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About Taiwanese Language

Taiwanese Hokkien (臺灣閩南語), commonly known as Taiwanese (Tâi-oân-oē, 臺灣話 or Tâi-gí 台語), is the Hokkien dialect of Min Nan as spoken by about 70% of the population of Taiwan.[2] The largest ethnic group in Taiwan, for which Hokkien is considered a native language, is known as Hoklo or Holo (Hō-ló). The correspondence between language and ethnicity is generally true though not absolute, as some Hoklo speak Hokkien poorly while some non-Hoklo speak Hokkien fluently. Pe̍h-oē-jī (POJ) is a popular orthography for this language, and for Hokkien in general.

A large majority of the people of Taiwan speak Mandarin, which has been the only officially sanctioned medium of instruction in the schools for more than four decades. As a result of the half century of Japanese rule, many people born before 1940 also can speak fluent Japanese.

Hoklo people and many others also speak Hokkien, commonly known as "Taiwanese". Recently there has been a growing use of Taiwanese in the broadcast media. The Hakka, who are concentrated in several counties throughout Taiwan, have their own distinct language. The Formosan languages are the languages of the aboriginal tribes of Taiwan, comprising about 2% of the island's population.

Classification

Taiwanese Hokkien is a variant of Min Nan, closely related to the Amoy dialect. It is often seen as a Chinese dialect within the larger Sinitic language family. On the other hand, it may also be seen as an independent language since it is not mutually intelligible with Mandarin. As with most “language/dialect” distinctions, how one describes Taiwanese depends largely on one's personal views (see the article “varieties of Chinese”).

Min is the only branch of Chinese that cannot be directly derived from Middle Chinese. This may account for the difficulty in finding the appropriate Chinese characters for some Min Nan vocabulary. This is maybe also part of the reasons why it is almost totally mutually unintelligible with Mandarin or other Chinese dialects.

There is both a colloquial version and a literary version of Taiwanese Hokkien. Spoken Taiwanese Hokkien is almost identical to spoken Amoy Hokkien. Regional variations within Taiwanese may be traced back to Hokkien variants spoken in Southern Fujian (Quanzhou and Zhangzhou). Taiwanese Hokkien also contains loanwords from Japanese and the Formosan languages. Recent work by scholars such as Ekki Lu, Sakai Toru, and Lí Khîn-hoāⁿ (also known as Tavokan Khîn-hoāⁿ or Chin-An Li), based on former research by scholars such as Ông Io̍k-tek, has gone so far as to associate part of the basic vocabulary of the colloquial Taiwanese with the Austronesian and Tai language families; however, such claims are controversial.

A literary form of Minnan once flourished in Fujian and was brought to Taiwan by early emigrants. Tale of the Lychee Mirror (Nāi-kèng-kì), a manuscript for a series of plays published during the Ming Dynasty in 1566, is one of the earliest known works. This form of the language is now largely extinct.

Phonology

Phonologically, Min Nan is a tonal language with extensive tone sandhi rules. Syllables consist maximally of an initial consonant, a vowel, a final consonant, and a tone; any or all of the consonants or vowels may be nasal.

Lexicon

Modern linguistic studies (by Robert L. Cheng and Chin-An Li, for example) estimate that most (75% to 90%) Taiwanese words have cognates in other Chinese languages. False friends do exist; for example, cháu means "to run" in Taiwanese, whereas the Mandarin cognate, zǒu, means "to walk". Moreover, cognates may have different lexical categories; for example, the morpheme phīⁿ means not only "nose" (a noun, as in Mandarin bí) but also "to smell" (a verb, unlike Mandarin).

Among the apparently cognate-less words are many basic words with properties that contrast with similar-meaning words of pan-Chinese derivation. Often the former group lacks a standard Han character, and the words are variously considered colloquial, intimate, vulgar, uncultured, or more concrete in meaning than the pan-Chinese synonym. Some examples: lâng (person, concrete) vs. jîn (人, person, abstract); cha-bó͘ (woman) vs. lú-jîn (女人, woman, literary). Unlike the English Germanic/Latin contrast, however, the two groups of Taiwanese words cannot be as strongly attributed to the influences of two disparate linguistic sources.

Extensive contact with the Japanese language has left a legacy of Japanese loanwords. Although a very small percentage of the vocabulary, their usage tends to be high-frequency because of their relevance to modern society and popular culture. Examples are: o͘-tó͘-bái (from オートバイ ootobai "autobike", an "Engrish" word) and pháng (from パン pan "bread," which is itself a loanword from Portuguese). Grammatical particles borrowed from Japanese, notably te̍k (from teki 的) and ka (from か), show up in the Taiwanese of older speakers.

Whereas Mandarin attaches a syllabic suffix to the singular pronoun to make a collective form, Taiwanese pronouns are collectivized through nasalization. For example, i (he/she/it) and goá (I) become in (they) and goán (we), respectively. The -n thus represents a subsyllabic morpheme. Like all other Chinese languages, Taiwanese does not have true plurals.

Unlike English, Taiwanese has two first-person plural pronouns. This distinction is called inclusive, which includes the addressee, and exclusive, which excludes the addressee. Thus, goán means we excluding you, while lán means we including you (similar to pluralis auctoris). The inclusive lán may be used to express politeness or solidarity, as in the example of a speaker asking a stranger "Where do we live?", but meaning "Where do you live?".

Grammar

The grammar of Taiwanese is similar to southern Chinese languages such as Hakka and Cantonese. The sequence 'subject verb object' is typical as in, for example, Mandarin, but 'subject object verb' or the passive voice (with the sequence 'object subject verb') is possible with particles. Take a simple sentence for example: "I hold you." The words involved are: goá ("I" or "me"), phō ("to hold"), lí ("you").

  • Subject verb object (typical sequence): The sentence in the typical sequence would be: Goá phō lí. ("I hold you.")
  • Subject kā object verb: Another sentence of roughly equivalent meaning is Goá kā lí phō, with the slight connotation of "I take you and hold" or "I get to you and hold."
  • Object hō͘ subject verb (the passive voice): Then, Lí hō͘ goá phō means the same thing but in the passive voice, with the connotation of "You allow yourself to be held by me" or "You make yourself available for my holding."

With this, more complicated sentences can be constructed: Goá kā chúi hō͘ lí lim ("I give water for you to drink": chúi means "water"; lim is "to drink").

Scripts and orthographies

Taiwanese does not have a strong written tradition. Until the late 19th century, Taiwanese speakers wrote solely in literary Chinese. A system of writing Taiwanese using Latin characters called pe̍h-oē-jī (POJ) was developed in the 19th century. (For additional romanized systems, see references in "Orthography in Latin characters", below.) Nonetheless, Taiwanese speakers nowadays most commonly write in vernacular Chinese, which uses the vocabulary and grammar of Mandarin, though Chinese characters are also used to represent spoken Taiwanese in writing.

Han characters

In most cases, Taiwanese speakers write using the script called Han characters as in Mandarin, although there are a number of special characters which are unique to Taiwanese and which are sometimes used in informal writing. Where Han characters are used, they are not always etymological or genetic; the borrowing of similar-sounding or similar-meaning characters is a common practice. Mandarin-Taiwanese bilingual speakers sometimes attempt to represent the sounds by adopting similar-sounding Mandarin Han characters. For example, the Han characters of the vulgar slang 'khoàⁿ siáⁿ siâu' (看三小, substituted for the etymologically correct 看啥痟, meaning "What the hell are you looking at?") has very little meaning in Mandarin and may not be readily understood by a Taiwanese monolingual, as knowledge of Mandarin character readings is required to fully decipher it.

Orthography in Latin characters

In some situations, Taiwanese is written with the Latin alphabet using an orthography called pe̍h-oē-jī (POJ), meaning "vernacular writing". POJ was developed first by Presbyterian missionaries and later by the indigenous Presbyterian Church in Taiwan; they have been active in promoting the language since the late 19th century. Recently there has been an increase in texts using a mixed orthography of Han characters and romanization, although these texts remain uncommon. Other Latin-based orthographies exist, the most significant being Taiwanese Language Phonetic Alphabet (TLPA), Daighi tongiong pingim (DT), Ganvsig daiuuan bhanlam ghiw tongiong pingimv (GDT), Modern Literal Taiwanese (MLT), Simplified MLT (SMLT), and Phofsit Daibuun (PSDB), including the TL that the POJ combined the TLPA into a TL (Chinese: 台羅拼音, Taiwanese Latin Phonetic Alphabet). GDT, MLT, SMLT and PSDB employ tonal spelling to indicate tone without use of diacritic symbols, but alphabets instead.

In POJ, the traditional list of letters is:

  • a b ch chh e g h i j k kh l m n ng o o͘ p ph s t th (ts) u

Twenty-four in all, including the obsolete ts, which was used to represent the modern ch at some places. The additional necessities are the nasal symbol ⁿ (superscript n; the uppercase form N is sometimes used in all caps texts, such as book titles or section headings), and the tonal diacritics.

In 2006, the National Languages Committee (Ministry of Education, Republic of China) proposed a scheme called "Tâi-ôan Lô-má-jī" (literally, "romanized orthography for Taiwanese"). This scheme reconciles the two of the more senior orthographies, TLPA and POJ. The changes for the consonants involved using "ts" for POJ's "ch" (reverting to the orthography in the 19th century), and "tsh" for "chh". For the vowels, "o͘" could optionally represented as "oo". The nasal mark "ⁿ" could also be represented optionally as "nn". The rest of the scheme, most notably the use of diacritics to mark the tones, appeared to keep to the POJ tradition. One of the aims of this compromise was to curb any increase of "market share" for Tongyong Pinyin. It is unclear whether the community will adopt this new agreement.

Orthographies in kana and in bopomofo

There was an orthography of Taiwanese based on the Japanese kana during Japanese rule. The Kuomintang government also tried to introduce an orthography in bopomofo.

Regional variations

Within the wider Hokkien speaking community in Southeast Asia, Ē-mn̂g (Amoy or Xiamen) is historically the variant of prestige (close to a 'standard language'), with other major variants from Choâⁿ-chiu/Choân-chiu (Chinchew or Quanzhou in Fujian) and Chiang-chiu (Changchew or Zhangzhou in Fujian). Another Min Nan language, Tiô-chiu (Teochew or Chaozhou in Guangdong) is also widely spoken in these regions.

In Taiwan, however, the Tâi-lâm (Tainan, southern Taiwan) speech is the variant of prestige, and the other major variants are the northern speech, the central speech (near Taichung and the port town of Lo̍k-káng in Changhua County), and the northern (northeastern) coastal speech (dominant in Gî-lân). The distinguishing feature of the coastal speech is the use of the vowel 'uiⁿ' in place of 'ng'. The northern speech is distinguished by the absence of the 8th tone, and some vowel exchanges (for example, 'i' and 'u', 'e' and 'oe'). The central speech has an additional vowel [ɨ] or [ø] between 'i' and 'u', which may be represented as 'ö'.

Fluency

A great majority of people in Taiwan can speak both Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese although the degree of fluency varies widely. There are however small but significant numbers of people in Taiwan, mainly but not exclusively Hakka and Mainlanders, who cannot speak Taiwanese fluently. A shrinking percentage of the population, mainly people born before the 1950s, cannot speak Mandarin at all, though some of these speak Japanese fluently. Urban, working-class Hakkas as well as younger, southern-Taiwan Mainlanders tend to have better, even native-like fluency. Approximately half of the Hakka in Taiwan do speak Taiwanese. There are many families of mixed Hakka, Hoklo, and Aboriginal bloodlines. There is, however, a large percentage of people in Taiwan, regardless of their background, whose ability to understand Taiwanese is greater than their ability to speak it.

Which variant is used depends strongly on the context, and in general people will use Mandarin in more formal situations and Taiwanese in more informal situations. Taiwanese tends to get used more in rural areas, while Mandarin is used more in urban settings. Older people tend to use Taiwanese, while younger people tend to use Mandarin. In the broadcast media, soap opera/dramas and variety shows tend to use Taiwanese, while game shows and documentaries tend to use Mandarin. Political news is broadcast in both Taiwanese and Mandarin.

Sociolinguistics and gender

Taiwanese is also perceived by some to have a slight masculine leaning, making it more popular among the males of the younger population. It is sometimes perceived as "unladylike" when spoken by the females of the younger population.

Conceptualization and history

In the first decades of the 18th century, the language difference between the Chinese Qing imperial bureaucrats and the commoners was recorded by the first Imperial High Commissioner to Taiwan (1722), Huáng Shújǐng, a Beijinger sent by the Kangxi Emperor, during whose reign Taiwan was annexed in 1684:

  • This set the tone for the uneasy relationship between this language community and the colonial establishments in the next few centuries.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, civil unrest and armed conflicts were frequent in Taiwan. In addition to resistance against the government (both Chinese and Japanese), battles between ethnic groups were also significant: the belligerent usually grouped around the language they use. History recorded battles between the Hakka and the Taiwanese-language speakers; between these and the aborigines; and between those who spoke the Choâⁿ-chiu variant of what became the Taiwanese language and those who spoke the Chiang-chiu variant.

Later, in the 20th century, the conceptualization of Taiwanese is more controversial than most variations of Chinese because at one time it marked a clear division between the Mainlanders who arrived in 1949 and the pre-existing majority native Taiwanese. Although the political and linguistic divisions between the two groups have blurred considerably, the political issues surrounding Taiwanese have been more controversial and sensitive than for other variants of Chinese.

The history of Taiwanese and the interaction with Mandarin is complex and at times controversial. Even the name is somewhat controversial. Some dislike the name Taiwanese as they feel that it belittles other variants such as Mandarin, Hakka, and the aboriginal languages which are spoken on Taiwan. Others prefer the name Min-nan or Hokkien as this views Taiwanese as a variant of the speech which is spoken on Fujian province in Mainland China. Others dislike the name Min-nan and Hokkien for precisely the same reason. One can get into similar controversial debates as to whether Taiwanese is a language or a dialect.

Politics

Until the 1980s, the use of Taiwanese, along with all dialects other than Mandarin, was discouraged by the Kuomintang through measures such as banning its use in schools and limiting the amount of Taiwanese broadcast on electronic media. These measures were removed by the 1990s, and Taiwanese became an emblem of localization. Mandarin remains the predominant language of education, although there is a "mother tongue" language requirement in Taiwanese schools which can be satisfied with student's choice of mother-tongue: Taiwanese, Hakka, or aboriginal languages.

Although the use of Taiwanese over Mandarin was historically part of the Taiwan independence movement, the linkage between politics and language is not as strong as it once was. Some fluency in Taiwanese is desirable for political office in Taiwan for both independence and unificationist politicians. At the same time even some supporters of Taiwan independence have played down its connection with Taiwanese language in order to gain the support of the Mainlanders and Hakka.

In the early 21st century, there are few differences in language usage between the anti-independence leaning Pan-Blue Coalition and the independence leaning Pan-Green Coalition. Both tend to use Taiwanese at political rallies and sometimes in informal interviews and both tend to use Mandarin at formal press conferences and official state functions. Both also tend to use more Mandarin in northern Taiwan and more Taiwanese in southern Taiwan. However at official party gatherings (as opposed to both Mandarin-leaning state functions and Taiwanese-leaning party rallies), the DPP tends to use Taiwanese while KMT and PFP tend to use Mandarin. The Taiwan Solidarity Union, which advocates a strong line on Taiwan independence, tends to use Taiwanese even in formal press conferences. In speaking, politicians will frequently code switch. In writing, almost everyone uses vernacular Mandarin which is farther from Taiwanese, and the use of semi-alphabetic writing or even colloquial Taiwanese characters is rare.

Despite these commonalities, there are still different attitudes toward the relationship between Taiwanese and Mandarin. In general, while supporters of Chinese reunification believe that all languages used on Taiwan should be respected, they tend to believe that Mandarin should have a preferred status as the common working language between different groups. Supporters of Taiwan independence tend to believe that either Taiwanese should be preferred or that no language should be preferred.

In 2002, the Taiwan Solidarity Union, a party with about 10 % of the Legislative Yuan seats at the time, suggested making Taiwanese a second official language. This proposal encountered strong opposition not only from Mainlander groups but also from Hakka and aboriginal groups who felt that it would slight their home languages, as well as others including Hoklo who objected to the proposal on logistical grounds and on the grounds that it would increase ethnic tensions. Because of these objections, support for this measure is lukewarm among moderate Taiwan independence supporters, and the proposal did not pass.

 

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