Linguist Races to Save Aboriginal Language

16 Jan

KANAKANAVU:National Taiwan University’s Sung Li-may is working with the few remaining native speakers of one Aboriginal language to document it for preservation

Her eyes lit bright with concentration, Taiwanese linguist Sung Li-may (宋麗梅) leans in expectantly as one of the planet’s last 10 speakers of the Kanakanavu language shares his hopes for the future.

“Every day I think: Can our language be passed down to the next generation? It is the deepest wish in my heart that it can be,” he says.

Kanakanavu, Sung says, has a lot more going for it than just its intrinsic value. It belongs to the same language family that experts believe spread from Taiwan 4,000 years ago, giving birth to languages spoken today by 400 million people in an arc extending from Easter Island off South America to Madagascar, off Africa.

Taiwan is where it all starts,” says archeologist Peter Bellwood, who with linguist Robert Blust developed the now widely accepted theory that people from Taiwan leveraged superior navigation skills to spread their Austronesian language far and wide. At least four of Taiwan’s 14 government-recognized Aboriginal languages are still spoken by thousands of people, but a race is on to save the others from extinction.

The youngest good speaker of Kanakanavu, also known as Southern Tsou, is 60, and the next-youngest, 73.

“To survive a language has to be spoken,” Sung said. “And with this one it isn’t happening.”

It’s a story repeated in the remote corners of the earth, as younger generations look to the dominant language for economic survival and advancement, whether it be English or, in Taiwan’s case, Mandarin.

Aborigines account for only 2 percent of the Taiwanese population of 23 million. Many young people are leaving Dakanua, a picturesque village in the south that is home to the Kanakanavu language, to work in the cities.

The deep-rooted linguistic seeds the dispersal sowed have now morphed into dozens of languages — Malay for example, and the Philippines’ Tagalog — that make Austronesian one of the largest language groups in the world.

The dispersion is illustrated by the similarities of the words for “ear.” What linguists call the proto-form — the Taiwanese basis from thousands of years ago — is usually rendered as galinga. In modern Taiwanese Aboriginal dialects that becomes calinga, while in the Philippines it’s tenga, in Fiji dalinga, in Samoa talinga and in Papua New Guinea taringa.

Taiwanese Aborigines traveling to New Zealand, for example, are struck by the close relationship of their own languages to Maori, particularly when they hear the local version of numbers.

Sung’s most recent project was collating a Chinese-English dictionary for the Sediq language spoken by the tribe of Taiwanese mountain dwellers memorialized inWarriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale , a 2011 film recounting their rebellion against Japanese occupiers in the 1930s.

In February last year she began her work with Kanakanavu, hoping she can preserve the language before the last speakers die out. The odds against her are long. Even many 40 and 50-year olds are incapable of mouthing anything more than a few simple phrases in their native tongue.


More on language/dialect preservation:



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