from and

Austronesian Vocabulary

a very small comparative chart

(followed by a look at the name of Indonesia)

The Austronesian family extends across the Indian Ocean out into the Pacific. The name of the family means "southern islands" (cf Australia, "southern land" and Polynesia, "many islands"). The most famous grouping of islands in this family is Indonesia, about whose name you can read below. This little table will not enable you to converse with the natives from Madagascar to East Timor, but it will give an idea of how the languages are connected. Note particularly how the words for numbers and for a few words like coconut and fire resemble one another from language to language. By the way, it will serve as a nice springboard if you're trying to learn one of the languages: 24 words including numbers, a few foods and a few bits of nature make for a nice start when you've learned how to make a simple sentence but need something to talk about.

English1. hungry2. thirsty3. sun4. rain5. water6. fire7. hot8. here
Kemakbar mamlmaga seulelousabiaapibansnogo
Filipinogutomnauuhawarawulantubigapoymainitsu lugar na ito
English9. there10. coconut11. banana12. sugar13. rice*14. fish15. one16. two
Tetunnebnuhudimasin midurfosikanidarua
Kemaklnauanuamsin meslsanu mresaikasiarua
English17. three18. four19. five20. six21. seven22. eight23. nine24. ten

*uncooked rice, specifically

About the languages

Closely related: the languages of Malaysia, Indonesia and East Timor

Malay is spoken in Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore. It started as a traders' lingua franca, combining words from the various local languages (which were pretty similar, being closely related members of one or two branches of the Austronesian family) and Dutch, Portuguese, English, Arabic, et cetera, and getting rid of most of the grammar. Today, the use of Malaysian has been refined and educated speakers will insist upon avoiding Bazaar Malay, which just strings together root words, in favor of the formal language whose grammar, though simple, does require the use of different word forms depending on whether the root is being used as a noun, a verb or an adjective, for example.

Indonesian is a variant of Malay (more closely resembling Bazaar Malay) adopted by the Indonesians as the national language when they gained their independence from the Dutch. It is spoken as a second language all across Indonesia, though Javanese (the language of Java) has the most native speakers.

Tetun is the predominant local language of East Timor. It was adopted as the national language after the people of East Timor won their independence from Indonesia. Many of the citizens also speak Indonesian, but they prefer to call it Malay to avoid the association with their former rulers.

Kemak is one of a handful of other languages which are spoken on Timur, some Austronesian, others not. The most widely used language after Tetun, incidentally, is not Austronesian but Indo-European, namely Portuguese.

A little more distant...

Filipino is, for the purposes of this table, the same as Tagalog. It is the Austronesian language that was spoken in Manila when the Philippines gained their independence from Spain; as the language of the capital it became the national standard. It is the closest major relative to the varieties of Malay.

The other side of the world, a distant line in the language family...

Malagasy is the language of Madagascar. It returned to prominence after the Malagasy won their independence from the French. There are a great variety of dialects; the one represented here is the one spoken in the capital and major cities.

Language information collected from various source including, but not limited to, the Lonely Planet Guides and Periplus dictionaries for the various languages. advises that the information collected here has been greatly condensed to highlight the connections within the Austronesian family. Those seeking data on specific countries and languages are advised to consult the Lonely Planet Guides, which are excellent, and other materials.

Copyright Geoffrey Barto, 2003.

About the name of Indonesia

For all the talk about Austronesian languages, there's a very Indo-European element here. For starters, the word Austronesian comes from Greek roots. That's not surprising; we're using English terminology here. More surprising, the Indonesians adopted an Indo-European name for themselves. They call their country Indonesia, and their language Bahasa Indonesia. So... what's that mean?

The Indo- in Indonesia - as in Indo-European - means India. India, in turn, is named for the river in whose valley its civilization got its start, the Indus River. The suffix, -nesia, is from the Greek word for islands. In other words, Indonesia is the Indian Islands.

So why are they called the Indian Islands? Why are Native Americans called Indians? The West made it so. When the Dutch - like everyone else - were seeking water routes to India, they stumbled into a large island chain, specifically an archipelago. It wasn't India, but it was nearby and it had lots of trading possibilities. They decided it would do and colonized it. At the time, we bought the India connection: English referred to the old colony as the Dutch East Indies.

Unfortunately, there is very little today connecting many of the cultures (with numerous local languages and religions) of Indonesia other than their heritage of Dutch rule, and so ethnic tensions too often turn violent. The concept of Indonesia is a Western concept and the Indonesians, taking their very name from their former conquerors' conventions, are having some trouble putting it together. With the new century, Indonesia's best hope is, ironically, that Bahasa Indonesia, the language that started for intertribal communication but that the West made flourish for trade purposes, will provide a way of bringing heretofore unconnected cultures and peoples together as one nation.

Copyright Geoffrey Barto and Briant Sarris, 2003

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