The Malayo-Polynesian family has two subfamilies, Western Malayo-Polynesian and Eastern Malayo-Polynesian. The Western subfamily has the greater significance from both a cultural and a commercial viewpoint. Western Malayo-Polynesian languages are spoken by over 200 million people and include Malagasy, the language of 13 million people on the island of Madagascar; Malay, native to 28 million in Malaysia and the island of Sumatra, in Indonesia; Indonesian or Bahasa Indonesia [Indonesian language], which is based on the Malay language and is spoken natively by about 26 million people in Indonesia; Javanese, the mother tongue of 62 million people on Java; Sundanese, the language of 25 million, also on Java; Madurese, with 10 million speakers on Madura; Balinese, spoken by 2.5 million on Bali; and Pilipino or Tagalog, the native tongue of about 20 million in the Philippines.
The Eastern branch consists of the Melanesian, Micronesian, and Polynesian groups of languages. Although there is a very large number of these languages, all together they are spoken by only 5 million people. Melanesian languages are found on the islands of Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, the Bismarck Archipelago, and New Guinea. Among the leading Polynesian languages are Samoan, spoken in Samoa and American Samoa; Maori, spoken in New Zealand; Tongan, spoken in Tonga; Tahitian, the principal Polynesian language of French Polynesia; and Hawaiian, spoken in Hawaii. Gilbertese, spoken in Kiribati, is the largest Micronesian language; Micronesian languages are also spoken in Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, and Nauru. Chamorro, spoken on Guam and in the Northern Marianas, and Palauan, spoken on Palau, are also members of the Malayo-Polynesian languages, but their relationship to the others is unclear.
The Malayo-Polynesian languages exhibit an abundance of vowels and a comparative paucity of consonants. They also tend to have disyllabic roots, form derivatives by means of affixes, and use reduplication to indicate the plural and other grammatical concepts. Writing varies, some forms being based on the Roman alphabet and others on alphabets derived from Indian or Arabic scripts.
It is thought that the original Malayo-Polynesian speakers came from a part of Asia near the Malay Peninsula and later migrated west as far as Madagascar and east to the Pacific. This migration probably began well over two thousand years ago. Because Malayo-Polynesian speakers lived on thousands of islands that were often widely separated, and because in earlier times communication among them was difficult, if not impossible, many dialects and, in time, languages evolved from the ancestor language, Proto-Malayo-Polynesian. Although it has been suggested that the Malayo-Polynesian and Southeast Asian (or Austroasiatic) languages form a single Austric family, this has not been proved. In fact, the Malayo-Polynesian tongues do not seem to be related to any other linguistic family.
See R. C. Green and A. Pawley, The Linguistic Subgroup of Polynesia (1966).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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