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date: 20 February 2019

The Kra-Dai Languages

Summary and Keywords

Kra-Dai, also known as Tai–Kadai, Daic, and Kadai, is a family of diverse languages found in southern China, northeast India, and Southeast Asia. The number of these languages is estimated to be close to a hundred, with approximately 100 million speakers all over the world. As the name itself suggests, Kra-Dai is made up of two major groups, Kra and Dai. The former refers to a number of lesser-known languages, some of which have only a few hundred fluent speakers or even less. The latter (also known as Tai, or Kam-Tai) is well established, and comprises the best-known members of the family, Thai and Lao, the national languages of Thailand and Laos respectively, whose speakers account for over half of the Kra-Dai population.

The ultimate genetic affiliation of Kra-Dai remains controversial, although a consensus among western scholars holds that it belongs under Austronesian. The majority of Kra-Dai languages have no writing systems of their own, particularly Kra. Languages with writing systems include Thai, Lao, Sipsongpanna Dai, and Tai Lue. These use Indic-based scripts. Others use Chinese character-based scripts, such as the Zhuang and Kam-Sui in southern China and surrounding regions. The government introduced Romanized scripts in the 1950s for the Zhuang and the Kam-Sui languages. Almost every group within Kra-Dai has a rich oral history tradition.

The languages are typically tonal, isolating, and analytic, lacking in inflectional morphology, with no distinction for number and gender. A significant number of basic vocabulary items are monosyllabic, but bisyllabic and multisyllabic compounds also abound. There are morphological processes in which etymologically related words manifest themselves in groups through tonal, initial, or vowel alternations. Reduplication is a salient word formation mechanism. In syntax, the Kra-Dai languages can be said to have basic SVO word order. They possess a rich system of noun classifiers. Other features include verb serialization without overt marking to indicate grammatical relations. A number of lexical items (mostly verbs) may function as grammatical morphemes in syntactic operations. Temporal and aspectual meanings are expressed through tense-aspect markers typically derived from verbs, while mood and modality are conveyed via a rich array of discourse particles.

Keywords: Kra-Dai, Tai-Kadai, Kam-Tai, Austro-Tai, historical-comparative linguistics, Southeast Asia, Austronesian, language contact

1. Languages and Their Speakers

1.1 Population and Distribution

The Kra-Dai languages, also referred to as Tai-Kadai, Daic, or Kadai, constitute one of the world’s major language families, spoken by approximately 100 million speakers (Diller et al., 2008). The language family spreads over a vast area covering much of mainland Southeast Asia, including China, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and northeast India. Within China, Kra-Dai speakers occupy an area adjacent to Southeast Asia extending eastward to Hǎinán 海南‎ Island and Guǎngdōng 广东‎ province, westward to Déhóng 德宏‎ prefecture in Yúnnán 云南‎ province on the China-Myanmar border, northward to Guìzhōu 贵州‎ and the Yúnnán-Sìchuān border, and southward to the China-Vietnam border area. Speakers of Kra-Dai are concentrated in Hǎinán, Guìzhōu, Yúnnán, and Guǎngxī 广西‎ provinces, with some spillover in the neighboring Húnán 湖南‎, Húběi 湖北‎, and Sìchuān 四川‎ provinces (see Figure 1). The number of these languages is estimated to be close to a hundred.

The Kra-Dai LanguagesClick to view larger

Figure 1. Distribution of Kra-Dai languages in China and surrounding regions.

Source: Adapted from Diller, Edmondson, and Luo (2008, p. 677).

As the name itself suggests, Kra-Dai is made up of two major groups, Kra and Dai. The former comprises a number of lesser-known languages, some of which have only a few hundred fluent speakers or even less. The term Kra was coined by Ostapirat (2000), and refers to a group of “outlier” languages to which Paul Benedict gave the name Kadai (Benedict, 1942). In China, Kra or Kadai is generally known as Gēyāng 仡央‎, a term used by Chinese scholars. Dai, or Tai as it is more generally known, is a self-designation for speakers of the Tai languages (Li, 1977), which include Thai or Siamese; several varieties of Dai spoken in Yunnan, including such well-known varieties as Tai-Lue of Sipsongpanna and Tai Nua (Dehong Dai or Chinese Shan); Tai Don (White Tai); Tai Dam (Black Tai); and Tai Deng (Red Tai), as well as Tay in Vietnam. In linguistic practice, Dai has been used in the sense of Lue alone, excluding Dehong. Dai or Tai in its broad sense also designates what is generally referred to as Kam-Tai, which is sometimes also used to refer to Kra-Dai.

Despite general consensus, there is still a considerable amount of dispute concerning the membership, internal subgrouping, and external affiliations of Kra-Dai. It seems safe for now to speak broadly of four main subgroups within Kra-Dai: Tai, Kam-Sui, Hlai, and Kra.

Several Kra-Dai varieties are found only in China. They include Mulam, Maonan, and Lakkja, as well as Hlai, Limgo or On-Be (Língāo 临高‎) and Cūn 村‎. Recently, new languages have been discovered. Among them are Chádòng 茶洞‎, a Kam-Sui language spoken in Línguì 临桂‎ county northwest of Guìlín with over 20,000 speakers, who were previously identified as Han Chinese (Lǐ, 2008). Likewise, several Gēlǎo-related languages are found in the Yúnnán and Guǎngxī border area (Li et al., 2006).

Other newly discovered Kra-Dai varieties include Qawo of southeastern Guìzhōu and Biāo 标‎ (also Peu, Pau), spoken in Huáijí 怀集‎ and Fēngkāi 封开‎ counties in northwest Guǎngdōng province, whose speakers have identified themselves as Han Chinese. Biāo speakers number approximately 80,000. Biāo is not to be confused with Pǔbiāo 普标‎ (Qabiao). The latter is spoken by only a few hundred people in Málìpō 麻栗坡‎ of Yúnnán on the China-Vietnam border.

The Kra-Dai people are traditional agriculturalists. They are typically lowland dwellers and are highly skilled in rice-growing as well as in irrigation. A sizeable number of basic vocabulary items in their lexicon (Li, 1977; Luo, 2013) reflect this cultural trait. Several customs are also found to be shared by prehistoric Kra-Dai people (Blench, 2008). Almost each Kra-Dai group has a rich oral history tradition. In religion, they are basically animistic, with a strong belief in the power of spirits in nature. Other religious activities include witchcraft, shamanism, and ancestor-worship. Buddhism is common among the Dǎi of Sipsongpanna and Déhóng. However, it did not have much influence among other Kra-Dai groups, where Daoism and Confucianism are more commonly practiced. Christian missionaries were present in Kra-Dai–speaking areas in the late 19th century, but Kra-Dai people have maintained their traditions and customs.

1.2 Internal Divisions

Exponents of the Kra-Dai grouping (Diller, 2008; Ostapirat, 2000) hold that Kra-Dai is made up of the four branches Tai, Kam-Sui, Hlai and Gēyāng, with Tai and Kam-Sui forming a node as Kam-Tai on a par with Hlai and Gēyāng. The genetic schema may look like the tree diagram in Figure 2.

The Kra-Dai LanguagesClick to view larger

Figure 2. A proposed tree-diagram for the classification of Kra-Dai.

Source: Adapted from Diller (2008, p. 7).

Within Kra-Dai, Tai constitutes the largest subgroup, which includes the languages of three ethnic groups with official mínzú民族‎ or nationality status within China: Zhuàng 壮‎ (16.1 million), Bouyei (Bùyī 布依‎) (2.9 million), and Dǎi 傣‎ (1.1 million). These people are distributed mainly in Guǎngxī, Guìzhōu and Yúnnán. Outside China, the largest subgroup is Thai of Thailand (60,489,750), followed by Shan of Myanmar (3,200,000), Lao of Laos (3,070,000), Nung (968,800), Tay (1,626,392) (sometimes referred to as Tho), and Tai Dam (699,000) and Yay (58,617) of Vietnam, along with Khamti (8,000), Phake (5,000), Aiton, and the extinct Ahom of northeast India. Li (1977) classifies Tai into three main branches, Northern, Central, and Southwestern, on the basis of their geographic locations along with sets of distinct phonological and lexical criteria.

The replacement for the earlier term “Siamese,” “Thai” is also commonly used to cover inclusively normative Standard Thai and related colloquial Central Thai varieties, including the more vernacular form sometimes referred to as Bangkok Thai. The spelling Thai is also used in regional or local variety names within Thailand’s borders such as Southern Thai, Suphanburi Thai, etc. There is also Northern Thai, often called Lanna or Kammueang; Northeastern Thai may be referred to as Isan or local Lao.

Kam-Sui, the second largest subgroup, consists of Kam (Dòng 侗‎) (about 3 million), Sui (Shuǐ 水‎) (406,000), Maonan (Máonán 毛难‎) (about 70,000), Mulam (Mùlǎo 仫佬‎) (207,352), and a number of related languages such as Mak, Tien, and Yanghuang. Mak and Tien speakers do not have official minority status. Kam-Sui is most closely related to Dai (Tai), with which it shares a significant number of cognate words. The Kam and Sui people are found in Guìzhōu and Guǎngxī; the Maonan and Mulam in Guǎngxī. Kam is divided into two dialects, northern and southern, while dialect variation is minimal in Sui.

Hlai (Lí 黎‎) (1,128,000), the third largest subgroup, is spoken on Hǎinán Island. Hlai has a number of dialects, some of which are mutually unintelligible from one another. Also spoken on Hainan Island are Ong-Be/Be, or Limgo (Língāo 临高‎) (600,000), as well as Cūn 村‎ (Gēlóng yu仡隆語‎), or Ngao Fon.

The Kra subgroup is mainly made up of Gēlǎo 仡佬‎ (about 500,000) and Bùyāng 布央‎, for which the term Geyang (from Ge[lao] + [Bu]yang) was coined by Chinese scholars (Liang & Zhang, 1996). Gelao represents the largest group of speakers who use several dozen mutually unintelligible dialects or languages; these languages are spoken mainly in Guizhou and adjacent areas. Kra languages with fewer than 10,000 speakers include Bùyāng, with varieties such as Bāhā 巴哈‎ (Paha), Lángjià 郎架‎, Yēróng 耶容‎, and Yǎláng 雅郎‎. In addition, there are the lessor-known Lachi (Lājī 拉基‎, Lipule), Qabiao (Pǔbiāo 普标‎, Pupeo), En (Nung Ven), and Laha. These are found in Guǎngxī-Yúnnán border areas on the China-Vietnam border. Unlike Gēlǎo, other speakers of the Kra languages in China do not have official nationality status; rather, they are identified as members of the Zhuàng, Kam-Sui or Han Chinese.

It is difficult to determine the exact number of language users of Kra-Dai, particularly in China. This is because a significant number of speakers do not have official mínzú or minority status; they may choose to identify themselves, or be assigned with an identity, as Han Chinese or as some other non-Kra-Dai groups. For example, Ong-Be (Be) (Língāo) and Cūn speakers are identified as Han, Lakkja as Mien (Yáo 瑤‎), and Qabiao as Yí 彝‎. Also, many speakers may have shifted to using Chinese or other prestige languages in the region. Some languages may have only a few semi-speakers left. On the other hand, several dominant languages in the region, such as Zhuàng, Bouyei, and Dǎi, are also spoken by surrounding minority groups.

1.3 Linguistic Evidence for Genetic Relationship

As work progresses, the genetic links between Kam-Tai and Kra are being more firmly established on the basis of phonological and lexical correspondences. A sizeable number of cognates are found between Tai and Kra, including a significant number of shared core vocabulary items in Swadesh’s list, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Shared Basic Vocabulary in Kra-Dai

Tai

Kam-Sui

Hlai

Kra

Gloss

Thai

Lung-chow

Bou-yei

Kam (south)

Sui

Hlai

Bǐgōng Gēlǎo

Bùyāng

Qabiao

Lachi

‘rain’

fon1

phən1

vɯn1

pjən1

fən1

fun1

mi(e)31

juut31

ʂau213

ȵa35

‘fire’

fai2

fai2

fi2

pui1

vi1

fei1

pia33

pai53

pəi54

pie55

‘bird’

nok8

nuk8

2

mok8

nok8

taȶ7

nu31

ɔk31

nuk35

ni55nio54

‘bone’

duːk9

duk7

do6

laːk9

laːk7

vɯːk7

Judu de35

ʔdaːk31

daak33

thɔ45

‘hand’

2

2

fɯŋ2

mja2

mja1

meɯ1

vəɯ33

ȵiə31

m̥i213

tɕu24m33

‘leg’

kha1

kha1

ka1

pa1

pa1

ha1

xəɯ33

ʁa11

kuaŋ54

ku55

‘liver’

tap

tap7

tap7

tap7

tap7

Ong Be dɔ‎p7

tie 3

tap33

tap33

tja31

Source: Luo (2013).

In addition, a set of stable roots are shared among Kra-Dai, roots that are not included in Swadesh’s basic vocabulary list but which are nonetheless widely distributed across all subgroups, as shown in Table 2.

Table 2. Some Stable Roots in Kra-Dai

Tai

Kam-Sui

Hlai

Kra

Gloss

Thai

Lung-chow

Bouyei

Kam

Sui

Lakkja

Hlai

Zoulei

Judu Gēlǎo

Píngbà Gelao

Qabiao

‘year’

pi2

pi1

pi1

Mak be1

mbe1

pei1

pou2

vlei31

plei31

plei33

mjɑɑi33

‘head lice’

hau1

hau1

zau1

tau1

tu1

κϕ‎o 1

gwou3

zɔ‎33 Η‎ 31

Lachi τε‎43

ta33

tau54

‘fart’

tot7

tit7

zɛ‎t7

tɛ‎t7

tɛ‎t7

κ‎j 7

thu:t7

τιε‎13

Red Gelao τει‎35τε‎31

Buyang τυτ‎54

τɑτ‎33

‘soul’

khwan1

khun1

van1

kwan1

kwan1

ω‎on2

hweɯ‎1

Η‎au33

,əɯ31

,ku33

,uun33

The item for ‘year’ is found to be the most stable pan-Kra-Dai cognate, and may serve as a key lexical item for checking the genetic relationship. This item is represented with a consonant cluster in Kra, reconstructable as *vl-. Things are more complex for ‘head lice,’ for which remnants among the modern dialects alternate between laryngeal /h/, fricative /z/, dental /t/, and velar k-/g- or H-, suggesting that we are dealing with consonant clusters of some sort. Correspondences of this kind can be established among Kra-Dai languages for a set of consonant clusters which are believed to be an archaic feature from the proto-language. These are frequently used in reconstructing proto-forms and as a diagnostic feature for establishing genetic relationship.

Much to the comparativist’s delight, consonant clusters are still preserved among a number of modern dialects, supplying further evidence for a genetic relationship between these languages, as illustrated in Table 3.

Table 3. Some Consonant Clusters in Kra-Dai

Tai

Kam-Sui

Hlai

Kra

Gloss

Thai

Lung-chow

Saek

Kam

Sui

Lakkja

Hlai

Zoulei

Red Gēlǎo

Buyang

Qa-biao

‘break’

tɛːk7

pheːk7

preek7

ɕek9’

phɛːk9

tsha:u1

Liùzhī pla35

la55te55

ʔbɛk11

Judu bla35

‘eye’

ta1

ta1

praa1

ta1

nda1

pla1

tsha1

zəɯ33

təɯ31

tau53

te54

‘die’

taai1

taai1

praai1

tai1

tai1

plei1

ɬa:u2

vlai31

plɑn31

pwan322

tie53

The forms in Saek, Lakkja, Hlai, and Kra are worth noting. Saek, Liuzhi, and Qabiao have the bilabial cluster /pr-/ or/ pl/bl/ for ‘break,’ for which Lakkja and Lungchow have /ph/, while Hlai has an affricate /tsh-/, indicating that we are dealing with a proto-language consonant cluster, reconstructed as *pr- for Proto-Tai by Li (1977). It can be inferred that the first element in the cluster, the bilabial stop /p-/, was lost in Thai, Kam, Sui and Hlai, where it affected the following consonant, giving rise to dental /t/ in Thai and Red Gelao, a fricative /ɕ/ in Kam, and an affricate /tsh/ or a fricative /ɬ/ in Hlai. Saek is a unique language in Tai which is well known for preserving a number of archaic features. Reflexes for ‘eye’ and ‘die’ in Saek and Lakkja lend further support for the reconstruction of the proto cluster, particularly ‘die,’ for which both Zoulei and Red Gelao still preserve the liquid /-l/.

1.4 Wider Links

It is becoming uncontroversial to assert that Kra-Dai is a legitimate language family in its own right on a par with Mon-Khmer and Hmong-Mien. Scholars seem to have reached a general consensus about the broader subgroup structure of the Kra-Dai languages. However, much work still needs to be done to fine-tune the internal subgroup structure, particularly with respect to Hlai and Kra. Wider relationships between Kra-Dai and other families remain controversial. For one thing, there is growing evidence that the outlier Kra languages—namely the many varieties of Gēlǎo and the lesser-known Bùyāng, Lachi, and Qabiao, among others—show some distinct features which set them apart from Tai and Kam-Sui. These languages possess a numeral system that is not shared by Tai and Kam-Sui, but which shows some connections with Austronesian; see Table 4.

Table 4. Some Kra Numerals with Austronesian Links

Tai

Kam-Sui

Hlai

Kra

PA*

Gloss

Thai

Zhuàng

Kam

Sui

Hlai

Bigong Gēlǎo

Judu Gēlǎo

Lángjià

Qabiao

Lachi

(Blust, 2009)

‘one’

diəu1

deu1

Mulam n̥a:u3

Ɂdaːu3

tseɯ3

sɿ55

tsɿ55

Ɂam33

tɕia33

tɕiã33

*esa

‘two’

soːŋ1

soŋ1

ja2

ɣa2

ɬau3

səu31

səu31

θ‎au33

ɕe33

su11

*duSa

‘five’

ha3

ha3

ŋo4

ŋo4

pa3

31

mlɯ31

mo31

33

m11

*lima

For this reason, competing proposals have been put forward, including Sino-Tai (Li, 1976; Manomaivibool, 1975), Austro-Tai (Benedict, 1975), and Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian (including Kra-Dai: Sagart, 2004, 2005). The question of whether Kra-Dai belongs within Sino-Tibetan or Austronesian is among the unsettled issues in Sino-Tibetan linguistics, as is the nature of the relationship between Chinese, Kra-Dai, and Austronesian.

1.5 Terminological Issues, Group Identity

There is considerable terminological confusion when it comes to the naming of subgroups and individual languages. While terms like Tai and Kam-Sui are quite well established, the term Kra or Kadai is not without problem (Diller, 2008, p. 6). Chinese scholars prefer to refer to Tai as Zhuàng-Dǎi 壮傣‎/壮泰‎ and Kam-Sui as Dòng-Shuǐ (侗水‎). These two subgroups, along with Hlai and Lakkja (Lājiā 拉珈‎) (12,000), together constitute what is called the Zhuàng-Dòng 壮侗‎/Dòng-Tái 侗台‎ language family (Wang et al., 1984; Liang & Zhang, 1996). As mentioned earlier, the terms Zhuàng-Dòng and Dòng-Tái are used by these scholars for the entire Kra-Dai/Tai-Kadai group (Liáng & Zhāng, 1996). But some linguists are reluctant to group Gēlǎo and Bùyāng under the same umbrella, preferring to keep them apart from Kam-Tai.

Despite advancements in the field, the genetic affiliation of Kra-Dai remains hotly debated. While the internal division of Kam-Tai does not present much of an issue, particularly when the term is narrowly defined—namely, when Kam-Tai is made up of nothing else but Kam-Sui and Tai—the wider links of Kra-Dai with other languages are not without controversy.

It is sobering to realize that linguistically, Hlai is quite different from Tai and Kam-Sui. Even within Hlai, there exists significant diversity among different dialects. For example, Jiamao 加茂‎ (Gevou, Kamau, Ku vou) is considered by Chinese linguists to be a dialect of Hlai, but it is very different from Hlai dialects in phonology, grammar, and vocabulary. Indeed, the variation is so striking that some dialects appear to be different languages. A fine survey of Hlai has been undertaken by Ōuyáng and Zhèng (1983), while comparative work has been carried out by Matisoff (1988), Norquest (2007), and Ostapirat (2008); nevertheless, much remains to be investigated.

Lakkja is the language of a group of speakers who identify themselves as Yao (Mien). They are given official status as Yao but are linguistically related to Kam-Tai rather than to Yao. In the area of basic vocabulary, Lakkja is shown to share more with Tai and Dong (Kam), less with Lachi, Qabiao, and Gelao (Theraphan, 1992; Lan, 2011). Lakkja possesses a number of phonological features which have been used as important criteria for genetic relationship (Sagart, 2004).

1.6 Existing Scholarship, Recent Advances, and Debates

In the early days of Sino-Tibetan studies, Kam-Tai was taken for granted as a member of the Sino-Tibetan family (Terrien de Lacouperie, 1883; Wulff, 1934; Shafer, 1974). This theory was challenged by Benedict, who put forward the hypothesis of a Tai-Austronesian alliance (Benedict, 1942, 1975), based on earlier work by Schlegel (1901) and Schmidt (1906). Benedict’s position has gained increasing acceptance among Western scholars. Before Benedict’s studies, it was common to talk about the Kam-Tai languages (Li, 1965) as comprising Tai, Kam-Sui, and Hlai only. Benedict linked Kam-Tai and a number of lesser-known languages such as Gelao, Lachi, and Laqua, for which the term Kadai was coined. Later, terms like Kra and Kra-dai have been proposed for these latter languages. Although none of these terms are satisfactory (Diller, 2008), the term Kadai seems to have gained acceptance since its introduction, despite certain reservations by scholars.

The majority of Chinese scholars still uphold the traditional hypothesis that Kam-Tai/Kra-Dai is a branch within Sino-Tibetan. However, a number of scholars are siding with Benedict in linking Kra-Dai with Austronesian, excluding Kra-Dai from Sino-Tibetan (Wang, 2015), while others propose to group Sino-Tibetan, Kra-Dai, and Austronesian together into a super-phylum (Sagart, 2004, 2005). Advancement in the phylogenetic study of Kam-Tai and Austronesian peoples (Li, 2005; Li et al., 2008), along with several anthropological traits such as face-tattooing and teeth-blackening (Blench, 2008), seem to lend support to this view. To this end, linguistic evidence has been critically re-evaluated (Dèng & Wang, 2009), taking into account historical sources and recent findings. It has been shown by Dèng and Wang that Li Fang-Kuei’s classic paper on Sino-Tai (Li, 1976) offers little support to the Sino-Tai alliance, because only about a dozen vocabulary items out of the 120-odd cognate sets proposed by Li are in Swadesh’s 100-word list. On the other hand, several items are shown to have Austronesian links. A number of related words display semantic innovation in Tai.

On the basis of comparison between Kam-Tai and Austronesian, Dèng and Wang firmly believe that the two are genetically related. Their conclusion is arrived at through solid evidence: some 40 basic vocabulary items in Swadesh’s list are found to be shared by Kam-Tai and Austronesian. These include several items from Yakhontov’s list, a 35-word subset of the Swadesh list posited as especially stable by Russian linguist Sergei Yakhontov for calculating the genetic relationships between languages. However, not all Austronesianists are convinced (Thurgood, 1994; Reid, 2006); for them, the evidence cited as proof is in fact far from consistent, and should be considered as the result of contact rather than a genetic link. On the other hand, Luo (2012) also supplies evidence from Kam-Tai and Chinese showing that the two languages share quite extensively in morphological processes. No parallel development can be observed between Kam-Tai and Austronesian. Since morphology is relatively stable and resistant to borrowing, this finding is worth considering when the issue of the genetic affiliation of Kra-Dai is revisited. Evidence from both sides is contested. The Sino-Tai hypothesis needs to be revisited, as does the Austro-Tai hypothesis. Since Kra languages may hold a key to the genetic position of Tai-Kra-Dai, good descriptive and comparative work needs to be done to unveil key aspects of historical connection. The issue of genetic affiliation of Tai-Kra-Dai remains a fascinating topic of academic pursuit.

2. Linguistic Type, History, Writing System

2.1 Language Typology

Typologically, Kra-Dai languages are of a typical isolating type, lacking in inflectional morphology, with no distinction for number and gender. The languages can be described as typically monosyllabic in being basically “one morpheme, one syllable,” but bisyllabic and multisyllabic compounds also abound. They are tonal, with a rich phonemic inventory. Systems between 17 and over 70 consonants have been reported, with vowels ranging from 6 to 11 in number and rhymes from around 30 to over 100. Most languages have between four and nine lexical tones.

In syntax, all Kra-Dai languages have S[ubject]-V[erb]-O[bject] constituent order. However, other constituent orders such as OV and VS may also be possible due to pragmatic requirements. Modifiers generally follow modified items. Adverbials generally precede predicates, with the exception of Gēlǎo, where negatives follow predicates. Verbs can occur in strings without overt marking to indicate grammatical relations. A set of lexical items (mostly verbs) may function as grammatical morphemes in syntactic operations. Temporal and aspectual meanings are expressed through tense-aspect markers, typically derived from verbs.

In word formation, Kra-Dai languages exhibit a great deal of compounding which is typically idiosyncratic in nature. Quite often, the meaning of the whole compound is not readily analyzable from the known semantics of the constituent elements. Reduplication is a derivational morpho-phonological process with expressive function. There are also morphological processes in which etymologically related words manifest themselves in groups through tonal, initial, or vowel alternations, forming what is known as doublets or word-families which reveal traces of historical development.

Kra-Dai languages invariably possess a rich system of noun classifiers, with sortal and measure (counting) function and collocation requirements. Average languages possess from several dozen to over a hundred items, forming “numeral-classifier” constructions, although the semantics and syntax of such constructions vary markedly. For example, classifier constructions in Northern Tai typically have the order numeral–classifier–head, as in the case of Zhuang, which does not follow the basic word order of head–modifier, whereas Siamese, Lao, and many Southwestern Tai dialects have the order head–numeral–classifier. Pronoun systems also vary, with subtle differences in meaning, particularly in languages like Siamese and Tai-Lue where pronouns carry social-hierarchical nuances. The socio-cognitive basis for pronouns and how they operate in the pronoun systems merit in-depth analysis. Last but not least, a rich system of sentence-final particles characterizes Kra-Dai. These convey mood, modality, and discourse function.

2.2 Homeland Issue, History

Since the majority of Kra-Dai languages do not have writing systems of their own, and the writing systems for languages like Siamese do not have a very long history, the early history of Kra-Dai people remains murky. From fragments of Chinese annals and other historical records pieced together, we may paint a rough picture that the Kam-Tai peoples originated from the ancient Yuè 越‎, who inhabited a large area in South China up to about 700 bce and who are believed to have been the ancestors of all the Kam-Tai groups. Scholars opine that the Kra-Dai people were directly descended from the Bǎi Yuè 百越‎ ‘Hundred Yue’ (Chén et al., 1988; Wang, 2015).

A generally accepted view states that Proto Kam-Tai emerged from southeast China around 2500 bce (Sagart, 2004, 2005; Matisoff, 1991). This idea goes back to what is known as the Austric hypothesis —a large hypothetical grouping of languages primarily spoken in Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and the eastern Indian subcontinent (Schmidt, 1906, 1930; Benedict, 1975, 1976; Shorto, 1976). Exponents of this hypothesis hold that Proto-Austric had its origin in central and southern peninsular or northwest Yúnnán around 9000 bce and that Proto-Austronesian was formed around 7000 bce before moving eastward and reaching Taiwan around 6000 bce. A similar view from Sino-Austronesianists states that Proto-Sino-Austronesian came into being around 8500 bce–7500 bce in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River, with one branch fanning eastward to Taiwan who became the Austronesian people and one branch moving southwestward who became the Tibeto-Burman, while the other branch stayed in the mainland as the Han Chinese (Blust, 1996; Sagart, 2004, 2005). All these theories will need to be carefully weighed against historical and ethnographical evidence and recent archaeological findings. For example, recent phylogenetic studies seem to be at odds with the Taiwan origin theory for Austronesian (Ko et al., 2014).

The homeland of Proto-Austronesian and Proto Kam-Tai is generally conjectured to be somewhere in South China around 4,000 years ago, when ancestors of Proto-Austronesian began to spread southeastward to Taiwan and the South Sea islands, according to recent studies using mathematical phylogenetic methods of calculation (Dèng & Wang, 2009, p. 106). This idea seems to find support in Melton et al.’s view (1998) on the issue, which is based on DNA evidence of Taiwanese aboriginal tribes. The divergence time for Proto-Kam-Tai and Austronesian is calculated to have been some 3,500 years ago, which roughly coincides with the genealogy of ethnographic studies supported by historical documents.

Regardless of whatever the ultimate genetic relationship of Kra-Dai may turn out to be, Kra-Dai languages must have been in contact with nearby families of languages for several thousand years. Just as a number of phonological and lexical features are shared by Tai and Chinese, so are a sizeable number of lexical look-alikes found between Kra-Dai, Chinese, and Austronesian. This seems to suggest some sort of complex substratum effect. The nature of such historical connection remains to be further investigated. Recent advances in molecular genetics seem to point to a Kra-Dai-Austronesian connection (Li, 2005; Li et al., 2008). However, it is still too early to draw a definitive conclusion, as molecular genetics and language change are two separate things, and the results of genetic studies are equivocal.

2.3 Writing Systems

Many Kra-Dai languages do not have a traditional writing system of their own, except for Thai, Lao, Shan, Dǎi and Sui. The Thai alphabet was created in 1283 ce, as attested in the Ramkhamhaeng Inscription, which describes the life of King Ramkhamhaeng and the systems of law and government of the Sukhothai Kingdom. Several Indic-based writing systems are in use among different Dai dialect groups which are clearly related to one another but which possess certain characteristics of their own. Exactly when these writing systems were created is not known. Scriptures bearing on the customs and practices of the Shan people in Myanmar and the Dǎi people in Yunnan were made on palm leaves, which become part of their cultural heritage. Again, when these palm leaf scripts were created is unclear, although Chinese records suggest that such Indian writing systems were in use by the second century, if not earlier.

A Sui writing system was found in the Sui-speaking area, which did not attract too much attention until it was recently rediscovered (Pān & Wéi, 2004). Unlike the Thai and Dai scripts, Sui writing appears to be highly pictorial, decipherable only to a small number of song and religious masters (Zhāng, 1980). Certain symbols in the writing system appear to bear noticeable resemblance to a number of old forms of Chinese writing, the oracle bone inscriptions, which go back at least 3,000 years (Zhōu & Lǐ, 2005), fueling speculations about how and when the system was created, where the Sui people came from, and the nature of their relationship with the Chinese (Pān & Wéi, 2004; Zhōngguó shèhuì kēxuébào, 2012).

In Zhuàng, Bouyei, and Kam-speaking areas in Guangxi, Guizhou, and North Vietnam, a character-based writing system is found which is modeled on the Chinese writing system. This type of writing system was recorded by Fàn Chéngdà 范成大‎ (1126–1193) in the Sòng dynasty (960–1279), nearly 300 years before the invention of the Thai writing system. Such a writing system must have existed before Fàn’s times, perhaps as early as the Tang dynasty (618–907) (Qin, 2010), if not earlier. Mention must also be made of a short traditional song, Yuè Rén Gē 越人歌‎ [Song of the Yue Boatman], believed to be of Zhuang-Tai origin, which was recorded in transliteration using Chinese characters by Liú Xiàng 劉向‎ (77–6 bce) of the Han dynasty (206 bce–220 ce). A decipherment has been attempted by Zhengzhang (1991).

The character-based Zhuang writing was modeled on principles of the Chinese writing system, where each character consists of two components: a meaning part and a phonetic part. In some cases, two meaning components are put together to form a character, with no clue to the phonetic reading at all. Such characters are decipherable only to trained scholars or shamans who knew both Zhuang and Chinese well. Zhuang writing is the subject of several monograph studies (Qin, 2010; Holm, 2013).

In the late 1950s, a Romanized writing system was introduced for Zhuàng, Bouyei, and Kam, with help from Russian linguists. These writing systems had some initial success, but did not gain wide acceptance as time went on. No Romanized writing system has been designed for Máonán and Mulam, despite the official status of their speakers as distinct ethnic groups.

2.4 Language Contact

Mainland Southeast Asia as a linguistic area is a hothouse for language convergence and divergence. This makes the linguistic situation in the Kra-Dai speaking area very complex indeed, as we are dealing with languages spoken within the dynamic “language corridor” (Edmondson & Li, 1996), where the Kra-Dai languages are surrounded by a number of non-Han languages such as Hmong-Mien, as well as many varieties of Chinese dialects such as Yuè 粵‎ (Cantonese) and Mǐn 閩‎. Bilingualism or multilingualism is the norm. As a result, Kra-Dai has been both a donor and receiver in language contact. Such contact not only occurs at the lexical level, but also at the grammatical level. This can be illustrated in the often-quoted example of the Yuè word order for expressions like ngo zou sin 我走先‎ ‘I-go-first,’ where the adverb comes after the verb, which is the Kam-Tai word order. Many Southwestern Mandarin Chinese dialects in this area also follow this word order. This is unlike Mandarin Chinese, where the adverb comes before the verb, as in 我先走‎wo xian zou ‘I-first-go.’ It is obvious that Yuè has borrowed this word order from Kam-Tai, reflecting substratum effects resulting from intense contact and the dominance of Kra-Dai in this region in history. Meanwhile, Kra-Dai languages are also affected by Chinese and other neighboring languages, having absorbed a large number of elements from these languages.

With the rapid development in urbanization in many parts of mainland Southeast Asia, a significant number of smaller languages in the Kra-Dai family are facing convergence, endangerment, and perhaps extinction. Some are still alive and well, partly thanks to government policies towards minority peoples and their languages, as well as the speakers’ attitudes towards their own language. However, the future of Kra-Dai languages is difficult to predict, because there is a strong tendency for speakers of younger generations to shift to the dominant language as many of these speakers are moving to cities to work as migrant workers. Social media also contribute to language shift. The number of L1 speakers is decreasing rapidly for some languages. If this trend continues, these languages will be gravely under threat, and in two to three decades they are envisaged to be critically endangered, if not to completely die out. There is a need to revitalize and preserve these languages so that their cultural heritage is not lost.

Critical Analysis of the Scholarship

The most up-to-date work on Kra-Dai is Diller, Edmondson, and Luo (2008), the result of efforts from some two dozen scholars. Within Kra-Dai, Tai is the best known and most extensively studied, thanks to Li Fang-Kuei’s monumental work on comparative Tai (Li, 1977), as well as the works of the late William J. Gedney on Tai dialects. Jenny (2016) discusses Tai identity in Myanmar and the sociolinguistic situation of Shan. Major descriptive works are available for the better-known varieties of Kra-Dai, but research on lesser-known languages is scarce in western sources. Several fine dictionaries are available in Chinese, including one on Lakkja (Liu, 1999) and several PhD theses on Gelao (see Li, Li, & Luo, 2014).

Further Reading

Bellwood, P. S. (1995). Austronesian prehistory in Southeast Asia: Homeland, expansion and transformation. In P. Bellwood, J. J. Fox, & D. Tryon (Eds.), The Austronesians: Historical and comparative perspectives (pp. 96–111). Canberra: The Australian National University.Find this resource:

Bellwood, P., Fox, J. J., & Tryon, D. (1995). The Austronesians in history: Common origins and diverse transformations. In P. Bellwood, J. J. Fox, & D. Tryon (Eds.), The Austronesians: Historical and comparative perspectives (pp. 1–16). Canberra: The Australian National University.Find this resource:

Bellwood, P., Fox, J. J., & Tryon, D. (Eds.). (1995). The Austronesians: Historical and comparative perspectives. Canberra: The Australian National University.Find this resource:

Benedict, P. K. (1975). Austro-Thai language and culture, with a glossary of roots. New Haven: HRAF Press.Find this resource:

Blust, R. A. (1996). Beyond the Austronesian homeland: The Austric hypothesis and its implications for archaeology. In W. H. Goodenough (Ed.), Prehistoric settlement of the Pacific (pp. 117–137). Collingdale, PA: DIANE.Find this resource:

Diller, A., Edmondson, J. A., & Luo, Y. (Eds.). (2008). The Tai-Kadai languages. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Edmondson, J. A., & Solnit, D. B. (1988). Comparative Kadai: Linguistic studies beyond Tai. Summer Institute of Linguistics Publications in Linguistics 86. Arlington, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics.Find this resource:

Jenny, M. (2016). Tai identity in Myanmar and beyond. International Institute for Asian Studies Newsletter, 75.Find this resource:

Li, F.-K. (1965). The Tai and Kam-Sui languages. Lingua, 14, 148–179.Find this resource:

Li, F.-K. (1977). A handbook of comparative Tai. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.Find this resource:

Li, H., Wen, B., Chen, S.-J., Su, B., Pramoonjago, P., Liu, Y., . . . Jin, L. (2008). Paternal genetic affinity between western Austronesians and Daic populations. BMC Evolutionary Biology, 8, 146. doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-146.Find this resource:

Ostapirat, W. (2000). Proto-Kra. Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area, 23(1), 1–251.Find this resource:

Sagart, L. (2004). The higher phylogeny of Austronesian and the position of Tai–Kadai, Oceanic Linguistics, 43, 411–440.Find this resource:

Sagart, L., Blench, R., & Sanchez-Mazas, A. (Eds.). (2005). The peopling of East Asia: Putting together archaeology, linguistics and genetics. London: Routledge-Curzon.Find this resource:

Thurgood, G. (1994). Tai–Kadai and Austronesian: The nature of the relationship. Oceanic Linguistics, 33, 345–368.Find this resource:

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