Languages of Taiwan — Kavalan (Kvalan, Kebalan, Kbalan)

This language was formerly spoken in the northeastern regions of Taiwan, but today, the language is no longer used there. Currently spoken in Eastern Taiwan, in Hualien, Yilan, and Taitung counties, it has experienced a continual state of decline in use. With many Kavalan speaking other languages like Amis, Mandarin, Japanese, and Taiwanese Hokkien, it might not be surprising to know that Ethnologue has recorded only 70 speakers of Kavalan in 2015, with some linguists suggesting that Kavalan is a critically endangered language, if not, moribund. Welcome to the Kavalan language.

With a few dozen speakers remaining, linguists want to understand how endangered this language is. One study by Perrault et al. (2017) applied an ecological species conservation framework to Kavalan, using this thing called an EDGE matrix. The metrics considered two primary factors — evolutionarily distinctness (ED), and global endangerment (GE). What these researchers realised was, despite the critically endangered to moribund status of Kavalan, among the Austronesian languages, Kavalan was one of the most “lexically distinct”.

Instead of discussing about dialects, Kavalan is split into what is known as “speech communities”. This classifies possible variations in the language by settlement lines. Formerly, 13 such speech communities were identified, and only four remain today, namely, the Kariawan (Jialiwan 加禮宛), Patʀungan (Xinshe 新社), Kulis (Lide 立德), and Kralut (Zhangyuan 樟原). Most of the Kavalan speakers today live surrounded by the Amis people. Other speech communities may include the Quxu and the Nanaw speech communities. However, Li and Tsuchida, in their dictionary of Kavalan, have identified two dialects which were the Kralut and the Patʀungan dialects.

Although Kavalan has a modest phonological inventory, with four vowels and 15 consonants, there are some sounds and variations I thought would be worth to mention. The first of which is a consonant called the “voiced uvular fricative”, a sound part of the so-called “gluttural R” found in European languages like French, Danish, and some regional variants of Dutch.

The other ones are known as allophones, where one sound is part of a set of multiple possible spoken sounds used to pronounce one phoneme in a given language. In Kavalan, these allophones are typically the alveolar consonants, namely the voiced alveolar fricative /ɮ/, and the alveolar approximant /l/.

For the former, this is a consonant that sounds like the pronunciation of “dl” in isiZulu, or the letter “л” in Mongolian. This sound is one of a set of at least two possible sounds to pronounce the phoneme /ɮ/, the other being /d/. In linguistics, these may be written as ɮ [ɮ ~ d].

In the latter, this is the typical “l” sound you would hear in English words like “lemon”. However, this is just one of the three possible sounds used to pronounce the phoneme /l/. Consonants like /ɫ/ and /r/ may also be used. /ɫ/ is a sound similar to that represented by “ll” in Welsh, and “hl” in isiZulu. Together, this allophone can be written as l [l ~ ɫ ~ r].

Other notable characteristics of Kavalan sounds include the large inventory of consonant clusters allowed in the language, and the only extant Formosan language which has a phenomenon known as “consonant lengthening”, where a consonant sound is articulated for a longer period of time. The other known Formosan language which has this characteristic is Basay, which unfortunately went extinct in the mid-20th century.

Curiously, in Kavalan, one could distinguish noun from verb in some noun-verb lexical pairs just by one simple trick — does the first syllable have an /a/ sound? If there is, then it is most likely a verb; if the first syllable lacks it, then it is most likely a noun. Examples include krizeng (wheel), compared to karizeng (to turn a wheel), and btu (stone), compared to battu (to throw a stone). Linguists have proposed that stress patterns could explain this distinction. While verbs are generally stressed on the first syllable, and nouns are stressed on the ultima. Over time, verbs preserved this /a/ vowel in the first syllable, while nouns lost them.

Kavalan also shares a whole bunch of characteristics with most other Formosan languages, and occasionally, the Philippine languages. This includes the focus system we mentioned in a previous post, the extensive use of affixation to express certain concepts or aspects. Kavalan is also known for having a case marker system, for the nominative, oblique, genitive, and locative cases, although the locative case markers are exclusively used for common nouns (not personal ones).

If you want to learn the Kavalan 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 Kavalan, 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

Li, P. J. & Tsuchida, S. (2006) Kavalan Dictionary. Language and Linguistics Monograph Series A-19. Taipei, Taiwan: Institute of Linguistics, Academia Sinica. ISBN 978-986-00-6993-8. Accessible from:

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 )

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s