What are Austronesian languages?


WE know from archeological evidence that humans have lived in what is today Papua New Guinea for more than 50,000 years and, given the isolation of the region, we can assume that most of the languages spoken here are descended from whatever languages those first settlers spoke. These languages do not show any connections to languages outside of Melanesia.
But there is a minority of languages that show clear similarities with languages outside Melanesia, with languages spoken as far north as Taiwan, as far west as Madagascar in Africa, as far south as New Zealand, and as far east as Easter Island and Hawai?i. We call these languages “Austronesian”, from the Latin word for “southern” (“austro”) and the Greek word for “islands” (“nesos”).
Comparative language and DNA studies have shown that these languages represent one of humanity’s greatest migrations, starting around five thousand years ago in Taiwan and ending about 800 years ago, when Maoris reached New Zealand. As they slowly moved south into what is today the Philippines, some Austronesians went southwest to what is today Malaysia and western Indonesia and from there to Madagascar off the coast of Africa, while others went southeast, reaching the north coast of New Guinea around three or four thousand years ago and from there to the Bismarck Archipelago and out into the Pacific, bringing the first people ever to live on the Polynesian islands.

Outrigger canoes were used in the Lapita trade.

As they moved into Melanesia, they mixed with the people they encountered, introducing their languages, and new technologies, such as outrigger canoes and a new kind of pottery we call Lapita today. As they moved into the Pacific, they also brought new plants and animals there from Melanesia, most notably coconuts and rats.
The languages they introduced established roots in many places along the New Guinea north coast, the Markham Valley, and around the tip of Milne Bay, west along the southern coast as far as to what is today Port Moresby. From New Guinea, Austronesians went on into the Bismarck Archipelago. Today we find Austronesian languages in all of these areas of West Papua and Papua New Guinea. As people mixed, the languages that were already there influenced the vocabulary and grammatical patterns of the languages the newcomers spoke. Cultures blended as well, producing today’s Melanesian cultures.

In these monthly discussions we answer one question about language in PNG and beyond. This month we are looking at what Austronesian languages are.
Austronesians spread Lapita pottery from the Bismarck Archipelago south to New Caledonia.

While today most people on the island of New Guinea still speak languages that are not Austronesian, in the Philippines, western and central Indonesia, Malaysia, and Madagascar, the social impact was so great that today all the indigenous people speak Austronesian languages. Taiwan itself has experienced overwhelming Chinese immigration since the 1600s, but today there are still aboriginal Taiwanese groups speaking Austronesian languages.
In the thousands of years that people speaking Austronesian languages have been migrating and mixing with the people they encounter, it is natural that the languages have changed in different ways, so that today there are 1,257 different Austronesian languages. While the speakers of these languages cannot understand each other’s languages, there are certain core words that do not change much. You can look for these common words to see if your language is Austronesian or not.
Three of these words are parts of body. If your language has a word for “eye” that is similar to “mata”, “matan”, or “mara”, there is a good chance it is Austronesian. Another clue is a word similar to “lima” for “hand”, “five”, or (more commonly) both. One very common Austronesian word that has made its way into Tok Pisin is “susu” for “breast” and “milk”. The fact that we see “susu” on cartons of milk imported from Indonesia and Malaysia tells us that the languages there are Austronesian.
Some other common words to look for in Austronesian languages are words similar to “uru”, “dua”, or “rua” for two, “ruma” for “house”, “lan” for “road”, and “tama” or “dama” for “father”. Linguists use words like this with similarities in different languages to make family trees of language families to see which languages are closely related, which ones are more distantly related, and which ones are not related at all.
Linguists first started studying these relationships among Austronesian languages in the late 1800s. The first attempt to reconstruct the original Austronesian language was published in the 1930s by a German linguist, Otto Dempfwolff. A more recent and more extensive collection of reconstructions has been made by Professor Robert Blust at the University of Hawai?i in his Austronesian Comparative Dictionary, which has been made available for free reference online at https://www.trussel2.com/acd/.

Austronesian languages

If you speak an Austronesian language, you can use this dictionary to see words in your language that are descended from the original Austronesian language and compare them with reconstructions of the original Austronesian forms.
Most Papua New Guineans do not speak Austronesian languages. But for those coastal, Markham Valley, and NGI people who do, it can be fascinating to see similarities between their languages and languages spoken by people as far away as Madagascar, Taiwan, and Polynesia. It is even more fascinating to think that some of the words they use every day have their origins in a language spoken by ancestors who lived in Taiwan thousands of years ago.

  • Professor Volker is an Adjunct Professor in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University in Australia and Visiting Professor at Kansai University in Japan. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at http://[email protected] Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.