Formosan Languages
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Formosan Languages
EthnicityTaiwanese aborigines (Formosan people)
Linguistic classificationAustronesian
  • Formosan
ISO 639-5fox
Formosan languages en.svg
Families of Formosan languages before Chinese colonization, per Blust (1999). Malayo-Polynesian (red) may lie within Eastern Formosan (purple). Note that the white section in the northwest of the country does not indicate a complete absence of aboriginal people from that part of Taiwan. On Chinese-language sources,[1] this area is listed as the homeland of various Pingpu groups (e.g. the Kulon), and certain other groups (e.g. the Taokas) are arranged slightly differently than they are on the above map.

The Formosan languages are the languages of the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, all of which are Austronesian. The Taiwanese aborigines recognized by the government are about 2.3% of the island's population. However, far fewer can still speak their ancestral language because of centuries of language shift. Of the approximately 26 languages of the Taiwanese aborigines, at least ten are extinct, another four (perhaps five) are moribund,[2][3] and all others are to some degree endangered.

The aboriginal languages of Taiwan have significance in historical linguistics since, in all likelihood, Taiwan was the place of origin of the entire Austronesian language family. According to linguist Robert Blust, the Formosan languages form nine of the ten principal branches of the Austronesian language family,[4] while the one remaining principal branch contains nearly 1,200 Malayo-Polynesian languages found outside Taiwan.[5] Although some other linguists disagree with some details of Blust's analysis, a broad consensus has coalesced around the conclusion that the Austronesian languages originated in Taiwan.[6] The theory has been strengthened by recent studies in human population genetics, supporting also the matrilineal nature of the migration.[7]


Based on recent archaeological evidence as well as linguistic evidence, Roger Blench (2014)[8] considers the Austronesians in Taiwan to have been a melting pot of immigrants from various parts of the coast of eastern China that had been migrating to Taiwan by 4,000 B.P. These immigrants included people from the foxtail millet-cultivating Longshan culture of Shandong (with Longshan-type cultures found in southern Taiwan), the fishing-based Dapenkeng culture of coastal Fujian, and the Yuanshan culture of northernmost Taiwan which Blench suggests may have originated from the coast of Guangdong. Based on geography and cultural vocabulary, Blench believes that the Yuanshan people may have spoken Northeast Formosan languages. Thus, Blench believes that there is in fact no "apical" ancestor of Austronesian in the sense that there was no true single Proto-Austronesian language that gave rise to present-day Austronesian languages. Instead, multiple migrations of various pre-Austronesian peoples and languages from the Chinese mainland that were related but distinct came together to form what we now know as Austronesian in Taiwan. Hence, Blench considers the single-migration model to be inconsistent with both the archaeological and linguistic (lexical) evidence.

Recent history

All Formosan languages are slowly being replaced by the culturally dominant Taiwanese Mandarin. In recent decades the Taiwanese government started an aboriginal reappreciation program that included the reintroduction of Formosan first language in Taiwanese schools. However, the results of this initiative have been disappointing.[9]

In 2005, in order to preserve the language of the indigenous people of Taiwan, the council established a Romanized writing system for all Taiwan's aboriginal languages. The council has also helped with classes and language certification programs for members of the indigenous community and the non-Formosan Taiwanese to help the conservation movement.[10]


Formosan languages form nine distinct branches of the Austronesian language family (with all other Malayo-Polynesian languages forming the tenth branch of the Austronesian).[11]

List of languages

It is often difficult to decide where to draw the boundary between a language and a dialect, causing some minor disagreement among scholars regarding the inventory of Formosan languages. There is even more uncertainty regarding possible extinct or assimilated Formosan peoples. Frequently cited examples of Formosan languages are given below[12], but the list should not be considered exhaustive.

Living languages

Language Code No. of
Dialects Notes
Amis ami 5 'Amisay a Pangcah, Siwkolan, Pasawalian, Farangaw, Palidaw
Atayal tay 6 Squliq, Skikun, Ts'ole', Ci'uli, Mayrinax, Plngawan high dialect diversity, sometimes considered separate languages
Bunun bnn 5 Takitudu, Takibakha, Takivatan, Takbanuaz, Isbukun high dialect diversity
Kanakanabu xnb 1 moribund
Kavalan ckv 1 listed in some sources[2] as moribund, though further analysis may show otherwise[13]
Paiwan pwn 4 Eastern, Northern, Central, Southern
Puyuma pyu 4 Puyuma, Katratripul, Ulivelivek, Kasavakan
Rukai dru 6 Ngudradrekay, Taromak Drekay, Teldreka, Thakongadavane, 'Oponoho
Saaroa sxr 1 moribund
Saisiyat xsy 1
Sakizaya szy 1
Seediq trv 3 Tgdaya, Toda, (Truku)
Thao ssf 1 moribund
Truku 1
Tsou tsu 1
Yami tao 1 also called Tao. Not a member of the "Formosan languages", but a Malayo-Polynesian language.
  • Although Yami is geographically in Taiwan, it is not classified as Formosan in linguistics.

Extinct languages

Language Code No. of
Dialects Native speakers, extinction date & notes
Basay byq 1 0.
Ketagalan kae 1 0.
Babuza bzg 3? Babuza, Takoas, Favorlang (?). 0.
Taokas (bzg) 3? Babuza, Takoas, Favorlang (?). 0. Late 19th century. Ongoing revival efforts.
Favorlang (bzg) 3? Babuza, Takoas, Favorlang (?). 0.
Papora ppu 2? Papora, Hoanya (?). 0.
Hoanya ppu 2? Papora, Hoanya (?). 0.
Taivoan tvx 1 0. Late 19th century. Ongoing revival efforts.
Pazeh uun 1 0.
Siraya fos 2? Siraya, Makatao (?). 0. Late 19th century. Ongoing revival efforts.
Makatao (fos) 2? Siraya, Makatao (?). 0. Late 19th century. Ongoing revival efforts.

Basic word order

Most Formosan languages display verb-initial word order (VSO (verb-subject-object) or VOS (verb-object-subject)) with the exception of some Northern Formosan languages, such as Thao, Saisiyat, and Pazih, possibly from influence from Chinese.

Li (1998) lists the word orders of several Formosan languages.[14]

  • Rukai: VSO, VOS
  • Tsou: VOS
  • Bunun: VSO
  • Atayal: VSO, VOS
  • Saisiyat: VS, SVO
  • Pazih: VOS, SVO
  • Thao: VSO, SVO
  • Amis: VOS, VSO
  • Kavalan: VOS
  • Puyuma: VSO
  • Paiwan: VSO, VOS

Sound changes

Tanan Rukai is the Formosan language with the largest number of phonemes with 23 consonants and 4 vowels containing length contrast, while Kanakanabu and Saaroa have the least number of phonemes with 13 consonants and 4 vowels (Blust 2009:165).


The tables below list the Proto-Austronesian reflexes of individual languages given in John Wolff's Proto-Austronesian phonology with glossary (2010).[15]

PAn reflexes in Northwest Formosan languages
Proto-Austronesian Pazih Saisiat Thao Atayalic
*p p p p p
*t t, s t, s, ? t, ? t, c (s)
*c z [dz] h t x, h
*k k k k k
*q Ø ? q q, ?
*b b b f b-
*d d r s r
*j d r s r
*g k-, -z- [dz], -t k-, -z- [ð], -z [ð] k-, -ð-, -ð k-[16]
*? x l [?] (> Ø in Tonghoe?) ? ?, r, Ø
*m m m m m
*n n n n n
*? ? ? n ?
*s s ? ? s
*h h h Ø h
*l r l [?] (> Ø in Tonghoe?) r l
*? l ? ð l
*w w w w w
*y y y y y
PAn reflexes in non-Northwest Formosan languages
Proto-Austronesian Saaroa Kanakanavu Rukai Bunun Amis Kavalan Puyuma Paiwan
*p p p p p p p p p
*t t, c t, c t, c t t t t, ? tj [?], ts [c]
*c s, Ø c ?, s, Ø c ([s] in Central & South) c s s t
*k k k k k k k, q k k
*q Ø ? Ø q (x in Ishbukun) ? Ø ? q
*b v v [?] b b f b v [?] v
*d s c ? d r z d, z dj [j], z
*j s c d d r z d, z dj [j], z
*g k-, -?- k-, -l-, -l g k-, -Ø-, -Ø k-, -n-, -n k-, -n-, -n h-, -d-, -d g-, -d-, -d
*? r r r, Ø l l [?] ? r Ø
*m m m m m m m m m
*n n n n n n n n n
*? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?
*s Ø s s s s Ø Ø s
*h Ø Ø Ø Ø h Ø Ø Ø
*l Ø Ø, l ñ h-, -Ø-, -Ø l [?] r, ? l [?] l
*? ? n ? n ? n ? ?
*w Ø Ø v v w w w w
*y ? l ð ð y y y y
PAn reflexes in Malayo-Polynesian languages
Proto-Austronesian Tagalog Chamorro Malay Old Javanese
*p p f p p
*t t t t t
*c s s s s
*k k h k k
*q ? ? h h
*b b p b, -p b, w
*d d-, -l-, -d h d, -t ?, r
*j d-, -l-, -d ch j, -t d
*g k-, -l-, -d Ø d-, -r-, -r g-, -r-, -r
*? g g r Ø
*m m m m m
*n n n n n
*? ? ? ? ?
*s h Ø h h
*h Ø Ø Ø Ø
*l l l l l
*? n ñ, n, l l-/ñ-, -ñ-/-n-, -n n
*w w w Ø, w w
*y y y y y


The following table lists reflexes of Proto-Austronesian *j in various Formosan languages (Blust 2009:572).

Reflexes of Proto-Austronesian *j
Language Reflex
Tsou Ø
Kanakanabu l
Saaroa ? (-?- only)
Puyuma d
Paiwan d
Bunun Ø
Atayal r (in Squliq), g (sporadic), s (sporadic)
Sediq y (-y- only), c (-c only)
Pazeh z ([dz]) (-z- only), d (-d only)
Saisiyat z ([ð])
Thao z ([ð])
Amis n
Kavalan n
Siraya n

The following table lists reflexes of Proto-Austronesian *? in various Formosan languages (Blust 2009:582).

Reflexes of Proto-Austronesian *?
Language Reflex
Paiwan Ø
Bunun l
Kavalan ? (contrastive uvular rhotic)
Basay l
Amis l
Atayal g; r (before /i/)
Sediq r
Pazeh x
Taokas l
Thao lh (voiceless lateral)
Saisiyat L (retroflex flap)
Bashiic (extra-Formosan) y

Lenition patterns include (Blust 2009:604-605):

  • *b, *d in Proto-Austronesian
    • *b > f, *d > c, r in Tsou
    • *b > v, *d > d in Puyuma
    • *b > v, *d > d, r in Paiwan
    • *b > b, *d > r in Saisiyat
    • *b > f, *d > s in Thao
    • *b > v, *d > r in Yami (extra-Formosan)


Li (2001) lists the geographical homelands for the following Formosan languages.[17]

See also



  1. ^ " (A history of the classification of Plains Taiwanese tribes over the past century)". Retrieved .
  2. ^ a b Zeitoun, Elizabeth; Yu, Ching-Hua (1 July 2005). "The Formosan Language Archive: Linguistic Analysis and Language Processing". International Journal of Computational Linguistics and Chinese Language Processing. 10 (2): 167-200.
  3. ^ Li, Paul Jen-kuei; Tsuchida, Shigeru (2006). Kavalan Dictionary (in English and Chinese). Taipei: Institute of Linguistics, Academia Sinica. ISBN 9789860069938.
  4. ^ Blust, Robert (1999). Zeitoun, Elizabeth; Li, Jen-kuei (eds.). "Subgrouping, circularity and extinction: some issues in Austronesian comparative linguistics". Selected papers from the Eighth International Conference on Austronesian Linguistics. Taipei: Academia Sinica. ISBN 9789576716324.
  5. ^ Diamond, Jared M. (17 February 2000). "Taiwan's gift to the world". Nature. 403 (6771): 709-710. doi:10.1038/35001685. PMID 10693781.
  6. ^ Fox, James (19-20 August 2004). Current Developments in Comparative Austronesian Studies. Symposium Austronesia, Pascasarjana Linguististik dan Kajian Budaya Universitas Udayana. ANU Research Publications. Bali. OCLC 677432806.
  7. ^ Trejaut, Jean A; Kivisild, Toomas; Loo, Jun Hun; Lee, Chien Liang; He, Chun Lin; Hsu, Chia Jung; Li, Zheng Yuan; Lin, Marie; Penny, David (5 July 2005). "Traces of Archaic Mitochondrial Lineages Persist in Austronesian-Speaking Formosan Populations". PLoS Biology. 3 (8): e247. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030247. PMC 1166350. PMID 15984912.
  8. ^ Blench, Roger. 2014. Suppose we are wrong about the Austronesian settlement of Taiwan? m.s.
  9. ^ Huteson, Greg. (2003). Sociolinguistic survey report for the Tona and Maga dialects of the Rukai Language. SIL Electronic Survey Reports 2003-012, Dallas, TX: SIL International.
  10. ^
  11. ^ Blust, Robert (2013). "The Austronesian languages: Revised Edition". Asia-Pacific Linguistics. 8: 30-31. Retrieved 2017.
  12. ^ (2018). (PDF). .
  13. ^ Li & Tsuchida (2006).
  14. ^ Li, Paul Jen-kuei. 1998. " [The Austronesian Languages of Taiwan]." In Li, Paul Jen-kuei. 2004. Selected Papers on Formosan Languages. Taipei, Taiwan: Institute of Linguistics, Academia Sinica.
  15. ^ Wolff, John U. 2010. Proto-Austronesian phonology with glossary. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications.
  16. ^ There are several outcomes of *g as onset or coda of the final syllable.
  17. ^ Li, Paul Jen-kuei. 2001. "The Dispersal of the Formosan Aborigines in Taiwan." Languages and Linguistics 2.1:271-278, 2001.


  • Blust, Robert A. 2009. The Austronesian Languages. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University. ISBN 0-85883-602-5, ISBN 978-0-85883-602-0.

Further reading

  • Blundell, David (2009), Austronesian Taiwan: Linguistics, History, Ethnology, Prehistory. Taipei, Taiwan: SMC Publishing
  • Happart, G., & Hedhurst, W. H. (1840). Dictionary of the Favorlang dialect of the Formosan language. Batavia: printed at Parapattan.
  • Li, Paul Jen-kuei (2004). "Basic Vocabulary for Formosan Languages and Dialects." In Li, Paul Jen-kuei. Selected Papers on Formosan Languages, vol. 2. Taipei, Taiwan: Institute of Linguistics, Academia Sinica.
  • Mackay, G. L. (1893). Chinese Romanized dictionary of the Formosan vernacular. Shanghai: Presbyterian Mission Press. OCLC 47246037.
  • Tsuchida, S. (2003). Kanakanavu texts (Austronesian Formosan). [Osaka?: Endangered Languages of the Pacific Rim].
  • Zeitoun, E. (2002). Nominalization in Formosan languages. Taipei: Institute of Linguistics (Preparatory Office), Academia Sinica.

External links

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