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East Asian Languages

East Asian languages or the East Asian sprachbund describe two notional groupings of languages in East and Southeast Asia, either (1) languages which have been greatly influenced by Classical Chinese, or the CJKV (Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese) area or (2) a larger grouping including the CJKV area as well as several language groups of Southeast Asia including other Sino-Tibetan languages, Tai-Kadai, and Austronesian languages.

CJKV area

The CJKV area refers to Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese, the languages with large amounts of vocabulary of Chinese origin, and which are or were formerly written with Chinese characters.

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-forming 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 into Chinese where they are used without Chinese speakers being aware of Japanese origin. The examples currently surviving as national languages are:

Today, words of Chinese origin may be written in the original Chinese characters (Chinese, Japanese, occasionally in Korean), simplified Chinese characters (Chinese, Japanese), a locally developed phonetic script (Korean, occasionally in Japanese), or a modified Roman alphabet (Vietnamese). See CJK for discussion of software support for the unique properties of East Asian languages.

Areal linguistic features

Some other areal features partially coincide with or extend beyond the CJKV area:


  • 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; Chinese is rich in polysyllabic words. Some polysyllabic morphemes exist even in 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 morphemic 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 fa milies.) Reconstruction of Vietnamese, Old Chinese and ancient Tibetan have suggested that these languages originally did not have morphemic tone, but later developed it. (tonogenesis)
  • Analytic structure: Chinese and languages of Southeast Asia are highly analytic languages. Words are not obligatorily marked or inflected for gender, number, person, case, tense, or mood. Instead, these properties can optionally be indicated by adding independent, invariant modifier words that are sometimes not even bound morphemes.
    • Japanese and Korean do have verb inflections for properties of the verb itself like aspect, mood, and tense, similar to those of the Ural-Altaic languages further north, but agree with Chinese and Southeast Asian languages in not marking gender, number, or any other properties of the verb arguments on the verb itself.
  • 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 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.


  • Pronouns in Japanese, Malay/Indonesian and some other languages are not stable over time and few in number. New 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 pronouns in the Western sense at all.
    • Chinese is partly an exception, having stable 1st/2nd/3rd person pronouns that can be traced back thousands of years to Proto-Sino-Tibetan and are used to refer to all sorts of people, even more so since the decay of traditional respect/politeness language. However, a large number of pronouns used in Chinese historically are completely deprecated or unknown by native speakers today.


  • Topic-comment constructions, in which sentences are frequently structured with a "topic" (subject) as the first segment and a "comment" (predicate) as the second.
Japanese example:
こちらは 田中さんです。 Kochira wa Tanaka san desu.
(GLOSS) This direction/person <TOPIC MARKER> Tanaka-san is.
(TRANSLATION) "This is Tanaka-san (Mr/Ms/Miss Tanaka)."
Chinese example (Simplified Chinese characters, transliteration based on Standard Mandarin and Pinyin):
你的衣服,怎么这么脏? Ni de yifu, zenme zheme zang?
(GLOSS)You-POSSESSIVE clothes, how-come this dirty?
(TRANSLATION) Why are your clothes so dirty?


  • 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. This is especially true when speaking of the southern Chinese languages. However, Vietnamese has retained a highly complex and even tedious 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 "stati" 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 Afro-Asiatic 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, signifying that there is not currently evidence demonstrating that they all directly descended from a common ancestor. Therefore many of the common areal features are likely due to borrowing between neighboring languages over thousands of years, via the typical sprachbund mechanisms. The highest-level hypothesized families include:

  • Sino-Tibetan languages
  • Hmong-Mien languages
  • Tai-Kadai languages
  • Austric languages
  • Fuyu languages (including Korean and Japanese)--highly tentative

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia