Girl and Boy in Taiwanese dialect

After living here for a number of years I find that I can communicate simple things with the local people in both English and Mandarin.

For example, if I say “boy” they understand, and if I say “girl” they understand.

If they say “nan sheng” I understand, and if they say “nu sheng” I understand.

However, I am having trouble understanding the difference between “boy” and “girl” in Taiwanese … many people have tried to explain it to me, but when they speak fast, or when there are other “nouns” after these words … I cannot detect whether they are referring to a male or female …

All of my Taiwanese friends think that the failure to distinguish these two words is very humorous, and my suggestions that they adopt another word for “girl” … or whatever, of course all fall on deaf ears.

Can someone provide a definitive explanation, including the pronunciation of these words spoken whether “singly” or “combined in expressions” … (there seems to be a difference there which I cannot quite grasp, but at the same time my Taiwanese friends are unable to explain the technical side of their own language … ) so that is disappointing …

dza bo ying = girl, but usually pronounced dza bo, the bo, is longer, dza booooo (long O)

daz bo! = boy, the bo is abrupt.

I guess the best way would be to ask them “Dza booooo, or daz bo!?”

Sorry for the awful pinying, my pinying is SIGH!



Admirable effort, jd, but I am firmly convinced this is a joke formulated to make The Long Noses look stupid, and all Taiwanese are in on it, come on, THERE’S NO DIFFERENCE!!!

I guess your question a year an a half ago didn’t help too much, eh Hartzell?
[Pronunciation of BOY and GIRL in Taiwanese

OK, I’ll give this a go.

There are two small differences in the pronunciation. I use a system based on Hanyu pinyin to learn Taiwanese, so apologies for not being able to post this in POJ (Church romanization - as near to a standard as Taiwan has). It should however be more intuitive for someone conversant in Hanyu pinyin.

Taiwanese tones:

  1. high flat (44)
  2. falling (51)
  3. low falling (31)
  4. short medium flat (3)
  5. rising (24)
  6. (tone 2 repeated)
  7. medium flat (33)
  8. short low flat (5)

The numbers in brackets represent the pitch transition on a scale of 1-5, 1 being low and 5 high.

So given these tones:

male /za5 bo1/
female /za5 mbo3/

The ‘mb’ is pretty much between an English m and b sound, with a bit of nasal quality thrown in for good measure.

Now comes the fun bit - tone sandhi. Mandarin has very limited tone sandhi - this is the technical term for the process where a third tone that precedes another third tone changes to a second tone (e.g. 你/nǐ/ and 好/hǎo/ together become 你好/n

But then again, Mrs Tang (my Taiwanese interlocutor) is from Changhua county and her Taiyu pronunciation has been politely described as ‘non-standard’ before, so I might have just wasted the last twenty minutes typing that out. Give it a go though and see if it works for you.


This is hardly linguistically-sound, but for communication purposes – if you emphasize a hard English “b” sound in the word for “boy” and an English “m” sound in the middle of the word for “girl” usually you will be understood. At least it worked for me.

My advice would be to get a sympathetic listener who understands Taiwanese, sit down with him/her and a simple drawing representing a boy and a girl. Then say one or the other and have the listener point to what s/he understood. You can also test your own comprehension this way (in reverse obviously).

As I recall (can’t find my Taiwanese dictionary at the moment, I think it’s still at my parents’ house) one of these words is (tonally) like 1-2 (like singing do-re, in terms of pitch) that is, two level tones that step up, and the other is more like a Mandarin first tone followed by a Mandarin fourth (falling) tone. But the thing is I can’t recall which is which at the moment. :blush:

if you just say za-BO with BO high level tone (as mandarin 1st), boy.
za-BO with falling tone (as mandarin 4th) girl.

put emphasis on the BO (as indicated by capitalization)

never mind the slight difference in the “B” consonants. nowhere near as important as proper intonation.

this is easy enough.

as taifeitang notes tone change is the tricky bit. za-bo-gin-a (or za-bo-lang etc) for boy will see the bo change to LOW level tone (no mandarin equivalent). za-BO-gin-a for girl will see the BO change to high level tone (mandarin 1st).

try deemphasizing the bo in za-bo-gin-a (boy) and say it in a lower tone then the other syllables. emphasize the BO in za-BO-gin-a (girl) and say it in a higher tone.

this is more tricky, takes some practice.

note that in the common za-BO-e there is no tone change as the final -e has no intonation (as in mandarin “qing-sheng”)

I learnt Taiwanese for 2 years and distinctly remember trying to avoid saying girl and boy whenever possible. Now I remember why!