On the Austronesian Homeland

May 30, 2011 by

In response to my posting on the Japanese homeland and the connection between Japanese and Austronesian languages, Kalvin Vasques expressed some doubts about the Out-of-Taiwan theory of Austronesian homeland.

The key to the Austronesian homeland problem is the Formosan languages. This grouping includes some 20 languages aboriginal to Taiwan (formerly called Formosa), such as Kavalan, Paiwan and Thao. However, the degree of diversity among these languages is so great that many researchers treat the Formosan grouping as a number of distinct branches of Austronesian, on a par with the Malayo-Polynesian branch. It should also be pointed out that as a group Formosan languages have nearly been replaced by Chinese: while prior to 1600s all of Taiwan was Austronesian-speaking, now Formosan languages are found mostly in the eastern, rugged part of the island. Sadly, most individual Formosan languages are endangered. For example, the two surviving languages in the Western Plains branch – Babuza and Thao – have only 10 speakers between them, and the third language in that branch – Papora-Hoanya – has recently become extinct. Another sad example of a Formosan language that has been displaced by Chinese is Kavalan. Only 24 speakers remain, mostly older adults, and they have been displaced from their original homeland to the northeast coast of Taiwan.

While Formosan languages differ from other Austronesian languages in some respects, there are significant parallels as well (e.g., verb-initial syntax and high incidence of reduplicative morphology). Furthermore, recurrent sound patterns have been establish that connect Formosan languages to the Malayo-Polynesian grouping.

When it comes to locating the homeland of a given language family, there are two linguistic strategies for doing so: finding the area of highest diversity and identifying their physical environment through a reconstruction of the basic vocabulary. As far as the question of language diversity is concerned, the greatest degree of diversity among the Austronesian languages is found in the Formosan branch, as mentioned above. In the words of Bernard Comrie (2000):

“… the internal diversity among the… Formosan languages… is greater than that in all the rest of Austronesian put together, so there is a major genetic split within Austronesian between Formosan and the rest…”

This is a good argument for locating the Austronesian homeland in Taiwan. The second argument comes from the reconstruction of the Proto-Austronesian vocabulary; it too points to Taiwan (or neighboring coastal south China). In particular, Proto-Austronesian had words for rice, sugar cane, water buffalo and other cattle, plows, axes and canoes -– and archeological evidence for such things being in use was found in Neolithic sites in Taiwan and coastal south China. Furthermore, Proto-Malayo-Polynesian (i.e., the common ancestral language of all Austronesian languages except the Formosan ones) –- but not Proto-Austronesian –- had words for taro, breadfruit, yam, banana, sago and coconut, which places Proto-Malayo-Polynesian in the Philippines or elsewhere on lands bordering the Sulawesi sea. Note that these words in Proto-Austronesian and Proto-Malayo-Polynesian were reconstructed on the basis of various descendent languages including the Polynesian ones, meaning that Polynesians –- or at least their language -– came from Southeast Asia, not Peru, as was once argued by Thor Heyerdahl.

Thus, although some linguists disagree with some details of Robert Blust’s analysis that relates the nine language groupings of Formosan languages to Malayo-Polynesian, a broad consensus has coalesced around the conclusion that the Austronesian languages originated in Taiwan.

This theory has been strengthened by recent studies in human population genetics. For example, Trejaut et al.’s results, published in their 2005 paper “Traces of archaic mitochondrial lineages persist in Austronesian-speaking Formosan populations”,

“indicate a common origin of the populations of insular Southeast Asia and Oceania, [while] most mtDNA lineages in Taiwanese aboriginal populations are grouped separately from those found in China and the Taiwan general (Han) population, suggesting a prevalence in the Taiwanese aboriginal gene pool of its initial late Pleistocene settlers”

Thus, both linguistic and genetic evidence support the Out-of-Taiwan theory of the Austronesian homeland.

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