Languages of Taiwan — Kanakanabu (Kanakanavu)

Our next language of Taiwan is also found in the southern end of the island, spoken by an indigenous people numbering in the hundreds today. Even so, this language, Kanakanabu (also known as Kanakanavu, or in Mandarin, 卡那卡那富語, Hanyu Pinyin: kǎ nà kǎ nà fù), is now classified as moribund, teetering on the brink of extinction, and in heavy need of revival or revitalisation. In fact, in 2013, linguists reported fewer than 10 native speakers of Kanakanabu, all of whom are at least 60 years of age. Since this discovery or realisation, there has been a desperate race to revive and properly document the language, to save it from being lost to history. These efforts are still ongoing, although there were not really any updates on the number of speakers of Kanakanabu, native or L2 speakers. This lack of recent statistic is worrying, as it would be helpful to know how revival efforts are garnering interest in the community, Kanakanabu people and others.

The Kanakanabu now live in two villages in Southern Taiwan, namely, Manga and Takanua in the Namasia District (formerly Sanmin Township) of Kaohsiung. A moribund language, there is only one recorded and known dialect. This language is classified under the contentious Tsouic branch of the Formosan languages, sharing the same classification as Saaroa, and to a lesser extent, Tsou. We have covered the debate surrounding the Tsouic classification in our previous post on Tsou, and so we will not be elaborating much on it here.

Among the Formosan languages, Kanakanabu probably has one of the smallest phonemic sound inventories, with 14 consonants and 6 vowels. However, there are several consonants which might set Kanakanabu apart from its Formosan cousins. Like Tsou, there is an implosive consonant, /ɓ/ (written as “p”, sharing the same letter as /p/), that is produced by moving the glottis downwards, drawing some air in as one articulates the consonant. There are also two retroflex consonants recorded, /ɗ/ (written as “l”) and /ɭ/, produced when the tip of the tongue touches the hard palate. There are also alveolar rhotic and approximant consonants, /ɽ/ (written as “l”) and /ɫ/ (written as “hl”) respectively. Vowel lengths are not really clear or distinct as speakers do tend to pronounce vowel phonemes with some variance. Still, long vowels can still be denoted by the use of double vowels. Unlike Tsou, Kanakanabu typically has the syllable structure CV, tending not to form consonant clusters. However, words in Kanakanabu usually contain at least three or four syllables, such as “takiturua” (teacher), and “sosomanpe” (thank you).

The grammar of Kanakanabu does not appear to have much special points to talk about, and it does appear to share most of the common features with Austronesian language grammars. However, a dissertation I found has documented, quite in detail, the full grammar of the language. Although filled with linguistic jargon, it is rather informative, breaking down in full how the Kanakanabu language works. You can find this linked in the Further Reading section below.

Similar to several other Formosan languages, adverbs do not really feature much in Kanakanabu, and requires the use of auxiliary markers, adjectives, or other clauses to construct the adverb. Additionally, with the unit of Kanakanavu being the predicate, there are many similarities to be found, and parallels to be drawn between Kanakanabu and the other Formosan languages.

Kanakanabu numbers are split into three different classes when counting from one to ten, cardinal, counting people and counting objects. From one to ten, these are:

number cardinal object people
1 cani ucani taciin
2 cusa urucin tassa
3 turu uturu taturu
4 sʉʉpatʉ usʉʉpatʉ sasʉʉpatʉ
5 rima urima rarima
6 nʉmʉ unʉmʉ nanʉmʉ
7 pitu upitu papitu
8 aru uaru rararu
9 sia usia sasia
10 maan umaan mamaan

There does not seem to be a vowel harmony phenomenon in Kanakanabu, in contrast to that seen in Tsou. For numbers 11 and above, the three systems fuse into one, taking the cardinal tens and pairing it with a number for counting objects to form the number of choice (except 8, which appears to use the normal cardinal number “aru”). For example, 18 would be “maan aru”, and 15 would be “maan urima”.

The tens do not appear to follow a pattern, although all of them have a prefix “ma-” attached to them. They do bear some phonemic resemblance to the cardinal numbers from one to ten. These are, from 20 to 90, in order:

mapusan, matuun, masʉpatʉn, maimʉʉn, manʉmʉn, mapituun, maruun, masiʉn

If you want to learn Kanakanabu, there are several resources made available in English, such as But for the rest, 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 Kanakanabu and its respective dialects, 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: 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. This is not the case for Kanakanabu, given the relatively low number of native speakers today.


The further I move and read up on the Formosan languages, the more I realise the highly endangered predicament many of these languages are. Kanakanabu is no exception. Kanakanabu language classes, a race to document and describe the language, and other cultural aspects of Kanakanabu have been conducted in an attempt to revitalise the language. The project at, linked above, is one such effort that started in 2012. Having read up and even learning some of the world’s endangered languages like Kristang and Paiwan, I have developed a new appreciation for these languages and cultures, especially those that are in danger of disappearing this century. Next up will be the last member of the controversial Tsouic branch of classification, Saaroa.

Further Reading

Wild, I., 2018. Voice and transitivity in Kanakanavu. Available from:

Wild, I., 2013. Kanakanavu: An aboriginal language on Taiwan. Availble online from:

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