An Interview with Professor Robert Blust: “Austronesian Expansion Out of Taiwan is One of the Greatest Chapters in Human History”

Written by Chiao-Wen Chiang

Image credit: Outrigger Canoe on Poipu Beach by Quintin D./Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

While the theory of Taiwan being the homeland of Austronesian languages is familiar to many people in Taiwan, few are familiar with the name Robert Andrew Blust (1941-2022), the world’s leading linguist who brought out this idea from a linguistic perspective in the early 1980s. The argument favouring Taiwan as the Austronesian homeland, published in different papers by Professor Blust and the archaeologist Peter Bellwood respectively, has been referred to as the Bellwood-Blust Hypothesis, also known as the Out of Taiwan Hypothesis.

In his interview for “The Origins of the Austronesians” Book Launch in August 2021, Blust indicated that the Austronesian expansion out of Taiwan is one of the greatest chapters in human history. He said,

The Austronesian expansion out of Taiwan to more than halfway around the world, crossing 206 degrees in the longitude to Madagascar and Easter Island or Rapanui. They crossed thousands of miles of open seas thousands of years ago. Their navigation knowledge and outrigger canoes have taken them as far as Fuji, Tonga, and Samoa, around 1,000 B.C. Then, there was a long pause for two thousand years until the first archaeological sign showed up in Eastern Polynesia. (…) This was an amazing feat, an human accomplishment. It amazed the first Europeans who arrived, the Cook expeditions between 1768 and 1779.

Blust said the Austronesian peoples “…learned how to use their minds without books to accomplish something quite amazing.” However, it is a story that most people know very little about, even for most speakers of Austronesian languages. “This is a history that they should be proud of. It is a history that should be in the history books. When we study world history, this is one, the very major event that should be in those books.”

The Taiwan government has embraced this theory of “Taiwan being the Austronesian homeland” and promoted its indigenous cultures to emphasise Taiwan’s multi-ethnic and multicultural society, differentiating Taiwan from China. On the other hand, it also mobilised this Austronesian linguistic and cultural heritage to build diplomatic relations with the Pacific Islands, advocating the practice of Austronesian diplomacy and repositioning Taiwan in the Asia-Pacific. Meanwhile, the indigenous peoples in Taiwan have strategically made room for manoeuvre in this political shift to argue for self-determination and justice over land rights and environmental issues, among others, while pursuing cultural and linguistic revitalisation via exchanges with the broader Austronesian communities. 

In the interview, Blust shared a personal anecdote about a question on indigenous languages and cultures and their influence on Taiwan’s identity.

I was in Kaohsiung in May 2018 for the Southeast Asian Linguistic Society conference. Together with other conference participants, we took a taxi to the conference. We started talking to the taxi driver in the taxi, and he said, “We are not Chinese. We are Taiwanese.” He wanted to make a point very, very blunt to us that people in Taiwan feel they are separate from the mainland (China).      

Professor Blust realised that some people in Taiwan would identify themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese by emphasising a different population in Taiwan before the Chinese arrival. At least, some of the people in Taiwan are mixed, part of Chinese and part of indigenous, and therefore, people might argue that “I am not completely Chinese, so I am Taiwanese!” Diversity obviously plays a vital role in shaping Taiwanese identity.

He also emphasised the principle of linguistic diversity, which supports linguists and archaeologists’ claim of Taiwan being the origin of Austronesian languages. In opposition to Dutch linguist Hendrik Kern’s (1883-1917) proposal in the 1880s, Blust argued that “languages can be related to each other, but there can be different degrees of relationships. (…) This is called “subgrouping” and linguists represent it as family trees.” Without paying attention to the diversity of languages, Kern’s conclusion of Austronesian homeland being in Southeast Asia (present-day Vietnam) made the homeland an area with very little linguistic diversity. 

If you look at the languages across the Austronesian family, what you find in Taiwan is relatively a small number of languages, historically about 20-25, and about half of them are (now) extinct. What is striking about it is that they are all related, but they are very distantly related. It is like having a German, a French, a Russian, a Hindi, all together in an area of the size of Ireland!

Blust also stated that “Language changes occurred all the time,” explaining the differences among the indigenous languages in Taiwan. They begin with little differences and develop into different dialects. After 20-50 generations, they probably become more than dialects, but they are still related because of their common origin. “This is what you see in Taiwan, with the aboriginal languages: they are all related, but they are quite different from each other.”

The entire coastline (of Taiwan) was settled first. And every 50 miles or so, let us just say for the purpose of argumentation, you got a different dialect, and those dialects develop into languages. There is probably much more complex than what I am describing right now. There would be times when some groups disappeared, other groups expanded, and so forth. 

Over time, what it resulted, in the end, was this very branch-like family structure for the Austronesian language family where you have a lot of primary groups of the family that are separate branches (i.e., like Germanic, Slavic, or Indo-Iranian in Indo-European linguistics), all on Taiwan. Paiwan does not seem closely related to anything else in Taiwan; ditto for Puyuma, ditto for Bunun. Then you have others that form groups: the Tsouic group, for example, which includes the Kanakanavu and Lhaʼalua (Saaroa), and they all go back to a common ancestor called Proto-Tsouic. That was sometime after settling on the island. The language existed, then split up, giving rise to new languages. 

Blust concluded, “what you find in Taiwan is an area of the greatest linguistic diversity with relatively a small number of languages. That, for linguists now, is the clearest indication of a starting place. (…) Other hypotheses starting from somewhere else will lead you to a real, hard question to answer: Why is everybody heading up to Taiwan and ending up there? It is more likely that they started there!”

He also emphasised that there are chances for indigenous peoples to preserve their languages and traditions if they desire to do so. He believed that linguists should support the communities who want to maintain their traditional language—a strong belief and strength practised in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. However, “it is going to be difficult because you cannot dictate to other people that they must learn a language that they may not feel is going to benefit them.” Also, it gets complicated in the case of having multiple languages in one’s family: which language should they use at home? It is a very complex issue politically, personally, and in many respects.

“I think it is important that we should try to revitalise languages that are traditional to some communities and that are endangered now. But it is going to be an uphill battle, I think.”

While Professor Blust had left us in January 2022, his significant contribution to Austronesian linguistics remains a great treasure and inspiration to many of us. Therefore, we should all embrace his ideas in the interview.

The Austronesian expansion out of Taiwan is one of the greatest chapters in human history, and it should be included in history books when we study world history. It is extremely important to support communities who want to maintain their traditional languages. It is what linguists are trying to do in terms of revitalisation efforts. It is where your heart should be.

This article is based on an interview for “The Origins of the Austronesians” (2021) book launch press conference in 2021. Professor Blust shared his research in the Austronesian languages in Taiwan. This book is a collection of papers presented at the 2019  International Austronesian Language Revitalization Forum in Palau, hosted by Taiwan’s Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP). He also wrote the preface to the book.

Chiao-Wen Chiang is a Ph.D. student from Taiwan and currently studying in the Ethnomusicology program at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She is also one of the Gary S.H. Lin Fellowship recipients of the East-West Center (2020-2022). Her research focuses on music and identity, indigeneity, environment, resistance, and activism. She is the Chinese translator for Folklife & Fieldwork: An Introduction to Cultural Documentation (2016) by Stephen Winick and Peter Bartis, published online by the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. The Chinese translation was also published online in 2018. She is also the executive producer of the album, Sound Memories of Past Palau: Music in Belau (Palau) 1965-1966, Recorded by YAMAGUTI Osamu, which was nominated for the Best Traditional Album of the 26th Golden Melody Awards for Traditional Arts and Music in Taiwan in 2015.

This article was published as part of a special issue titled ‘In The Memoriam: Robert Blust, 1940-2022.’

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