Taiwanese Dictionary

Dear all,

I posted this at the chineselanguage.org web site

I went through a phase of collecting Taiwanese dictionaries a few years back and remember seeing this article. That guy had been working on the thing for years. I haven’t looked for it, but you’ve got my interest up now. the next time I’m on Chungching Nan Lu or somewhere likely I’ll take a look!

That is an interesting post but I don’t understand. What are Taiwanese characters? Are they characters that are specific to Taiwanese language only? I knew there were a few but I didn’t think there were as many as 13,000. What is their origin? Do they come from Taiwan, Fujian or both?

Also, I don’t understand what the justification is for giving a Mandarin pronunciation guide for these characters, and indeed how such a pronunciation guide could be derived.

I was under the impression that Taiwanese was a mainly oral language and that if one wanted to write a text ‘in Taiwanese’; that is, with the intention that somebody was able to read it out by speaking in Taiwanese, one would do so for the most part using standard Chinese characters, although the syntax would be different.

I’m interested in this. Comments from such notables as Ironlady, Cranky Laowai and Jidanni eagerly awaited.

It’s a mixed bag. There are some special characters specific to Taiwanese, many of which appear in ancient texts. Most Taiwanese characters are also commonly used for ordinary Chinese “baihuawen.” Then you have many Taiwanese words for wh+ich there is no obvious or commonly recognized character. Many dictionaries try to resolve this by assigning characters for words in various ways.

There is not much Minnanyu written record from earlier days, as most writing in the old days was done in Classical Chinese. There are some exceptions in the form of poems or song lyrics but not much.

I’m sure he has created yet another Taiwanese phoneticization using bopomo. This has been done before and can work but several special characters need to be created.

Not much taiwanese writing is done, what there is is most commonly done using the old “romaji” romanization developed by Protestant missionaries earlier this century or a combination of Chinese characters and the romanization. All-character schemes require special study, some have been developed as well as some alternate romanizations.

books.com.tw/exep/prod/books … 0010012279

This is a dictionary by PC.

Quoting from William Hannas’s excellent Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma:[quote]According to R.L. Cheng, about 5 percent of morphemes in Taiwanese “have no appropriate, established Chinese characters to represent them. Since many of htese morphemes are high frequency function words, in a written Taiwanese text they account for a much as 15% of the total number of characters”. Cheng’s statistics, while no doubt valid, understate the problem since many of the “established” characters that can be applied to Taiwanese are pripheral or nonexistent in modern standard Mandarin. MOreover, these morphemes – shared or not – often do not combine in the same way to form words. One simply cannot take morphemes or a combination of them from one Sinitic variety (or the characters used to write them, if there are any) and expect to produce anything intelligible to a user of another. All of which is to say, the words themselves are different. The extent of these differences can be appreciated by examining Ruan’s (1979) Taiwanhua rumen (Introduction to Taiwanese), especially pages 62 to 108, where some two-thirds of the words listd have separate Mandarin glosses. Similarly, Qian Nairong’s (1989) Shanghai fangyan liyu (Colloquial Shanghainese) lists 282 pages of unique Shanghainese terms that are not in Mandarin or have different meanings![/quote]
Cheng, mentioned above, is currently head of the Mandarin Promotion Commission. He favors a mixed script (mainly hanzi, with some romanization added) for Taiwanese. This isn’t for linguistic reasons, though. He says that people are too attached to characters.

I think using anything but romanization for Taiwanese would be a disaster for the language.

I disagree with you entirely Cranky. I think they should use a 100% character system, and invent new characters for the 15% or so of words for which there is no classical Chinese character available (or ressurect someold ones).

This method worked very well for Cantonese, which is in pretty much the same boat.


Once again, Sir Donald, I am absolutely flabbergasted by your take on linguistic matters. Perhaps if you studied more about languages you would absorb less Chinese chauvinism. :?

Why, oh why would anyone recommend using a system so difficult, obscure and out of date for anything, especially when more logical, efficient alternatives exist – and ones that are easier to learn and offer full literacy, as opposed to the partial literacy that comes with characters. Have you ever read any of the things I have on my site? Please start with “The Ideographic Myth”. Then buy the book this is from and read it in its entirety. Read some of the other chapters at www.pinyin.info/readings/

The situation with Cantonenese is not the same. Most people in HK have not been bilingual in spoken Cantonese and Mandarin. Thus, there’s not as much interference between the two. (That still doesn’t make characters a good choice for Cantonese; but that’s another matter.)

In Taiwan, however, Mandarin is dominant, unquestionably so in written Chinese.

Think about how a character-based system for Taiwanese would have to work. First, there are a some questions to clear up. What is the sound assigned to a character? For instance, look at the Mandarin word ni (English “you”). (It’s worth noting, too, that this is an unusual word in that it is but one syllable long, a characteristic it shares with less than 2 percent of Mandarin words.) In Taiwanese, it’s not pronounced the same. So what is to be done? Do you find a different Mandarin character (and that really is what most of these are: Mandarin characters, because Mandarin is the basis for the standard written form) to represent the sound, or do you go with a meaning-is-the-same-but-the-pronunciation-is-different approach, saying here is a character that everyone is taught as ni but in this context we’re going to pronounce it a different way. And how will people know it is to be pronounced differently? They just have to learn it. (Repeat approximately 5,000 times.) Do you go with a mix of the two – sometimes [Mandarin] sound, sometimes meaning? If so, how do readers and writers know the difference? Memorization – and with few clues. And how would they have to learn these pronunciations? Romanization or some other phonetic system. But you would have people use a logical, workable system only to the extent that they could throw it out for a linguistic mess. That makes no sense whatsoever.

Moreover, in a situation where Mandarin is the dominant written form, there is nothing in characters to reinforce spoken Taiwanese, and vice versa. That means that Mandarin will write itself increasingly over Taiwanese, leading to Taiwanese becoming less and less of a language and more of a dialect with some distinct expressions.

With romanization – which has already been proven to work for Taiwanese – people have a system that is learned relatively easily. Reading, writing and speaking the language all reinforce each other. People will also other advantages, such as touch typing.

What is to be gained by ignoring the science of linguistics?

I like the mixed approach. Use characters where they are obvious, use some form of phonetics to fill in the gaps. Learn new characters as you go along. I don’t agree with you Cranky that characters will kill Taiwanese, there are many Taiwanese words where the character is obvious, trying to divorce it from characters would be as impossible as it has proven for Mandarin. a bastard system of poorly conceived mandarin loan words could do it though!

People have dug up old characters for almost all Taiwanese words Brian, it’s just that no one can agree about which one is “right” and that no one can be bothered to take the considerable time that it would take to learn them. the same is true for phonetics or any writing system :frowning: making all this conversation pretty academic.

There is nothing “obvious” about Chinese characters.

Proven impossible? No such thing! Vietnamese used to be written with characters. Now it has freed itself of them and is doing just fine. There is no linguistic reason why Mandarin could not do the same. And as for Taiwanese divorcing itself from characters, it was never “married” to them in the first place. The dominant form for writing Taiwanese is now what it has always been: romanization.

You’re comparing apples and oranges. Yes, it takes time to learn an efficient romanization system. But compared to the time it would take to learn a character-based system there are many, many orders of difference.

These changes are reaching further and further into society and the schools. This issue isn’t going to go away, esp. not if the DPP manages to stay in power.

There is nothing “obvious” about Chinese characters.

I share your prejudice against characters–I read defrancis too :slight_smile:–but they are deeply rooted in the culture and not likely to be given up.

For taiwanese people “gua2” is obviously

While on the topic, does anyone have any advice on how to get started learning Taiwanese? I’m not in Taiwan, so the only native speaker around is my wife, who doesn’t know any of the romanization systems and is unlikely to learn. I have the the first book from a language school in Taichung (Maryknoll), but it uses the old church romanization, which I’ve tried (and failed) many times to get the hang of. A guy we know created his own version of Taiwanese Zhuyin (50

Check this thread, this one and this one.

And once again I am amazed that someone who has read so much about the topic fails to give any convincing arguments. It’s no use saying “Chinese is better written with roman letters - go read the books”. You have to give me the reasons. No “I’m right because DiFrancis says so” please.

I have been thinking about this recently, so I’d apprecitae a clear logical argument of it. So I’ll start by asking you a few questions.

  1. Do you think that there are better systems for writing mandarin as well, or just Taiwanese? That is to say, is your main reason for opposing the use of Chinese characters for Taiwanese, that it is a bad system for writing Chinese languages, or just a bad system for writing Taiwanese?

  2. If the first reason, then what is a better system? Pinyin, another form of romanisation, a non-roman phonetic alphabet, or a modified form of characters?

  3. If the second reason, then why is Taiwanese so different from Mandarin?

  4. Do you then think that Cantonese would be better written in a roman alphabet? Why does their system seem to work very well?

  5. Idealistic situations aside, given the entrenchment of characters, even if you believe a phonetic system would be better (in the ideal world), don’t you think a character-based system would be more practical?

I look forward to your responses. In the meantime, I’ll try and pick up on a few of the points you made.

I’ve heard some of the counter arguments, and I don’t think they’re valid (I’m waiting to hear yours). I still think that characters are better than romanisation for reading Chiense languages. Sure they’re harder for the beginner, and harder to learn, but once learnt they make reading easier.

Not exactly the same, but close. The fact is that in Hong Kong, you have a system of writing for the vernacular (Cantonese) which is common, standardised and understood. It uses 100% characters, with invented characters for those that do not come form hanzi. I have a good friend who is HKese, fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin and English. She often reads in Cantonese and tells me it’s a great system. Having two written systems using the same characters but different pronounciation is hardly novel. That’s what happens with latin, greek and arabic letters.

It’s simple really. If you’re reading Mandarin you use the mandarin pronounciation, if you’re reading Taiwanese you use the Taiwanese pronounciation. If it doesn’t matter (say a sign above a store) then it doesn’t matter. Don’t some kids get taught French and English? How do they learn that the word ‘cent’ is pronounced two different ways, and how do they know when to use which pronounciation? It’s not difficult. This is exactly what happens in HK among the large number of people who are fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese.

You mention interference. I guess you mean that already knowing that a character is supposed to be pronounced one way in one language will influence the pronounciation of that character in another language. I don’t think this is a strong argument, but you should be consistent. If you believe interference is a major obstacle, you should oppose the use of romanisation for Taiwanese (and Mandarin) on the basis that kids are going to get confused because they’re taught the English pronounciations of the roman letters and very stongly taught to associate these with English. Thus they’re going to have real trouble reading Taiwanese written with ‘English’ letters. In fact I believe ‘interference’ is an argument against the use of romanisation, if anything.

This is a load of rubbish. I keep hearing this from you and Ironlady. Maybe the problem is that you’ve read too much about this subject and just accept this sort of claim without thinking about it, the way I do, having been uninfluenced be these guys. You’re overread Cranky. Write out all the mandarin words and maybe only 2% are one syllable long (maybe, even this seems low for me). Now write a sentence and see how many are one syllable long? (Xie yi zhu hua. Kan duoshao zi zhi you (zhiyou?) yi ge yingjie). I’d say probably more than 50% of words (in their occurence) are one syllable words. (More than 80% in my random example). With Taiwanese, I suspect it’s even more. Furthermore if you use a purely phonetic language such as pinyin, you don’t have the advantages of a ‘mixed phonetic’ (sorry, I forget the technical term) language like English that often uses variant spellings to indicate different meanings of words pronounced the same (eg see/sea).

Come on they’re not Mandarin characters. They were the characters used to write classical Chinese. They were adapted to make baiwenhua (if I remember the term rightly) to write what was basically the Northern language. They could just as easily be adapted to write the other Chinese languages.

Anyway, I’d like to hear your answers to my questions.




[quote=“Mad Scientist”]While on the topic, does anyone have any advice on how to get started learning Taiwanese? I’m not in Taiwan, so the only native speaker around is my wife, who doesn’t know any of the romanization systems and is unlikely to learn. I have the the first book from a language school in Taichung (Maryknoll), but it uses the old church romanization, which I’ve tried (and failed) many times to get the hang of. A guy we know created his own version of Taiwanese Zhuyin (50

Interesting discussion although the original issue, of whether a Taiwanese Dictionary should or shouldn’t use Hanzi characters or MPS symbols or both, is really a minor technicality. The choice made by the dictionary’s editor will hardly change the fact that Taiwanese is for the most part a spoken-only. Choosing one written convention over another will hardly popularize, “de-sinize” or in any other way compromise the tradition of Taiwanese.

Ultimately, the choice of how to write Taiwanese is a decision driven by the intended audience, which it seems to me is twofold:

  • a small segment of local academics, for whom a mixed character/bopomofo solution might sit well
  • a somewhat larger, but still niche segment of non-academic language enthusasts, mostly foreigners for whom a romanized alphabet would be 1000-fold more convenient

Being a member of this second target-group, I’d much prefer a Taiwanese dictionary or phrase book with a decent romanized transcription.

Sorry, I don’t see your average Chinese local rushing out to buy this tome for his reference library, so curl up at night with it and a glass of Merlot and muse about the intricacies of his dialect.

:arrow_right: :arrow_right:

A much more fascinating topic is the practicality of Chinese characters in general, regardless of the dialect. I respect opinions that stray from the mainstream “Chinese characters are beautiful, and they’re not THAT difficult to learn”, especially if well-articulated and based on meaningful arguments, as in the case of Cranky. Seems to me that there’s not enough objective criticism (critiquing) of Chinese writing, as those who speak with authority on it are either (a) native speakers, or (b) foreigners who have already invested tremendous time & effort in learning it, and are therefore understandably reluctant to badmouth their precious hard-earned skill.

I dare say that I do speak w/ some authority, being a foreigner who has over the past 2 years made significant progress with Chinese. I’m now able to recognise 3-4000 characters and beginning to have success with reading newspapers. Ok, so is possible to learn Chinese within a finite amount of time, but at what cost. Clearly too great a cost to make the Chinese language - and consequently the Chinese culture - accessible to the world. And if China really wants to shake off its isolationist, impenetrable image that it has worn with pride for 5 millennia , and join the global community, it has to do something about this.

The irony is, the Chinese grammar is SOOOO simple and mimimalist. My take on the Chinese language is: practical grammar, exotic phonetics, silly outdated (and yes pretty) writing …

More on this later …

But alas so difficult to use correctly. I’ll repeat myself from earlier posts: reading and writing Chinese are the easy part. How many of us can really claim to speak Chinese with near-native fluency?

I don’t think it’s my responsibility to spoon-feed you everything. I’ve already spent an enormous amount of time and effort making a site with readings on the topic. My site has the texts of entire chapters from important works. They are relevant to this discussion. And everything on my site is free. I couldn’t possibly have made it any easier. I’m not going to bother repeating every point that someone else has already made well and in detail just because you don’t want to pollute your thinking process with the studies and analyses of the foremost experts in the field.

I’ve already answered some of your questions, even if you don’t seem to understand that. I’m willing to respond in more detail and counter some of your misimpressions. But right now I just don’t have the time, especially not if you’re demanding that I do everything for you.


But alas so difficult to use correctly. I’ll repeat myself from earlier posts: reading and writing Chinese are the easy part. How many of us can really claim to speak Chinese with near-native fluency?[/quote]
Really?! :shock: I’m nowhere near any level of spoken, but I have been telling myself that reading/writing is the hard part and spoken should be easy.

More thought leads me to believe that difficulty in any aspect of language cannot be so easily classified. I think it’s the language learner that makes one aspect (writing, speaking, etc.) harder then the other.