19 October 2005


Simply-Not-Edible (You're quoted again, isn't that a pattern?) has commented on my former entry about the linguist's claim that languages in Madagascar and Southeast Asia/Pacific are related. So let me explain about it.

First, let me say that languages are grouped into large groups called families. The most famous and most studied one is the Indo-European language family, that includes most of the languages of Europe, plus the languages of other areas, that I would mention later, for the sake of discussion. One of the largest languages families is the Austronesian language family. It is made up of about 1200 languages. And believe it or not, everything started from Taiwan. From the island, people migrated south, and the languages eventually split and diversified. Some branches went to the oceans and its islands, thus, you have the Oceanic subgroup (Chuukese, Tahitian, Hawaiian, etc). Some went to Southeast Asia (thus, the languages of Indonesia, Philippines, and other neighboring countries are members of this family), and finally, one branch went as far as Madagascar.

So what are the evidence for this hypothesis?

Simply-Not-Edible is correct in assuming that under normal circumstances, the African languages would have stronger influence on the languages of Madagascar. But that is not the case. There are 13 languages spoken in Madagascar (check this site for a comprehensive listing). Ten of these are different types of Malagasy (the national language), and these ten languages share similar features. One such feature is word order. In Malagasy, the sentential word order is Verb-Object-Subject. This is surprisingly the word order of most Austronesian languages in SE Asia too. The only language in Madagascar that is related to other African languages is Comorian, which is related to Swahili. Comorian is also spoken in the country of Comoros. Now, word order in Swahili and Comorian are different, it is Subject-Verb-Object, and not VOS. This is just one proof that Malagasy is more related to the languages of SE Asia and the Pacific and not to the languages of Africa.

Of course, I would not deny that there are plenty of instances of vocabulary borrowing between Malagasy and the other African languages. That is a consequence of language contact. However, English also has borrowings from Japanese (eg. sushi, hara-kiri [which is not a real Japanese word, by the way], kimono), from Nahuatl (eg. tomato, chocolate), and from Tibetan (eg. yak), among others. But these borrowings do not indicate that English is related to these languages.

If you are interested in the different languages spoken in the world, look up this website. They have a comprehensive list of the many different languages by country, and also by language family. You might be surprised how many languages are spoken in your country!

On a different note, I received the homework assignments of my students today, and surprisingly I finished grading them in one sitting! As usual, I caught two cheating students! They have the same mistakes up to the letter, and they have the same sentences for their answers. Too bad, they are getting an F.


  1. sobrang bobo naman nyan. hindi alam ang art of cheating :p

  2. It still seems like an odd migrational pattern to me. I wonder how exactly that happened all those years back.

  3. Sometimes those odd patterns happen. Look at Indo-European. The reason it is called that way is because languages from Europe such as French, English, German, Dutch, etc are related to Sanskrit, Persian, and other languages outside of Europe, mainly in Iran and India. And it turns out that the original location of Indo-European is near the Black Sea, and one branch migrated westward to Europe, and the other migrated eastward to Asia.

    Another example is the Finno-Ugric family. This includes Finnish, Estonian, the languages of the Caucasus, and Hungarian. What is surprising is that Hungary is surrounded by non-Finno-Ugric languages. If you try to plot Finno-Ugric languages in the map, you'll see the Hungarian position completely detached from other Finno-Ugric languages. Yet the two are related.