EthnicityTaiwanese Aborigines (Formosan people)
Linguistic classificationAustronesian
  • Formosan
ISO 639-5fox
Families of Formosan languages before Chinese colonization, per Blust (1999). Malayo-Polynesian (red) may lie within Eastern Formosan (purple). The white section is unattested; some maps fill it in with Luiyang, Kulon or as generic 'Ketagalan'.[1]

The Formosan languages are a geographic grouping comprising the languages of the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, all of which are Austronesian. They do not form a single subfamily of Austronesian but rather up to nine separate primary subfamilies. The Taiwanese indigenous peoples recognized by the government are about 2.3% of the island's population. However, only 35% speak their ancestral language, due to centuries of language shift.[2] Of the approximately 26 languages of the Taiwanese indigenous peoples, at least ten are extinct, another four (perhaps five) are moribund,[3][4] and all others are to some degree endangered.

The aboriginal languages of Taiwan have great significance in historical linguistics since, in all likelihood, Taiwan is the place of origin of the entire Austronesian language family. According to American linguist Robert Blust, the Formosan languages form nine of the ten principal branches of the family,[5] while the one remaining principal branch, Malayo-Polynesian, contains nearly 1,200 Austronesian languages found outside Taiwan.[6] 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,[7] and the theory has been strengthened by recent studies in human population genetics.[8]

Recent history

Main article: Taiwanese indigenous peoples

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

In 2005, in order to help with the preservation of the languages of the indigenous people of Taiwan, the council established a Romanized writing system for all of 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]


Main article: Austronesian languages § Classification

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

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,[11] 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
Kanakanavu xnb 1 moribund
Kavalan ckv 1 listed in some sources[3] as moribund, though further analysis may show otherwise[12]
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 trv 1
Tsou tsu 1
Yami/Tao tao 1 also called Tao. Linguistically, not a member of the "Formosan languages", but a Malayo-Polynesian language.

Extinct languages

Language Code No. of
Dialects Extinction date & notes
Basay byq 1 Mid-20th century
Babuza bzg 3? Babuza, Takoas, Favorlang (?). Late 19th century. Ongoing revival efforts.
Kulon uon 1 Mid-20th century
Pazeh pzh 2 Pazeh, Kaxabu 2010. Ongoing revival efforts.
Ketagalan kae 1 Mid-20th century
Papora ppu 2? Papora, Hoanya (?).
Siraya fos 2? Siraya, Makatao (?). Late 19th century. Ongoing revival efforts.
Taivoan tvx 1 Late 19th century. Ongoing revival efforts.


Verbs typically are not inflected for person or number, but do inflect for tense, mood, voice and aspect. Formosan languages are unusual in their use of the symmetrical voice, in which a noun is marked with the direct case while the verb affix indicates its role in the sentence. This can be seen as a generalisation of the active and passive voices, and is considered a unique morphosyntactic alignment. Furthermore, adverbs are not a unique category of words, but are instead expressed by coverbs.

Nouns are not marked for number and do not have grammatical gender. Noun cases are typically marked by particles rather than inflecting the word itself.

In terms of 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.[13]

Sound changes

Tanan Rukai is the Formosan language with the largest number of phonemes with 23 consonants and 4 vowels containing length contrast, while Kanakanavu and Saaroa have the fewest phonemes with 13 consonants and 4 vowels.[14]


The tables below list the Proto-Austronesian reflexes of individual languages given by Wolff (2010).[15]

PAn reflexes in Northwest Formosan languages
Proto-Austronesian Pazih Saisiat Thao Atayalic
*p p p p p
*t t, s t, s, ʃ t, θ t, c (s)
*c z [dz] h t x, h
*k k k k k
*q Ø ʔ q q, ʔ
*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 [ḷ] (> Ø in Tonghœʔ) ɬ ɣ, r, Ø
*m m m m m
*n n n n n
ŋ ŋ n ŋ
*s s ʃ ʃ s
*h h h Ø h
*l r l [ḷ] (> Ø in Tonghœʔ) r l
l ɬ 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, ʈ tj [č], ts [c]
*c s, Ø c θ, s, Ø c ([s] in Central & South) c s s t
*k k k k k k k, q k k
*q Ø ʔ Ø q (x in Ishbukun) ɦ Ø ɦ q
*b v v [β] b b f b v [β] 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-, -ɬ- 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 [ḷ] ɣ r Ø
*m m m m m m m m m
*n n n n n n n n n
ŋ ŋ ŋ ŋ ŋ ŋ ŋ ŋ
*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 [ḷ] r, ɣ l [ḷ] l
ɬ n ɬ n ɬ n ɬ ɬ
*w Ø Ø v v w w w w
*y ɬ 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 ʔ ʔ h h
*b b p b, -p b, w
*d d-, -l-, -d h d, -t ḍ, 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
ŋ ŋ ŋ ŋ
*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
Kanakanavu l
Saaroa ɬ (-ɬ- 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 *ʀ in various Formosan languages (Blust 2009:582).

Reflexes of Proto-Austronesian *ʀ
Language Reflex
Paiwan Ø
Bunun l
Kavalan ʀ (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):




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

See also



  1. ^ "Táiwān yuánzhùmín píngpǔ zúqún bǎinián fēnlèi shǐ xìliè dìtú" 臺灣原住民平埔族群百年分類史系列地圖 (A history of the classification of Plains Taiwanese tribes over the past century). (in Chinese). 2009-08-06. Retrieved 2017-03-04.
  2. ^ Sui, Cindy (2010-07-14). "Taiwan Seeks to Save Indigenous Languages". BBC News.
  3. ^ a b Zeitoun, Elizabeth; Yu, Ching-Hua (2005). "The Formosan Language Archive: Linguistic Analysis and Language Processing". International Journal of Computational Linguistics and Chinese Language Processing. 10 (2): 167–200. doi:10.30019/ijclclp.200507.0002. S2CID 17976898.
  4. ^ Li, Paul Jen-kuei; Tsuchida, Shigeru (2006). Kavalan Dictionary (PDF) (in English and Chinese). Taipei: Institute of Linguistics, Academia Sinica. ISBN 9789860069938. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2021-05-03.
  5. ^ Blust, Robert (1999). "Subgrouping, Circularity and Extinction: Some Issues in Austronesian Comparative Linguistics". In Zeitoun, Elizabeth; Li, Jen-kuei (eds.). Selected Papers from the Eighth International Conference on Austronesian Linguistics. Taipei: Academia Sinica. ISBN 9789576716324.
  6. ^ Diamond, Jared M. (2000). "Taiwan's Gift to the World". Nature. 403 (6771): 709–710. Bibcode:2000Natur.403..709D. doi:10.1038/35001685. PMID 10693781. S2CID 4379227.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Trejaut, Jean A; Kivisild, Toomas; Loo, Jun Hun; et al. (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.
  9. ^ Huteson, Greg (2003). Sociolinguistic Survey Report for the Tona and Maga Dialects of the Rukai Language (PDF) (Report). Dallas, TX: SIL International.
  10. ^ Hsu, Jenny W. (2010-06-07). "Aboriginal Language Classes Open to Public". Focus Taiwan. Archived from the original on 2014-11-29 – via
  11. ^ Yuánzhùmínzú yǔyán yánjiū fāzhǎn zhōngxīn (2018). Yuánzhùmínzú yǔyán shūxiě xìtǒng jiànyì xiūzhèng bǎnběn bàogào 原住民族語言書寫系統建議修正版本報告 (PDF) (Report) (in Chinese).
  12. ^ Li & Tsuchida (2006).
  13. ^ Li, Paul Jen-kuei. (1998). "Táiwān nándǎo yǔyán 台灣南島語言 [The Austronesian Languages of Taiwan]." In Li, Paul Jen-kuei. (2004). Selected Papers on Formosan Languages. Taipei, Taiwan: Institute of Linguistics, Academia Sinica
  14. ^ Blust (2009), p. 165
  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" (PDF). Languages and Linguistics. 2 (1): 271–278. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2020-08-08. Retrieved 2020-06-02.


  • Blust, Robert A. (2009). The Austronesian languages. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University. ISBN 978-0-85883-602-0. OCLC 320478203.

Further reading