Some 46 kilometres southeast of Taiwan, lies a small volcanic island governed as Lanyu Township of Taitung County, Taiwan / Republic of China. Separated from the Batanes islands of northern parts of the Philippines by the Bashi Channel of the Luzon Strait, this island is inhabited speakers of a language more similar to languages spoken in the Philippines, rather than the Formosan languages spoken in Taiwan. This is Tao, also referred to as Botel, Tobago, Lanyu or Tawu. While this language and people are also referred to as “Yami”, originating from a Japanese ethnologist to mean “north”, this name has been rejected by the Tao people in recent years. Thus, “Yami” has become a pejorative, and “Tao” is preferred when referring to the language and the people or culture as a whole.
As with many indigenous languages spoken in Taiwan, data on the number of native speakers of Tao is quite scarce, with 3800 estimated in 2006, and 2700 in 2008. Given these estimates in the low thousands, it seems reasonable to say that the Tao language is currently endangered, but we are not quite aware if any revitalisation efforts are in place for Tao, other than the indigenous language resource hub we found, and linked to at the end of this post.
Among the indigenous languages spoken in Taiwan, the Tao language stands out among its peers not just because of the geographical region in which it is spoken, which is Orchid Island, a little ways off the main island, but also because of its classification as a Malayo-Polynesian language instead of a Formosan language, among the Austronesian language family. More precisely speaking, Tao is part of the Batanic language branch of the Malayo-Polynesian languages, making it more related to the languages spoken in Northern Philippines compared to Taiwan. Some linguists, however, argue that Tao is part of a separate branch in the Malayo-Polynesian languages. Even so, Tao is widely regarded as part of a larger dialect continuum called Ivatan, spoken primarily in the Batanes Islands of the Philippines.
The phonology of Tao features a total of 20 consonants and 4 phonemic vowels. Among the consonants, there are a couple that stand out, namely, the retroflex consonants /ɻ/ and /ʂ/. The former is quite a special one, given its unique occurrence among the indigenous languages spoken in Taiwan, and is also found in languages such as Tamil and Malayalam in South India, and Pitjantjatjara, spoken in Australia. However, the voiced retroflex approximant also occurs in some varieties of English, Standard Mandarin and Portuguese.
Among the phonemic vowels, /a, ə, i, o/, there are some cases in which the /o/ would sound more like a /u/, particularly when it follows a labial sound like /p/ or /m/. This makes the words “poyat”, “momodan”, and “mavota” sound like “puyat”, “mumudan”, and “mavuta”. In addition to these vowels, Tao also recognises four diphthongs, “ay”, “aw”, “oy”, and “iw”, although in some variants, “ay” and “aw” would sound closer to “ey” and “ew”.
The grammar of Tao 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. This includes the use of inclusive and exclusive first person plural pronouns, namely, “yaten” (inclusive we) and “yamen” (exclusive we). Additionally, there is a whole host of affixes, prefixes and suffixes added to nouns and verbs to add more details to the predicate, clause or sentence.
Similar to several other Formosan and Malayo-Polynesian languages, adverbs do not really feature much in Tao, and requires the use of auxiliary markers, adjectives, or other clauses to construct the adverb. Additionally, with the unit of Tao being the predicate, there are many similarities to be found, and parallels to be drawn between Tao and Ilocano, Visayan or Tagalog.
From the rather close relationship between Tao and languages spoken in the Philippines, we would expect to find many notable cognates between Tao and the Philippine languages like Tagalog, Ilokano and Visayan, and this is pretty much the case. From numbers to some pronouns, we find several words that are seemingly identical between Tao and the Philippine languages, such as “father” (“ama”), “offspring / child” (“anak”), and “mother” (“ina”). The cognates for number words found between Tao, and the Philippine languages (in particular, Visayan, Tagalog and Ilokano) are shown below, from the Wikipedia entry for the Tao language.
There have been various loanwords entering spoken and written use in the Tao language, most of which originating from Japanese and Mandarin Chinese. The one known Chinese loanword is the one for “wine”, which is “potaw cio”, quite literally the adaptation of the Chinese word “pútáojiǔ (葡萄酒)” to the sound and writing systems of Tao. Loanwords originating from Japanese also follow similar adoption patterns, such as “airplane” (“sikoki”, from “hikouki”, 飛行機), “school” (“gako”, from “gakkō”, 学校) and “ticket” (“kipo”, from “kippu”, 切符).
Just like the Formosan languages spoken in Taiwan, if you want to learn the Tao 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 Tao, along with most of the 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.
This is probably the only Malayo-Polynesian language I have heard of, that is spoken in Taiwan, albeit not quite on the main island, but it is quite interesting to find languages like these. In the next posts in the series, we will go back to looking at Formosan languages, such as Bunun, Puyuma, and Saisiyat.
Featured image: Lanyu Airport, from Google Street View