Tailingua: New Website about the Taiwanese Language

Posted October 20, 2007 by Taffy
Categories: Hokkien, Hoklo, languages, Minnan, Taiwan, Taiwanease, Taiwanese language

Unfortunately this blog never really got off the ground as I got busy with other stuff (getting married, getting on with my job etc.) and it fell by the wayside.

However, things have now settled down a bit and I’ve opened a new website called Tailingua, which includes information about the language and a “News” section which is the successor to this blog. Hope to see you over there soon!


Computers and romanised Taiwanese

Posted September 21, 2006 by Taffy
Categories: Chinese, Hokkien, Hoklo, languages, Minnan, Romanisation, Romanization, Taiwan, Taiwanese language

In the comments section of this blog, Prince Roy asked a question about fonts for Taiwanese romanisation – a fleshed out answer is the subject of this post.

One of the problems with POJ being a fairly obscure system for writing a neglected language is that of entering the romanisation on a computer. Hanyu Pinyin for Mandarin Chinese is pretty well established on the internet – all the necessary accented characters exist in standard unicode set. The same cannot be said of POJ (also called Church Romanisation) which is probably the most used system for the Southern Min dialect group, which includes Taiwanese. There are many different ways to produce POJ, some of which are outlined below.

The first thing to consider is whether you want to write your POJ for general consumption. If not, the answer is pretty easy – there are POJ-specific fonts you can download which replace seldom-used characters in the palette with appropriately accented characters. Trouble with this approach is that as soon as you change your writing into another font or transfer it to a computer without the font, it becomes gibberish.

A better approach for producing POJ that is readable on (nearly) all systems without the need to download new programs is to use an IME (Input Method Editor) which converts keyed input into POJ viewable by anyone (this is the approach I use). For the Mac OpenVanilla does the job like a charm and is very easy to use. I’m not aware of a similar IME for the PC, but if anyone is, please let me know.

The third option if the two above are unsuitable is to combine diacritics with regular roman letters to result in the characters required. The tricky accents in POJ are the 8th tone mark (a straight vertical line over the relevant letter: e.g. “a̍”) and a variety of tones over consonants. This is fiddly, time-consuming and so not ideal. Alternatively cutting and pasting the correct characters is an option for short texts.

The difficulties with typing POJ led me to use my own system when I first started learning Taiwanese – one much closer to Hanyu Pinyin (easing the transition). Taiwanese suffers from not having a standardised romanisation system – POJ, TLPA and other be-acronym’d scripts all compete for attention, to the detriment of the language as a whole. Ideally someone (Taiwan’s Guóyǔ Tuīxíng Wěiyuánhuì [國語推行委員會], perhaps?) would regulate, choose one (I don’t really care which one, at this point) and get on with the business of teaching and promoting it.

Having said all this, the best way for the average PC user to input POJ is to install a unicode font, but this does involve reprogramming your shortcuts in Word (or whatever) to output the correct characters. This should however be viewable by other users who don’t have the font installed.

If enough people are interested I could work on a web-based converter (not now, though – fearsome busy at the moment) to move between the major varieties of Taiwanese romanisation. I also plan to post about my adapted Hanyu Pinyin that is (I feel) more intuitive for those who already know the system for Mandarin Chinese.

Taiwanease Magazine – out today!

Posted September 1, 2006 by Taffy
Categories: Magazines, Taiwan, Taiwanease

Some of you will know that I have been involved with the start-up of a new magazine here in Taiwan – today finally sees the publication of our first issue. It’s called Taiwanease (ease, get it? what wit…) and is available in over a hundred locations around the island.

front cover

Throughout the process of putting the magazine together, I have been very lucky to have met some great people who have made this all possible. Writers for the first issue include

  • Steven D. Quinn – his early experience as a Mormon missionary
  • Daniel Wallace (formerly of ‘Suitcasing’) – Taipei transport and the lessons it can teach
  • Linda Gail Arrigo – 1960’s Taipei from an American perspective (including an interesting photo of her father, Major Joseph Arrigo, shaking hands with Madame Chiang)
  • Nana Chen – interview with digital/photographic artist Kuo Hui-Chan
  • Christina MacFarquhar – industrial Yunlin’s unlikely mammalian neighbours
  • TC Lin (Poagao) – a tongue-in-cheek piece examining plans to fine people for staring at foreigners

Add to this mix an events and movie guide plus extensive classified ads (sell your car, find a job, adopt a pet) and you have the essential features of issue 1. We’re still looking for writers for later issues, so if you think you have something to contribute, please drop me a line.

Also, if you can’t get hold of Taiwanease in your town and would like to suggest a distribution point, let me know and I’ll be happy to add more locations for issue 2.

Taiwanese: a doomed language?

Posted August 24, 2006 by Taffy
Categories: Chinese, Hokkien, Hoklo, languages, Minnan, Taiwanese language

Mark over at Pinyin News has posted about the latest issue of Sino-Platonic Papers, which is a paper by Deborah Beaser about the decline of the Taiwanese language. I feel the article contained a few flaws of fact and reasoning, but in general the conclusion she makes about the ‘inevitable’ decline of Taiwanese does not seem unreasonable.

Beaser outlines the current situations Taiwanese is most often used:

  • In the home
  • Between members of older generations (over 40)
  • Outside Taipei
  • In political campaigning

What is crucial about these points is that for communication amongst each other, the younger generation (whether from Taiwanese-speaking homes or not) almost exclusively use Mandarin. Taiwanese is perceived as being ‘local’ and ‘low-class’ whereas young people want to project a more sophisticated image, best conveyed by using Mandarin.

Bilingual road markings in WalesFor a comparison of a situation where the fortunes of a declining language have been reversed, just consider Welsh. Welsh has many parallels with Taiwanese, having been suppressed, considered lowly and replaced by an alien language (in this case English, for Taiwan read Mandarin). After centuries of official discrimination, Welsh was put on an equal legal footing with English in 1993 by the Welsh Language Act. From that point on, the promotion of Welsh in education, local government and entertainment has led to a marked turnaround in the prospects for the future of this language.

There are of course some major differences between the two situations. Welsh has had an undisputed written language going back to the 6th century. The problems of Taiwanese related to a written standard are many and need to be resolved. Also, divisionsPe̍h-ōe-jī of language (dominant versus weak) are less clear-cut in Taiwan because of the Hakka and aboriginal languages. But what is needed to enable the long-term survival of Taiwanese is a codification of the written form and the opportunity to be educated in Taiwanese (not just to have it as an hour-a-week class). If we were to see romanised Taiwanese on street signs, on official documents, in newspapers and schools, then the possibility of halting the decline could be realised.

Why ‘romanised’ Taiwanese? Why not mixed (character and romanised) or all-character Taiwanese. These are also possibilities, aren’t they?

Firstly, apart from all the very pertinent arguments for romanisation in general (c.f. John DeFrancis, Pinyin Info), there is another concern – if a character-based system is used, won’t people just stick with Mandarin characters? I mean, why bother? But if a romanised system were to be implemented, the benefits in terms of usability and convenience would become clear to everyone who uses it. The other hurdle to overcome is the general prejudice in favour of characters as ‘civilised writing’, by no means an easy task.

In the final sentence of her paper, Beaser writes:

…unless the younger generations are given the means to make Taiwanese a nationally functional language, the outlook for Taiwanese is very poor.

I disagree. I’d say:

even if younger generations are given the means to make Taiwanese a nationally functional language, the outlook for Taiwanese is still very poor.

So, after all that, why have I chosen to learn it? Partly interest, but partly because it’s the language that my future in-laws use. Whether Taiwanese is going to die out in forty years or so not does not really affect my motivation for learning it. Of course, the best scenario would be the preservation and protection of the language. But, given the emotional and political issues involved, this may be no more than a pipe-dream.

So sorry: pronouncing phái*-sè

Posted August 21, 2006 by Taffy
Categories: Hoklo, Minnan, Taiwanese language

A couple of people have asked me about the name of this blog and how to pronounce it. I was looking around for a suitable site to explain the POJ romanisation for Taiwanese but (of course, silly me) there isn’t one. If I were to give a rough approximation of the pronunciation of phái*-sè, the nearest equivalent in English would be pie-say. For those of you who know some Mandarin, the closest pinyin would be pai-sei (I know ‘sei’ is not a legitimate sound in Mandarin, but you get the picture).

Gate to Tainan Confucian Temple

And what’s going on with the asterisk? This denotes nasalisation of the preceding sound and is more often written with a superscript ‘n’: pháiⁿ-sè. However, there seems to be a display problem with this character on the Mac (which I use at home) so until that’s resolved, I’ll stick with the asterisk. As for what impact this has on the sound, imagine pronouncing the vowels as if you had a cold and you’ll get close. It helps if you screw up your nose at the same time. The accent marks over the vowels represent tones, but Taiwanese tones are such a nastily complex subject that I think I’ll leave that for another time.

As for the reason I chose to call this blog phái*-sè, it has to be one of the most useful words I have learned here – in fact it was the first word I learned in any Chinese language. It means ‘sorry’ (the Mandarin would be 不好意思; bùhăo yìsī) and it seems that many confrontations can be resolved by one party bowing their head briefly and saying “phái*-sè, phái*-sè!” Very handy indeed.

Happy birthday Rob!

Posted August 18, 2006 by Taffy
Categories: Family

Dad, Rob and I

My little brother is 20 years old today. Congratulations! Photo above features Rob (baby), myself and Dad in around 1987, when we lived in Saudi Arabia. Have a great time today bruv!

Online resources for Taiwanese learning

Posted August 18, 2006 by Taffy
Categories: Hoklo, Minnan, Taiwan, Taiwanese language

At the beginning of this year I started taking Taiwanese classes at Maryknoll in Taipei. Taiwanese is a language from the same family as Mandarin Chinese (which I already have a conversational ability in) and the difference between the two is said to be akin to that between two Romance languages, say French and Spanish. Not too hard then, right? Ha!

One of the problems facing the Taiwanese learner is the severe lack of resources available for the language. Over the years it has been suppressed (by both the Japanese and the KMT) and only has a worldwide speaking population of around 30 50 million (including near cousin dialects), so it’s not the most popular choice for foreign language study. Add to this the fact that there is no universally agreed-upon system to write it down and that it’s just plain difficult to learn; perhaps it’s no surprise that few choose to do so.

So, what help is out there for English-speaking would-be learners? Well, aside from the materials produced by Maryknoll (including textbooks, dictionaries and tapes) and one other textbook which is pretty poor, there is a small range of stuff available on the net – here’s a brief survey:


Probably the best place to start. The article on Taiwanese is pretty comprehensive and balanced, with some good links.

Minnan Wikipedia

Simply the largest collection of romanised Taiwanese articles on the web. Uses the Pe̍h-ōe-jī (POJ) romanisation system – the one I learned and use on this blog.


Written predominantly in mixed Han and POJ orthography, I lack the necessary literacy with characters to properly evaluate this site.


Site to learn Taiwanese that starts off quite promisingly, but there are only ten lessons available to view – the rest can be purchased as audio files. Bah.


Has not been updated in some years, but still carries a useful amount of information about the language. Also has a Taiwanese > Mandarin dictionary, but the romanisation system is odd.

Sadly, that’s about it for the moment. As I said, resources are sparse and it requires a lot of motivation to study – the best way to improve is to speak with the people all the time.

Above: Puppet shows are usually all in Taiwanese.