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Mon–Aslian contacts1

  • Christian Bauer (a1)


In an article concerning the prehistory of Kelantan G. Benjamin provided an etymology for the toponym ‘Lebir’ as deriving from the Old Mon [OM] word for ‘sea, river’, OM Iḅir, Iḅīr, modern Mon LM ḅś, SM /бi/. He went on to say that there is evidence to assume early Malay–Mon contacts; in fact, it was only by the twelfth century A.D. that a language-shift at the expense of Mon occurred in an area of what is today southern Thailand and northern Malaysia. By implication this might also mean that there were contacts between groups speaking Aslian languages and Mon.

In support of his hypothesis Benjamin referred to epigraphic evidence, in particular to Mon inscriptions from southern Thailand as the earliest written in any vernacular. In fact, there are only two inscriptions, previously claimed to be written in Mon, Nś. 2, discovered in 1971, from Nakhorn Sri Thammarat [Ligor] and Nś. 3 from the same area. The Thai Government's Fine Arts Department [FAD] dates Nś. 2 to the later half of the thirteenth century A.D., at a time when Benjamin assumes the language-shift Mon > Malay/Thai in the peninsula to have already taken place. But the difficulty is not only how to reconcile the comparatively late date—based on palaeographical grounds—with Benjamin's chronological framework; the inscription is largely illegible and classed by the FAD in its most recent publication as written in ‘Old Mon and Old Burmese’. The other inscription which the FAD has interpreted as Old Mon is Nś. 3/RIS XXVII, dated by Cœdès to the sixth century. But Cœdès himself was unable to determine the language of this one line inscription, and it cannot be ascribed to Old Mon.



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2 Benjamin, G. ‘Ethnohistorical perspectives on Kelantan's pre-history’ in: Hassan, Nikbin, SuhaimiRahman, Nik Abd (ed.), Kelantan Zaman Awal: Kajian arkeologi dan sejarah di Malaysia (Kota Baru, Perbadan Muzium Negri Kelantan, 1987), 108–53. For Mon contacts in the peninsula see specifically pp. 122–6; for the Lebir etymology pp. 139 and 124. Endicott, K. in his ‘Batek history and ethnogenesis’, presented at the 89th annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, New Orleans, 28 November-2 December 1990, quotes Benjamin's etymology. I am grateful to Dr. Endicott for providing me with copies of his article as well as that of Benjamin.

3 Benjamin, art. cit., 123–4.

4 See IT, II, 112–18. It is premature to ascribe this inscription to Mon, and the readings provided by Champa Yueangcharoen cannot be reconciled with the actual text, nor with what we know about Old Mon. The same applies to Nś. 3.

5 IT, II, 56–8 and RIS, II.

6 Dates, in A.D., are given in brackets.

7 For the revised date—Cœdès conjectured A.D. 1183—see Casparis, J. G., ‘The Grahi Buddha’, JSS, LV, 1, 1967, 3140.

8 Cœdès, G.Nouvelles donnés épigraphiques sur l'histoire de l'indochine centrale’, JA, CCXVLI, 2, 1958, 125–42 [here pp. 132–9]. This inscription dates from 1167.

9 IT, II, 48–55.

10 These are inscribed in Sanskrit, and are published by Weeraprajak, Kongkaew in ‘Analysis of the inscriptions found at Yarang’, Silpakorn, XXXIII, 6, 1990[1991], 3550 [in Thai, English abstract p. 35]. Three of the inscribed votive tablets are of the ye dhammā—here ye dharma—type. However, no photographs accompany the article and only line drawings of the inscriptions and artist's sketches of the artefacts are reproduced.

11 Report published by Wiraprasert, Mayurie in ‘Artefacts from Khuan Luk Pat, Krabi’ [in Thai], Muang Boran, X, 1, 133–6, [pp. 137–8 English abstract]; I have had no access to the unpublished original report by Tharaphong Srisuchart Khuan Luk Pal, Nakhorn Sri Thammarat, National Museum, 1981, documenting the 1980 survey. One inscribed seal, a carnelian, reading dātawyaṁ, is reproduced in Silpakorn XXXIII, 6, 1990[1991], p. 34, ill. 16; this appears to be different from the one reproduced by Mayurie, art. cit., 134. A similar seal, with an identical inscription, is reproduced in Malleret, L., Archéologie du delta du Mekhong (Paris, Ecole Française d'Extrême Orient, III, 1962), 289304, see plate LXII and LXIV.7–8, inventory # 1257, # 1258. At the time Cœdès dated most of the Oc-èo seals to the third to fourth century A.D.

12 For a discussion of the finds from Central Thailand see my Notes on Mon epigraphy’, JSS, LXXIX, 1, 1991, 3183, notably p. 36, and note 3.

13 Detailed structural comparisons between Mon and Aslian are still lacking, and it may actually turn out that there are significant differences. Proto-Mon personal pronouns are a case in point: although a ‘plural’/‘singular’ distinction can be posited, the category ‘dual’ is absent; the same applies to the category ‘inclusive’/‘exclusive’. Another grammatical area requiring further comparison between the two language groups is the noun-phrase.

14 I collected material on Kensiw, a northern Aslian language, in April and May 1991, while living with hunter-gatherers in the province of Trang, southern Thailand, as part of an ethnoarchaeological survey conducted by Sunn Pookajorn of Silpakorn University, Bangkok, to whom I express my thanks. Further details can be found in the forthcoming report.

15 Proto-Mon *wա? and its Old Mon [OM] reflexes have been discussed in my ‘Notes on Mon epigraphy’.

16 Diffloth, G.Les langues mon-khmer de malaysie—classification historique et innovations’, ASEMI, VI, 4, 1975, 120, here p. 4. I use the word ‘corresponding form’ deliberately since it remains to be seen if this is a cognate or a loan.

17 Benjamin, G., ‘On pronouncing and writing Orang Asli languages: a guide for the perplexed’, Orang Asli Studies Newsletter, 4, 1985, 4—16, and part 2 in Orang Asli Studies Newsletter, 5, 1986, 328. Benjamin cites in his Temiar grammatical outline of 1976 (see reference n. 20), among others, . Khmu, a Northern Mon-Khmer language, follows this pattern as well, as Diffloth correctly pointed out in 1975.

18 Bauer, C., ‘Recovering extracted infixes in Middle Khmer: the “frequentative” [-N-]’, MKS, XV, 1986 [1989], 155–64 and Reanalyzing reanalyses in Katuic and Bahnaric’, MKS, XVI–XVII, 19871988[1990], 143–54. This had first been noticed in Old Mon by C. O. Blagden at the turn of this century.

19 Karim, Nik Safiah and Ibrahim, Ton binti ‘Semoq Beri—some preliminary remarks’, Second International Conference on Austroasiatic Linguistics, Mysore, 1921 December 1978.

20 Benjamin, G., ‘An outline of Temiar grammar’ in: Jenner, P. N., Thompson, L. C. and Starosta, S. (ed.), Austroasiatic studies (Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press. 1976), 129–87.

21 Diffloth, G. ‘Jah Hut, an Austroasiatic language of Malaysia’, in: Liêm, Nguyễn Ðăng, (ed.), South East Asian Linguistic Studies, II (Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1978), 73118, here pp. 98–9.

22 Based on the author's unpublished fieldnotes, and Duangchang, Paiboon, ‘A phonological description of the Kansiw language’ [Yala province], MA thesis, Bangkok, Mahidol University, 1984 [items marked by a]. Data from Phakhian, Saowani, [‘A phonological description of Tae-aen Sakai (Palian district, Trang province)’], MA thesis, Bangkok, Silpakorn University, 1989 [in Thai] have not been used here. Saowani's description is based on the speech of a different Kensiw band in Trang, which I also visited. Items marked by b are taken from Omar, Asmah Haji ‘The verb in Kentakbong’, in: Jenner, P. N., Thompson, L. C. and Starosta, S. (ed.), Austroasiatic studies, 951–70.

23 See Diffloth, G. ‘Jah Hut’, 96–7; these affixes as well as their etymological functions have not been recognized by Diffloth.

24 Diffloth in conversation (Bangkok, 8 October 1991) suggests that [pi-] prefixes in Aslian may be borrowings from Western Austronesian (i.e. Malayo-Javanic), unlike proto-Aslian *p-> Jah Hut [pəN-], [pər-].

25 Benjamin proposes the rather attractive hypothesis of regarding the Northern Aslian languages as a mesh rather than a subgroup proper within Aslian: ‘the mesh-like character of the relationships that hold today between the various Northern Aslian languages … can be seen as a consequence of the Northern Aslian speakers’ intensified commitment in the remote past to a nomadic-foraging lifestyle. This resulted, in turn, from their positive interaction with neighbouring populations who were leading complementary ways of life’ (p. 119).

1 Abbreviations for references cited in this article are as follows:

ASEMI Asie du Sud-Est et Monde Insul-Indien

IT [Inscriptions in Thailand], Bangkok, Fine Arts Department, 1986, 5 vols. [in Thai]

JA Journal Asiatique

JSS Journal of the Siam Society

MKS Mon–Khmer Studies

RIS George Cœdès (ed.), Recueil des inscriptions du Siam. Bangkok, Vol. I, 1924; Vol. II, 1929.

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Mon–Aslian contacts1

  • Christian Bauer (a1)


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