

今日 晚飯 已經 食咗 喇。
Transcription: Gam1yat6 ge3 maan5faan6 ngo5 yi5ging1 sik6jo2 la3
Gloss: today GENITIVE dinner I already eat-PERFECTIVE NEWSTATE
Translation: I've already eaten today's dinner. (Topic: today's dinner; Comment: I've already eaten.)

Hokkien example:

今仔日 暗頓 食過 矣。
Transcription: Kin-á-ji̍t ê àm-tǹg góa ū chia̍h-kòe ah
Gloss: today GENITIVE dinner I have-AUXILIARY eat-PERFECTIVE already
Translation: I've already eaten today's dinner. (Topic: today's dinner; Comment: I've already eaten.)

Japonic languages

Japanese example:

今日 晩ご飯 もう 食べた。
Transcription: Kyō no bangohan wa tabeta.
Gloss: today GENITIVE dinner TOPIC already eat-PERFECTIVE
Translation: I've already eaten today's dinner. (Topic: today's dinner; Comment: already eaten.)

Okinawan Ryukyuan example:

今日 夕御飯ー なー 噛だん。
Transcription: Chuu nu yuu'ubanoo naa kadan.
Gloss: today GENITIVE dinner-TOPIC already eat-PERFECTIVE
Translation: I've already eaten today's dinner. (Topic: today's dinner; Comment: already eaten.)

Note that in Okinawan, the topic marker is indicated by lengthening the short vowels and adding -oo to words ending in -N/-n. For words ending in long vowels, the topic is introduced only by や.

The epistolary style of Japanese (Sōrōbun) example:

今日 夕飯 食申候也。
Transcription: Kyō no yūhan sudeni tabemōshisōrōnari.
Gloss: today GENITIVE dinner already eat-HUMBLE-POLITE-AFFIRMATIVE
Translation: I've already eaten today's dinner. (Topic: today's dinner; Comment: already eaten.)

The Standard Meiji-Era Written Style of Japanese (Meiji Futsūbun) example:

今日 夕飯 已ニ 之ヲ 食ス。
Transcription: Kyō no yūhan wa sudeni korewo shokusu.
Gloss: today GENITIVE dinner TOPIC already this-ACCUSATIVE eat
Translation: I've already eaten today's dinner. (Topic: today's dinner; Comment: already eaten.)


Korean example:

오늘 저녁밥 이미 먹었다.
Transcription: Oneur ui jeonyeokbab eun imi meogeotda.
Gloss: today GENITIVE dinner TOPIC already eat-PERFECTIVE
Translation: I've already eaten today's dinner. (Topic: today's dinner; Comment: already eaten.)

Korean mixed script example:

今日 晩食 旣已 食事하였다.
Transcription: Geumir ui mansig eun gii siksahayeotda.
Gloss: today GENITIVE dinner TOPIC already eat-PERFECTIVE
Translation: I've already eaten today's dinner. (Topic: today's dinner; Comment: already eaten.)


Vietnamese example:

Hôm nay tôi đã ăn bữa ăn tối.
Chữ Nôm: 𣋚𠉞 𪝬 𩛖 𩛷𩛖啐。
Gloss: today I already eat dinner
Translation: I've already eaten today's dinner.

Other features

Politeness systems

Linguistic systems of politeness, including frequent use of honorifics, with varying levels of politeness or respect, are well-developed in Japanese and Korean. Politeness systems in Chinese are relatively weak, having simplified from a more developed system into a much less predominant role in modern Chinese.[19] This is especially true when speaking of the southern Chinese varieties. However, Vietnamese has retained a highly complex system of pronouns, in which the terms mostly derive from Chinese. For example, bác, chú, dượng, and cậu are all terms ultimately derived from Chinese and all refer to different statuses of "uncle".

In many of the region's languages, including Japanese, Korean, Thai, and Malay/Indonesian, new personal pronouns or forms of reference or address can and often do evolve from nouns as fresh ways of expressing respect or social status. Thus personal pronouns are open class words rather than closed class words: they are not stable over time, not few in number, and not clitics whose use is obligatory in grammatical constructs.

With modernization and other trends, politeness language is evolving to be simpler. Avoiding the need for complex polite language can also motivate use in some situations of languages like Indonesian or English that have less complex respect systems.

See also


  1. Sidwell & Blench (2011), pp. 339–340.
  2. Ramsey (1987), p. 233.
  3. Ramsey (1987), pp. 278–279.
  4. Diamond (2000).
  5. Norman (1988), p. 6.
  6. Schönig (2003), p. 403.
  7. Enfield (2005), pp. 182–184.
  8. Enfield (2005), pp. 186–187.
  9. Norman (1988), pp. 53–56.
  10. Enfield (2005), p. 186.
  11. Enfield (2005), pp. 187–190.
  12. Ramsey (1987), p. 280.
  13. Enfield (2005), pp. 189–190.
  14. Enfield (2005), p. 189.
  15. Nichols (1992), pp. 131–133.
  16. Miyake (2004), p. 99.
  17. Shibatani (1990), p. 146.
  18. Wilkinson (2000), p. 43.
  19. http://www.inst.at/kctos/speakers_g-m/kadar.htm KCTOS 2007: What Happened to the Honorifics?
Works cited
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