The Austronesian languages are a language family widely dispersed throughout the islands of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, with a few members spoken on continental Asia that are spoken by about 386 million people. It is on par with Indo-European, Niger–Congo, Afroasiatic and Uralic as one of the best-established ancient language families. Otto Dempwolff, a German scholar, was the first researcher to extensively explore Austronesian using the comparative method. Another German scholar, Wilhelm Schmidt, coined the German word austronesisch which comes from Latin auster "south wind" plus Greek nêsos "island". The name Austronesian was formed from the same roots. The family is aptly named, as the vast majority of Austronesian languages are spoken on islands: only a few languages, such as Malay and the Chamic languages, are indigenous to mainland Asia. Many Austronesian languages have very few speakers, but the major Austronesian languages are spoken by tens of millions of people and one Austronesian language, Malay, is spoken by 180 million people, making it the 8th most spoken language in the world. Twenty or so Austronesian languages are official of their respective countries (see the list of Austronesian languages).
Different sources count languages differently, but Austronesian and Niger–Congo are the two largest language families in the world, each having roughly one-fifth of the total languages counted in the world. The geographical span of Austronesian was the largest of any language family before the spread of Indo-European in the colonial period, ranging from Madagascar off the southeastern coast of Africa to Easter Island in the eastern Pacific. Hawaiian, Rapanui, and Malagasy (spoken on Madagascar) are the geographic outliers of the Austronesian family.
According to Robert Blust (1999), Austronesian is divided in several primary branches, all but one of which are found exclusively on Taiwan. The Formosan languages of Taiwan are grouped into as many as nine first-order subgroups of Austronesian. All Austronesian languages spoken outside Taiwan (including its offshore Yami language) belong to the Malayo-Polynesian branch, sometimes called Extra-Formosan.
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“I am always sorry when any language is lost, because languages are the pedigree of nations.”
—Samuel Johnson (17091784)