In search of Austroasiatic

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The Austroasiatic language family as such has been known in the linguistics community for over a century and considerable advances have been made in terms of historical comparison, lexical reconstruction of protoforms, and classification. Many questions still await answers in these fields, but progress is steadily made. The situation is very different when it comes to the morphosyntactic structure of the AA languages. Not many people working in the field venture into this important domain. The reasons for this lack of a typological overview are many. The AA Munda languages of India are well integrated in their linguistic environment, that is, they are part of the South Asian linguistic area, while the Mon-Khmer languages of Southeast Asia show many areal features of their surroundings. There are no known or well described AA languages spoken outside of these two strong sprachbunds, so it is not easy to make statements about the original typological structure of AA. Also, syntactic structures are much more difficult to reconstruct for languages that lack a long historical record, which is the case for most AA languages, with the exception of Mon, Khmer and Vietnamese. Areal convergence in syntax is obviously a non-conscious process and therefore more subtle than lexical borrowing, which adds to the difficulty of answering the question ‘who copied who and when’. With these obstacles, it looks all but impossible to make any statements about what AA looked like typologically. In spite of these difficulties, it is possible to sort out some instances of development, both language internal and areal. In many cases what at first sight looks like areal convergence can be explained as language internal development, perhaps accelerated by language contact. One case in point is the clause or phrase initial position of interrogatives in Mon, which seems to be due to Burmese influence, but is also found in other AA languages, including Old Mon. In the present project I look at different constructions in a wide range of AA languages. Ideally, a comparison of these structures with corresponding expressions in neighboring languages, together with the historical development in the languages with early records, will enable us to crystallize at least a possible range of ‘original’ AA constructions. Of special value are of course Khmer and Mon, with a documented history of well over a thousand years, but also the Nicobarese languages may well have a say, after potentially having been isolated from intensive foreign influence for at least four millennia. It goes without saying that all available resources on AA languages have to be included in a typological project like this, and that new data must be gathered and made available, especially data on the numerous poorly documented languages. The research is still in its beginning and involves investigation in dozens of languages, including many without good descriptions available. Features, such as relative expressions, serial verb constructions/complex predicates, word order and information structure, nominals and nominal modifiers, and many more still to be defined have to be included in the investigation. It is hoped that other specialist in the field will join the project and help further our understanding of the AA language family.