Languages of Taiwan — Thao (Thau a lalawa, Sao)

The next language we are going to cover is a critically endangered one, one with less than 200 speakers, among a people group numbering less than 1000 individuals. Not to be confused with the Tao, the Thao, also known as Sao or Ngan, is an indigenous ethnic group inhabiting the Sun Moon Lake region in central Taiwan. This makes them among the smallest recognised indigenous people groups in Taiwan. The language the Thao speak, Thao, or Thau a lalawa, has received influences from the Bunun language, and also has been rather sinicised, with considerable influences from Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese Minnan. This includes loanwords of Bunun origin, and word order by Mandarin Chinese or Taiwanese Minnan.

Today, most people who speak Thau a lalawa also speak Mandarin Chinese or Taiwanese Minnan, making them bilingual or trilingual. There also has been coverage of Thau a lalawa speakers who have passed away, especially in the Ita Thaw village (δΌŠι”ι‚΅), also known as Barawbaw, which had a total of five fluent or native speakers in 2014. By 2017, all of them have either passed away, or left the village.

There are some 21 consonants and three vowels in Thau a lalawa, and while sharing many sounds with Saisiyat, which we covered previously, there are some orthographical differences, that is, there are differences in the alphabet used to represent the sounds. For example, while the “s” and “sh” sounds are present in both languages, Saisiyat chooses to distinguish them by using the letters “s” and “S” respectively. Thau a lalawa, however, uses the letters “s” and “sh”, something that looks more inituitive than what Saisiyat uses. There are also two lateral sounds in both Saisiyat and Thau a lalawa, although the second “l” sound is a retroflex consonant in Saisiyat, and the second “l” sound is a voiceless alveolar lateral fricative in Thau a lalawa. While Saisiyat uses a singular letter “l” to represent both lateral consonants, Thau a lalawa uses two letters, one “l” for the voiced alveolar lateral approximant, and one “lh” for the lateral fricative.

There are also some allophones in Thau a lalawa, sounds used to pronounce a single phoneme. This includes the consonant [v], an allophone of /w/ that occurs rather intervocalically. For vowels, [e] is heard as an allophone of the vowel /i/, and [o] is an allophone of /u/. These vowel allophones are herd when preceded or followed by the consonants /q/ or /r/.

As noted in the previous post on the Saisiyat language, Thau a lalawa employs the use of case markers, as well as retaining some agent-patient features in its grammar. This case system is less extensive than Saisiyat’s, though, only having the nominative, oblique, and locative cases. The case endings are generally presented as such:

Word formNominativeAccusativeGenitive
Common nounna, sa/atu, sa/a, yai, isa, ya
Proper noun / pronountitu/ya, tiya, ti

What about the agent-patient features then? One example is the second person singular pronoun also known as “you” in English. While the nominative, accusative, and genitive forms are “ihu”, “ihu-n”, and “m-ihu”, respectively, the agent and patient forms are “uhu” and “uhu-n” respectively. The other pronouns however, lack such forms.

Interestingly, the Wikipedia page for the Thao language remarked that it should not be confused with the Thai language, which understandably, is just one extremely likely typo away. This sort of mistake is not unique; since the time of Japanese occupation of Taiwan, the Thao people have been mistakenly referred to as the Tsou people, another indigenous people group in Taiwan. This culminated from a couple of errors: one from the misunderstanding of the legend saying that “the ancestors of Thao were from the mountain Alishan (Mountain A Li)”, and from the strikingly similar pronunciations between Thao and Tsou. This error has led to the domain of Thao/Ngan being registered as “Tsous” under the then nine ethnic groups of Taiwanese indigenous peoples. In fact, it was not until 2001 when the Executive Yuan of Taiwan recognised Thao as the tenth ethnic group of Taiwanese indigenous peoples.

If you want to learn the Thao 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 Thao, 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.

Featured image: An overhead shot of Lalu island, in the Sun Moon Lake, Nantou County, Central Taiwan. From Google street view, by Alvaro Puentes, updated June 2020.

2 thoughts on “Languages of Taiwan — Thao (Thau a lalawa, Sao)

  1. Hi Sheela,

    Today, as of 2021, the Thao language is unfortunately widely regarded as extinct. However, other sources like the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger still classifies Thao as critically endangered. I think this could be complicated by the lack of census data by the Taiwanese government on its indigenous language speakers, or these databases are not yet up to date. Hope this helps!



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