Archive for October, 2007

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).

Tailingua open for business…

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007

I’ve just about got the site ready to go, so please have a look. The idea is to bring together information in English about Taiwanese to form an introduction to the language, especially for people who cannot read written Chinese. I have lots more content to add, but I felt it was better to start with the content that is ready now, rather than wait for everything to be perfect (!) before putting it online.

If you have any suggestions for future development or criticism of what’s already there, please let me know – I’ll be happy to hear from you. Already planned is a phonics section, as well as expansions to the information and bookshelf sections, and more detail on scripts, including a conversion table. I’ll be adding this content as and when it’s fully ready, and will post here when something new goes up.