Glimpsing the Dying Heart of Humanity

In the middle of the wedding, my friend’s grandma, a short, stocky, but strong aboriginal Taiwanese woman in her 80s, went up on stage. She grabbed the microphone and, after a short introduction in Mandarin, the dominant language in Taiwan, began a Christian prayer in the Atayal language.

The fluid, slightly raspy words sounded quite different than the varying toned, short-syllables of Mandarin. I was in Taichung, Taiwan, a groomsman at the wedding of my good friend. Here, the attendees were mostly Atayal, one of the 16 surviving aboriginal tribes of Taiwan, as the ceremony was for the indigenous side of my friend’s family. 

prayer in Attayal, Copyright

A short prayer in Atayal.

Taiwan is unique linguistically. Dominating are three Chinese dialects; Mandarin, the national language, Taiwanese, the most widely spoken, similar to the Hokkien dialect in mainland China, and Hakka, another dialect from Fujian province. These three languages, all part of the Sino-Tibetan language group, the second most widely spoken language group in the world after Indo-European, represent nearly more than 95% of the island’s 23 million people.

Throughout my time in Taiwan I saw this diversity, learning to distinguish between the three languages. I learned how many of the older generation do not speak Mandarin well but that, in Taipei, many youth do not speak Hakka or Taiwanese. These three language alone provided me with a window into Taiwan’s unique cultural landscape.

Now, though, at this wedding, I saw that was only a small part of the picture. It is incredibly easy to live, work, and travel in Taiwan and not realize that an even greater linguistic diversity lies in the islands beautiful, green hills, where the aboriginal peoples of Taiwan reside, the source of one of humanities most astounding migrations and the birthplace of another language group that’s tentacles are spread over a far vaster geographical area than the Sino-Tibetan group. In fact, Taiwan is the intersection of two of the world’s greatest linguistic groups.

Besides the Atayal, there are the Truku, Paiwan, Bunun, and many others. They number 500,000 in Taiwan, only 2% of the population, severely displaced by immigration from mainland China that began in the 1700’s, and especially the great influx of Mandarin speakers who fled with the Kuomintang (Nationalists) from mainland China in 1949 and took control of the island.

Aboriginal Taiwan’s history long predates that of Chinese Taiwan. It is unknown how and when the island of Taiwan was first populated, but records of settlements date back thousands of years. What is known is that, beginning in 300 AD, Polynesians became the first great seafarers in human history. Ships set sail from Taiwan down to the neighboring Philippines, then, in the greatest period of exploration until Columbus’ voyage across the Atlantic, Polynesian sailors spread to a huge part of the world, colonizing vast territories.

Map by Christophe Cagé on Wikipedia

Map of the Polynesian expansion from Taiwan

Perhaps you’ve heard of Tagalog, Indonesian, Malay, Maori, or Hawaiian. All of these languages can be traced back to Taiwan, the birthplace of Polynesian people and languages, the world’s third most spoken language group. Taiwan’s indigenous people are the ancestors of one of the greatest, most influential stories in human history.

Even more amazing, despite the spread of Polynesian peoples, there is more linguistic diversity on Taiwan than the rest of the Polynesian world. That is to say, Taroko and Atayal are more different than Malagasy (Madagascar) and Maori (New Zealand) are from each other. In fact, three of the four branches of Polynesian language tree can only be found in Taiwan.

Taiwan’s true beauty this, its astonishing diversity, preserved over thousands of years. One that, today, is facing its greatest challenge in the face of Globalization and Mandarin Chinese dominance.

This I could clearly see at the wedding. My friend’s grandma was still praying, and I listened attentively, trying to grasp the unique sounds of Atayal, to see if I could hear the distant connection between it and the Polynesian language I am learning, Indonesian. I couldn’t. It ended too fast, and the cacophony of Mandarin once again took over.

I looked at my friend, who can understand, but not speak, Atayal. In fact, in his generation, none of his cousins can speak it. They are passive listeners, the first step towards language death.


Cousins, unable to speak Atayal

He is going to have kids soon, who will not get the chance to learn Atayal. With that, a link that connects them with their past, with those hundred previous generations, with the Polynesian sailors who spread the language and culture of this small island to the far corners of the world, will be broken. A history in Taiwan, one that is extraordinary, but little known and of little use in our modern world, is being lost.

It’s already started. Just 100 years ago, Taiwan had 26 aboriginal languages, but in the past century, 10 have gone extinct, two are moribund, and several others endangered. The day may come when the island only speaks Chinese dialects, and Taiwan’s uniqueness is a mere relic of the past.

This is language death in action, the causes clear, the consequences quietly, softly, grave.

At the wedding hall, the dominance of Chinese was apparent – the “lucky” characters hanging on the walls, the round tables, and, most of all, the languages spoken around us. The entire ceremony, minus the short prayer, was in Mandarin Chinese, as were all the conversations and songs.

But at the end of the night, after the ceremony was finished, the bride had gone home, and the younger generation – my friend’s cousins – had all left, it was only us, the groomsmen, and the elders awake, a strange mix. They looked entirely different than most Taiwanese, with darker skin, larger eyes, and straight, sometimes curly hair, like their ethnic cousins in the Philippines. Out came a bottle of Johnny Walker, a long line of shots thrust into our hands. There was no way we could say no. Smoke filled the air, along with a sense of relief and joy.

Spontaneously, one of the elders began singing. Soon, a chorus began – traditional Atayal songs. I whipped out my camera, wanting to record this amazing moment, but for some reason, the record function refused to start. Smiling, I put the camera down. Modern technology and traditions didn’t mix at this moment. The irony. We try to preserve culture through recording, digitizing, but can this moment truly be captured?

I felt as if I was seeing and hearing something truly special, a glimpse into the heart of humanity, feeling our long existence on earth. But I couldn’t enjoy it fully, because I couldn’t help wondering if I was seeing the last gasps of a dying culture.

When Atayal is gone, when the future generation can no longer speak the language of its ancestors, will we even realize its passing, or what we have lost? It doesn’t sound like a future I want to be a part of.

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