Archive for May, 2008

Doctor! Quick, give me some Number Four!

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

An enterprising NTU medical student has decided that his medical Taiwanese was so lacking that he has put together a book to help himself and others like him talk to patients in the language.

A Formosa Television piece on Chu Chú-hông highlights the difference between medical vocabulary in Mandarin and Taiwanese:


The examples given include “oxygen”, which many Taiwanese know as sng-sò͘ (which is a loan word from Japanese) rather than ióng-khì, which is a direct transliteration of the Mandarin yǎng-qì (氧氣). The article also mentions “heroin”, which in Mandarin is a sound-loan from English (hǎiluòyīn), and states that the Taiwanese is sì-hō-á, literally Number Four Stuff. However, my dictionary has sì-hō-á as “amphetamine”, not “heroin” (which it gives as either hái-lo̍k-eng or hái-lo̍k-in, loaned from English, as the Mandarin is). I’ve no idea who is correct, but I’m inclined to trust the dictionary first.

The article also mentions Chu’s handbook as “the first in Taiwan”, whereas in fact medical manuals in Taiwanese romanization can be found dating back to the Japanese era.

Neither Fish Nor Fowl: Radical Romanization

Saturday, May 17th, 2008

tan.jpgThere 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 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.

Cover of Crkunl - a manual to Tan's romanizationTo 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; ).

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?

Taiwanese News Round-Up

Saturday, May 17th, 2008

Other commitments and full weekends have kept me away from spending much time on the site recently, but there have been a fair few Taiwanese stories in the news while I’ve been gone. I’m sure you haven’t missed me, as others have been keeping the Taiwanese news stories coming:

My hó pêng-iú Mark at commented on reports that President-elect Ma favors Hanzi-only writing of Taiwanese – as a traditionalist and the leader of the most prominent pro-China party in Taiwan this is hardly a surprise, but it is news that will sit uneasily with the majority of the Taiwanese Literature community, who seem to largely favour Hàn-lô, a mix of characters and romanization.

Over at That’s Impossible: Politics from Taiwan, blogger A-gu has an update on the next installment of official characters for Taiwanese, as released by the Ministry of Education. It’s another list of 400, bringing the official total now to 700 characters. The pdf is available for download from the Ministry. The url for the original list has changed again, so until I can find it on the MoE website I’ll host it for download here.

A consequence of this updated list is that the characters for the lyrics accompanying karaoke videos are to be changed, predictably provoking the ire of the good singing public and various daft stories in the press (most along the lines of “I can’t read it!”). For press links, see A-gu’s post linked above.

Another list of characters is due before the end of the year, followed by a dictionary. I wonder if these new characters will catch on…