Archive for the ‘Taiwanese’ Category

Prize-winning foreign students of Taiwanese

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

The Taipei Times has an article today on a competition organised by a Taiwanese chapter of the Rotary Club:

For Tokuya Kumagai, learning Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese) is the best way for him to show his passion for the country.

“I want to learn Hoklo because I love Taiwan,” he said yesterday in faultless Hoklo after only studying for three months.

Kumagai was one of the 45 contestants from 14 countries, including Slovenia, Poland, Japan, South Korea, Macedonia, the UK, Vietnam and the US, to compete yesterday in the 12th annual Mandarin and Taiwanese Speech Contest for Foreign Students held by Rotary Club district 3250.

“I believe speaking Hoklo is the most direct way for me to really understand the country and its people,” he said, adding he would also recommend that his friends in Japan come to Taiwan to learn Mandarin.

Faultless Taiwanese after three months? I need to find out who his teacher is…

The full article is available via the Taipei Times Web site.

What the f*** is the Republic of China?

Wednesday, November 14th, 2007

tu-kuo.jpgAs any intrepid Taiwanese reporter knows, on a slow news day it’s worth sticking a microphone in the face of the Minister for Education, Tu Cheng-sheng, to see what he might blurt out. The plainspoken Tu has gained a reputation for his gaffes, such as getting CNN and the NCC (National Communications Council) mixed up and losing his temper over press questions about his son, while he has also made the headlines for wanting to turn the map of Taiwan sideways in official textbooks and assaulting a cameraman. He also gets more than his fair share of abuse from the opposing parties, for whom he is the person in government they most love to hate (after the president, of course).

This time, however, he hasn’t said anything daft or hit anyone. The reason he is in the news currently is a rebuke he gave to Kuo Su-chun, a female legislator from the opposition KMT (Chinese Nationalist Party) in the Legislative Yuan. The exchange went as follows:




Tu: Today you are representing…

Kuo: What the oan2-ko1 are you talking about?

Tu: You shouldn’t say oan2-ko1 – it’s unpleasant. You don’t know Taiwanese – I’m telling you, ladies shouldn’t say that – for a woman to use this word sounds very unpleasant.

Now, ignoring for a moment both the fact that chauvinism is alive and well in Taiwan (certain words aren’t “ladylike”) and that interrupting speeches is par for the course here – this characterisation of oan2-ko1 as vulgar caused some controversy. The standard meaning of the word is a kind of small steamed rice cake, but local station TVBS wheeled out a Taiwanese writer, Iun Chhen-chhak, who attested that the word is indeed coarse – he explained the secondary meaning as “semen”. TVBS however took this question to the streets, comparing oan2-ko1 with another (reasonably mild) Taiwanese obscenity, khau3 iau1 (“crying over your empty belly”), to see which the general public found more offensive – khau3 iau1 won hands down.

Not only did most people not think oan2-ko1 was all that bad according to TVBS, but the network (no friend of the ruling DPP) also dug out a recording of President Chen Shui-bian using the same phrase in a speech about the status of the Republic of China:

Tiong1-hoa5 Bin5-kok4 si7 sahn1-mih4 oan2-ko1?

Taking the side of the writer mentioned above, who deems the phrase most offensive, this would be translated as “What the fuck is the Republic of China?”, but the view of the average Taiwanese speaker (including a quick straw poll of my colleagues) seems to be that it is in fact rather mild, if a bit low-class – something akin to “What the heck is the Republic of China?” In as much as a language is defined by its users, the opinion of the people beats out the opinion of the experts here, to my mind. Although perhaps it just shows that Minister Tu is more educated than the rest of us after all.

In English too, a term with rather offensive origins can end up as an imprecation mild enough that it’s no longer considered vulgar – a good example being “poppycock”, which is apparently derived from a 19th century Dutch dialect term meaning “soft shit”.

Conversations from a Different Era

Monday, November 5th, 2007

Cover of While browsing in the Southern Materials Center bookshop near the National Taiwan University campus the other day, I found an interesting textbook that has probably been sat on the same shelf for a good few years. The first thing that caught my eye was the Chinese title “中國 閩南語對話”; word-for-word “China Southern Min Dialogues”. The English title hammers home the same message; “Chinese Dialogues in the Amoy Vernacular”; despite the big image of Taiwan, the implication is clear that we are talking about Chinese (linguistically and politically).

In the front of the book is the ROC national anthem in Chinese characters, Peh-oe-ji romanized Taiwanese and Mandarin romanized according to the Yale system. Also at the beginning of the book are short biographies of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek, who at the time of printing was the president (which, along with photos throughout the book, helps place the release date in the late 60s or early 70s). The biographies were required material for the book to pass official muster at the time, and naturally present a very uncritical aspect of the then president:

Tiong-hôa Bîn-kok Chóng-thóng, Chiúⁿ-tiong-chèng, jī Kài-se̍k (1887, 10, 31 – ) sī chòe úi-tāi ê hóan-kiōng léng-siū ê chi̍t ê. Kok-hū kòe-sin liáu-āu, léng-tō kek-bēng, cho͘-chit Kok-bîn Chèng-hú, thóng-it chôan-kok, chhui-hêng Sam-bîn-chú-gī, iōng Ki-tok ê cheng-sîn ài-hō͘ kok-bîn, Só͘-í kok-bîn lóng chheng-ho͘ i “Lāu-tōa-lâng”.

Republic of China President Chiang Chung-cheng, courtesy name Kai-shek (1887.10.31 – ) is the greatest of anti-communist leaders. After the death of the Father of the Nation [Sun Yat-sen] he has led the revolution, organised the Republican government, united the country [China], upheld the Three Principles of the People [Sun’s political philosophy] and used the spirit of Jesus to love his people, so the people all call him “venerable grandfather”.

The dialogues were produced by a group of western churches for use in educating their missionaries in Taiwan, so prominent mention is made of the Christian faith of both Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen. Many of the dialogues too are oriented towards mission work, with discussions of the nature of faith and the path to salvation, as well as the more mundane tasks of posting a letter and buying a train ticket. Illustrated with a fair number of black and white photographs, the book provides a fascinating insight in to life in Taiwan in the late 60s.

Taoyuan Airport goes Taiwanese

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

In other airline-related news, Taoyuan International Airport (formerly known as Chiang Kai-shek International), Taiwan’s main air transportation hub, is to add Taiwanese to the Mandarin, English and Japanese already used for public announcements, FTV reports via Yahoo News.

This is in line with the policies of other transportation companies (both public and private) to increase the representation of the other languages of Taiwan besides Mandarin. Taipei’s modern MRT network, for example, has station announcements first in Mandarin, then Taiwanese, Hakka and finally English.

Such moves have definite benefits for the dwindling number of older Taiwanese people who speak Mandarin imperfectly or not at all, while raising the profile of Taiwan’s second-most widely spoken language. However, language issues in Taiwan are highly politicised and it’s not a stretch to imagine that a change such as this is part of a points-scoring exercise. Perhaps I am just too cynical…

On the whole, this move by itself is not terribly significant, but it does represent an example of a trend towards the increasing visibility of Taiwanese on a national and administrative level. Whether this is a deep-seated change or merely tokenism on the part of Taiwan’s elected representatives remains to be seen.

Speak Taiwanese? The sky’s the limit…

Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

Air Macau hostessIt appears that, for some in the service industry at least, speaking Taiwanese is a desirable quality. Air Macau recently advertised lucrative positions as flight attendants which encouraged a huge number of applications from hopeful candidates. Due to Taiwan’s restrictions on direct travel to China, the flight paths between Taiwan and both Hong Kong and Macau are crowded with Taiwanese businessmen, on their way to touch down on neutral ground before heading off to Guangzhou or Shanghai. Hence the demand for Taiwanese-speaking employees:


Competition for places is fierce, and buxiban teachers* even accompany their students to the test centre. The young hopefuls desperately want their careers to take flight, and are anxious to show their best side to the interviewers. Everybody’s English is fluent, but Air Macau don’t just want good English, they want good Taiwanese too.

With salaries more than 50% above the average wage in Taiwan, it’s no surprise that so many are interested. The news site PCHome reports that 3% of applicants were successful, meaning that nearly 700 people (60/40 female to male applicants) were competing for twenty jobs.

*Just in case you were wondering, Taiwan has buxibans (“cram schools”) specifically for aspiring flight attendants – teaching comportment, etiquette and foreign languages.

Site Update: More Romanizations and a Conversion Chart

Thursday, October 18th, 2007

Full range of Chu-im charactersMore goodness in the Scripts section of Tailingua. There are basic details on four more romanization schemes, plus a preliminary comparison chart for some of the better known systems. The picture on the right is of the extended range of Chu-im characters, including those designated specially for use with Taiwanese and Hakka. The last four characters at the bottom are for the Taiwanese stops, represented in most romanizations as “p”, “t”, “k” and “h”.

I’m currently working on ways to incorporate sound files smoothly in to pages, something which would allow me to build a useful phonics section. Also coming up in the next few weeks: more books and more detail in many of the existing areas of the site.

Wrinkly Cats and Teapots – the Story of Maokong’s Name

Sunday, October 14th, 2007

Maokong GondolaPlace names in Taiwan are a tricky business – many cities have changed names several times over the recorded history of the island. In many cases a pattern emerges of an aboriginal name being ‘sinicised’ by 17th, 18th and 19th century migrants from Fujian. Upon the arrival of the Japanese colonial authorities in Taiwan many of these names changed, before being changed again when Chiang Kai-Shek’s defeated Kuomintang fled China in 1949. The stories (and legends) behind the names of places like Ko1-hiong5 (高雄; Gāoxióng, commonly spelled Kaohsiung) and Taipei City’s Bang2-kah4 (萬華; Wànhuá) District are interesting and in some cases quite possibly apocryphal – some care is needed to distinguish the “folk etymologies” from the real deal when it comes to naming origins.

For example: there is a mountainous area of Tai5pak4 (Taipei) famous for tea-houses and scenic views, which today goes under the Mandarin name Maokong. Recently the city government has constructed a cable car line which takes tourists and cramped city-dwellers up the mountain to experience some fresh(er) air and impressive vistas. The transportation authority responsible offers this explanation of the strange name of the area on a brochure:

How did Maokong (which translates literally as “No cat” in Chinese) get its name? One joking explanation is that it is called “No Cat” because there are no cats in the area. In fact, its name is derived from the Taiwanese “Niaokang,” which refers to the topography of surrounding mountains, which has been scoured and pitted by the runoff from springs. “Niaokang” is a reference to this pitted surface, but it is also a homophone for “cat scratched,” which was rendered as “maokong” in Mandarin.

The website of the same department gives a different view:

In the neighborhood of Zhinan, there are several areas in which river erosion has created holes with large bottoms and small openings on top like teapots, thus resulting in the name, “Niaokeng,” which means “teapot hole” in Taiwanese. Afterwards, the name was changed to a similar-sounding appellation, “Maokong,” which became the present-day name for the entire area. Its former name, Shanzhuchu, meaning “mountain pig cupboard,” comes from the history of mountain pig trapping by local farmers.

A third opinion can be found on Taipei City Government’s ‘Official English Website‘:

While many people know that Maokong is the place to go to enjoy fine tea, few realize how the area got its unusual name, which in Chinese means “cat hollow.” The name comes from the area’s geology. The igneous rock of the valley east of the tea farms of Muzha varies in hardness, such that over the years the creek has eroded and created potholes into the softer areas of the riverbed. Many of these indentations look as if they are the prints of a cat’s paw, inspiring the name “Maokong” as a byword for the tea farms and teahouses of Muzha.

Yet another, from a different brochure:

This area is formed of igneous rock. At the upper reaches of the Dakeng River on the east side of Maokong, the boulders of the riverbed are pitted with pothole-like cavities. The locals describe this unusual geological phenomenon as “niao-kang” in the Hokkien dialect [Taiwanese]. In Mandarin Chinese, the pronunciation is “Maokong,” or literally, “cat hollow.” Over the years, this delightful name has become a byword for the tea farms of Muzha.

So who is right? Are any of them correct?

Potholed riverbed in MaokongThe current characters used for the area are 貓空, pronounced Māokōng in Mandarin and Niau1-khang1 in Taiwanese. “Cat Hollow” would be a reasonable English approximation of this name. All four explanations mention the geology of the area as being the inspiration for the name, but the third seems implausible (and too direct). The “teapots” mentioned in the second quote is a half-truth – since the characters for the geological feature “pothole” (see picture, left) are “壺穴” (o·5-hiat8 in Taiwanese, húxué in Mandarin) – phonetically very different from the modern “Niau-khang” or “Maokong”.

I suspect the original derivation of Maokong lies closer to the first quote above and comes from the phonetic similarity of three morphemes – 皺 jiau5 (wrinkled, creased), niau1 (pitted, pock-marked) and 貓 niau1 (cat). Chinese sources mention 皺孔 (jiau5-khang2) – literally “creased hole” as being a previous name for the area – it seems likely that this rather prosaic descriptive name was transformed in to something similar-sounding but a little more romantic over the years.

So, the next time someone confidently tells you, for example, that the name Tianmu is derived from an answer in Taiwanese of thian1-bo5 (I don’t understand) to a question from a Mandarin or Japanese speaker, you’ll know to take such enticing etymologies with a pinch of salt (unlike me, the first time I heard that particular story).


Credit for photos: Cable Car by David Reid, Potholed Riverbed by Prince Roy. Thanks to Mark Swofford for the original leaflet text which prompted this post.

Encouraging Taiwanese Teaching in Chiong-hoa Schools

Friday, October 12th, 2007

Teachers in Chiong1-hoa3 County (彰化; Zhānghuà) in central Taiwan are being offered inducements by local government to certify their Taiwanese ability, reports the Central News Agency. As part of the central government’s native language programme, all language teachers should be qualified to teach that language by 2011. Even in the traditional strongholds of the language – central and southern Taiwan – many children are growing up unable to speak the native language of their parents fluently.


Chiong-hoa County Education Department Curriculum Chief Ong Khang-gi said, “Many of today’s children are lost with Southern Min [Taiwanese] – can’t speak it, can’t understand it, can’t write it. To create enthusiasm for Southern Min amongst youngsters, language teachers just need to plan activities that involve the language; use it in music class, in drama, to give the children the chance to learn the sounds and tones of Southern Min during their studies.”

It’s worth bearing in mind that the mandated amount of time that native languages (Taiwanese, Hakka and the aboriginal languages) should be taught in class is in the order of a couple of hours per week. Despite claims to the contrary, this is not bilingual education – the system in this country remains “Mandarin, with a token nod to other tongues”.

For more on bilingual education in Taiwanese schools, see Johan Gijsen’s excellent blog, Talking Taiwanese.

Site Update: Books and more…

Friday, October 12th, 2007

In response to some email I have received about the problems of rendering the romanization on the site properly, I have decided to use a version that requires no extra fonts to display correctly. I hope to develop an option for those computers with the capability to display fully-featured POJ, but for the meantime all visitors will see POJ with tone numbers instead of diacritics (accent marks).

I have updated a few pages throughout the site, but the main change is in the Bookshelf section, where I have added basic details on five more items – three textbooks for learning the language (one in German, but hey – when it comes to Taiwanese manuals, beggars can’t be choosers), one on linguistics and a series of POJ texts for children/beginners. I hope to add reviews of all the books mentioned on the site in the future.

The next task is tackling the romanizations section – details on four more systems and a conversion chart hopefully coming up this weekend. Feel free to let me know of any features or information you would like to see.

Theatre in translation: A-beng does the Bard

Sunday, October 7th, 2007

ShakespeareAn article in the magazine New Taiwan (新台灣) reports the localisation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by a theatre troupe in Tainan. This is notable for two points – the first is that the language being used is ‘street’ Taiwanese, not Mandarin and not formal Taiwanese (which only a few academics and poets are intimate with nowadays) – this is a progression from the practice of interpreting Shakespeare in language equivalent to 17th century English.


Quick loose translation:

Apart from the benefits of using everyday Taiwanese to represent a more heartfelt and moving drama, director Lu Peh-chhun believes that the cadences and vocabulary of Taiwanese offer a greater range than Mandarin, enabling a more exquisite rendering of Shakespeare’s works of art.

The second point of interest is that the names of the characters and the locales have also been adapted to be more familiar to local audiences. Actors from Malaysia (where Penang Hokkien, a close relative of Taiwanese is spoken) are appearing alongside Taiwanese thespians – for more details see the article entitled The Little Theatre Boldly Bringing Taiwanese Shakespeare to Life (Mandarin Chinese).