Although official government statistics list only eleven aboriginal languages in Taiwan (and until recently only nine), fifteen languages are still actively used, or at least remembered by a few elderly persons: 1. Atayal, 2. Sediq, 3. Kavalan, 4. Amis, 5. Puyuma, 6. Paiwan, 7. Tsou, 8. Kanakanabu, 9. Saaroa, 10. Rukai, 11. Bunun, 12. Thao, 13. Pazeh, 14. Saisiyat, and 15. Yami (the latter spoken on Lan Yu, or Botel Tobago island). Rumors occasionally surface that languages long thought to be extinct, as Taokas, or Basay, are still spoken by a few isolated individuals thoroughly disguised within the majority Taiwanese-speaking population. To date, however, all such putative survivors of language extinction have turned out to be individuals who remember no more than a few dozen words and can in no sense be said to be speakers of the language.
After Pazeh, which appears to be down to its last full speaker (Blust 1999b, Li & Tsuchida 2001), Thao is the most seriously endangered of the aboriginal languages of Taiwan. Moreover, it has no close genetic relationship to any other extant language, possibly forming an independent branch of the far-ung Austronesian language family (Blust 1996a). Its potential importance to reconstruction is thus far greater than would be true for a single language chosen at random.
The Thao language is spoken today by about fifteen persons out of a considerably larger population which claims Thao ancestry. Most of the Thao who still maintain their language reside in Te-hua village (Thao: Barawbaw), a mixed Taiwanese-Thao community on the southeast shore of Sun-Moon Lake, in Nantou County, near the geographical center of Taiwan. A second, smaller community of Thao who reportedly speak a slightly different dialect was still found at Ta-p'ing-lin (Twapina), some 14 km. from Sun-Moon Lake in 1976, whence they had emigrated from the village of T'ou-she (Shtafari) earlier in this century (Li 1983). Its present status is unknown. Both communities are located at an altitude of some 1,000-1,200 meters, on the western fringe of the great Central Mountain Range.
The nearest aboriginal villages are Bunun, generally located at higher elevations. Knowledge of Bunun as a second language is common among all Thao who still speak their own language, and the presence of numerous Bunun loanwords in Thao suggests that this situation has existed for many generations (Blust 1996a). Thao people generally say that they learn Bunun easily, but that the Bunun find it difficult to learn Thao.
According to Mr. Shih A-sung (Kilash), in the old Thao village of Tarigkuan it was traditional for some families to adopt Bunun girls between the ages of 7 and 10 to be raised as wives for their sons. By contrast, Thao girls reportedly were not sent to Bunun villages in this way. Marriage by adoption was a common practice until roughly the mid 1930's. The adopted Bunun girls would visit their natal villages periodically to spend time with their families, and the relationship between the family of the prospective bride and prospective groom was cemented by exchanges of material goods -- the Bunun families sending the cooked meat of deer or wild chickens, and the Thao sending cloth in return. At the present time two Bunun women are married to Thao brothers in Te-hua village: Pima, wife of Akiko, and Laguy, wife of Akiko's elder brother Kimula. Another man is of mixed Thao-Bunun parentage.
Although the current "politically correct" position is to emphasize the unity and harmony of all aboriginal peoples, the Thao attitude toward the Atayal is distinctly negative and distrustful. In conversation the Atayal were described by Mr. Shih as 'no good', and Mrs. Shih portrayed them with an expression of disapproval and a rapid movement of her fingers over her face to indicate the tattooed appearance of people who she clearly considered foreign and not to be trusted. This type of information is useful in understanding patterns of lexical borrowing, since the Thao were in contact with both the Bunun and the Atayal, but show very different borrowing patterns in relation to these two language groups (Blust 1996a).
From 1895-1945 Taiwan was a colony of Japan, and many older speakers of aboriginal languages consequently experienced Japanese colonial rule during their years of childhood, adolescence, and in some cases early adulthood. Contact between the Japanese administration and the aboriginal population was realized first and most importantly through the schools. Many of the older aboriginal people alive today first learned to read and write in Japanese, and some informants, when pressed to improvise a means for writing their language, resort to the Japanese syllabary. The educational system was the one medium through which the colonial administration effectively reached the entire school-age aboriginal population, male and female. Males were in addition subject to corvee labor for various types of modernization projects, and during the years of World War II were sometimes conscripted for military service. Unlike mainland China or some other areas which experienced severe treatment under Japanese military control during World War II, in Taiwan reminiscences of the Japanese period reect a much more balanced sense of benefit and loss. There is a bittersweet ambivalence among many aboriginal people (and even some Taiwanese) about the halcyon days of the colonial period when Taiwan society was orderly and relatively crime-free, when dramatic improvements were introduced in the construction of highways, railroads, universities, and the like.
Probably the most significant innovation in infrastructure which the Japanese introduced to the Thao was the dam at Sun-Moon Lake, built in 1935. Prior to the completion of this project the lake was smaller, and somewhat constricted in the middle so as to form two distinct parts, one shaped like the sun (round), and the other somewhat like a crescent moon. The first written reports of it date from visits by officials of the Ching dynasty in the late seventeenth century, who commented on the scenic location. When the dam was constructed the volume of the lake was increased significantly, flooding a number of traditional Thao village, agricultural, and fishing sites along its former shores. The major Thao settlement which was affected by this change was the village of Tarigkuan, where many of the older Thao of modern Te-hua village were born and grew up. As a result of the resettlement scheme which accompanied the opening of the dam, the village autonomy of the Thao was effectively destroyed. Prior to 1935 Tarigkuan, and perhaps some other settlements, preserved traditional Thao house architecture, village organization, and most importantly a sense of community independence. Following 1935 the Thao were dispersed among Taiwanese families in the tiny market center of Te-hua village, located some 5-6 kilometers from the old village site, around a bend of the lake formed by the projecting promontory of White Mountain (Puzi a hudun). Here they have precariously maintained their distinctness through preservation of the language and periodic celebration of traditional ceremonies, but they no longer form a compact bloc. Rather, they have begun to blend into the larger Taiwanese community around them.
With the arrival of the Nationalist Chinese under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek and the expulsion of the Japanese, developments took a new turn. The lake became General Chiang's favorite hideaway resort, and his fondness for one of the many varieties of carp in its waters led to the aruzay being called the 'President fish' in Mandarin. Nationalist officials selected a "chief" to represent the Thao on the basis of considerations independent of those that the Thao themselves recognized, and an enterprising local Chinese with a taste for photography began to encourage visitors to pose for photographs with the "chief's" photogenic daughters in native attire.
The present situation of the Thao can be described as one of terminal assimilation. Tourists are told about the "Thao village" at Sun-Moon Lake, but no such ethnically distinct village exists. Rather, the Thao are a culturally and linguistically vanishing minority in a Taiwanese-speaking village where their aboriginal heritage is liberally exploited for commercial purposes through the conspicuous marketing of gaudy tourist memorabilia. All but one of the known speakers was born in 1937 or earlier. Some younger Thao profess an interest in learning their own language, but have little idea of how to proceed, generally having very misguided ideas based on their primary exposure to Taiwanese, Mandarin, and the Chinese writing system. The future of the Thao language seems all but sealed. By the year 2025 the youngest speaker will be over 80 if he is still alive, and Thao will be in a position comparable (but not identical) to the current position of Pazeh. Shortly thereafter, if not by then, the language will have gone the way of Taokas, Papora, Hoanya, Babuza, Siraya, and others which once were spoken on Taiwan's western plain.
At 1:47 AM on September 21, 1999, a devastating earthquake, measured at magnitude 7.6 on the Richter scale, struck the region of Sun-Moon Lake from an epicenter only a few kilometers to the west. Despite structural damage to some 180 buildings in the Sun-Moon Lake area, including the collapse of the Min-hu Club where much of the Thao data was collected during various fieldwork trips, preliminary reports indicate few if any human casualties in Te-Hua village. The Thao community thus dodged a bullet, and secured a new lease on life. The disaster of September 21 may even be a blessing in disguise, as much of the tourist infrastructure of the Sun-Moon Lake region must be rebuilt, and there is a movement underway to give the Thao a greater voice in the reconstruction effort, taking their own cultural sensitivities into account to a far extent than was done in the past. One can only hope that this new beginning has not come too late.