Languages of Taiwan — Rukai (Drekay)

In the previous posts in this series, we have explored some of the more special aspects of each Formosan language (and Yami), from sounds, to words and grammar features. This language we are exploring here has a special grammatical system, and is hypothesised to have diverged from the Proto-Austronesian language extremely early. This language is Rukai.

Spoken by the Rukai people in Southern Taiwan, native speakers are estimated to be around 10,000 people, with some of these speakers being monolingual. This language comprises of six dialects, some of which are more mutually intelligible with each other than others, namely, Mantauran, Maga, Tona, Budai, Tanan, and Labuan. Among them, Mantauran is considered to be one of the most divergent dialects.

So, what about this early divergence are we referring to here? In evolutionary linguistics, the hypothesised common ancestor of all Austronesian languages is Proto-Austronesian. From here, Rukai is considered to diverge from this common ancestor to evolve into what is spoken today, with an estimated year of around 3000 BCE, according to linguists like Paul Li Jen-kuei. This makes Rukai considered to be among the, or most divergent of the extant Austronesian languages, and “prime evidence” for theorising what Proto-Austronesian might have sounded like. Even so, studies as recent as 2009 have yet to consider Rukai in the reconstructions.

The sounds of Rukai range depending on dialect, but what they have all in common is a set of four vowels, and some retroflex and interdental consonants like /ð/. Among these, Tanan Rukai has the most number of consonants, at 23. Influences from other languages like Mandarin Chinese and Paiwan have entered the sounds of Rukai, with some younger speakers tending to pronounce /ð/ as /z/, or in Tanan Rukai, /θ/ may be merged into /s/.

So, what makes Rukai unique? Well, it is the only Formosan language without a so-called focus system. This focus system is can be defined as a type of morphosyntactic alignment where one argument can be marked as having a special relationship to the verb, according to a paper by Blust in 2013. This special relationship can be seen as an affix on the verb that corresponds to a noun within the same clause that either marked with certain cases, or certain positions in the clause. This is what Rukai lacks. In its place, Rukai uses an accusative case-marking system, somewhat similar to languages like Russian, manifesting as a suffix “-a” to denote the accusative case in Mantauran Rukai.

For a language considered to be the most divergent in the Austronesian language family, you might expect Rukai numbers to barely resemble those we are typically familiar with by now. So here are the numbers from one to ten in Mantauran Rukai:

  • əaəa
  • ðoʔa
  • toɭo
  • ʔəpatə
  • ɭima
  • ənəmə
  • pito
  • vaɭo
  • vaŋatə
  • mamaŋələ / kamaŋələ

Similarly, we could also refer to Tanan Rukai to try to identify some numerical cognates with numbers we are more familiar with in languages like Bahasa Melayu or Ilocano:

  • əá / əa / taŋəa
  • ɖosá / ɖosa / taɖosa
  • toɭó / toɭo / taloɭo
  • soʔátə / soʔatə / tasoʔátə
  • ɭíma / ɭima / taɭima
  • ənə́mə / ənəmə / taənə́mə
  • ʔitó / ʔito / taʔito
  • vaɭó / vaɭo / tavaɭó
  • baŋátə / baŋatə / tabaŋátə
  • poɭóko / maŋəálə / tamaŋəálə

Here, Tanan Rukai numerals are shown with distinctions between (from left to right) cardinal, counting things, and counting humans and organisms. Although they look like they sound really different from what we see in other Austronesian languages, we start to see some similarities. “Five”, for example, still sounds rather strikingly like “lima” in Ilocano, and “ənəmə“, the Rukai word for “six”, sounds pretty close to “enam” in Bahasa Melayu, or “innem” in Ilocano.

While Rukai’s status as among the most divergent Austronesian language is largely agreed upon, why reconstructions of Proto-Austronesian fail to account or consider Rukai is unclear, at least from the academic resources I could find and access. Could newer research and reconstructions factor in this divergence? That remains to be seen.

If you want to learn the Rukai 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 Rukai, 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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s