|THE SIRAYA PEOPLE OF TAINAN City
Tainan City, where there are few mainlanders (外省人) and even fewer Hakkas, is usually thought of as a Hoklo (福佬) stronghold. It does seem, at first glance, to be a place dominated by families of Han Chinese (漢族) descent who have lived on the island for two or three centuries, and who at home speak the language variously called Taiwanese (台語), Southern Min (閩南語), or Holo (鶴佬).
The leaders of the Siraya Culture Association (SCA, 台南縣平埔族西拉雅文化協會) think otherwise. They say that many Tainan people are in fact of aboriginal descent - even if they do not know it.
Jimmy Huang (黃駿), a US-based linguist working to revive the Sirayan language, is one of those who did not understand his true ethnic background until recently.
In 2004, Huang moved to University of Florida to begin work on a doctorate in linguistics. In the summer of 2005 he returned to Taiwan to see his family, and also to visit the National Museum of Prehistory (國立臺灣史前文化博物館) in Taidong City.
In the museum he saw a display of traditional Siraya implements. "They included things like fishing equipment, bamboo utensils, and a cradle," he recalls. "I realized that these things were common in my own home. I was confused because back then I only thought of myself as simply 'Taiwanese' - ethnically speaking, Southern Min or Hoklo."
"I called my home in Jiali District (佳里區), Tainan City, to ask about my identity. Surprisingly, the elders told me, 'Oh, yes. Our family is actually 'fwan-a' (番, barbarian). That's when I first learned I was in fact a Sirayan aborigine."
Huang now serves as a special assistant to SCA Chairwoman Wan Shu-chuen (萬淑娟), who also uses the name Uma Talavan. Wan, she explains, is an attempt to transliterate Talavan - a common Siraya surname - into Chinese.
Wan's father, Wan Cheng-hsiung (萬正雄), was the SCA's chairman between its founding in 1999 and 2005. The Wans are natives of Jioucengling (九層嶺), a small village in the eastern part of Sinhua Township (新化) where most families have Siraya blood.
According to the SCA's mission statement, the association strives to "reconstruct Siraya culture, promote appreciation and respect between ethnic groups, seek government recognition, as well as energize the Siraya tribe." In addition to discussing, "the Sirayan philosophy of life and worldview [and] the tribe's past, current situation and future," the SCA wants to "create a multi-dimensional tribal grouping that can display the beauty and excellence of Taiwan."
Wan Shu-chuen's husband, Edgar Macapili, is not of Sirayan descent, but his background has helped him with one of SCA's major projects: compiling a Sirayan glossary. A native of Zamboanga in the Philippines, Macapili grew up speaking two languages - Chavacano, a Spanish-based creole, and Bisaya.
Bisaya, like Sirayan, is an Austronesian language. The Austronesian language family includes all 26 or so of the indigenous languages that have been recorded in Taiwan. Of these, up to 10 are "extinct" (the term itself is controversial). At least four others are considered moribund because so few speakers remain.
"Most conventional Taiwanese linguists are inclined to use the term "extinct." But for us, "dormant" is appropriate, to sustain our belief in linguistic revitalization," Macapili says.
"Most of the languages spoken in the Pacific region, such as the Filipino languages, the Indonesian languages, the Malaysian languages, and the Polynesian languages, belong to the Austronesian language family," explains Huang.
"As an Austronesian language, Sirayan is distinctively different from the Han languages (Southern Min, Hakka, Mandarin) spoken in Taiwan," Huang says. "For example, Sirayan uses much reduplication mechanism in its morphology: talag means 'home' or 'house'; tatalag means 'welcome.' Alid means 'god'; alilid - literally 'gods' - means to thank."
"While all three Han languages spoken in Taiwan have tones, the Formosan Austronesian languages do not use tones," he notes.
Analysis of a dormant language reveals some things about the society in which its speakers lived. Because it seems there were no words meaning 'steal' or 'rob' in Sirayan, K. Alexander Adelaar, a prominent Australian linguist, believes 17th-century Sirayan society was communal, and that property was shared rather than owned.
Daniel Gravius, a Dutch missionary active in Taiwan in the mid-1600s - during which time the Tainan area was controlled by the VOC (the Dutch East India Company) - could not identify a Sirayan term for 'gambling.' Nor could he find any word meaning 'servant' or 'slave.'
Before the arrival of the Dutch, Sirayan had no written form. The orthography devised by Gravius and others was adopted by the Siraya and used long after the Europeans left in 1662.
According to Macapili, Gravius' bilingual (Dutch on one side of each page, romanized Sirayan on the other) version of the Gospel of Matthew is fundamental to current efforts to reassemble the language. Other sources include the Catechism of the Dutch Reformed Church (also translated by Gravius), the Sinckan Manuscripts (新港文書), and field research conducted by SCA volunteers.
The Sinckan Manuscripts - mostly land contracts, leases and mortgages - were written in Sirayan, but many of the 100-plus documents also incorporate Chinese translations. Most date from the 18th century, although the most recent was drawn up in 1813.
[NOTE TO EDITOR: I haven't given a precise number for Sinckan Manuscripts, because some people consider everything written in Sirayan to be part of the manuscripts, while others regard the term as referring only to the 109 compiled by Naoyoshi Ogawa and Naojiro Murakami.]
"We've been to talk to people, especially older folk, and asked them what words they can remember," says Talavan, describing the SCA's primary research efforts. Many of the terms retrieved this way, she goes on to say, describe plants, animals, and creatures such as freshwater clams.
"While many linguists note that Siraya was last spoken natively in 1908, we who work on Siraya revitalization hate to call it a 'dead' or 'extinct' language because this labeling has a negative connotation which implies the Siraya people and their culture has disappeared," stresses Huang. "We would like to think that the language is just sleeping, or dormant. Since we Siraya folks are still living and strong, we should have a chance to bring our mother tongue back."
The glossary, due to be published in November 2008, will contain entries for over 4,000 Sirayan words.
For each word Macapili has compiled the original Dutch-era romanization, the equivalent Chinese character(s), the meaning in English, and the word spelled in a modified form that makes more sense to readers familiar with Peh-oe-ji (POJ, 白話字), the Latin alphabet orthography created by Presbyterian missionaries working in Holo-speaking areas of Taiwan and Fujian (福建).
"We have to modify Gravius' spelling so sinicized Siraya can read it and learn it," says Macapili. "We have to think about the people we are going to share this with. It's not a question of retrieving Gravius' spelling," he emphasizes.
The printing of the glossary will be subsidized by Tainan City Government Cultural Affairs Bureau (台南縣政府文化局), and at least 500 copies will be distributed.
Macapili, a conductor by profession, has composed a number of Sirayan songs. Public performances of his songs have been recorded; some have been posted on Youtube.
The SCA has been organizing Siraya-language summer camps since 2002. The first few events were for local children only, but in 2007 and 2008 the association organized Musuhupa camps open to all comers.
The 2008 event was to be limited to 80 to 100 people, but because the association received over 150 applications this was increased to 120. Attendance was free; Tainan City Government sponsored the event.
Participants were divided into two groups: students (mostly teenagers, but also some college undergraduates) and adults. Among the latter were teachers, school principals, graduate students, a poet, and a man with a doctorate in history. Some came from as far away as Taipei, and not all claim Siraya ancestry.
Efforts to revive the Sirayan language have attracted some overseas attention. In 2008, Jimmy Huang was one of just five researchers to receive funding from the Foundation for Endangered Languages (FEL), a UK-based charity that brings together academic linguists and language activists. He was awarded US$1,000 to assist with the glossary and with the preparation of Siraya-language educational materials for the 2008 summer camp.
"Such languages [as Siraya] can be revitalized, and are often said to be 'sleeping' rather than extinct, especially if there are good records of the language," said Nicholas Ostler, chairman of the FEL.
"We get approximately four to six applications for every one that we can fund," says Ostler. "[Huang's] application was felt to be good, practical value for our limited funds, and excellent in comparison with the others that happened to be submitted in the same competition. But it is certainly more common that we fund work on behalf of a language with living speakers."
The Siraya are not one of the 14 indigenous tribes recognized by the central government. However, in 2005 Tainan City Government established a Siraya Aboriginal Affairs Committee (台南縣西拉雅原住民族事務委員會).
The people have received other acknowledgements from officialdom: The main road in the Tainan section of the Southern Taiwan Science-based Industrial Park (南部科學園區) is named Siraya Boulevard (西拉雅大道), and tourism in Tainan City's eastern half is now promoted under the banner of the Siraya National Scenic Area (西拉雅國家風景區).
Siraya Culture Association http://www.tatalag.org.tw/
National Museum of Prehistory http://www.nmp.gov.tw
Tainan City Government Cultural Affairs Bureau http://www.tnc.gov.tw/tnc/index.aspx
Siraya National Scenic Area http://www.siraya-nsa.gov.tw/default.aspx?lang=EN