The History of the Cham Language

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The Cham are an ethnic group from Vietnam who still speak the Cham language; a language that has been spoken for centuries since the founding of the Cham kingdom in around 192 CE and its destruction in 1471 CE. The Cham language basically holds the foundation of other languages in and around Southwest Asia and in this article, I wish to present not only its history but the effect it had on other etjnic groups.

This powerful linguistic record is still spoken in the Tsat on Hainan, the Rade, Jarai, Haroi, Chru, and Roglai spoken in the southern Vietnam highlands, the Cham along the Vietnamese coast and the diverse Cham communities of Cambodia, and in the Acehnese of north Sumatra. The Chamic linguistic record is a splendid development of language modifications, which responded to a varied assortment of stimuli from other languages, and can offer scholars great insight to the people who spoke this language.

Cham is the earliest confirmed Austronesian language. About 2000 years ago, when the Austronesian-speaking traders, artisans, and seafarers that were to become Chamic appeared on the mainland of Southeast Asia, the language they spoke was “disyllabic, non-tonal, and non-registral”. The linguistic verification alone determines indisputably that the Chamic speakers of Vietnam signify the spread of Austronesian speakers from the islands, not the remnants of Austronesian speakers left on the mainland from the original expansion of Austronesian speakers out into the Pacific some six or eight thousand years ago.

It was at the height of Champa power that a writing system emerged. This writing system was based on Indic models and then adopted and adapted to fit the requirements of the Cham. The earliest Cham linguistic record is the inscription found at Tra-kieu, dating from the middle of the fourth century CE.

The decline of the Champa kingdom saw the migration of the northern Cham people to various locations, including Hainan Island. Having arrived in Hainan, these Cham entered into the Hainanese linguistic area, an area characterized by the richly tonal Be and Li of the Tai-Kadai family and the Southern Min Hainanese dialect of Chinese.

There were several changes to the Chamic language when it came into contact with the registral Mon-Khmer and the tonal Vietnam and Hainanese. These included, increasing monophthongization, adjustments in vowel and consonant inventories, radical changes in the phonological systems and also adjustments in vowel and consonant inventories.  

In conclusion, the Chamic languages hide a wealth of knowledge, not just about the Chams and the history of the region, but also about the interface of language change and language contact. It can help us learn more about external contact and internal change, about the origins of register complexes from systems without such complexes, about the origins of tones from non-tonal languages, and about the convergence of languages in a new linguistic area.

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