writing Taiwanese: language, script, and myths

I’ve been fortunate to be able to add to this site a major essay on Taiwan’s language situation, etymology, and scripts: “How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language,” by Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania.

Here is the abstract:

The concept of guoyu (“national language”) is deeply embedded in the consciousness of everyone who has grown up in Taiwan during the past half century. Lately, however, people have begun to speak of their muyu (“mother tongue”) as being worthy of inculcation. Guoyu, of course, refers to Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), which in China is called putonghua (“common speech”). Mandarin is not native to Taiwan, yet it is the national language of Taiwan’s citizens and is the sole official written language. In contrast, the citizens of Taiwan are discouraged from writing their native languages (viz., Taiwanese, Hakka, and various aboriginal languages) and it is only recently that it has been possible to teach them in the schools. This paper will examine the complicated processes whereby the citizens of Taiwan are transformed from speakers of their mother tongues to speakers and writers of the national language. This transformation does not rely purely on educational activities carried out in the schools, but involves political, social, and cultural factors as well. The transformation of Cantonese and Shanghainese speakers into Mandarin speakers and writers will also be examined for comparative purposes.

This, however, hardly does justice to the scope of the essay.

I strongly recommend reading this. Again, here is the link to the full essay.

One thought on “writing Taiwanese: language, script, and myths

  1. Written language is a system of symbols that describes meanings of a language, not necessarily pronunciations. A good example is the Characters in Manderin, which depict meaning not pronunciation. The Pinyin for Manderin pronunciation cannot write Chinese. By the same token, pure phonetic Taiwanese (i.e. hw~lw` language) Romanization scripts cannot sufficiently write hw~lw` language. To believe it can is too naive. This is one of the reasons that Romanizaition, including Church, cannot be popular. The main problem is the “flood” of homonyms in the phonetics.

    I write hw~lw` poems (pentameters) and have encountered numerous difficulties in using “pure” phonetic transcripts to convey the meaning. I have devised a system of root-symbols to differentiate the homonys. For example, [ki (low tone)] can mean “go” or “angry”, to name two homonyms. If we write [ki-foot] and [ki-heart], we get clear menaings, which is the essence of a written language. There are such root symbols in Charater dictionaries we can use. I have a series of articles on the subject, published in The Taiwanese Literature Review.

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