Counting on fingers in Taivoan and Makatao

Taivoan (T) and Makatao (M) are two southwest Formosan groups generally regarded as dialects of Siraya (S). All have been extinct since the early 20th century,  but we possess word lists recorded by early investigators, conveniently collected in Tsuchida, Yamada and Moriguchi (1991), Moriguchi (1998) and Li and Toyoshima (2006).  Li (1993) has also recorded a short word list from an elderly speaker who remembered a few words from the previous generation, including most of the numerals. It is generally close to Taivoan T15. The numerals 6-9  are particularly interesting. Interspersed with forms relatable to Siraya proper and/or to other Formosan languages,  one finds a set of four intriguing forms, not seen as numerals anywhere else in Taiwan. I cite below from Tsuchida, Yamada and Moriguchi (1991), adding Li’s data:

‘6’ ‘7’ ‘8’ ‘9’
M7 rangaran kimsen karasen kavaitya
M8 langalan kimseng kalasin kabaitya
T2 rangaran kunsin
T4 kumsin
T6 lanlan
T13 kalasin tabatiya
T15 langalang kalasin tapatiak
Li (1993) zaŋizaŋ kumsin tapatit

The M7 vocabulary was recorded by Ino Yoshinori in August of the 33rd year of the Meiji era (1900 CE if I am not mistaken) in Marun (老碑庄), a central-eastern Makatao variety. The data are also available through Moriguchi (1998).  The word ‘6’ is the key. It is homophonous with ‘bear’ in Marun: both rangaran (for ‘bear’, see Moriguchi 1998:219, #122). Now, compare Li’s version of ‘6’ zaŋizaŋ with the word for ‘large, big’ recorded by Ogawa at 崗仔林   (point 143b, Li and Toyoshima 2006:478): mai-zanga-zang (in Ogawa’s notation; better segmented as ma-izang-a-zang).

I think these are finger names, as used in counting. ‘Six and ‘bear’ both draw their etymology from ‘big’. The bear for obvious reasons, ‘six’ because it refers to the thumb, the big finger.

Imagine a counting system using hand shapes to count to 10 on a single hand:  the extended small finger means ‘1’, the extended small finger and ring fingers, ‘2’, and so forth: all the fingers extended means ‘5’. For ‘6’, keep the big finger extended and hold the other four folded.  ‘Big’ is then an adequate name for ‘six’. For ‘7’, thumb and index extended; and so forth, until ‘9’, which has all the fingers extended, save the small finger. For ’10’, a different kind of hand sign is needed (for instance, our ‘zero’ sign would work).

So I hypothesize that in the above table the series for ‘7’ is a name of the index, ‘8’ a name of the middle finger,  ‘9’ a name of the ring finger. There is no alternative numeral for ’10’ based on finger names because the sign for ’10’  must, as I said, have been of a different kind.

These hypothese are not easily falsifiable, as the names of the different fingers in the Siraya group are not known. Yet considering that these four numerals clearly are not compounds of other Austronesian numerals, and that they do not seem to be part of a non-Austronesian substratum, the hypothesis of a post-PAN transfer from another close lexical system has much to recommend it.

[added the next day]: Sander Adelaar reminds me that Blust’s classification of north Borneo languages (2010) relies on the replacement of PMP *pitu ‘seven’ by *tuzuq ‘to point, indicate’. Blust traced the idea that this is due to finger counting to van der Tuuk and Wilkinson, citing Wilkinson  (1959:1242): “After counting all the fingers of the hand (lima) we come back to the thumb (six) and the index-finger (seven)” (emphasis mine, LS). With ‘6’ = thumb and ‘7’ =index, this is very similar to Taivoan-Makatao. It is likely that Taivoan-Makatao finger-counting is ancestral to the system in north Borneo.


Blust, R. 2010. The Greater North Borneo Hypothesis. Oceanic Linguistics, 49(1), 44-118.

Moriguchi, Tsukenazu (ed.) 1998.  伊能嘉矩番語調查手冊 [Ino Yoshinori’s field notebook], ed. by : T. Moriguchi, pp. 13-201. Taipei: Southern Materials Center.

Tsuchida Shigeru, Yukihiro Yamada and Tsukenazu Moriguchi (eds.) 1991. Ogawa’s Siraya/Makatao/Taivoan (comparative vocabulary). Linguistic materials of the Formosan sinicized populations I: Siraya and Basai, ed. by Shigeru Tsuchida, Yukihiro Yamada and Tsukenazu Moriguchi, 1-194. Tokyo: The University of Tokyo, Linguistics Department.

Li, P. Jen-Kuei. 1993. New data on three extinct Formosan languages. BIHP 63: 2: 301-322.

Li, Jen-kuei and Masayuki Toyoshima (eds). 2006. comparative vocabulary of Formosan languages and dialects, by Naoyoshi Ogawa. Asian and African lexicon series 49. Institute for Languages and cultures of Asia and Africa, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.

Wilkinson, R.J.  1959.  A Malay-English dictionary (Romanised).  2 vols.  London: Macmillan.

Cite this blog post
Laurent Sagart (2022, March 2). Counting on fingers in Taivoan and Makatao. Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian. Retrieved June 26, 2024, from

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