Languages of Taiwan — Saaroa (Lha’alua)

This continuation of the Languages of Taiwan series introduces yet another critically endangered language, one at a rather precarious position. Traditionally considered as a subgroup of the Tsou people, the Lha’alua or Saaroa people received official recognition from the government of Taiwan, becoming the 15th recognised indigenous people in Taiwan. Numbering around 400 today, the Saaroa people live in the two villages of Taoyuan and Kaochung in Taoyuan District, Kaohsiung, and the village of Maya in Namasia District, Kaohsiung. However, among this population, less than 10% of them speak the Saaroa language. And even among the native speakers of Saaroa, Mandarin Chinese and Bunun are primarily used. Researcher Chia-jung Pan has noted in 2012 that there is no longer an active speech community for the language, meaning that Lha’alua is not actively spoken anymore.

The Saaroa language has received a rather detailed account of its history, and when the language diverged from its other Tsouic cousins. Comparisons using grammar alone have revealed that its closest cousin is most likely the Tsou language, while comparisons using phonology and lexicon revealed a clustering of multiple languages to form the Tsouic branch. These other languages are Tsou and Kanakanabu. Accounts have suggested that this Tsouic group used to occupy a rather large area in southwestern Taiwan, but territorial losses from conflict, warfare, and disease have slowly shrunk its size. Kanakanabu and Saaroa are estimated to have diverged about 800 years ago, and today, Bunun is increasingly becoming the main language spoken by the Saaroa, with the migration of Bunun people into the area inhabited by the Saaroa. Saaroa elders, however, also speak Taiwanese Hokkien.

With the interactions the Saaroa language has with other neighbouring indigenous communities, one might expect that some of these would eventually seep into the Saaroa language. And they might be right, well, sort of. The geographic proximity between Saaroa-speaking areas and Rukai-speaking areas has resulted in the rather high volume of loanwords of Mantauran Rukai origin. Other introductions of loanwords typically came from the era of Japanese occupation, such as introduction of words from Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Taiwanese Southern Min, and even Bunun origins.

There are 13 consonants and four vowels in the Saaroa language, roughly the same size with its Kanakanavu counterparts. Where Saaroa lacks in retroflex consonants like the two in Kanakanavu, there is an alveolar flap consonant represented by the letter “l”. Interestingly, Saaroa employs the use of loaned phonemes, like aspirated consonants /ph/, /th/, /kh/, and /tsh/, represented by letters “ph”, “th”, “kh”, and “ch” respectively. This however, should not be confused with the letter “lh”, which represents a voiceless alveolar lateral fricative consonant, much like the “ll” sound in Welsh.

Saaroa words do exhibit stress patterns, like primary and secondary stress. The former is distinguished by a higher pitch and greater intensity. However, the difference between words does not depend on the position or quality of such a pitch. As such, while multiple pitches can exist in Saaroa, Saaroa is not a pitch-accent language.

If you want to learn the Saaroa 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 Saaroa, 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: One of the entrances heading into Maya village, Namasia District, Kaohsiung County, Taiwan, from Google Street View.

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