Thao language

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Thau a lalawa
Native toTaiwan
Ethnicity820 Thao (2020)[1]
Native speakers
4 (2021)[1]
  • Brawbaw
  • Shtafari
Language codes
ISO 639-3ssf

Thao (/θ/ thow; Thao: Thau a lalawa), also known as Sao,[2] is the nearly extinct language of the Thao people,[3] an indigenous people of Taiwan from the Sun Moon Lake region in central Taiwan. It is a Formosan language of the Austronesian family;[4] Barawbaw and Shtafari are dialects.[citation needed]


The name Thao literally means "person", from Proto-Austronesian *Cau. It is therefore cognate with the name of the Tsou.


Speaking Thao was criminalised under Japanese rule of Taiwan and later the Kuomintang regime, contributing to its critically endangered status today.[5]

A Thao-English dictionary by Robert A. Blust was published in 2003 by Academia Sinica's Institute of Linguistics.[6]

In 2014, there were four L1 speakers and a fluent L2 speaker living in Ita Thaw (伊達邵) village (traditionally called Barawbaw), all but one of whom were over the age of sixty.[citation needed] Two elderly native speakers died in December of that year, including chief Tarma (袁明智), age 75.[citation needed] Four elderly L1 speakers and some semi-speakers were reported in 2021.[1]



Consonant inventory
  Labial Dental Alveolar Post-
Velar Uvular Glottal
Plosive p b     t d     k   q   ʔ  
Fricative f (v) θ ð s   ʃ           h  
Lateral Fricative         ɬ                  
Tap or Flap           ɾ                
Nasal   m       n       ŋ        
Approximant   w       l   j            

Orthographic notes:

  • ð ʃ/ are written ⟨th z sh⟩. However, /θ/ is written ⟨c⟩ in Blust's dictionary.
  • /ɬ/ is written ⟨lh⟩.
  • /ŋ/ is written ⟨ng⟩. However, /ŋ/ is written ⟨g⟩ in Blust's dictionary.
  • /ʔ/ is written ⟨'⟩.


  • The glides /j w/ are derived from the underlying vowels /i u/ to meet the requirements that syllables must have onset consonants and to indicate stress placement accurately.
  • [v] is an allophone of /w/ occurring intervocalically.


Vowel inventory
Front Central Back
High i u
High (e) (o)
Low a


  • Stress is penultimate, otherwise can be written ⟨á í ú⟩ as in "dadú", but doubling ⟨aa ii uu⟩ is also frequently used, as in "daduu".
  • [e] and [o] occur as allophones of /i/ and /u/, respectively, when preceded or followed either by /q/ or /r/.


Thao has two or arguably three patterns of reduplication: Ca-reduplication, full reduplication, and rightward reduplication (which is sometimes considered to be a form of full reduplication).

Thao verbs have the following types of focus (Blust 2003:239).

  1. Actor: -um- (present), ma- (future)
  2. Patient: -in, -in-
  3. Locative: -an


Thao word order can be both SVO and VSO, although the former is derived from Taiwanese Hokkien (Blust 2003:228).

The Thao personal marker is "ti" (Blust 2003:228). Negatives include "ani" and "antu"; "ata tu" is used in "don't" constructions. The perfect is marked by "iza", the past by an infix just after the primary onset consonant "-in-" and the future by the prefix "a-". Imperatives are marked by "-í" and softer imperatives or requests roughly translated as "please" by "-uan" sometimes spelled "-wan" which can co-occur with "-í".


The Thao personal pronouns below are from Blust (2003:207). Note that there is only 1 form each for "we (exclusive)," "you (plural)" and "they."

Thao Personal Pronouns
Type of
Nominative Accusative Genitive Agent Patient
1s. yaku yakin nak[7]
2s. ihu ihu-n m-ihu[8] uhu uhu-n
3s. thithu thithu-n thithu[9]
1p. (incl.) ita ita-n m-ita
1p. (excl.) yamin yamin yamin
2p. maniun maniun maniun
3p. thaythuy thaythuy thaythuy

Other pronouns include:

  • minmihu - for you
  • panmihu - as for you
  • panihun - because of you
  • shanaihun - up to you
  • shaunatazihun - go to your place
  • shmunaihun - bring to you
  • nakin - for me
  • panyakin - as for me
  • pashiyakin - leave me
  • shanayayakin - up to me
  • shmunayakin - bring me


The following affixes are sourced from Blust (2003:92-188) and adjusted to the modern spelling.

  • a- : only found in /kan/ 'eat'
  • -ak : '1st person singular (I)'
  • ak- ... -in : 'morning, noon, evening meals'
  • an- : uncertain function
  • -an : Verbal uses can be indicative, imperative, or adversative.
  • i- : prefix or clitic particle marking location
  • -i : imperative
  • -ik : patient focus (1st person singular)
  • -in- : perfective or completive aspect
  • -in : patient focus
  • ish- : found most with intransitive verbs (uncommon prefix)
  • ka- : 'to make an X', 'two times' (with reduplication)
  • ka- ... -an : meaning unclear
  • kal- : 'X told'
  • kalh- : 'to pile, spread'
  • kash- : 'intensity, repetition'
  • kashi- : meaning uncertain
  • kashi- ... -an : 'pull by the X'
  • kashun- : derives verbs referring to positions of the human body, or sometimes objects such as boats
  • kat- : 'gradually become X'
  • ki- : 'stand, stay'; other possible meanings as well
  • ki- ... -an : 'be affected with pain in the X'
  • kilh- : 'search for, seek'
  • kin- : 'to pick or gather X'
  • kit- ... -in : 'infested with X'
  • ku- : 'to perform an action with X' (when used with tools or weapons); less specific in other contexts
  • kun- : 'sudden or abrupt action', 'to eat the X meal', 'to do X times'; meaning unclear sometimes
  • la- : usually found in expressions of quantity of degree
  • lhin- : causative sense
  • lhun- : swelling-related meanings, etc.
  • m- : marks the genitive in 'you (2s)' and 'we (incl.)'
  • ma- : marks stative verbs, occasionally nouns derived from stative verbs
  • ma- : active verb prefix
  • ma- : prefix marking the future in actor focus verbs
  • ma- : 'tens' (used with numbers)
  • mak- : intransitive verbs
  • maka- : 'to resemble X' (people), 'produce X' (plant or animal parts), 'from/in/to X' (deictic/directional expressions)
  • makin- : intransitive verbs; 'Xth from the bottom' (with numerals)
  • makit- : 'happen gradually', 'perform X gradually'
  • maku- : directional sense, and is followed by /na/- (though it does not follow not in non-locative expressions)
  • malhi- : 'give birth to an X'
  • man- : generally used with dynamic, intransitive verbs
  • mana- : generally found with directional verbs
  • mapa- : 'reciprocal', 'collective action'
  • mash- : 'to speak X' (language), 'walk with an X' (positions or conditions of the leg)
  • masha- : relates to body positions, or may have a directional meaning
  • mashi- : comparatives (with stative bases of measurement); often synonymous with /ma/- (stative verb marker)
  • mat- : derives intransitive or stative verbs
  • mati- : locative expressions
  • matin- + full reduplication : 'X-ish' or 'spotted with X' (colors)
  • mi- : derives intransitive verbs, often with some form of base reduplication
  • mi- + Ca reduplication : 'do with a group of X'
  • mya- : used to derive various verbs
  • min- : derives inchoative verbs (Bunun loan?); 'become an X' or 'become like an X' (with kinship terms)
  • mu- : most frequently derives verbs of motion; 'go into X; enter X' (with concrete nouns that refer to structures or places capable of being entered); 'search for X' (with names of useful plants); 'do X times' (numeral bases and expressions of quantity)
  • mun- : intransitive verbs
  • -n : derives accusative pronouns from nominative bases
  • na- : most commonly with verbs indicating change of location; 'it's up to X'
  • pa- : causative of dynamic verbs (verbs with -/um/-); 'make X do Y' or 'let X do Y'; active transitive (or intransitive) verb with no causative argument/sense
  • pak- : 'exude X' (body fluids, other natural fluids/substances); intransitive verb prefix
  • pan- : 'perform X in a downward direction'
  • pan- ... -an : used with terms for lineal consanguines to derive the corresponding collateral terms of the same generation (e.g., 'father' > 'uncle', 'grandparent' > 'grandparental sibling')
  • pash- ... -an : 'place in which X is kept'
  • pashi- : generally causative sense (often with Ca-reduplication); 'let X do it' or 'let X have it' (with the accusative forms of personal pronouns)
  • pashi- ... -an : 'put X on' or 'wear X'
  • pat- : generally causative sense
  • pi- : causative verbs of location (can be paired with /i/- 'at, in, on'); may also form non-locative verbs
  • pya- : forms causative verbs (usually have stative counterparts with /ma/-; note that /pa/- and -/um/- are also counterparts.); simulative verb
  • pik- : generally causative sense
  • pin- : generally forms causative verbs or deverbal nouns
  • pish- : 'play X' (musical instruments); inchoative sense (sometimes with an implied element of suddenness); causative sense
  • pu- : causative or transitive counterpart of the movement prefix /mu/-, which is intransitive; 'use an X' or 'put in an X' (with names of some tools); 'send out an X' (with names of plant parts)
  • pu- ... -an : to wear X' (body ornaments)
  • pun- : 'to catch X' (animals used for food)
  • qata- : bodily movement, observation, and the like
  • sha- : directional sense ('facing', etc.)
  • shan-na-Ca- ... : 'it's up to X' (often with pronouns)
  • shau- : 'go to X' or 'arrive at X' (with bases that have an inherently locative sense or temporal sense)
  • shi- : appears to mark past tense (as opposed to the perfective aspect marker -/in/-)
  • shi- : sometimes appears with commands
  • shi-X-X : 'X-ish, somewhat X'
  • shi-X-iz: 'X times'
  • shu- : 'bring X' or 'take X' (with pronominal and deictic bases)
  • tana- : generally directional sense (from Bunun /tana/- 'prefix of direction')
  • tau- : 'to carry X' (with concrete nouns); 'to turn to X' (with bases having a directional meaning)
  • tish- : forms both transitive and intransitive verbs; often refers to results of non-deliberate actions
  • tu-Ca- ... : 'the odor of X'
  • -um- : actor focus infix
  • un- ... -an : 'undesirable bodily conditions or afflictions'; 'figurative extension of a physical affliction'
  • -un : equivalent of -/in/ 'patient focus' (borrowed from Bunun)
  • -wak : 1st person singular actor (apparently distinct from -/ak/)
  • -wan : 'X's turn (to do something)'
  • ya- : only comes after /mapa/- 'reciprocal or collective action'
  • -zan : 'X paces' (used with numerals)
  • kan 'step, walk'
  • lhqa 'live, living'
  • pasaháy 'to use'
  • qalha 'much, many'
  • sa (usually almost impossible to translate in most environments)


  1. ^ a b c Thao at Ethnologue (25th ed., 2022) Closed access icon
  2. ^ Zui (2021-11-20). "Languages of Taiwan — Thao (Thau a lalawa, Sao)". The Language Closet. Retrieved 2023-10-28.
  3. ^ "Did you know Thao is critically endangered?". Endangered Languages. Retrieved 2023-10-28.
  4. ^ Chang, M Laura (December 1998). "Thao Reduplication". Oceanic Linguistics. 37 (2): 277–297. doi:10.2307/3623411.
  5. ^ Davidson, Helen (2021-06-09). "Healing words: Taiwan's tribes fight to save their disappearing languages". The Guardian. Retrieved 2024-04-27.
  6. ^ "Thao language rouses foreign interest". Taiwan Today. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of China (Taiwan). 2008-12-04. Retrieved 2024-03-27.
  7. ^ PAN *ni-ku
  8. ^ PAN *ni-Su
  9. ^ PAN *ni-a


External links[edit]