Austronesian Languages

The spread of Austronesian languages, which now span a vast area from Madagascar in the west to Easter Island in the east, is the legacy of one of the greatest seafaring peoples in the world. The ancestor of all Austronesian languages (referred to by linguists as “Proto-Austronesian”) is thought to have been spoken roughly 6,000 years ago on what is today Taiwan. Austronesian languages are still spoken on Taiwan by various Indigenous Taiwanese groups, also referred to as Aboriginal Formosans, such as the Tsou, Rukai, Puyuma, Bunun, Atayal, Kavalan, and others. All the Formosan languages are extremely threatened, having been subject to several periods of colonialism (both European and Asian) over the last several centuries. Recent efforts have now succeeded in bringing Formosan languages into the school system but immersion schools are still lacking. In the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, East Timor, Madagascar, and the island nations of the Pacific, Austronesian languages enjoy full official status but regional languages struggle against national standards, especially in Indonesia, where local varieties of the national language, Bahasa Indonesia, spread at the expense of local languages.

New York is home to a very large number of Austronesian language speakers due to the enormous Filipino diaspora as well as the smaller Indonesian community, both centered in Queens. Besides official languages such as Bahasa Indonesia and Filipino, Philippine languages such as Cebuano, Ilokano, Kapampangan can all be heard in Woodside, Queens, while regional Indonesian languages such as Javanese, Sundanese and Acehnese can be heard in the neighboring Elmhurst area.

With support from, ELA sponsored a language documentation on the languages of West Timor in 2012 at the Unit Bahasa dan Budaya in Kupang. Participants were trained to document their own languages by recording, transcribing and translating using a variety of available tools. A large number of booklets and videos were produced in ten languages of the Timor area (Helong, Baikeno, Mamba’e, Dhao, Rikou, Tii, Lole, Galolen, Amarasi, Tetun Fehan), many of which can be seen online. ELA hosted a poetic duel in Tagalog with poets Vim Nadera, Mike Coroza, and Teo Antonio in 2011 as well as a poetry reading in Acehnese by Yusra Zaini at the 2018 PEN festival plus readings and performances in Tontemboan, Ngaju Dayak, Betawi, Sundanese, Manggarai, Makassarese and Toba Batak at our Unheard Of series and the great Lower East Side Language Marathon of 2019. More recently, ELA has partnered with the NYC Dept. of Health to provide informational sessions about the COVID vaccine in Indonesian and Tagalog and with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs to promote ID NYC.

Our documentary work on Austronesian languages in New York has thus far centered around Mamuju, a language of West Sulawesi, in collaboration with Husni Husain, Tsou, an Indigenous language of Taiwan, in collaboration with Baitz Niahosa, and various Philippine languages. Co-director Daniel Kaufman specializes in the languages of the Philippines and Indonesia and has worked on several aspects of the grammar and phonology of these languages.