Taiwanese Grammar Review – The Essential Guide for Students

December 6th, 2016

At some point back in the mists of time (2009ish), when I was actively learning Taiwanese, my most frequently repeated complaint was the lack of a decent Taiwanese reference grammar (in any language). This lack has now been comprehensively remedied by the release of Philip T. Lin’s Taiwanese Grammar: A Concise Reference (Greenhorn Media, 2015).

Taiwanese is a Chinese language of the Minnan family, and has a similar degree of relatedness to Mandarin as French does to Spanish. It is sometimes called Hokkien outside Taiwan and Hoklo or Taiwanese Minnan inside the country. While Taiwanese and related dialects like Penang Hokkien and Xiamen Hokkien are spoken by tens of millions of people, there is a distinct lack of materials in English for students of the language, something which Lin, alongside others, is helping to improve.

While the meat of the book is the grammar, the introduction is worth the price of entry alone – it features a clear, concise and informative introduction to the Taiwanese language that is simply the best I have seen. A sample:

Like most Chinese languages, Taiwanese has both literary and colloquial readings for characters. Literary readings arose from the Middle Chinese pronunciation of words used in formal settings during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). These newer pronunciations allowed officials from all regions of China to more easily understand each other when conducting official business in the capital city of Chang’an (Xi’an). As a result, the contemporary reader will find that the Taiwanese in the literary register bears a closer resemblance phonetically to Mandarin. For Taiwanese and other Min languages, colloquial readings are older pronunciations originating from Old Chinese during the Qin-Han Dynasties (221 BC – AD 220) and the time of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (AD 420-550).

Once we get past the introduction and the phonological description of Taiwanese (also excellent) the rest of the book is divided into lexical categories such as “indirect objects”, “habitual actions in the present” and “indicating the future with desire modal verbs”. Each section is copiously illustrated with examples in Taiwanese (both in characters and Pe̍h-ōe-jÄ«, a common Taiwanese romanisation), Mandarin (characters and pinyin), and English, something which points up another strong suit of the book – the references to Mandarin. Most learners of Taiwanese will already have some level of proficiency in Mandarin, and Lin uses this to illuminate the way Taiwanese works (which is unsurprisingly more similar to Mandarin than to English). An example from the section titled “To Transform”:

The terms 改變 kái-piàn and 轉變 chóan-piàn generally refer to a more substantial change that ‘transforms’ or ‘alters’ the entirety of the subject into something significantly different.

你 的 文章 己經 改變 真 濟。
Lí ê bûn-chiong í-keng kái-piàn chin chē.
你 的 文章 已經 改變 很 多。
Nǐ de wénzhāng yǐjīng gǎibiàn hěnduō.
Your essay has already changed a lot.

對 長背 來 講, 社會 最近 轉變 傷 濟。
Tùi tióng-pòe lâi kóng, siā-hōe chòe-kīn chóan-piàn siuⁿ chē.
對 長輩 來 說, 社會 最近 改變 太 多。
Duì zhǎngbèi lái shuō, shèhuì zuìjìn gǎibiàn tài duō.
For the older generations, society has changed too much recently.”

The word parsing in the Chinese characters (both Taiwanese and Mandarin) is a good idea, and very helpful for students. Normally Chinese characters are written without spaces, meaning the reader has to parse word boundaries while they are reading (the average length of a Mandarin word is two characters). Lin has chosen to insert spaces, like in English, to make the meaning clearer. The level of detail is just right – enough to clearly understand the point of grammar under discussion without getting bogged down in technical discussions that would distract from the core purpose of a reference guide.

The coverage of the subject is excellent. In the many months that it has sat on my shelf as a reference I have never failed to find the particular point of grammar I was looking for. While I lack enough competence in the language to declare the book “comprehensive”, it certainly appears that way from the perspective of an intermediate second-language speaker like myself. In reviews as positive as this it’s common practice for the writer to look for a gripe or complaint, no matter how minor, to provide some balance to the otherwise fulsome praise. In the case of this book, such a hunt for flaws would be artificial.

Both e-book and paperback are beautifully formatted and produced. Taiwanese Grammar is a first-rate work of scholarship. I commend Philip T. Lin and Greenhorn Media for producing a book that should be an essential purchase for any serious student of Taiwanese.

Thank you to Greenhorn Media, who supplied a review copy (in both paperback and e-book). This review was first posted on bookish.asia.

New blog for learning Taiwanese

January 31st, 2012

It’s been a long time since I last posted, but I have to let you know about a new blog aimed at teaching English speakers the basics of Taiwanese. It’s called Taiwanlang and the author, Ted (or ThÄ“-ti in Taiwanese), is a Taiwanese-American with a mission to inform. Check it out, and leave him an encouraging message on his site!

Maryknoll Taiwanese-English dictionary data available

June 23rd, 2010

Maryknoll have just updated their dictionary page with an Excel-format spreadsheet of the content of their Taiwanese-English dictionary. The spreadsheet consists of 55,903 entries, with four columns for each entry (sort, romanization, Mandarin in characters, and English). Here’s a quick sample:

hoan tian 01 hoan-tian 不正常 ,反常 abnormal
hoan tian 01a ::la7u hoan-tian 罵老人記性差 old person forgetful because of age
hoan tiau ho2an-tia7u 反調 sing off key, disagree with one’s companions
hoan tin ho7an-ti5n (ji5n-kan) 凡塵 world of people (Buddhist term commonly used for the world that belongs to people)
hoan tioh ho7an-tio8h 犯著 to violate (the law), to do something that makes someone unhappy

Father Clarence Engler, leader of the dictionary team at Maryknoll, has informed me that there is no electronic file of the other dictionary they publish, the English-Amoy dictionary (the manuscript was produced in the days before personal computers). However, with this Taiwanese-English data now available, it will make a superb base for an online dictionary project (of which more in the coming days and weeks).

EDIT: Father Engler has just emailed to say that the spreadsheet has not been fully proof-read, and likely contains errors, especially in the Chinese characters. Caveat emptor!

Maryknoll dictionaries now free to download

June 17th, 2010

After the recent news that Maryknoll have decided to license their dictionaries under the Creative Commons, they have now uploaded pdf versions of both the Taiwanese-English and English-Taiwanese dictionaries to their website.

Some words from the Taiwanese-English dictionary

The documents are divided into letters of the alphabet, but the entirety of both dictionaries is available there. The great work put in by generations of Maryknoll teachers and scholars deserves applause, and the wider availability of resources such as this can only benefit the Taiwanese language community.

As an aside, those of you familiar with POJ will notice a couple of peculiarities in the orthography used by Maryknoll. The fifth tone, represented elsewhere by a circumflex, is rendered with a breve, and the superscript “n” for a nasal vowel is replaced with an asterisk in Maryknoll texts.

Call for papers: 6th International Conference on Literature in Taiwanese, 2010

April 14th, 2010

I just received this email with a call for papers for the autumn conference on Literature in Taiwanese:

Call for Papers

The 6th International Conference on Literature in Taiwanese, 2010

Application of abstract submission

Theme: Neo-aesthetics – Artistic Qualities and Diversity
Conference sponsor: Graduate Institute of Taiwan Culture, Language and
Conference site: Taiwan Normal University (Taipei, Taiwan)
Conference date: Oct. 23 – 24, 2010
Deadline for abstracts: April 15, 2010
Acceptance Notification: May 15, 2010
Deadline for full papers: Aug. 31, 2010

Papers with the following topics are preferred:
1. The aesthetics of literature in Taiwanese
2. On aesthetic theory and criticism of literature in Taiwanese
3. Aesthetics research on writers and writings in Taiwanese
4. The content diversity of literature in Taiwanese
5. The ethnic diversity in the writing of literature in Taiwanese
6. Other topics related to Taiwanese literature

Submission guideline:
(1)The abstract must be limited to one page, with font size 12p, margins 1”
(top and bottom) and 1.25” (left and right), line spacing 1.5.
(2)Please add an additional information page prior to the abstract page. The
information should include a) title of the paper, b) author(s), c)
affiliation, d) position, e) mailing address, f) phone number, and g)
(3)The abstract must be saved as Word or PDF formats, and send to the
following address: Please add author’s name with the phrase “abstract for
2010 conference on Taiwanese literature” to the title of email.
(4)The conference organizers will send out notification of paper acceptance
by May 15. For the accepted presenters, please write your paper with the
conference designated format and submit your full paper on 25 pages maximum
(a hardcopy with electronic file in both DOC and PDF formats) to conference
organizers by the deadline mentioned above.
(5)The official languages of the conference include the Taiwanese languages
and English. Other languages may be used as long as no body is opposed to
them. Presenters are kindly requested to provide English or Taiwanese
translation if their paper is written in the language other than official
(6)Limited honorarium and travel grants may be provided to the paper
presenters upon the funding raising results. However, honorarium might be
dismissed if the paper is not submitted by appropriate deadline and not
written in the designated format.
(7)For the most updated information regarding the conference, please visit
conference website at http://litintaiwanese.blogspot.com/
(8)For any questions, please contact:
Conference coordinator: Li Khin-huann (Chair of Graduate Institute of Taiwan
Culture, Language and Literature)
Tel: +886-2-7734-1485
Email: khinhuann@gmail.com
Conference secretary : Li Hong-ling

Maryknoll dictionaries now “open-source”

April 4th, 2010

Great news for English speakers learning Taiwanese: Catholic missionary language training centre Maryknoll have just decided to release the contents of their two dictionaries (the English-Amoy Dictionary and the Taiwanese-English Dictionary) under a Creative Commons license. Their content, like this site, will now be open to anyone to use and remix, as long as the original authors are credited.

I have had discussions with Fr. Clarence Engler, the leader of the dictionary project, for a few months now, making the case for Creative Commons and trying to persuade Maryknoll to make the switch. I’m delighted to see they’ve done this and that their great work can now be reused and built upon by others.

I plan to use the data from the dictionaries as the basis of a free online dictionary, something along the lines of the CEDICT project. Maryknoll are currently revising their dictionaries, so I will be concentrating on putting the structure together first, before integrating the new data once it is ready. As for a timeline, we’re probably looking at a year before this is up and running properly, but hopefully it will prove useful. If you’d like to get involved in this project please drop me a line – I’d be very pleased to hear from you.

Map of locations connected with the Taiwanese language

March 19th, 2010

I’ve put together a map with few places important to the Taiwanese language – bookshops, churches, libraries and museums – and you can view it in Google Maps. If you have any suggestions of other places to add, please let me know and I will make the necessary adjustments.

Meet-up for people interested in the Taiwanese language

January 20th, 2010
  • Where: The Artists’ Village, 7 Beiping East Road, Taipei (台北市北平東路7號)
  • When: Thursday 28th January, from 8pm

Anyone who is interesting in learning the Taiwanese language, or in swapping information and suggestions about it, will be welcome along.  I’ll be there, as will a couple of people who are currently taking classes, so they will be able to help out new learners with suggestions for schools and study materials.

A map of the venue:

View Larger Map

Taiwanese dictionaries – a (hopefully) comprehensive list

January 20th, 2010

Cover of the PumindianRecently I had cause to look for a bibliography of Taiwanese dictionaries, and was frustrated by the lack of consistent and comprehensive information available online. Having had a look in print too, it seemed that what I was looking for simply didn’t exist.  So, in a do-it-yourself spirit I’ve put together a list of 145 dictionaries, vocabularies and lexicons related to the Taiwanese language and its sister dialects in the Southern Min family, based initially on Henning Klöter’s general bibliography. I don’t claim this as a complete list, but it is more extensive than any other I have been able to find.

As will be evident from a cursory reading of the list, most of the entries were published after the end of the martial law period in Taiwan, beginning in the late 1980s.  There is a tremendous diversity of sources out there, and many have been put together by individuals rather than large editorial teams, published at their own cost as labours of love.

If you spot any errors or omissions, please feel free to contact me and I’ll update the list.  As usual with content from this site, it is available under a Creative Commons license, meaning you can reuse it as you see fit (though a hat-tip in this direction would be appreciated).

2010 Conference on Taiwanese Proficiency Testing

December 15th, 2009

The Taiwanese Proficiency Test Center at the National Cheng Kung University in Tainan will be hosting a conference in March next year.  The third Conference on Taiwanese Proficiency Test (sic) will take place on the 13th March at the Banyan Campus of NCKU (off Daxue Rd near the train station). There’s a call for papers related to Taiwanese language testing, with a submission deadline of 31st of December for abstracts.

The conference is coordinated by Wi-vun Chiung, and co-sponsored by the Li Kang-Khioh Taiwanese Foundation and the Taiwanese Romanization Association.  For more information, check the conference website.

As a reminder, the legislature has blocked funding for government testing in Taiwanese for some time now, while authorising funding for testing of Mandarin, Hakka, and Aboriginal languages.  The Taiwanese language remains a political football.