Languages of Taiwan — Paiwan (Vinuculjan, Pinayuanan)

This language is so diverse, the dozens of dialects linguists seem to pick up are organised into geographical zones or other classification methods, making it a dialect cluster of rather immense proportions compared to the languages covered previously. Spoken by the Paiwan people, also known as Paywan, Kacalisian, or 排灣 (Hanyu Pinyin: pái wān), this language has anywhere from <15 000 to 96 000 native speakers, a large range, considering that the Paiwan numbered 96 334 in 2014, numbering about 17.8% of Taiwan’s indigenous population, the second largest indigenous group at the time. There is not much consensus on exactly how many native speakers there are, forming a huge problem in determining the language’s endangerment status. Some argue that the Paiwan language was already endangered as of 2008, but general data is lacking.

Our introduction to this language takes us to the southern tip of Taiwan, from Damumu Mountain and the upper Wuluo River in the north of the southern chain of the Central Mountain Range, to the Hengchun Peninsula in the south of it, and also in the hills and coastal plains of southeastern Taiwan.

Linguists have tried to sort the Paiwan language by its dialects and variants, from Ferrell’s attempt in 1982, to Cheng’s classification in 2016. Ferrell’s classification followed the geographical zones, encompassing villages and settlements in the respective regions. With these, came the following classification:

  • A1 – southern and central
    • Kuɬaɬau (Kulalao), also spoken in Tjuabar Village, Taitung County, where Tjariḍik and “Tjuabar” (closely related to Tjavuaɬi) are also spoken.
    • Kapaiwanan (Su-Paiwan)
    • Tjuaqatsiɬay (Kachirai) – southernmost dialect
  • A2 – central
    • ɬarəkrək (Riki-riki)
    • Patjavaɬ (Ta-niao-wan)
  • B1 – northernmost
    • Tjukuvuɬ (Tokubun)
    • Kaviangan (Kapiyan)
  • B2 – northwestern
    • Tjaɬakavus (Chalaabus, Lai-yi)
    • Makazayazaya (Ma-chia)
  • B3 – east-central
    • Tjariḍik (Charilik)
  • B4 – eastern
    • Tjavuaɬi (Taimali)
    • Tjakuvukuvuɬ (Naibon, Chaoboobol)

Cheng aimed to refine this classification, opting for organising the dialects into groups, creating dialect branches encompassing variants of Paiwan spoken in villages and other settlements. There were some considerations surrounding the geographical regions, but this new classification did include a sort of evolutionary linguistic basis. These branches include:

  • Paridrayan group (Ravar)
  • Timur group
  • Makazayazaya branch
  • Eastern branch
  • Tjagaraus branch
  • Raxekerek branch (eastern and western)
  • Tjala’avus branch

Because of this stark diversity of Paiwan dialects, there are variations in the number of consonants and vowels in Paiwan. Generally speaking, Paiwan has about 23 consonants, give or take a couple depending on the dialect, and 4 vowels (/a/, /i/, /u/ and the schwa, noted by “e”). In most cases, the /h/ sound is normally found in loanwords, while the glottal stop consonant is relatively uncommon. The sounds of Paiwan are special, in that most other Formosan languages have merged many sounds from Proto-Austronesian over the course of evolution, while Paiwan preserves most of the sounds of Proto-Austronesian. This give linguists some foundation to reconstruct what the Austronesian language might have sounded like way back, through the lens of Paiwan phonology.

Going down the phonologies of Paiwan dialects, there is one interesting characteristic to take note, and that is, the use of retroflex consonants, where consonants are pronounced with the tip of the tongue curled up towards the hard palate.. Kulalao, Central, Northern and Southern Paiwan appear to use the retroflex “d” consonant, sometimes denoted by “dr”. Kulalao, unlike the other three dialect groups, lacks the retroflex “l” consonant, probably using the non-retroflex “l” instead. Given the diversity of Paiwan sounds, one would wonder if dialects from every group are mutually intelligible with one another.

The grammar of Paiwan is largely described using Ferrell’s sketch of the Kulalao dialect made in 1982, with a few notable exceptions. Some features may be present in all dialects of Paiwan, adopting different words or sounds from what Ferrell described. However, it is difficult to truly assess if some grammatical features are universal throughout Paiwan dialects or not.

In any case, however, apart from having inclusive and exclusive “we”, we do know that Paiwan has a whole host of prefixes, suffixes, infixes attached to nouns, verbs, adjectives and other words to give more details about the word in question, in relation to other words in a sentence or a clause. Some of these are attached to verbs to express varying degrees of volition and intent, and from highest to lowest, these are:

  1. ki- (intentional)
  2. pa- (intentional)
  3. -m- (volitionally ambiguous)
  4. si- (volitionally ambiguous)
  5. ma- (non-intentional)
  6. se- (non-intentional)

Reviewing the cardinal numbers of Kulalao Paiwan, we see a similar pattern to other Formosan languages, and to a lesser extent, other Austronesian languages. When compared to the Proto-Austronesian reconstruction of non-human cardinal numbers, we see a strong resemblance, almost as if linguists thought that Paiwan numerals preserved many phonetic features left over from Proto-Austronesian. Here, we compare Paiwan against the reconstruction of Proto-Austronesian proposed by Blust in 2009.

1 – ita – *isa
2 – drusa – *duSa
3 – tjelu – *telu
4 – sepatj – *Sepat
5 – lima – *lima
6 – unem – *enem
7 – pitju – *pitu
8 – alu – *walu
9 – siva – *Siwa
10 – tapuluq – *sa-puluq

Unlike Proto-Austronesian however, the Paiwan numerals did not quite use two separate systems of cardinal numbers to count humans and non-human objects, instead attaching prefixes like “ma-” and “mane-” to derive cardinal numerals to count humans.

If you want to learn the Paiwan language, I have 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 Paiwan and its respective dialects, along with most of the other Formosan languages. This site follows the Ferrell classification of Paiwan dialects or language variations, split into Central, Eastern, Northern and Southern Paiwan. 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: 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.


Learning about the history of Austronesian languages, I often wonder why languages like these are hardly ever brought up in discussion. Many discussions with friends and connections often revolve what is spoken in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, and omitting possibly important languages like Paiwan. The sounds of Proto-Austronesian could not be accurately reconstructed if Paiwan and the other Formosan languages were left out of the big picture, showing their importance to linguists to build a plausible picture of what such languages might have sounded like millennia ago. While relatively obscure, spoken by mere thousands compared to the millions of speakers of Indonesian and Malay, Formosan languages still capture the attention of linguists interested in studying the Austronesian languages.

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