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East Asian languages: Wikis


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East Asian languages describe two notional groupings of languages in East and Southeast Asia:

Although most of these languages are generally believed to be genetically unrelated, they share many areal features due to geographic proximity. This is also known as the East Asian sprachbund.


CJKV area

The CJKV area refers to Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese, the languages with large amounts of vocabulary of Chinese origin (i.e. Sino-Japanese, Sino-Korean, Sino-Vietnamese) and which are or were formerly written with Chinese characters. Because modern Vietnamese is no longer written with Chinese characters at all, it is sometimes left out of this grouping, in which case the area is just called CJK.

Outside of China itself, these coincide with the area where Literary Chinese was at one time used as the written language, and influenced the development of a national written language based on the previously unwritten local non-Chinese language. Chinese morphology and word formation principles have been carried over into these languages, so that it is not uncommon for Chinese-style compound words to be coined in Japanese from originally Chinese morphemes, and then borrowed back into Chinese where they are used without Chinese speakers being aware of their Japanese origin.[1]

Today, these words of Chinese origin may be written in the traditional Chinese characters (Chinese, Japanese, Korean), simplified Chinese characters (Chinese, Japanese), a locally developed phonetic script (Korean hangul, Japanese kana), or a modified Latin alphabet (Vietnamese alphabet).

Areal linguistic features

Several areal features partially coincide with or extend beyond the CJKV area, forming a sprachbund of unrelated languages:



  • Monosyllabic morphemes
    • are typical of Chinese and Vietnamese, but also Burmese, Thai, Lao, and some other languages of mainland Southeast Asia and South China. They are not usual in Korean, Japanese, or Austronesian languages, though.
    • Monosyllabic morphemes do not always imply monosyllabic words; Mandarin Chinese is rich in polysyllabic words. Some polysyllabic morphemes exist even in Old Chinese and Vietnamese, often loan words from other languages.
  • Tonality
    • Chinese and Vietnamese, as well as Burmese, Thai, Lao, and some other languages of mainland Southeast Asia and South China are tonal languages. Korean, Japanese, and Austronesian languages do not have phonemic tone. (Korean and Japanese are somewhat similar languages believed by some to belong to the same family; they share many features distinct from Sino-Tibetan and many other families.) Reconstruction of Vietnamese, Old Chinese and ancient Tibetan have suggested that these languages originally did not have phonemic tone, but later developed it; the process of tone development is known as tonogenesis.


  • Analytic structure
  • Classifiers/measure words
    • Languages of both the CJKV area and both mainland and island Southeast Asia typically have a well-developed system of measure words or numerical classifiers. (The relationship between nouns and their classifiers is, atypically, a way that East Asian languages require more agreement and are less analytic than most other languages.)
    • The Bengali language just to the west of Southeast Asia has numerical classifiers, even though it is an Indo-European language which does not share the other features discussed in this article. Bengali also lacks gender, unlike most Indo-European languages.
    • The other areas of the world where numerical classifier systems are common in indigenous languages are the western parts of North and South America, so that numerical classifiers could even be seen as a pan-Pacific Rim areal feature.[2] However, similar noun class systems are also found among most Sub-Saharan African languages.


Mandarin Chinese example:
今天 晚飯 已經 吃過 了。
今天 晚饭 已经 吃过 了。
Transcription: Jīntiān de wǎnfàn yǐjīng chīguò le.
Gloss: today GENITIVE dinner I already eat-EXPERIENCE NEWSTATE
Translation: I've already eaten today's dinner. (Topic: today's dinner; Comment: I've already eaten.)
Japanese example:
今日 晩御飯 もう 食べた。
Transcription: Kyō no bangohan wa tabeta.
Gloss: today GENITIVE dinner TOPIC already eat-PERFECTIVE
Translation: I've already eaten today's dinner. (Topic: today's dinner; Comment: already eaten.)
Korean example:
오늘 저녁밥 이미 먹었다.
Transcription: Oneul ui jeonyeokbab eun emi meok-eotda.
Gloss: today GENITIVE dinner TOPIC already eat-PERFECTIVE
Translation: I've already eaten today's dinner. (Topic: today's dinner; Comment: already eaten.)

This way of marking previously mentioned vs. newly introduced information is an alternative to articles, which are not found in East Asian languages.


  • Personal pronouns in many of the region's languages including Japanese, Korean, Thai, and Malay/Indonesian are open class words rather than closed class words: they are not stable over time, not few in number, and not clitics whose use is obligatory in grammatical constructs. New personal pronouns or forms of reference or address can and often do evolve from nouns as fresh ways of expressing respect or social status. Another way of viewing this phenomenon is that these languages do not have personal pronouns in the Western sense.


  • Linguistic systems of politeness, including frequent use of honorifics, with varying levels of politeness or respect, are well-developed in Javanese, Japanese and Korean. Politeness systems in Chinese are relatively weak, having devolved from a more developed system into a much less predominant role in modern Chinese.[3] This is especially true when speaking of the southern Chinese languages. However, Vietnamese has retained a highly complex system of pronouns, in which the terms mostly derive from Chinese. For example, bác, chú, dượng, and cậu are all terms ultimately derived from Chinese and all refer to different statuses of "uncle".
    • With modernization and other trends, politeness language is evolving to be simpler. Avoiding the need for complex polite language can also motivate use in some situations of languages like Indonesian or English that have less complex respect systems or are more egalitarian.

Linguistic relationships

These features strongly contrast with major language groups bordering East and Southeast Asia such as Australian languages, Indo-Pacific languages, Paleosiberian languages, and Indo-European languages, as well as Afroasiatic languages. Some features loosely similar to some seen in many of the even more distant African languages, such as short, tonal morphemes and a large number of noun classes are likely to have originated independently.

Languages of East and Southeast Asia are classified into multiple language families, many of whose validity continues to be debated:

Altaic traditionally encompassed Mongolic, Tungusic, and Turkic. Today some linguists also include Japonic and/or Korean[4] while others deny that Altaic is a genetic family, viewing it instead as an ancient Sprachbund.

The Austric hypothesis, based on morphology and other resemblances, is that Austro-Asiatic, Austronesian, often Kradai, and sometimes Hmong-Mien form a genetic family. Chinese scholars often group Kradai and Hmong-Mien with Sino-Tibetan, which Western linguists view as composed only of Chinese and Tibeto-Burman.

Long-range comparison linguists have hypothesized even larger macrofamilies such as Nostratic including Altaic and most North Eurasian languages, Dene-Caucasian including Sino-Tibetan and Ket, and Borean including both those macrofamilies and Austric. If Borean is a valid family, all the major East Asian languages would share an extremely remote genetic connection.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Johanna Nichols. Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time. pp. 200. 
  3. ^ KCTOS 2007: What Happened to the Honorifics?
  4. ^ Stratification in the peopling of China: how far does the linguistic evidence match genetics and archaeology? In; Sanchez-Mazas, Blench, Ross, Lin & Pejros eds. Human migrations in continental East Asia and Taiwan: genetic, linguistic and archaeological evidence. 2008. Taylor & Francis.


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