Taiwan’s first written language — in romanization

About 80 percent of the “Sinkang Manuscripts” (新港文書) have been deciphered in the ongoing collaboration project between Academia Sinica‘s Institute of Taiwan History and Institute of History and Philology. These documents, in the language of the Siraya people, were written in a romanization system devised by the Dutch colonists in Taiwan in the seventeenth century. Although the Dutch were forced out of Taiwan in the 1660s, writing in this system continued for at least 150 years.

The name Siraya, however, has been applied to the people of that group only since the period of Japanese rule (1895-1945). It was derived from the group’s pronunciation of the word for “I.” The documents get their name from Sinkang Sia, the largest Siraya settlement near the Dutch stronghold Fort Zeelandia.

click for an image of the first page of the Book of Matthew in SirayaMost of the documents are records of land contracts and business transactions. Some are bilingual: in Siraya and Dutch, or Siraya and Chinese. One long bilingual document is a translation by the Dutch of the Book of Matthew.

One of the articles cited below states, “The orthography of the Sinkang Manuscripts also embodies a vestige of 17th-century Europe where the italic style of lettering was still unknown in Dutch and Germanic writings.” This sample, however, makes me wonder. Any paleographers or font specialists out there?

The manuscripts also show that some words were borrowed from Hoklo, the Sinitic language now often referred to as Taiwanese

a transcript of a Siraya document: transcript of bilingual Siraya, Chinese document


3 thoughts on “Taiwan’s first written language — in romanization

  1. The China Post has run a rare original story on the Sinkang manuscripts: Researcher reconstructs past to find Taiwan’s true roots:

    Many of the later manuscripts contain records of business dealings they had with Chinese and are written bilingually in Siraya and Chinese.

    At the time, Siraya scribes who were proficient in both languages were hired to draft the records and sometimes managed to score extra money from the dealer and buyer’s ignorance of each other’s language. One deed dated from the late 18th century, Ang pointed out, has the sale price written in Siraya as 16 dollars while the purchase price, written in Chinese, is listed as 60 dollars. Clearly the scribe cheated both sides, keeping the difference for himself.

    Many of the texts are still privately owned, having been passed down by the original owners, while many others can be found in the National History Museum and museums in Tokyo and London, in addition to those held at Academia Sinica….

    Ang explained [that scholars] were long under the assumption that so many of the aboriginal tribes didn’t use surnames, but that the manuscripts clearly show family names were common….

    Ang also says that the manuscripts have a lesson for the future.

    “One of the most important things this teaches is that we must prevent losing our other languages like Hakka, Taiwanese, and the aboriginal languages,” he said. “The new generation only speaks Chinese – even my own children. If we don’t promote our mother tongue, it will share the fate of the Sinkang language in another 10 or 20 years or so. The next generation will have forgotten it.”

  2. Pingback: Keywords » Siraya

  3. It has elements similar to Philippine languages, especially those spoke in northern highland Philippines (Cordilleras) and the islands of Batanes. I definitely recognised “tagatimog” which means “someone from the south” in the Tagalog language, and I saw the character for south in the pinyin/Mandarin transliteration. Maybe it’s worth looking into the Philippine languages to fully decipher the manuscripts.

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