• Elisa Lenker

Indigenous Legacy: The Formosan Languages of Taiwan

Lokah su'ga! Mihumisang! Aveoveoyx! Akokay! Djavadjavai! Nga’ ay ho! These are all different ways to say hello and greet someone in Formosan languages (RTI, 2020), but do you know what they are?

When thinking of the Republic of China, more commonly known as Taiwan, it can be easy to overlook the rich linguistic history and variety that characterize the main island. Perhaps Mandarin Chinese, Hakka, or Hokkien come to mind – all of Sino-Tibetan origin and connected to early settlements rom the mainland in the last centuries. However, a group of people has inhabited the mountains and plains of this island for thousands of years, becoming a linguistic hub for a large percentage of the world population. Meet the Austronesian indigenous people of Taiwan.

A long-standing history

It is believed that the first settlements at the Island of Taiwan from Austronesian communities go back 5,500 years, remaining unaffected and having sovereignty over the land for most of this time. Nevertheless, the Taiwan Strait’s advantageous location in terms of trade and security eventually lead to the arrival of foreign influences (Stephens, 2018).

The earliest records of encounters between Taiwan’s indigenous tribes and incoming travelers date back to the 16th century on the island identified in European maps as Formosa – meaning ‘beautiful’ in Portuguese – when small merchants, fishermen, and pirates of Han Chinese origin visited the island. By the end of the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company had established a base in southwestern Taiwan and soon after ousted the Spanish base in the north of the island. However, this occupation only lasted half a century, before Ming Dynasty loyalists drove out the Dutch from Taiwan (Taiwan Government, n.d.). Gradually, migration from the mainland pushed indigenous communities back from their ancestral land. Still, the indigenous population of Taiwan remained, although with much smaller numbers, and now facing disruption to their communities, territories, cultures, languages, and traditional values (Hsieh & Lakaw, 2019).

What are Formosan languages?

One cannot understand the history of Taiwan without first grasping the aboriginal cultures, languages, and tribes that have flourished there. The indigenous languages of the island form what are known as the Formosan languages. Even though the 16 indigenous tribes account for only 2.3% of the population of Taiwan (Central News Agency, 2016), there have been 26 recorded indigenous languages, at least 11 of which have become extinct (Robert Blust, 2013). In fact, because of the language used in politics and schools being Mandaring Chinese and the widely spread Sinitic languages Hakka and Hokkien, seven of them are currently endangered, and they are all vulnerable (RTI, 2020). Additionally, while these languages were originally distributed throughout the island in different tribes (see Figure 1), they currently tend to gather in the high lands of the island.

Figure 1. Families of Formosan languages before Chinese colonization, per Li (2004).

As of now, only 15 indigenous Taiwanese languages remain in use on the island. The largest one, Amis, was spoken by 165,579 people in 2004, and the smallest one, Saaora, had merely three to five speakers in 2012 (Lewis, 2016; Blust, 2013). It is important to mention, however, that current speakers are not homogeneous, but rather a product of centuries of coexistence between ethnic groups, creating a rich mixture of cultures and languages. We can find in these languages plenty of loanwords of Sino-Tibetan origin, as well as from Dutch, Japanese, and Spanish (Robert Blust, 2013).

However, Formosan languages are not just a linguistic variety. They hold a very important position in linguistic history and research as one of the largest sub-groups of Austronesian languages. Indeed, data suggests that all Austronesian languages – beginning with Proto-Austronesian – originated in Taiwan (Blust, 2013; Britannica, n.d.). This would mean that the spread of Austronesian languages may have begun with the migration of Taiwan’s indigenous tribes to other regions, such as the Philippines and Hawaii (Kimoto, 2017). In fact, the 1,200 Austronesian languages – major examples being Malay, Javanese, and Tagalog – fall into 10 subgroups, and nine of them happen to be located in Taiwan (Diamond, 2000). While this discovery alone supports the need further research into other Austronesian countries’ own historic and linguistic background, Taiwan’s own small indigenous communities, sadly, are diminishing every decade.

A case of endangered linguistic gems

In similar fashion to Hakka and Hokkien, both from the Sino-Tibetan family, minority languages in Taiwan are losing ground to the island’s lingua franca: Mandarin Chinese (Liao, 2008). Taiwan's indigenous communities are also losing ground to globalization and urbanization. For example, under the assimilationist Japanese occupation and the later Kuomintang regime in 20th century, native languages were criminalized, and this has long-lasting consequences (Davidson, 2021). Thus, despite the great value of Formosan languages in Austronesian linguistics research and cultural heritage, they are gradually disappearing.

Nevertheless, recent policy changes might yet have the potential to improve the position of Formosan languages. For the first time in history, President Tsai Ing Wen apologized in 2016 on behalf of the government to indigenous people for the pain and mistreatment they had endured for centuries. This was followed by the passing of the 2017 Indigenous Languages Development Act, which aims to preserve and promote the existing languages of Taiwanese aboriginals through several initiatives, such as Romanizing these languages, teaching them as a first language in schools, or developing smartphone apps for their study (Taiwan Government, n.d.; Taipei Times, 2015). Creating an environment that can protect Formosan languages, allow in-depth research, and promote native culture is not an easy task, but the first step has been taken. We can only hope that it is not too late.



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