“At first I was intimidated,” says Sung, now the director of the university’s Graduate Institute of Linguistics, one of a handful of Taiwanese bodies seeking the preservation of the Aboriginal languages as part of a wide-ranging effort funded by the government.
“I had no idea of how to carry out my field work among the Aboriginals. But over time I got used to it. And I learned the importance of Taiwanese Aboriginal languages in the overall scheme of Austronesian dispersion,” she says.
The deep-rooted linguistic seeds the dispersal sowed have now morphed into dozens of languages — Malay for example, and the Philippines’ Tagalog — that make Austronesian one of the largest language groups in the world.
The dispersion is illustrated by the similarities of the words for “ear.” What linguists call the proto-form — the Taiwanese basis from thousands of years ago — is usually rendered as galinga. In modern Taiwanese Aboriginal dialects that becomes calinga, while in the Philippines it’s tenga, in Fiji dalinga, in Samoa talinga and in Papua New Guinea taringa.
Taiwanese Aborigines traveling to New Zealand, for example, are struck by the close relationship of their own languages to Maori, particularly when they hear the local version of numbers.
Sung’s most recent project was collating a Chinese-English dictionary for the Sediq language spoken by the tribe of Taiwanese mountain dwellers memorialized inWarriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale , a 2011 film recounting their rebellion against Japanese occupiers in the 1930s.
In February last year she began her work with Kanakanavu, hoping she can preserve the language before the last speakers die out. The odds against her are long. Even many 40 and 50-year olds are incapable of mouthing anything more than a few simple phrases in their native tongue.
Still, frolicking on the neatly cut lawn of Dakanua’s deserted bed and breakfast is a three-year-old girl with a runny nose, an infectious smile and a lovely lilt to her voice.
She is the granddaughter of Mu’u Ka’angena, the man with the leathery skin, and just within earshot she begins conversing with him in very simple Kanakanavu.
“Did you hear that?” Sung asks. “Isn’t it wonderful? She’s our hope for the future.”