Languages of Taiwan — Sakizaya (Sakiray), Truku, and a conclusion

By the time this post is published, it would have been about 16 months since our very first post on the indigenous languages of Taiwan. Today, we will cover the final two Formosan languages still spoken in Taiwan, before wrapping the series up (for now, at least).

Sakizaya

In Hualien County, there is a people group whose history is generally unknown. Yet, they speak a language extremely related to the Amis language. Around a thousand of them still live today, although previously, they have been classified as the Amis. Conflict and displacement in the late 19th century has forced this people to blend with the other peoples to protect their identity.

Yet, even in obscurity, their language survives. But even that seems like a fleeting moment today. The urbanisation of youth is a looming threat that endangers their culture and language. With around 590 speakers remaining as of 2015, according to the Council of Indigenous Peoples Taiwan, this is the Sakizaya language.

The classification of the Sakizaya language is rather mixed. As the Takobowan incident of 1876 forced many of the Sakizaya people to hide with the Nataoran Amis, some scholars have mistaken Sakizaya as a dialect within the Amis language. In fact, Amis and Sakizaya are far from being mutually intelligible, despite this geographical proximity. Some 60-70% of words between Sakizaya and Amis are way different, likely with separate etymologies. This was among the main arguments raised by the Center of Aboriginal Studies of National Chengchi University in Taiwan, which disputed this traditional classification of Sakizaya as an Amis dialect.

Sakizaya generally appears to have a similar phonology with the Amis language, even having the epiglottal plosive consonant /ʡ/ in common, denoted by the apostrophe ” ‘ “. The glottal stop however, is marked by the circumflex “^”.

Not much is readily available about the grammar of Sakizaya, with one of the few resources being written by a linguist or anthropologist Shen Wenqi, who also conducted a study on the syntactic structure of the Sakizaya language for their thesis. However, an excerpt is presented here in Sakizaya and Nataoran Amis respectively for you to compare:

A conversation in Sakizaya
A similar conversation in Nataoran Amis

Truku

Lastly, comes a language with a rather confusing classification. Some might even consider it a dialect of a language we have previously introduced as well. This has resulted in some strange inconsistencies when reading up about Truku on the web.

The people group who speak this language (or dialect) is referred to as the Taroko people, or Truku. Officially recognised by the Taiwanese government in 2004, there are around 32,000 Taroko / Truku people as of January 2020. Prior to this recognition, they were classified together with the Seediq people, and the Atayal people under the Atayal umbrella. Under a name rectification campaign, the Taroko fought for a recognition as a separate people group.

With their close relations with the Seediq people, one might expect the languages spoken by the Taroko and the Seediq peoples to be strikingly similar. And they might be just about correct. In fact, the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger uses Taroko and Seediq interchangeably, under the ISO 639-3 code “trv”.

Taroko and Seediq seem to be the same language. Or are they?

We also see a similar situation in English Wikipedia…

However, in Mandarin Chinese Wikipedia, we see a more concrete classification — that Truku is a sub-language of Seediq, and is also referred to as the Taroko dialect, under the Seediq language. This is consistent with the three sub-divisions of the Seediq language, Truku, Toda, and Tgdaya. Thus, we would expect the sound systems, grammar, and lexicon to be largely similar, if not, identical to the Seediq language. After all, Truku also goes by an alternative name of Sejiq Truku. So, most of the details of Taroko or Truku should be covered adequately with our post on the Seediq language.

However, reading further, I found some inconsistencies. Truku seems to have two terms used interchangeably in Mandarin Chinese, as 德路固語 (Hanyu pinyin: dé lù gù yǔ) and 太魯閣語 (Hanyu pinyin: tài lǔ gé yǔ). While it is easy to dismiss this as two possible readings and translations for the Truku language, the Taiwan-Austronesian Indigenous Words and Narrations site used 太魯閣語 to denote Truku as a separate language, and 德路固語 to denote Truku as a Seediq dialect. The material covered on these two sites are also puzzlingly different. Compare the Truku versions below:

Left: Truku as classified under a separate language “太魯閣語”. Right: Truku classified as a Seediq dialect “德路固語”. Both versions have identical Mandarin Chinese translations.

So, is Truku really a separate language, or a dialect of Seediq like what the UNESCO Atlas and Wikipedia suggest? The inconsistencies online seem really confusing, but also clouds the boundaries of what constitutes a language and a dialect. I will be updating this post when I come across studies or publications that arrive at a more concrete position.

If you want to learn the Sakizaya and Truku languages, 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 both Sakizaya and Truku, 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.

Conclusion

So, there we have it. The various indigenous languages spoken in Taiwan today, all covered and introduced. Reading up on these languages has been an interesting ride, and an eye-opening one at that too. While many of these are vulnerable or endangered, it is heartening to see that there is a rather centralised site dedicated to documenting and offering learning materials on each of these languages and dialects (or most of them) to readers. While inconsistencies can arise, as with the coverage of Truku or Sejiq Truku, it still provides a nice introduction to the indigenous languages of Taiwan. I hope you have enjoyed this series, and maybe in the future, we could cover some of the extinct languages here as well.

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