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Department of the Languages and Cultures of South East Asia

Language in South East Asia

Course Code:
Unit value:
0.5 unit
Year of study:
Year 2



Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

At the end of a course, a student should . . . 

  • command a a basic vocabulary for talking about language, especially its political, social and historical aspects
  • have some understanding of how the concepts introduced are useful in understanding the language situation in South East Asia
  • have some understanding of the socio-linguistic situation in South East Asia, in particular in those countries of which the national languages are taught in the department, but also of the region more broadly
  • have some understanding of the topics in the syllabus as they relate to South East Asia


This course is taught over 10 weeks with 3 hours classroom contact per week.

Scope and syllabus

  • Characteristics of language in general
  • An introduction to the languages of South East Asia and the externally verifiable historical factors which have given rise to their present-day distribution
  • Multilingualism and diglossia in South East Asia
  • Pidgins and creoles
  • Languages and lingue franche of South East Asia
  • Language policy and language planning in South East Asia
  • Writing systems and literacy in South East Asia
  • Historical linguistics and the linguistic prehistory of South East Asia

Method of assessment

One two-hour examination taken in May/June (70%); one essay of 2,500 words to be submitted on Friday, week 1 in the term after the courses is taught (20%); presentation of 10-15 minutes during the course (10%).

Suggested reading

  • Aitchison, Jean (1991). Language change: progress or decay?2nd Edition. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Bradley, D (ed.) (1985) Papers in South-East Asian Linguistics No.9: Language Policy, Planning and Sociolinguistics in South-East Asia. Pacific Linguistics A-67.
  • Comrie, Bernard., (ed.) (1990). The Major Languages of East and South-East Asia. London: Routledge. [NB also in Comrie, B. (ed.) The World's Major Languages. London: Routledge.]
  • Coulmas, F. (1989). The Writing Systems of the World. Oxford: Blackwell. [SOASLib A411 /576303].Coulmas, Florian. (1996) The Blackwell encyclopedia of writing systems. Oxford : Blackwell. [SOASLib Ref A411.03 /725970 Oxford : Blackwell, 1996]
  • Daniels, P.T. and W. Bright, (eds). (1996). The World's Writing Systems. NYC/Oxford: OUP. [A411 /732396] - see Part VII - South East Asian Writing Systems and topic-specific bibliographies.
  • Hassan, A., ed., (1994). Language Planning in Southeast Asia. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.Herbert P and A Milner, eds, South-East Asia: Languages and Literatures, a Select Guide, 1–22 Arran, Scotland: Kiscadale Publications; Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  • Holm, J. (1989). Pidgins and Creoles. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Mosely S and Asher RE : Atlas of the world's languages. Good Bradley stuff on detailed relationshps of the three main stocks in mainland SEA p 57 ff. The maps are clear but are set out by country, which distorts the picture of the language distribution. [SOAS lib Atlas B1K/681764]
  • Diringer, David. The alphabet : a key to the history of mankind. 1948, Hutchinsons, London et al. [SOAS Lib A411/ 53078 and TC A411/51920]
  • Holmes, J. (1992) An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. London and New York: Longman.
  • LeBar F M, Hickey G C, Musgrave J K: Ethnic groups of mainland Southeast Asia: 1964, New Haven, Human Relations Area Files. Slib LRG306/215686 (maps missing) and Ref G306/183380
  • LeBar F M: Ethnic groups of insular Southeast Asia: 1972, New Haven, Human Relations Area Files. Slib LRH306/305178 and Ref H306/298082
  • Moeliono, Anton M. (1986). Language Development and Cultivation. (Pengembangan dan pembembinaan bahasa), translated by K. Ikranagara. Pacific Linguistics D68.
  • Mosely S and Asher RE : Atlas of the world's languages.
  • Matisoff, J A: Linguistic diversity and language contact. In: McKinnon and Wanat: Highlanders of Northern Thailand, 1983, Kuala Lumpur, OUP
  • Nguyen Dinh-Hoa (1980). Language in Vietnamese Society. Some Articles by Nguyen Dinh-Hoa. Carbondale, Ill.: Asia Books.
  • Noss, R B (1982) Language teaching issues in multilingual environments in S E Asia. Singapore: SEAMEO Regional Language Centre.
  • Noss, R B (1984) An overview of language issues in S E Asia. 1950-1980. Singapore: OUP.
  • Simpson, Andrew (ed) 2007. Language and National Identity in Asia. London; Oxford University Press. – contains articles on each country.
  • Romaine, S. (1989) Bilingualism. OxfordL Blackwell.
  • Ruhlen, Merritt. (1987) A guide to the languages of the world. Volume 1: Classification. Londond: Edward Arnold.
  • Todd, L. (1990). Pidgins and Creoles (2nd ed.) London: Routledge.