Languages of Taiwan — Tsou

This next language of Taiwan is of rather unknown status. With 2 100 native speakers estimated in 2002, and 4 100 speakers in 2015, Taiwanese linguists think this language is endangered or threatened. Located in the west-central mountains, in the southeast of Chiayi or Alishan area in Taiwan, the Tsou language, another member of the Formosan languages, is found spoken by the Tsou people. The classification of this language is up for debate, as it is traditionally considered to be part of the Tsouic branch of Formosan languages. Relatively recent studies in 2006 and 2009 disputed the classification and the Tsouic branch, suggesting that Tsou is more divergent than the other two languages in the branch, namely Kanakanabu and Saaroa.

Although this language is indeed threatened with extinction, with no known monolingual Tsou speakers, and few children would could speak Tsou fluently, linguists have a rather more complete record of Tsou, its grammar, vocabulary and phonology included. Academic works date as far back as 1964, with its grammar sketch by Tung T’ung-ho, and another updated sketch in 1994 by Josef Szakos. While there is a more complete documentation than some other Formosan languages, some grammatical aspects are not properly understood to this day, particularly in evidentiality (the nature of evidence such as, I saw it, or I heard about it, and the like) and proximity. The release of an online electronic Tsou dictionary further propels the language into the digital age, along with an indigenous language hub linked to at the end of this post.

Unlike languages like Atayal, Seediq or Amis, Tsou does not really have a great dialectal variation. Grammar and phonology, as we will get to show below, do not vary as much as they do in other Formosan languages. There are, nevertheless, four recorded dialects, namely the Tapangu (Tapaŋʉ), spoken in four villages in Alishan, Tfuea (Tfuya), spoken in three villages, Duhtu (Luhtu), spoken in a village in Xinyi, Nantou County, and the now extinct Iimucu dialect, which not much is known about.

In phonology, perhaps one of the features that distinguishes this language from the ones previously introduced in this series is the presence and the use of implosive consonants, that is, consonants that are produced by moving the glottis downwards, drawing some air in as one articulates the consonant. It contrasts with most other consonants, where their articulation is coupled with expelling air from the lungs. Noted as /ɓ/ and /ɗ~ˀl/, these consonants, although present and used, are uncommon. Spoken forms can often include a glottalised version of /b/ and /d/, still involving the use of the glottis in articulation. There are 16-17 consonants in Tsou, with 6 vowels, /i ɨ u e o ɑ/, written as “i x/ʉ u e o a” respectively.

Although Tsou does allow for consonant clusters, the most complex syllable only makes use of two consonants in a cluster. However, Tsou is unusual in the large number of consonant clusters it allows. For example, syllable initial consonant clusters can include /ŋv, ŋh/, or /ɓn, vts, vh/, just to name a few examples.

In Tsou grammar, there is a distinction made between visible and invisible objects, with separate pronouns attached to each case. This comes in addition to the feature of clusivity, a concept quite common in the Austronesian language family. For example, to refer to an invisible third person singular pronoun, “ic’o” will be used (in the Tfuya dialect), while the visible counterpart will use “taini”.

Partly because of this system of pronouns, Tsou has a more delicate case marker system as well. This makes Tsou grammar somewhat stand out from its other Formosan, or Austronesian counterparts. Noun cases come in nominative and oblique forms, but are differentiated by proximity, evidentiality and visibility to the speaker. This includes:

  • e – visible and near speaker
  • si / ta – visible and near hearer
  • ta – visible but away from speaker
  • o / to – invisible and far away, or newly introduced to discourse
  • na / no ~ ne – non-identifiable and non-referential (often when scanning a class of elements)

However, Tsou is noted for not having preposition-like elements, instead incorporating nouns and verbs, together with markers, to express such ideas. Similar to several other Formosan languages, adverbs do not really feature much in Tsou, and requires the use of auxiliary markers, adjectives, or other clauses to construct the adverb. Adverbs of time help express the past, present and future tenses, involving particles like “auyu” (before), “aasvxtx” (sometimes) or “la’ucu” (after).

Interestingly, in Tsou numerals, there is a bit of vowel harmony involved when constructing the tens. While one through ten are:

coni, yuso, tuyu, sxptx, eimo, nomx, pitu, voyu, sio, maskx

respectively, tens are derived from the circumfix m- -hx, or m- -hu. /hu/ appears to go with numeral stems with /u/, while /hʉ/ appears to go with most other vowels. Therefore, the tens from ten to ninety are as such:

maskx, mpusku, mtuyuhu, msxptxhx, meimohx, monmxhx, mpxtvxhx, mvoyxhx, msiohx

respectively. It is an interesting system that does not really feature in other Formosan languages, let alone the other Austronesian languages.

The Tsou word for teacher is curiously, “sensei”. Is it a loan word from Japanese during Taiwan’s colonial times, or is it a mere coincidence?

Just like the Atayal language, if you want to learn the Tsou 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 Tsou, along with most of the other Formosan languages. The coverage of Tsou, however, only encompasses one dialect, presumably Tapangu. 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.


It has been three months since a Languages of Taiwan post was published, and I am excited to write about this language. It was an enjoyable experience reading up on this language, through the multimedia hub in the link mentioned. The seventh post and the fifth language in the series (excluding the Yilan Creole Japanese), I have certainly learnt a lot about how Tsou fits in with all its Formosan language cousins, as well as its Austronesian cousins. There were some interesting bits of words I found along the way, including the “sensei” being used to refer to a teacher in both Tsou and Japanese. This left me wondering about the word’s origin, if it could be a loan word left over from colonial times, or that could be a coincidence between the two languages. I hope you have enjoyed reading this post, and I will see you in the next one.

Featured image: An aerial view of Alishan Township, Chiayi County, one of the localities in which you would find people who speak Tsou.

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