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There is a wide variety of languages spoken throughout Asia, comprising a number of families and some unrelated isolates. Asian languages usually have a long tradition of writing, but not always.

Language groups


Languages of Asia

The major families in terms of numbers are Indo-European in South Asia and Sino-Tibetan in East Asia. Several other families are regionally dominant.

Sino-Tibetan

Sino-Tibetan includes Chinese, Tibetan, Burmese, and numerous languages of the Tibetan Plateau, southern China, Burma, and North east India.

Indo-European

The Indo-European family is represented by the Indic branch, which includes Hindi, Urdu and many other state languages of India (like Assamese, Bengali etc.), Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives; the Iranian branch, which includes Persian, Pashto, and other languages of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia; the Slavic branch, which includes Russian in Siberia; Greek around the Black Sea; and Armenian; as well as extinct languages such as Hittite of Anatolia and Tocharian of (Chinese) Turkestan.

Altaic families

A number of smaller, but important language families spread across central and northern Asia have long been linked in an as-yet unproven Altaic family. These are the Turkic languages, Mongolic languages, Tungusic languages (including Manchu), Korean, and Japonic languages.

Monâ€"Khmer

The Monâ€"Khmer (Austroasiatic) languages are the oldest family in Asia. They include Vietnamese and Khmer (Cambodian).

Taiâ€"Kadai

The Tai-Kadai (or just Kadai) languages of southern China spread in historic times into Southeast Asia, where Thai (Siamese) and Lao are official languages.

Austronesian

The Austronesian language includes the languages of the Philippines and most of the languages of Indonesia (excluding inland New Guinea), such as Malay (Indonesian) and Tagalog (Filipino).

Dravidian

The Dravidian languages of southern India and parts of Sri Lanka include Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, and Malayalam, while smaller languages such as Gondi and Brahui are spoken in central India and Pakistan respectively.

Semitic

The Afroasiatic languages are represented by the Semitic family in southwest Asia, which includes Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, and extinct languages such as Babylonian.

Siberian families

Besides the Altaic families already mentioned (of which Tungusic is today a minor family of Siberia), there are a number of small language families and isolates spoken across northern Asia. These include the Uralic languages of western Siberia (better known for Hungarian and Finnish in Europe), the Yeniseian languages (linked to the Athabaskan languages of North America), Yukaghir, Nivkh of Sakhalin, Ainu of northern Japan, Chukotko-Kamchatkan in easternmost Siberia, andâ€"just barelyâ€"Eskimoâ€"Aleut.

Caucasian families

Three small families are spoken in the Caucasus: Kartvelian languages, such as Georgian; Northeast Caucasian (Dagestanian languages), such as Chechen; and Northwest Caucasian, such as Circassian. The latter two may be related to each other. The extinct Hurro-Urartian languages may be related as well.

Small families of southern Asia

Although dominated by major languages and families, there are number of minor families and isolates in southern Asia. From west to east, these include

  • extinct languages of the Fertile Crescent such as Sumerian and Elamite;
  • small groups of the Indian subcontinent and Andaman Islands: Burushaski, Kusunda, Nihali, Great Andamanese, Ongan, and the recently proposed Siangic;
  • Hmongâ€"Mien (Miaoâ€"Yao) scattered across southern China and Southeast Asia;
  • several "Papuan" families of the central and eastern Malay Archipelago: languages of Halmahera, East Timor, and the extinct Tambora of Sumbawa. Numerous additional families are spoken in Indonesian New Guinea, but this lies outside the scope of an article on Asian languages.

Creoles and pidgins

The eponymous pidgin ("business") language developed with European trade in China. Of the many creoles to have developed, the most spoken today are Chavacano, a Spanish-based creole of the Philippines, and various Malay-based creoles such as Manado Malay influenced by Portuguese. A very well-known Portuguese-based creole is the Kristang, which is spoken in Malacca, a city-state in Malaysia.

Sign languages

A number of sign languages are spoken throughout Asia. These include the Japanese Sign Language family, Chinese Sign Language, Indo-Pakistani Sign Language, as well as a number of small indigenous sign languages of countries such as Nepal, Thailand, and Vietnam. Many official sign languages are part of the French Sign Language family.

Official languages



Asia and Europe are the only two continents where most countries use native languages as their official languages, though English is also widespread.

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See also


Languages of Asia
  • Asianic languages
  • East Asian languages
  • Languages of South Asia
  • List of extinct languages of Asia
  • Classification schemes for Southeast Asian languages


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