There are a multitude of romanization systems out there for Taiwanese which do the job they are designed for, so you might think that there is no reason to go around inventing new systems when others accomplish the work perfectly well. Well, some people would disagree with you, specifically in this case one Mr Tân (the gentleman pictured on the right).
Recently I was given a series of Mr Tân‘s books by Mark of Pinyin.info which outline a new approach in to the “problem” of finding an effective written system for Taiwanese (I say new, but I think the books were published in the late nineties, so we’re talking relatively here). The system is interesting in that it combines two different approaches from the tradition of Taiwanese writing, although it has to be said that the attempt leaves a lot to be desired.
One of the issues always mentioned in connection with writing any Chinese language in romanization is that of information loss – the pro-character types assert that characters contain more information, more succinctly expressed, than any romanized system can. They would say that Chinese languages have such a high level of homogenity that no alphabetic system can convey the layers of meaning necessary. As an example, the Chinese character input system on my computer brings up a total of 247 possibilities for the Mandarin syllable “shi“, and even if we narrow it down by tone to “shì” there are still 36 possibilities for that one sound.
To combat this perceived defect in romanizations of Chinese languages, the inventor of this system has combined romanized writing with a system of semantic signifiers which indicate the category to which the sound belongs. To this end he has created a total of 40 categories into which words can fall, such as the “woman” category, the “vital” category, the “electricity” category, and so on. The category of the syllable is indicated by a letter or symbol after the sound. It’s as if the English word “boy” was written “boy♂” and “lightning” was rendered “lightning↯”.
Examples of words given in his books include “bòΛ” (cloth; written as pò͘ in the standard POJ romanization), “dwā%” (big; toā), “cuib” (open; khui), “cỳ→” (go; khì) and “kàᚑ” (to teach; kà).
The main problem with the whole system, besides the sometimes arbitrary assignation of words to categories, is the assumption that the greater number of homophones at the character level renders Taiwanese incomprehensible if written in romanization. This would be true if Taiwanese were a monosyllabic language, but in fact it is far away from being so, with the majority of both nouns and verbs in the language being either di- or trisyllabic. The system therefore does not address a need, or a lack in the existing romanization systems – meanwhile it does introduce another layer of complexity in to an already complex system. For a comprehensive dismantling of the “monosyllabic myth”, see the chapter of the same name in John DeFrancis’ book “The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy“.
For those who might doubt that written Taiwanese can be understood without the need for characters or the symbols which Mr Tân employs, it suffices not only to see the relatively large amount of material printed in the Pe̍h-ōe-jī (POJ) romanization over the past 100 years, but also to note that Taiwanese speakers have no problems with verbal communication – so why would they struggle with a system (POJ) which represents the spoken language very accurately?