Taiwan's Austronesians & Documenting Dying Languages

At the very periphery of what I can get away with talking about here at Sinoglot, I bring you an article which was emailed to me about efforts to save a dying Austronesian language in Taiwan. Go ahead and read the whole article. I’ll wait.

Welcome back. Obviously I’m big into language preservation and documentation, but there’s another part of this that is interesting. There’s a theory I only recently started hearing about. Basically, it’s this paragraph from the article:

“Taiwan is where it all starts,” says archaeologist Peter Bellwood, who with linguist Robert Blust developed the now widely accepted theory that people from Taiwan leveraged superior navigation skills to spread their Austronesian language far and wide. At least four of Taiwan’s 14 government-recognized aboriginal languages are still spoken by thousands of people, but a race is on to save the others from extinction. The youngest good speaker of Kanakanavu, also known as Southern Tsou, is 60, and the next youngest, 73.

In other words, the Austronesian languages spoken from Hawai’i to Madagascar essentially originated in Taiwan. Or, at least, their spread originated in Taiwan. I can’t for the life of me remember who, just last week, I was having a conversation with about this very topic. Whether that’s how it happened or if it spread from Southeast Asia, we don’t know. There’s a lot of motivation by a lot of different people to push one model or another. I’m sure both models are oversimplifications, and they both probably hold some truth.

As for Taiwan, a lot is being done in recent years to counteract the previous intentional extinguishing of the languages and cultures of Austronesian people’s on the island. My university teaches a number of classes on Austronesian syntax and specific languages/dialects. One group of students in an articulatory phonetics class are in the departments sound studio this month recording native Amis speakers.

Kanakanavu belongs to one of the smallest of Taiwan’s 10 different Austronesian languages, and with the youngest proficient speaker being 60, it seems doomed to be one of the countless languages that will die out in the next decade. I’m torn, really. These languages need documentation before they’re lost, and it seems they will be lost. Meanwhile others much less close to the edge also need attention. I feel like the perception of language death is much more focused on the Médecins Sans Frontières-style, doomsday-situations-only attitude. That’s not to say we should ignore Kanakanavu; we definitely should not. But, realistically, in a generation, a dialect like Changzhou’s will be gone.

An influx of Anhui-born Mandarin speakers has migrated to the city in the last 8 years for employment opportunities. Language mixing begets language change. Shanghainese having 5 tones instead of 7 or 8 (or 10 like neighbouring Wujiang) is a fortunate result of the influx of migrants being mostly from the south in the early stages of development. Ningbo, Suzhou, Wenzhou, but also Canton, Fujian…. Looking at the Mandarin of Xinjiang we see a very different result of mixing, and like it many far-northern dialects have only 3 tones. Obviously that’s not the only change, but it’s a good quick litmus of the scale of change from an assumed original 8 tones.

This is a big part of the value I see in Phonemica and why I can justify spending 30+ hours a week working on it without seeing a single fen 分 come my way. Kanakanavu will be gone in a generation, but so will the dialect of Huzhou 湖州 as we know it, itself valuable for retaining a number of grammatical constructions shared with Ming-era dialects but mostly lost in modern tongues.

Sorry that I’m ending on a sad note. In case you didn’t read the whole linked article, I’ll quote it for the sake of ending on something positive.

Sung’s most recent project was collating a Chinese-English dictionary for the Seediq language spoken by the tribe of Taiwanese mountain dwellers memorialized in “Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale,” a 2011 film recounting their rebellion against Japanese occupiers in the 1930s. Last February she began her work with Kanakanavu, hoping she can preserve the language before the last speakers die out.

The odds against her are long. Even many 40- and 50-year olds are incapable of mouthing anything more than a few simple phrases in their native tongue.

Still, frolicking on the neatly cut lawn of Dakanua’s deserted bed and breakfast is a three-year old girl with a runny nose, an infectious smile and a lovely lilt to her voice.

She is the granddaughter of Mu’u Ka’angena, the man with the leathery skin, and just within earshot she begins conversing with him in very simple Kanakanavu.

“Did you hear that?” Sung asks. “Isn’t it wonderful? She’s our hope for the future.”

3 responses to “Taiwan's Austronesians & Documenting Dying Languages”

  1. […] Taiwan’s Austronesians & Documenting Dying Languages (Sinoglot) […]

  2. Peter Nelson says:

    See that no one has commented yet… Your time working on Phonemica is totally worth it!

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