Archive for the ‘Blogroll’ Category

Penang Hokkien in Decline?

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

With recent depressing stories concerning the trouble that Southern Min is in, both in Taiwan and China, it’s no surprise to discover an article documenting the same issue in Malaysia.

Malaysian newspaper The Star published a story today entitled Penang Hokkien in Peril:

Penang Hokkien may become extinct if no effort is made to preserve and encourage the young to speak the dialect. This is the observation of author Tan Choon Hoe who has written two books Learn to Speak PHD-Penang Hokkien Dialect and Penang Hokkien Dialect (PHD) for Penangites and Tourists to promote the dialect.

Tan, 47, who teaches English and Hokkien here, described the dialect as the essence of George Town and a part of its heritage.

He lamented the fact that Chinese children here spoke very little Hokkien nowadays.

“Parents would usually speak to their children in English or Mandarin and the only chance for the kids to learn Hokkien is from their grandparents, if they are still around,” Tan added.

With the apathy of both the people and the governments in all areas where Southern Min is spoken, the future is looking less than rosy for the language.  Indeed Singapore actively discourages the use of “dialects” with its Speak Mandarin campaign, leading to a decline there in the usage of not only Hokkien, but also Cantonese and Teochew (潮州話; Tiô-chiu-oÄ“) – a dialect which is usually classed as part of the Southern Min language but is in fact almost completely unintelligible to speakers of Amoy Hokkien or Taiwanese.

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 yÇŽng-qì (氧氣). The article also mentions “heroin”, which in Mandarin is a sound-loan from English (hÇŽiluòyÄ«n), 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; kà).

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-jÄ« (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…

More anti-Taiwanese Media…

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008

A-gu has the latest on anti-Taiwanese editorials in the local media. He makes the excellent point that “people are allowing Holo Taiwanese to die”. There is no longer the deliberate oppression of the language from the martial law era, but it’s no longer necessary – the ambivalence of the general population towards native-language education will ensure the eventual demise of the language, unless something is done to reverse this trend.

If the aboriginal languages, Hakka, and Taiwanese do die (and it will likely be in that order) I believe it will inevitably and irrevocably impoverish the cultural landscape of this country.

China Post: The Evils of Tai-lo and Teaching Taiwanese

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008

Taiwan has three English language newspapers; The China Post, The Taipei Times and the Taiwan News. The first, as you can probably tell from its name, is very pro-China, considers Taiwan to be an inalienable part of China, and despises the DPP (the outgoing ruling party). The other two are ideologically opposite to the China Post, and have their own numerous failings, but it’s an article in the China Post which caught my eye this week.

The article concerns a plan to “enforce” learning of Tâi-lô up to ninth grade in Taiwanese schools. It is so riddled with inaccuracy and ideologically motivated clap-trap that it’s hard to see any merit in it at all. Worse, rubbish like this just spreads misinformation about the language.

TAIPEI, Taiwan — All students in Taiwan, from ninth graders on down, may be required to learn what the Ministry of Education (MOE) defines as the “Taiwan Minnan language,” a Hoklo dialect popularly spoken on the island.

It is mandatory now that schoolchildren have to learn how to write Hoklo in Chinese logograms. Hoklo is a Min dialect of Chinese which used to be called Amoy.

Hmm, children have to do a couple of hours a week of native language education (which might be Hoklo (Taiwanese), Hakka or one of the aboriginal languages). There is no requirement to learn to write in Chinese “logograms” (characters).

Chinese nationalists often refer to Chinese as one language and the constituent parts like Mandarin, Wu, Hakka, Cantonese, Min and so on as “dialects”. From a linguistic point of view, however, it makes more sense to look on these parts as languages in their own right.

One dialect (here using the term in a linguistically more acceptable way) of Southern Min is Taiwanese. Taiwanese can be further split in to different regional variations. Amoy is related to Taiwanese, but is not the same thing. Both Amoy and Taiwanese are derived from a mix of Zhangzhou and Quanzhou dialects, but this happened at different periods in time and independently from one another.

All first through ninth graders would be compelled to learn how to Romanize the Taiwan Minnan language, if a new MOE program were implemented as from 2011.

The education ministry called a meeting to finalize the program yesterday.

Min is a nationally accepted moniker for Fujian, a province in southern China. Nan means “south.” The new term the education ministry has coined means literally the South Fujian language in use in Taiwan.

This is strange, because Minnan is the name used both by nationalists in Taiwan, usually in the form of Mǐnnányǔ 閩南語, and the government and media of China, who usually render it as Mǐnnánhuà 闽南话. It’s not a new coinage, nor is it something one would expect the China Post to be opposed to.

Amoy, the old name of Xiamen today, used to be the name given the Hoklo dialect.

Half right, it was referred to by some westerners as “The Amoy Dialect” as spoken in Taiwan. Even they made note of the difficulties in going between the two, with differences in pronunciation and meaning.

But the new syllabus for the teaching of the Taiwan Minnan language requires the use of a romanization invented in Taiwan, which differs from the Church Romanization in use around the world for more than a century.

True. I believe the ministry should probably have stuck with the “Church Romanization” (POJ, which incidentally the China Post has criticised in the past). Tâi-lô is a variation (some would say “improvement”) of POJ, with some small adjustments and the replacement of the tricky letter o͘ (an “o” with a dot above right, pronounced something like the “aw” in “thaw”) with oo.

As a matter of fact, the Tai-Lo pinyin or Taiwan’s Romanization spelling the education ministry mandates is more complicated than the Church Romanization and a little more difficult to learn.

Pure nonsense. There is no appreciable difference in difficulty between the two systems.

According to the syllabus, a third grader will be able to write e-mail with the new spelling method. Fifth graders have to be able to converse via MSN (Microsoft Network). Junior high students should acquire ability to blog by romanizing Hoklo words.

Sounds pretty good to me. It would be fantastic if this level was achieved, but I doubt it will be due to many factors, including political opposition and lack of adequately trained teachers. Hold on, here comes the generalising editor…

All this is highly unlikely to come true, however.

For one thing, parents are up in arms against the new method of writing.

Professors of linguistics taking part in yesterday’s meeting opposed the new teaching on grounds that students would be “much overburdened.”

No specifics – parents are up in arms, professors rebelling. I’m quite sure there are some professors and parents who think learning any of the languages of Taiwan except Mandarin is a waste of time. I’m also certain that many support native language teaching.

No parents want their offspring to suffer, if required to learn the difficult Taiwan-Romanization spelling.

The difficult Tâi-lô? Would that be difficult when contrasted with Chinese characters, which require years of study to Tâi-lô’s few weeks? Are these offspring not suffering through the degradation and decline of the native tongue of their parents?

People on Quemoy or Kinmen consider the MOE decision a demonstration of Taiwan’s Hoklo chauvinism. They speak the Zhangzhou version of Hoklo, sometimes quite different from the Zhuanzhou version which is popular in Taiwan.

Again, this is half right. “Zhuanzhou” here should read “Quanzhou”. Many people in Taiwan speak the Zhangzhou flavour of Taiwanese, not just those in Jinmen. However, the Jinmen version is closer to “pure” Zhangzhou than the Zhangzhou versions spoken on Taiwan island.

In fact, the Taiwan Minnan language is a mixture of the two versions.

Hurray! No faulting this sentence. Note how the editor has used the same term “Taiwan Minnan” which was obliquely criticised above.

Moreover, the new government, which will be installed on May 20, is unlikely to enforce the controversial eleventh hour program MOE Tu Cheng-sheng approved.

Tu has to resign before the Kuomintang takes over the government.

He has made another much ado about nothing to demonstrate his now incorrect political correctness.

I hate the way that language is such a politicised issue in Taiwan. I hate the way that due to ideological slants the media has to spout such rubbish about a topic I care about. I hate being identified with one political party because I choose to learn a particular language. I support the implementation of Hanyu Pinyin as the nationwide standard for Mandarin, which is a KMT policy. I support the teaching of native languages (not just Taiwanese) in schools, which is a DPP policy.

Apologies for the long-ish rant – articles like this are guaranteed to get my back up.

Free Films for Fans of Taiwanese Cinema

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008

From the Taipei Times:

Free screenings of 18 classic Taiwanese movies in Hoklo will be held at 9:30am on Tuesdays and Thursdays from Tuesday until May 29 at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, the memorial hall said in a press release yesterday. The free screenings are part of an art movie appreciation activity organized by the memorial hall, which started five years ago, memorial hall director Cheng Nai-wen (鄭乃文) said. Film director and playwright Huang Ying-hsiung (黃英雄) will host a brief discussion session after each showing.

The list of films contains such classics as 春雨 “Spring Rain”, directed by Tseng Ching-wen, and 二十五張郵票 “25 Stamps” (English names are my translations) by the director Huang Ying-hsiung mentioned above. Some of the pictures have not been publicly screened in decades.

Taiwanese Family Names

Monday, March 24th, 2008

It’s great to receive correspondence from people who share an interest in the Taiwanese language and it also helps me understand that there are actually people out there who find this site useful in some small way. I received a question yesterday from a graduate student in Australia regarding family names in Taiwanese and I thought that rather than provide a response to her exclusively I’d put the information up for everyone to see.

> List of Common Family Names in Taiwan

If any other readers out there have any other suggestions for content you would like to see on the site, I’ll be very happy to hear from you.

Ministry of Education’s List of 400 Characters for Taiwanese

Wednesday, March 19th, 2008

Taiwan’s Ministry of Education some time ago published a standardised list of 300 characters used for writing Taiwanese (those that differ from the obvious equivalents in Mandarin, that is), which I have linked to on this site. However, the Ministry then published a follow-up list of 100 characters but neglected to put on their website in a convenient form for interested people to download (unlike the first list). A helpful reader passed the pdf document on to me and I will now host it on the site for anyone to download:

> Ministry of Education’s Combined List of 400 Characters for Taiwanese (PDF)

I believe that doing so does not violate any copyrights and that it was not the Ministry’s intention to keep this list off the internet. When the MoE corrects their oversight and puts the list up I will change the link to point to their version.

EDIT: As SJCMA points out in the comments below, this is a draft version not yet formally approved, hence the reason why it had not been released officially.

The Taiwanese Literature Museum

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

Tai Bun KoanDuring the time I lived in Tâi-lâm (2002-2004) I’m sorry to say I never quite got around to visiting the National Museum of Taiwanese Literature in that city. Now with the excellent High Speed Rail in operation a trip from Pang-kiô (Banqiao) to Tâi-lâm takes just 94 minutes, instead of the four to five hours it used to take by road or rail, and so a trip down south for a period of only a day or two is suddenly a realistic proposition. Among the many places I visited in a hectic weekend recently was the Tâi Bûn Kóan, as the museum is usually known in Taiwanese.

The title of the institution can create a little confusion; in fact it is a museum for all the languages of Taiwan, including Taiwanese but also featuring (in order of arrival on the island) Aboriginal languages, Old Dutch, Hakka, Japanese and Mandarin. The bulk of the literature written in Taiwan has been in either Japanese or Mandarin, although there is also a selection of Classical Chinese literature from before the Japanese period.

Based in the red-brick former City Hall of T̢i-l̢m, which dates back to Japanese colonial times, the museum Writing on the wallprovides an impressive setting for the exhibits within. Yet it was not always this way. After the city government moved to the more spacious surroundings of An-p̻ng the building fell into disrepair with little effort being made to preserve the crumbling superstructure of this imposing reminder of times gone by. Happily the decision was made to renovate the place and put it to work for a new purpose Рdisplaying the convoluted linguistic past of this island.

Before you even enter the museum you’ll find a series of short texts on the low walls which surround it, in various languages including Mandarin, one of the aboriginal languages (I was unable to find out which) and Taiwanese, written in Hàn-lô, which you can see above and to the left.

The exhibits inside range from original texts to spoken word installations to recreations of the living conditions of some of Taiwan’s most famous writers. A good effort is Old Dutch writingmade to cover all the languages spoken today or previously in Taiwan, while also not forgetting writers outside Taiwan who had a great influence on the literature here, such as Lu Xun. The example exhibit above is written in Old Dutch.

In the basement of the building is the library, which houses an impressive collection of texts related to Taiwanese literature, despite the fact that there are rows of shelves still left to fill. Tai Bun Koan libraryDuring my hour or so browsing the shelves and dipping in to the odd book here and there on a Saturday afternoon, I saw exactly seven people who ventured past the entrance to the library, although there were a fair few students taking advantage of the quiet in the study area just outside the library.

If you happen to be in the former capital one day with an hour or two on your hands, you could do worse than wander around soaking up the treasures of Taiwan’s linguistic past and present. The museum is found on the roundabout (traffic circle) at the confluence of seven major roads: Zhongzheng (or Jhongjheng in the Tongyong system which the Tainan City Government insists on using), Nanmen, Kaishan, Qingnian (Cingnian), Zhongshan (Jhongshan), Gongyuan and Minsheng, a very short walk from the Confucian Temple.