The Tsou people are one of 26 recorded indigenous groups (原住民族) of Taiwan. Nine of these indigenous languages are no longer actively spoken, although some, like Siraya, are being revitalized by their communities. The government recognizes 14 distinct tribes but recognition of tribal status in Taiwan, as in other countries, can be difficult and controversial.
The indigenous languages of Taiwan belong to the Austronesian family and constituted the only languages of the island before the large scale arrival of the Chinese in the 17th century. Archaeology suggests that Taiwan had already been inhabited by an Austronesian population from about 6,200 years before present. Due to large scale immigration from China over the last 400 years, the entire aboriginal population of Taiwan now only makes up a little over 2% of the entire Taiwanese population. In Tawian, the four dialects of Tsou are spoken in multiple villages, Tapangu, Tfuya, Luhtu, and Limucu, which is now extinct. Tapangu and Tfuya are spoken in villages scattered in Chia-yi county, while Luhtu is only spoken in one village in Central Taiwan and is on the verge of extinction. (Zeitoun 2005).
Like the indigenous people of the Americas, the aboriginal population of Taiwan has also suffered loss of their land and resources at the hands of newcomers, as well as discrimination that continues today. Taiwan’s current president, Tsai Ing-wen, who is herself of aboriginal (Paiwan) descent, has pledged to improve the condition of aboriginal languages. While steps have been taken over the last few decades to improve the official standing of the languages, this has brought the languages into the school system in a limited way but has not yet created a new generation of speakers. Ongoing efforts to promote Tsou and other Formosan languages can be seen on the website of the Indigenous Language Research and Development Center (Chinese version: https://ilrdc.tw/, English version: https://eng.ilrdc.tw/).
Tsou is spoken by about 4,000 people in the area of Mount Ali in Chia-Yi county. Tsou is not to be confused with what has sometimes been referred to as “Southern Tsou”, that is, Kanakanavu and Saaroa. These are clearly separate languages whose relation to Tsou is the focus of current research. According to one recent proposal for the Austronesian family tree (Ross 2009), Tsou is considered to be one of four primary branches, along with Rukai, Puyuma and a fourth proto-language that gave rise to all other Austronesian languages. As Taiwan is understood to be the historical homeland of the Austronesian people, who began a southwards migration some 4,000 years ago, each Formosan language plays a crucial role in our understanding of how the top of the family tree is reconstructed.
Zeitoun, Elizabeth.2005. “Tsou” in The Austronesian Languages of Asia and Madagascar, Alexander Adelaar and Nikolaus Himmelmann (eds.), p. 259-290. London & New York: Routledge.
Tsou’s threatened status is the result of several centuries of discrimination and the active suppression of aboriginal languages at the hands of the state. While there were no residential schools tasked with erasing indigenous identity in Taiwan, as there were in the United States and Canada until recently, aboriginal languages were banned in the schools and generally looked down upon by Chinese speaking society.
There are now no monolingual Tsou speakers, nor do there seem to be any children who can speak Tsou fluently. This is not uncharacteristic of other aboriginal groups. According to a telephone survey conducted by a prominent Taiwanese newspaper, only 9% percent of indigenous respondents said that their children spoke their heritage language (Ciwas 2004:27).
Ciwas, Pawan. 2009. Indigenous language education in Taiwan. In Language is Life: Proceedings of the 11th Annual Stabilizing Indigenous Language Conference, Wesley Y. Leonard, Stelómethet Ethel B. Gardner (eds.). Survey of California and other Indian Languages, Report 14, pp.26-33.
Tsou is well documented in comparison to certain other Formosan languages. The grammar of Tsou has been described by T’ung-ho Tung (1964), whose work includes a large text collection in several different dialects. Another grammar was written by Josef Szakos (1994), while the scholars below have provided in depth analyses of particular aspects of the grammar. Nonetheless, many aspects of the complex grammar, especially in the realms of evidentiality and proximity, are not fully understood. As of recently, the Council of Indigenous People, has also released a thorough electronic dictionary with audio which can be seen here: https://e-dictionary.apc.gov.tw/tsu/Search.htm.
Chang, Melody Y.-Y. 1998. Wh-constructions and the problems of wh-movement
in Tsou. MA thesis. Hsinchu, Taiwan: National Tsing Hua University.
Huang, Shuan-Fan. 2002a. “The pragmatics of focus in Tsou and Seediq.”
Language and Linguistics 3.4:665-694.
Huang, Shuan-Fan. 2002b. “The structure of motion events in Chinese, Tsou and
Saisiyat.” Paper presented at IACL II, Aug 20-22, Aichi, Japan.
Huang, Shuan-Fan, Lily I-wen Su and Li-may Sung. 2003. A Functional
Reference Grammar of Tsou. National Taiwan University.
Huang, Huei-Ju. 2001. “Tense and aspect in Tsou reconsidered.” Proceeding of the
2001 National Conference on Linguistics, 465-483.
Li, Paul Jen-Kuei. 1979. “Variations in the Tsou dialects.” BIHP 50.2:273-300.
Lin, Gu-Jing. 2002. The Complementation of Tsou: Toward a Cognitive Account of
Syntactic Structure. MA Thesis. National Taiwan University.
Szakos, Joseph. 1994. Die Sprache der Cou: Untersuchungen zur Synchronie
einer Austronesischen Sprache auf Taiwan. Ph.D dissertation. Bonn: University of Bonn.
Tsuchida, Shigeru. 1972. “The origins of the Tsou phonemes /b/ and /d/.” Gengo Kenkyu
Tung, T’ung-ho. 1964. A descriptive study of the Tsou language, Formosa.
Weng, Tsuei-Xia, 2000. A constrastive study of tense, mood and aspect systems in
Tsou and Thao. Master Thesis. National Chung Cheng University.
Yang, Gloria Fan-pei. 2001. Evidentiality in Tsou. Master Thesis. National
Zeitoun, E. 1992. A syntactic and semantic study of Tsou focus system. MA
thesis. Hsinchu, Taiwan: National Tsing Hua University.
Zeitoun, Elizabeth. 1996. “The Tsou temporal, aspectual and modal system revisited.”
Bulletin of the Institute of History and Philology 67.3: 503-31.
Zeitoun, Elizabeth. 1997. “Temporal, hypothetical and counterfactual clauses in Formosan
languages.” Selected papers from 8 ICAL, 131-158
Zeitoun, Elizabeth. 2005. “Tsou” in The Austronesian Languages of Asia and Madagascar, Alexander Adelaar and Nikolaus Himmelmann (eds.), p. 259-290. London & New York: Routledge.
何大安. 1976. 〈鄒語音韻〉 《歷史語言研究所集刊》 47.2:245-274.
葉美利, 2000. 《賽夏語參考語法》 台北:遠流.
葉美利. 1995. 〈賽夏語的’時制’與’動貌’初探〉 摘自 李壬癸, 林英津編,
台灣南島民族母語研究論文集》 P369-384. 台北: 教育部
齊莉莎 (Zeitoun, Elizabeth). 2000. 《鄒語參考語法》 台北:遠流
Baitz Niahosa, a Tsou speaker, has been working with 30 children and adults In the Ali-Shan Aboriginal Tsou Youth Choir. The choir has won awards for their Tsou music, even as the singers themselves are learning the language. Baitz has also been transcribing traditional songs and singing them in a modern style all over the world for the last 15 years.
Baitz is from Lalauya, and her father is a former school principal who is writing a comparative study of Tsou dialects. Together with Baitz, we recorded elder family members and traditional leaders discussing various aspects of Tsou life, language and culture.
In collaboration with ELA, Biatz Niahosa is working on a planned series of ten storybooks, for two of which the recordings and text appear below. (Also below is a sample image from one of the published books.) The series aims to teach traditional values and a love of Tsou to a younger generation through the voices of native animals.
‘A mi’o meoisi ci zomʉ
I am a big bird.
‘La’u paavi na ‘e mo meoyisi ci yopngu‘u,
I open my big wings,
‘la’u kokaekaebʉ toesoso ta pepe.
and happily fly to the sky.
Ho ‘lea’u toe pepe,
When I am flying high,
‘Lea’u pee’la aiti ‘o’la nomcovhi ci ma^maica.
I can see things far away.
‘Lea’u mee’lʉ mayahe ho mi’o toesoso.
I can fly very fast and very far.
‘Lea’u fiho to poepe ho na^no toe pepe ho toe momcovhi.
I fly very high with the wind.
‘Lea’u na^no kaebʉ ho lea’u toesoso ta mo meoyino pepe.
I love to fly very high in the big blue sky,
‘Lea fiho to koiyu ‘o mo ʉmnʉ ci to^tohʉngʉ’u ho toe’unu to ‘la ma^cocacni ci pʉhpʉngʉ.
My good thoughts flying with the eagle to a kind world.
Wou! Wou! Wou!
Woof! Woof! Woof!
‘A “Tuutu” ‘o ongko’u.
My name is Tuutu.
‘A mi’o na^no meoyisi ci av’u.
I am a very big dog.
Mo hof’oya ‘e mum’u’u.
My hair is yellow,
Mo tacvo^hi ho noe’in’i.
It is long and soft.
‘lea na^no ʉmnʉ ho ‘la peuasasa.
And it is nice to touch.
Panto mo okosi ci moo’u.
I have a small house.
isi teaineni to amo to Voyu
Voyu’s father built my little house.
mo yonghu ci moo
It is beautiful!
‘A os’o na^na ʉmnʉa ‘e moo’u.
I love my house.
‘A ‘lea’u aʉt’ʉca ‘e oko ci Voyu.
I look after little Voyu.
‘A mita na^no tma’la’lʉ ci oko no hahocngʉ.
He is a very good little boy.
Os’o na^na ʉmnʉa.
I love him very much.
‘Lea’u kaebʉ toekukuyungu ho baito no te esmi.
I like to run around and watch who is coming.
‘Lea’u miho c’o coeconʉ,
Sometimes I just stroll around.
‘Lea’u peayofʉ ho mohmohfti’i ho ‘la’u kokaekaebʉ.
And I run and jump when I am happy.
‘Lea’u ʉmnʉa ‘o ‘la tmau’la’lʉ ci ‘o’oko.
I love kids who behave well.
‘A os’o cohivi ho mimu acʉhʉ tmao’la’lʉ ci ‘o’oko.
And I know that you all are wonderful children.
Os’o acʉha ʉmnʉa na mu.
I love you all.