Thursday, December 4, 2008

Thao language rouses foreign interest (Taiwan Journal)

Taiwan's aboriginal languages may be spoken by only 300,000 people, but they have a significance far beyond this small number. Many linguists believe the island was the place of origin of the entire Austronesian language family, a grouping that includes the national languages of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, plus hundreds more spoken in places as far apart as Madagascar, Hawaii and New Zealand.

Robert A. Blust, a professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Hawaii, has argued that Austronesian languages can be divided into 10 main branches, nine of which exist only in Taiwan. In other words, more diversity can be found within the 26 or so Austronesian idioms known to have been spoken in Taiwan than there is among the approximately 1,240 languages that together form the Malayo-Polynesian branch and are spoken by over 350 million people.

In 2003, Academia Sinica's Institute of Linguistics published Blust's Thao-English dictionary. Unlike the Siraya, the Thao are recognized as an indigenous ethnic group by the government. Most of the tribe's approximately 600 members live near Sun Moon Lake in central Taiwan.

Fewer than a dozen, however, still speak the Thao language, and in his introduction to the dictionary Blust wrote: "The present situation of the Thao can be described as one of terminal assimilation..."

This short article accompanied the one below in the December 5 issue of Taiwan Journal.

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