Our first dive into the indigenous languages of Taiwan takes us to the Amis language, referred to as Sowal no Pangcah by the Amis people, and 阿美語 (Bopomofo: ㄚ ㄇㄟˇ ㄩˇ, Hanyu Pinyin: ā měi yǔ) by the Mandarin speaking majority of Taiwan. The largest of the Formosan languages, it is spoken as far north as Hualien, and as far south as Taitung, with a separate community in administrative division of Pingtung and south Taitung, all of which lie in the east of the island. Despite having a reasonable estimate of the number of Amis people in Taiwan, we still do not know how many of whom speak the Amis language. Some estimates suggest a third of the Amis people, consistent with the proportion of overall indigenous Taiwanese population, while others suggest that this proportion might be lower, considering how few Amis under 20 in 1995 spoke the language. The UNESCO World Atlas of Languages, however, estimates the number of native speakers to be at 108 200 people as of 2015, classifying it as ‘vulnerable’.
As with many of the Formosan languages, the Amis language is largely classified as a dialect cluster, containing at least five dialects:
- Pangcah “standard” 南勢阿美語 (‘Amisay a Pangcah)
- Siwkolan 秀姑巒阿美語 (Siwkolan ‘Amis)
- Central Amis 海岸阿美語 (Pasawalian Pangcah)
- Farangaw-Maran 馬蘭阿美語 (Farangaw Amis)
- Palidaw 恆春阿美語 (Palidaw ‘Amis)
- Nataoran 北部阿美語, under Pangcah
As dialects vary in the number of sounds, or types of sounds produced and featured, there could be as many as 19 consonants, or as few as 17 consonants in the Amis dialect cluster. This is coupled with four vowels, including the schwa that can break up consonant clusters.
Being an Austronesian language, Amis shares many cognates with other languages of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, but most of these cognates are better preserved in the languages of Southeast Asia. Number terms, for instance, are quite largely conserved in these languages, particularly Malay, Ilocano, Tagalog, Javanese, Kapampangan and Sundanese as shown here:
Interestingly, the Amis word for pig, fafoy, sounds markedly similar to its Tagalog and Ilocano equivalents, baboy, and the Amis word for monkey, lotong, is very much similar to the Javanese, Sundanese and Malay translations, which are “lutung”, “lutung” and “lotong” respectively. This probably might indicate how closely related these languages are in an evolutionary perspective, or how human migration patterns could be reflected in languages. Several more comparisons may be drawn in future Languages of Taiwan posts, to explore how words are related in other Austronesian languages, particularly of the Malayo-Polynesian branch.
The grammar of the Amis language is particularly interesting, as it boasts two different words orders, the general, and the special word order. Both word orders feature the verb, or more precisely, the predicate, as the first element in a basic clause. The word order for sentences with some actor of an action can adopt either verb-subject-object or verb-object-subject, but sentences with a non-actor voice could only adopt verb-object-subject. This suggestion by linguists, however, is up for debate, as many would prefer the use of the verb-actor-predicate model of word order compared to the verb-subject-object model. The relevant papers will be linked under further reading at the end of this post. Example sentences include:
- Mitilu ci Aki tu fafuy i lutuk anudafak.
“Aki will hunt pigs in the mountains tomorrow.” (actor voice)
- La’open nu kuyu ku takulil.
“A leopard cat will chase the rabbit.” (undergoer voice)
Interestingly, the Amis language does feature its own noun cases. This is normally expressed as separate particles, declined by common or proper nouns, and plurality. For instance:
- Nominative –
ku, for common nouns like dog, cat etc.
ci, for singular personal, proper nouns like Bob etc.
ca, for plural personal, proper nouns like Tom and Jerry
- Genitive –
nu, for common nouns
ni, for singular personal, proper nouns
na, for plural personal, proper nouns
- Dative –
tu, for common nouns
ci… ~an, for singular personal, proper nouns
ci… ~an, for plural personal, proper nouns
The nominative case is typically used for marking one argument of an intransitive predicate, the actor of an actor-voice predicate, or undergoer of an undergoer-voice predicate. The genitive case is used for marking possession, and the actor in a non-actor voice sentence. The dative has more functions, such as marking location, adjuncts, and themes in the clauses or predicates.
Within Hualien and Taitung, there are Amis words recorded for villages and towns, but they do not seem to be featured in street signs in the respective counties. For instance, the Amis word for Hualien is Kalingko, and Taitong is Posong.
If you want to learn the Amis language, I am afraid to tell you that many resources are in traditional Chinese. However, there is one central site that documents the words, dialogues, audio and pronunciation of Amis, along with most of the other Formosan languages. With multimedia materials, translations of books and stories into respective indigenous languages, this serves as a platform for people to learn about the cultures and languages of Taiwan, as well as preserving the Formosan languages in the digital world. Access it here at: http://web.klokah.tw/. This is so detailed, that even known individual dialects are compiled, and users are prompted to choose a dialect to learn that falls under the target language.
I have played around quite a bit on the Taiwanese site showing all the indigenous languages of Taiwan, and I feel that it is a great resource to learn, and familiarise oneself with the languages of Taiwan that most people have never heard about. Resources in English were much more difficult to come by, but if one is willing to pour through academic papers and theses, then they could pick up the inner workings of the Amis language, how the grammar actually works, albeit explained in a highly technical, linguistic jargon-heavy manner.
Wu, J. (2003) Classical modifiers in Amis. Concentric: Studies in English Literature and Linguistics, 29(2), 59-81. Available from: http://www.concentric-linguistics.url.tw/upload/articlesfs111402103754163878.pdf
Wu, J. (2006) Verb classification, case marking, and grammatical relations in Amis. Arts-sciences.buffalo.edu. Available from: https://arts-sciences.buffalo.edu/content/dam/arts-sciences/linguistics/AlumniDissertations/Wu%20dissertation.pdf.
Featured image: Hualien railway station sign, taken 2018 by User Dquai, from: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/04/Station_sign_with_a_Fu-Hsing_Semi_Express_in_Hualien_Station.jpg