Among the Austronesian languages, linguists have suggested that this language is among the most divergent, that reconstruction efforts for Proto-Austronesian, a hypothesised ancestor of the Austronesian languages, often leaves out this language. Spoken by the sixth largest indigenous people group in Taiwan, the Puyuma language has hundreds to thousands of speakers, although most of these speakers are older adults. In fact, younger Puyuma people tend to speak Mandarin. Nevertheless, efforts are made to revitalise the language, such as language classes for both adults and children.
In a handful of villages in Taitung County, Taiwan, Puyuma is often classified into at least four dialects, at least that are offered by the handy Formosan language learning site I have been exploring for a while. These are the Nanwang, Katratripul (Chinese: Chihpen 知本), Kasavakan (Chinese: Chienhe 建和), and what is referred to as “Western Puyuma” (西群卑南語, Makazaya). The last one was mentioned in the site, but I could not find mentions of it in other sources. A classification attempt made by Ting Pang-Hsin in 1978 yielded four dialect groups, with Nanwang being the divergent one, and Pinaski–Ulivelivek, Rikavung, and Kasavakan–Katipul dialects belonging to the so-called “main branch”.
The sounds of Puyuma is rather typical among the indigenous languages spoken in Taiwan. With four vowels and 18 consonants, perhaps the more notable sounds are the retroflex consonants. Here, there are three retroflex consonants — the retroflex “t”, ‘d”, and “l” sounds. In the Nanwang dialect, the “s” sound is realised as an “sh” sound when it precedes the “i” and “u” vowels, and the “l” sound is a fricative lateral sound, much like the “l” sound you might here in Khalkha Mongolian. Word stress generally lies in the last syllable of a word, marked by emphasis, a higher pitch, and a longer duration. Overall, Nanwang is considered to be most phonologically conservative, while being grammatically innovative among the Puyuma dialects.
At this point, mentioning how the extensive use of affixes to word stems in Puyuma is a typical pattern of Austronesian languages might be getting quite repetitive. Examples of these include the prefix “tinu-” to mean “to stimulate”, and “kara-” to express collectivity, or doing something together. Like many other Formosan languages, Puyuma places the verb first in a clause. Puyuma is also noted for using articles like:
- i – singular personal
- a – singular non-personal
- na – plural (personal and non-personal)
So, what are some examples of grammatical innovations in the Nanwang dialect? Case endings are something that are not really typical of Austronesian languages, let alone Formosan languages. However, over a period in time, Nanwang Puyuma has incorporated the use of oblique and genitive case endings, possibly denoting some directional expressions and possession.
Despite this divergence mentioned earlier, Puyuma numbers still sound rather similar to those in many Austronesian languages. From one to ten, the cardinal numbers are:
- drua / dua
- telru / telu
- nem / qnem
- walru / walu
- iwa / siwa
- pulru / pulu / muketrep
You might draw some similarities with languages like Paiwan, or some languages spoken in the Philippines. The word for “five” is still phonologically conserved despite Puyuma’s regarded divergence from the other Formosan languages. Additional number systems also include those for counting persons, and counting animals and objects. These words may sound rather different from what you would see in cardinal numbers, so extra note might be needed when learning the language.
If you want to learn the Puyuma 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 Puyuma, 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: 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.