Map of Taiwan's living languages

An overview of Taiwan's 22 living languages

Map of Taiwan's languages (Island Folklore)

Taipei (Taiwan News) -- Despite its small size, Taiwan is home to over 20 living languages and Island Folklore, a site dedicated to translating and sharing Taiwan's folk heritage, has created some illustrations to map this unique linguistic lineage.   

Almost all languages spoken by the the indigenous people of Taiwan are categorized under the Formosan branch of Austronesian because they are unique to Taiwan, with the exception of Yami, which is spoken by the people of Orchid Island and originates from the northern Philippines. 


(Chart by island folklore)

In terms of numbers of speakers, Sinitic (Chinese) languages dominate Taiwan and comprise one of the two main branches of the Sino-Tibetan language family. There are three main Chinese languages found in Taiwan: Mandarin, Taiwanese and Hakka. Though the three are often described as "dialects," the fact that the spoken versions are mutually unintelligible makes them closer to distinct languages like Romance languages in Europe.   

As can be seen in the chart below, Min and Middle Chinese diverged from Old Chinese, before further splitting into various offshoot languages. Min evolved into Southern Min and then Hokkien before becoming modern Taiwanese (台語). While Middle Chinese evolved into Old Mandarin, which then became Mandarin, before developing into Beijing Mandarin, and then splitting into the Taiwanese Mandarin (台灣國語) and Standard Mandarin (國語) dialects that currently exist in Taiwan today. The third language, Hakka, has not diverged since it branched off from Middle Chinese, like its cousin Cantonese. 


(Chart by island folklore)

The map below of language distribution is largely a result of Taiwan's history and geography. Though originally covering the whole island, the Formosan languages became confined to the mountainous areas and the east coast as plains tribes were either driven out by or assimilated with Han Chinese settlers originating from neighboring Fujian (Hokkien) and Guangdong provinces.

Most of the immigrants from Fujian spoke one of two Hokkien dialects during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. Those who settled in north primarily spoke the prestige Quanzhou dialect, while the south was populated mainly by speakers of the Zhangzhou variant, however, the two groups blended over the years into one. Today, 70 percent of Taiwan's population is descended from these people, now known as Hoklo Taiwanese.

Ethnic Hakka people from Guangdong Province also entered Taiwan during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. As further immigration was later restricted by the Qing government and their language was subordinated to the prestige Hokkien dialect, native speakers are confined to more isolated pockets, but still consist of 20 percent of Taiwan's population.

After the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, around 1.5 to 2 million "mainlanders" (外省人) fled to Taiwan, resulting in many Mandarin speakers settling in Taipei and northern Taiwan. Due to the influx of Mandarin speakers from China in 1949 and the Kuomintang government's heavy promotion of Standard Mandarin for the next 40 years, Mandarin became much more prevalent, at least in northern Taiwan, as can be seen in the gray area on the map. Though other dialects and languages were discouraged during that time, Hokkien, Japanese, English and other languages influenced the Mandarin spoken informally in Taiwan to eventually evolve into Taiwanese Mandarin. 


Distribution of Taiwan's main linguistic groups: Formosan languages (purple), Taiwanese (green), Hakka (orange), Mandarin (grey). (Map by island folklore)