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Department of the Languages and Cultures of South East Asia

Languages of South East Asia at SOAS

South East Asia is a region of enormous linguistic diversity where hundreds, perhaps thousands, of languages are spoken. Of these, many have no system of writing and some have never been recorded; they may claim only a few hundred speakers, and are doomed to extinction as small, isolated communities are gradually absorbed into modern nation states and the young turn their backs on their traditional culture. Others, however, enjoy the status of a national language, have a flourishing living literary tradition, and can trace their history through written records dating back many centuries. Bilingualism, perhaps in the national language and a regional language or dialect, is extremely common, and in rural areas many people speak anything from three to seven languages with little difficulty.

Within the Department, languages from several important language families in South East Asia are taught. Burmese is a member of the Tibeto-Burman family of languages, which also include many of the languages spoken by ethnic minorities in Thailand, Laos, Burma and southern China; Indonesian, Malay and Tagalog belong to the family of Austronesian languages, which are spoken throughout the Indonesian archipelago, the Philippines and many of the Pacific islands; Thai is the most important representative of the Tai group of languages, which also includes Lao and Shan, a language spoken in eastern Burma. Vietnamese and Khmer (Cambodian), while only distantly related, belong to the Autro-Asiatic or Mon-Khmer family, which also includes the Mon language, once spoken over a wide area of Thailand and Burma, but now confined to a small part of Burma with a tiny handful of communities remaining in Thailand, and many other minority languages spoken in isolated pockets across the whole of mainland South East Asia.

Further Reading
  • The world's major languages ed. B. Comrie: 1987, Croom Helm, London. See the chapters on Tai Languages, Austronesian Languages, Vietnamese and Burmese.
  • The Cambridge encyclopedia of language by David Crystal: 1987, Cambridge University Press. See the entries on Austro-Asiatic, Tai, Sino-Tibetan, Austronesian, Indo-Pacific.
  • Highlanders of Northern Thailand ed. J.Mackinnon and Wanit Bhruksari: 1983, OUP, Kuala Lumpur, 385 pp. See the article: Linguistic diversity and language contact by James Matisoff.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica: 1974 (15th ed.), Benton, Chicago. See the entries on Austro-Asiatic Languages, Austronesian Languages, Tai Languages, Sino-Tibetan Languages.

For information on language and other aspects of South East Asia, see:

  • Southeast Asian languages and literatures: a bibliographical guide to Burmese, Cambodian, Indonesian, Javanese, Malay, Minangkabau,Thai and Vietnamese edited by E. Ulrich Kratz. London: Tauris Academic Studies, 1996.