Article on early Tongyong Pinyin on Taipei street signs

Reader Jens Finke recently came across a newspaper clipping from about twenty years ago, the dark ages of Taipei’s street signs. Back then most roads in the city were identified in bastardized Wade-Giles and wildly misspelled variations thereof. Two or even more spellings for one name at the same intersection was not uncommon. (Outside of Taipei, many signs were in MPS2, which is often mistaken — including in the article below — for the Yale system.) And so the foreign community of Taiwan by and large cried out for the use of Hanyu Pinyin. But that’s not what foreigners got. Instead, Taipei Mayor Chen Shui-bian decided to go with a half-baked local invention called Tongyong Pinyin.

Really, half-baked. Incredibly, not long after street signs started to go up in this system in 1998, its creator changed it. For example, the article mentions “Zhongsiao” (“Zhongxiao” in Hanyu Pinyin). Scarcely had the paint dried on the new street signs than the spelling in the supposedly same system was changed to “Jhongsiao.” This and other changes rendered most of the new signs obsolete.

But before many signs went up in the old new system or the new new system, Chen lost his December 1998 reelection bid. His successor, Ma Ying-jeou, didn’t pursue Tongyong Pinyin. Ma even took the surprising step of asking foreigners what they wanted and took action to implement the overwhelming choice of the foreign community (both then and now): Hanyu Pinyin, though unfortunately the road to this was not without monumentally foolish detours, bad ideas, and still-unfixed errors.

In 2000, Chen was elected president. He asked his minister of education, Ovid Tzeng, to decide on a romanization system for Taiwan. After Tzeng picked Hanyu Pinyin, he was given the boot. His successor saw the writing on the wall and quickly announced his support of Tongyong Pinyin. Meanwhile, Ma, who remained mayor of Taipei, said he had no plan to change to Tongyong Pinyin. This time marks the beginning of Taiwan’s romanization wars, which raged in the first decade of the century and have still not been completely resolved.

Some readers may suspect the reporter in the article below of pulling people’s legs (e.g., “Special thanks to janitorial assistant Shaw Toe-now of the Jyii Horng Bus Company in Tainan for faxing a copy of his employer’s self-designed romanization table”). But I assure you, it would be very difficult to outdo the craziness of Taiwan’s romanization situation back in those days.

Feel free to use the comments section below if you’d like to share any recollections of Taiwan’s signage mess of the 1990s and before.

In my transcription, I’ve fixed a few typos and omitted the article’s Cyrillic system for Mandarin.

photo of newspaper article on the enactment in Taipei of an early version of Tongyong Pinyin

Friday, May 8, 1998

It’s all Roman
By Ian Lamont

Throw out all of the new business cards, office stationery and checkbooks that you ordered a few months back to include Taipei’s new telephone numbers. Just three months after the phone company made all the city’s phone numbers eight digits long, the Taipei City Government has decided it wants to institute a new romanization system for street signs to make the city more accessible to international visitors.

Well, at least that’s the plan. Someone in the city government’s vast bureaucracy finally figured out that the screwed-up mix of Wade-Giles and Yale (the same guys who brought you “Peking”) was not really helping anything by having foreign nationals attempting to say “Jen-ai Road” or “Kien-kwo South Road” to bewildered taxi drivers.

Not that taxi drivers won’t be any less confused by the new linguistic concoctions that will result under the new system:

“I’d like to go to Her-ping West Road, please.”


“You know, Her-ping West Road. It’s on the way to Manka?”

In case you didn’t understand this little exchange, “Herping” (rhymes with “burping”) is the new Mandarin romanization for the current Hoping East/West Road, while “Manka” is the Taiwanese name for Taipei’s Wanhua neighborhood. According to the Taipei City Government, both of these names will be in common use once all the city’s street signs are replaced.

Professor Yu Boh-chuan, the Academia Sinica linguist who helped design the new system, says his way reflects the local culture while at the same time following international standards.

Currently, there is only one international standard — the hanyu pinyin system developed by China some forty years ago and now almost universally accepted as the official Mandarin romanization system by governments, universities, libraries and publishers around the world. While there are many similarities between hanyu pinyin and Taipei’s new system, there are also several glaring differences, most notably the puzzling use of the letter “r” at the end of some syllables, the omission of the palatal spirant “sh” sound in certain Mandarin words, and the inclusion of Taiwanese, Hakkanese and Aborigine place names.

Since Taipei will soon have at least three different romanization systems floating around, Weekend has decided to create a handy chart that will help readers (and potentially psychotic mail sorters) survive the sticky transition period.

As an added bonus, we’ve decided to include several other alternative spelling systems for non-Chinese speakers. Special thanks to janitorial assistant Shaw Toe-now of the Jyii Horng Bus Company in Tainan for faxing a copy of his employer’s self-designed romanization table, as well as Prof. Vladimir Torostov of the Sinitic Languages Department of Khabarovsk University in Russia for submitting a conversion table with the cyrillic spellings for Taipei street names. Dosvidanya!

Old Romanization New Romanization Mainland Jyii Horng Bus Co.
Chunghsiao Zhongsiao Zhongxiao Chunggshaw
Jenai Renai Renai Lenie
Hsinyi/Shinyi Sinyi Xinyi Shynyii
Hoping Herping Heping Huhpeeng
Keelung Kelang Jilong Cheerlurng
Pateh Bader Bade Patiih

Unnecessarily wordy sign

Directional road sign high on post. It reads (in Chinese characters) 'Caizhengbu, Nanqu Guoshuiju, Taidong Fenju' and (in English) 'Taitung Branch, National Taxation Bureau of the Southern Area, Ministry of Finance', as discussed in the post itself.

Above is a directional road sign at an intersection in Taitung (Taidong), Taiwan. It reads:


Nánqū Guóshuìjú
Táidōng Fēnjú]

Taitung Branch, National Taxation
Bureau of the Southern Area,
Ministry of Finance

Although Taiwan has a lot of this sort of directional signage, I don’t think I’ve written before about why I think so many examples of it are downright awful.

Not only is the sign unnecessarily wordy, the part that receives the greatest emphasis (by appearing in large characters) is the least useful: 臺東分局. Taidong Fenju means simply “Taitung branch office.” But since the sign is in Taitung itself, mention of an office being in Taitung provides zero useful information. (It’s a safe bet that drivers will already know which part of the country they’re in and that they aren’t driving around that neighborhood looking for the Taipei office.) The same thing goes for mention of this being the office for the Nanqu (“Southern Area”).

Nor do motorists care in the least what ministry the National Taxation Bureau belongs to. They simply need to be able to comprehend quickly and easily the main point of the sign. Too much information becomes clutter, a fatal problem on signs that drivers need to be able to read and comprehend quickly and easily.

A fundamental of good signage is to keep it simple.

The sign would be much better if it read simply “國稅局 Tax Office” and had an arrow. (Also, though this would be a moot point if the line were deleted, I’d prefer 台稅局 over 臺稅局. We have Ma Ying-jeou to thank for the prevalence of 臺.)

My private word for unnecessarily wordy signs in Taiwan is “signese,” which should not be confused with the good kind of Signese.

Sorry about the poor quality of the photo. I had to quickly use a cell phone camera on zoom through a taxi windshield — not ideal.

Dungan-English Dictionary published

Eastbridge Books, an imprint of Camphor Press, is pleased to announce the publication of its Dungan-English Dictionary, by Olli Salmi.

Dungan-English Dictionary sample page spread

Dungan is interesting for Chinese studies because it has an alphabetic orthography. It is also important because it shows very little influence from the Chinese literary language. It has preserved original features of the local dialects of about 150 years ago. It also has loans from Persian and Arabic, from Turkic languages, and from Russian.

The Dungans are Muslims who fled China for Russian territory in Central Asia after the failure of the Dungan Revolt (1862-1877). Their language, which UNESCO classifies as “definitely endangered,” is related to northwestern Mandarin Chinese. Dungan has two main dialects: the so-called Gansu dialect, which is similar to the Muslim Chinese communal dialects in the southern part of the province of Xinjiang, and the Shaanxi dialect, which has more in common with the dialects of southern Shaanxi around Xi’an. In the Soviet Union an alphabetic orthography and a literary language was developed for the Gansu dialect.

Although Dungan is now spoken primarily outside of China and employs an alphabet rather than Chinese characters, it is not really a peripheral dialect of Chinese. The Dungan Revolt started near Xi’an, Shaanxi, the cradle of the Chinese civilization and a frequent site of the capital of the country. (This is where the terracotta soldiers were buried.) The speakers that gave rise to Gansu Dungan came from a place west of the Shaanxi speakers, but still a totally Chinese-speaking area.

This dictionary is based on words and examples collected from Dungan-language newspapers and books published before the fall of the Soviet Union. Special attention has been paid to not only vocabulary (9,945 headwords) but also grammatical features; the dictionary may even provide material for the study of syntax. An effort has been made to find characters for Dungan words in dialect dictionaries published in China.

This work is available through Camphor Press and Amazon.

Note: I am part of Camphor Press and so stand to make a small amount of money from sales of this book. But that’s not why I’m recommending it to everyone interested in Dungan.

Reasons Gwoyeu Romatzyh never caught on, part 39

sign with a color photograph of a woman, with 'Eel Chyi 爾旗時尚' written beneath her

Eel Chyi

Here’s a sign spotted in Banqiao, Taiwan, for what would be written “Ěrqí” in Hanyu Pinyin.

“Ěrqí shíshàng” means “Erqi Fashion” (爾旗時尚), with the first word pronounced roughly like the English name “Archie.”

The doubled vowel (“ee”) is a marker of the Gwoyeu Romatzyh romanization system (or “GR” for short), in which doubled vowels indicate the third tone. Thus, “ee” in Gwoyeu Romatzyh equals “ě” in Hanyu Pinyin. As for the -l, that’s GR’s way of indicating -r. For those of you wondering why GR didn’t just use -r for -r, that’s because GR uses -r to indicate second tone … except when it uses other letters to do the same thing. It’s kinda complicated. For example:

  1. ēr = el
  2. ér = erl
  3. ěr = eel
  4. èr = ell


  1. qī = chi
  2. qí = chyi
  3. qǐ = chii
  4. qì = chih

Of course, Hanyu Pinyin’s q isn’t intuitive for most people used to reading in an alphabetic script but must be learned. Once learned, though, q is entirely consistent. And it must be noted that as quirky as Gwoyeu Romatyzh can be, its oddities are nothing compared to those of Chinese characters.

US postsecondary enrollments in Mandarin fall

The last time I presented the figures for people studying Mandarin in U.S. colleges and universities, the strong but over-hyped growth of the first decade of the century had stalled.

In the newest figures, recently released by the Modern Language Association of America, the number of people in Chinese classes has fallen. Although the total enrollments in languages other than English fell 9.2% between fall 2013 and fall 2016 (the second-largest decline in the history of the MLA’s census), the decline in enrollments in Mandarin classes was significantly greater than that.

The MLA says the decline between 2013 and 2016 was 13.1 percent. The true amount is greater.

MLA’s table

Table 1 from the MLA's 2016 report, showing numbers of enrollments in language courses and changes over time

As I mentioned above, the drop is even greater than given in the table, because, unless one looks carefully and beyond the MLA’s summaries, the MLA gives misleading figures for enrollments in ‘Chinese’ classes. (See the previous link to understand why my figures are different than those in the MLA table above. I’ve also excluded classes in literary Sinitic from this year’s compilation, so the figures are slightly different for some years than in my previous posts.)

So here are better figures, which combine those for classes labeled “Chinese” with those for classes labeled “Mandarin.” Not included in my figures are numbers for “Chinese, Classical” or “Chinese, Pre-modern” — or for Cantonese, Taiwanese, or additional Sinitic languages other than Mandarin.

The real decline from 2013 to 2016 is 14.3 percent, not 13.1 percent.

The highest growth between 2013 and 2016 was in Korean, which is now in eleventh place, having surpassed Ancient Greek, Biblical Hebrew, and Portuguese. Note, too, that enrollments in Japanese increased in the most recent survey.


MLA undercounts enrollments in ‘Chinese’ classes

The Modern Language Association recently released its figures for enrollments in languages other than English in U.S. institutions of higher education.

The information that usually receives the most attention is summarized in the report’s Table 1:

Table 1 from the MLA's 2016 report, showing numbers of enrollments in language courses and changes over time

Note that the figures for “Chinese” list 61,084 enrollments in the fall of 2013 and 53,069 in the fall of 2016, a decline of 13.1 percent. Those amounts, however, undercount enrollments in a usually small but important way.

As can be seen in the notes to the table above, “Arabic,” “Greek, Ancient,” and “Hebrew, Biblical” represent aggregate numbers — a sensible approach. In the case of “Chinese,” however, only what individual schools label as “Chinese” is summed under that category. The problem is that figures for what is labeled “Mandarin” are excluded. This makes no sense. The language usually labeled “Chinese” is Mandarin. Failure to include Mandarin under “Chinese” is simply wrong.

In Britain, “Chinese” sometimes is used to indicate Cantonese rather than Mandarin. But the figures from the MLA are for the United States.

Seven of the MLA’s reports on language enrollments give figures for Mandarin as separate from “Chinese”:

Separate figures for ‘Mandarin’ and ‘Chinese’ in MLA reports

2016 1,179 53,069 2.17
2016 (summer) 112 5,033 2.18
2013 913 61,084 1.47
2009 1,736 59,876 2.82
1974 40 10,576 0.38
1970 88 6,115 1.42
1960 1,126 679 62.38

As can be seen from the figures above, in most years when figures for both “Mandarin” and “Chinese” are given, the MLA’s figure for “Chinese” is missing least 2 percent of the total. That might not seem like much, but it’s enough to matter, especially to those who wish to compare enrollments across languages accurately. The problem will only grow larger if the word “Mandarin” comes to be used increasingly.

Thus, total enrollments for “Chinese” classes in 2016 were not 53,069 but no less than 54,248; and enrollments in 2013 were not 61,084 but no less than 61,997. That indicates a decline of 14.3 percent, not the 13.1 percent the MLA gives in its table.

The problem is ultimately rooted not in the MLA but in the sloppy use of terms related to Sinitic languages. In part because of this, I believe that schools — indeed everyone — would be better off calling Mandarin “Mandarin” and not “Chinese.” But until that admittedly unlikely adjustment comes to pass, the MLA should be careful to aggregate “Mandarin” and “Chinese” in its tables and figures comparing enrollments across the most popular languages.

Google commemorates Zhou Youguang

Yesterday (January 13, 2018), Google marked the 112th birthday of Zhou Youguang, the father of Hanyu Pinyin, with one of its doodles. (Click the image to see the animated version.)

Google doodle marking the 112th birthday of Zhou Youguang

Google’s description didn’t note Zhou’s remarkable longevity. He lived to see his 111th birthday!

One bit of the description is misleading: “[Hanyu Pinyin] bridged multiple Chinese dialects with its shared designations of sound.” First, what are commonly referred to as “dialects” are actually separate languages (e.g., Cantonese, Hakka, Hoklo). Second, Hanyu Pinyin is designed for modern standard Mandarin, not for other languages, though it could be used as the basis for writing systems for Sinitic languages other than Mandarin; this did not happen on a wide scale, however, because the government of the People’s Republic of China has worked to suppress Sinitic languages other than Mandarin — to say nothing of the languages of Tibetans and other minorities.

A few points are noteworthy about the sketches, specifically the inclusion of Gǔgē, the Mandarin name for Google, written in zhuyin fuhao (a.k.a. bopomofo) (ㄍㄨˇㄍㄜ) and Gwoyeu Romatzyh (guuge) — the doubled vowel indicates third tone.

Zhou Youguang

Zhou Youguang doodle continued

It’s also interesting that the doodle was shown on Google in Japan, China, and Singapore, but not in Taiwan, where Hanyu Pinyin is official but generally used on street signs rather than in personal names.

Countries where the ZYG doodle was shown. China, Japan, the  United States, Canada, and several other countries are indicated -- but not Taiwan.

Thanks to Alex for the tip.

Pinyin-friendly display faces at Google Fonts

As of January 9, 2018, Google Fonts had 848 font families, 183 of which are display faces. Of those, the following 20 can handle Hanyu Pinyin with tone marks.