Languages of Taiwan — Bunun

In the previous posts in this series, we have covered some of the indigenous languages spoken across various regions in Taiwan, from the most commonly spoken, to the most endangered or moribund. Here, we shall introduce you to a language spoken by the fourth largest indigenous people group in Taiwan, primarily in the island’s central mountain ranges — the Bunun language.

The Bunun people consist of five main communities, each with their own dialect of the language — the Takbunuaz, the Takituduh, the Takibaka, the Takivatan, and the Isbukun. Together, these make up about 60,000 people in Taiwan, or about 8% of Taiwan’s indigenous population as of 2020. While Isbukun, the dominant dialect, is mainly spoken in the south of Taiwan, Takbunuaz and Takivatan are mainly spoken in the center of the country, and Takibaka and Takituduh are northern dialects. Notably, there was a sixth dialect of Bunun which became extinct about half a century ago called Takipulan. Additionally, the Saaroa and Kanakanabu, two smaller minority groups who share their territory with an Isbukun Bunun group, have also adopted Bunun as their vernacular.

The sounds of Bunun show several unique characteristics that might just distinguish this from the other Formosan languages covered here. For one, there are only four vowels in Bunun, the /a/, /e/, /i/, and /u/. In the Isbukun dialect, however, the /e/ sound is absent, making its vowel system remind of that in languages like Arabic. More notably, take a look at the inventory of consonant sounds most dialects of Bunun has:

Bunun seems to contain some rather unusual consonants

For one, Bunun contains the dental fricative consonant /ð/, a rather rare sound among languages worldwide, let alone among the Formosan languages. This is best approximated by the “th” in English “the”, although regional variants of English may give different results. Here, the English received pronunciation is used for the approximation.

Interestingly, Bunun also contains two implosive consonants, which are articulated by drawing air in by drawing the vocal folds in the voice box downwards. This is something that one would not expect in Austronesian languages. The implosive “b” sound, denoted as /ɓ/, can also be found in some languages like Yucatec Mayan, isiZulu, and isiXhosa, while the implosive “d” sound, /ɗ/, can also be found in languages like Hausa, Fula, and Khmer.

Like the other Austronesian languages we have covered here, Bunun contains an abundance of affixes, infixes, prefixes, and suffixes to express certain specifics about a certain word. Some of these prefixes are rather special — they do not only occur in the verb they derive, but are also foreshadowed on a preceding auxiliary. This is a feature that only occur in Bunun, and some other Formosan languages that we have covered, or will be covering in the future. This goes to show the nature of Bunun as an agglutinative language.

Additionally, Bunun uses a verb-initial word order, with a focus system, where arguments of a clause are ordered according to which participant in the event described by the verb is ‘in focus’. This can include the “agent”, the “undergoer”, and the “locative participant”. While many languages with such focus systems have different marking for patients, instruments, and beneficiaries (the three types of “undergoers”), Bunun does this differently. The focus argument in a clause typically occurs immediately after the verb, and in the Isbukun dialect, marked with a post-nominal marker “-a”.

There are generally no adverbs in Bunun, as these concepts are expressed by the use of auxiliary verbs, and adjectives are essentially just a type of a stative verb. For example, in Takivatan Bunun, “Kavavaʔa musbai” translates to “Run away quickly”, but a more linguistically in-depth look would yield a direct translation as “Immediately toward-cause-to move”.

If you want to learn the Bunun 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 Bunun, 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.

Further Reading

De Busser, R. (2009). Towards a Grammar of Takivatan: Selected Topics (Ph. D. thesis). La Trobe University. doi:10.17613/M68D2H.

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