Uri Tadmor

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology




Lexical borrowing between some Austronesian and Austroasiatic languages


Mon-Khmer languages (especially Mon and Khmer themselves) and some Austronesian languages (especially Malay-Indonesian and Javanese) share a large number of vocabulary items of similar sounds and meanings. Most of these are due to heavy parallel borrowing from Sanskrit, which occurred in the context of the more general process of Indianization (Cœdès 1968). However, there are also a significant number of similar words that do not appear to be of Indic origin. Even if one believes that Austroasiatic and Austronesian are ultimately related, many words are too similar to each other phonetically and semantically to be the plausible results of shared retention from a proto language after many thousands of years of separation. They are also too numerous to be the products of a chance resemblance. A more convincing explanation for the presence of these lexical similarities would be borrowing.

Sometimes it is difficult to tell the direction of the borrowing, especially when an etymon has reflexes in several languages in each family, but in many cases the direction is clear. One example is Malay-Indonesian semut ‘ant’. The reconstructed Proto Malayo-Polynesian form for ‘ant’ is *me-(n)tik / ha-(n)tik (Zorc 1995:1151), clearly not the predecessor of Malay-Indonesian semut. Within Austronesian, only languages that are relatively close to Malay-Indonesian (genealogically or geographically) exhibit cognates of semut (cf. Rejang semut, Javanese semut, Balinese semut, Sasak semut, Sumbawa semit). Within Mon-Khmer the etymon is represented in several subgroups and can be shown to derive from a Proto Mon-Khmer root meaning ‘to sting’ with a nominalizing infix (see Shorto 2006:257-258). The reconstructability of the etymon to Proto Mon-Khmer and the fact that it can be shown to be morphologically complex in Mon-Khmer but not in Austronesian constitute strong evidence that the direction of borrowing was from Mon-Khmer to Austronesian.

This paper discusses various words which appear to have been borrowed between Mon and Khmer on the one hand and Malay-Indonesian and Javanese on the other hand, and correlates them to historical scenarios which could have given rise to the borrowing.



Cœdès, Georges, 1968. The Indianized States of Southeast Asia. Honolulu: East-West Center.

Shorto, Harry, 2006. A Mon-Khmer Comparative Dictionary. Main editor: Paul Sidwell. Pacific Linguistics 579. Canberra: The Australian National University.

Zorc, R. David, 1995. A glossary of Austronesian reconstructions. In: Darrel T. Tryon (ed.): Comparative Austronesian Dictionary: An Introduction to Austronesian Studies. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter, pp 1105-1197.