back to Tamsui

photo of sticker with 'Tamsui' placed over the old map's spelling of 'Danshui'It’s time for another installment of Government in Action.

What you see to the right is something the Taipei County Government (now the Xinbei City Government, a.k.a. the New Taipei City Government) set into action: the Hanyu Pinyin spelling of “Danshui” is being replaced on official signage, including in the MRT system, by the old Taiwanese spelling of “Tamsui.” I briefly touched upon the plans for “Tamsui” a few months ago. (See my additional notes in the comments there.)

I have mixed feelings about this move. On the one hand, I’m pleased to see a representation of a language other than Mandarin or English on Taiwan’s signage. “Tamsui” is the traditional spelling of the Taiwanese name for the city. And it hardly seems too much for at least one place in Taiwan to be represented by a Taiwanese name rather than a Mandarin one.

On the other hand, the current move unfortunately doesn’t really have anything to do with promoting or even particularly accepting the Taiwanese language. It’s not going to be labeled “Taiwanese,” just “English,” which is simply wrong. It’s just vaguely history-themed marketing aimed at foreigners and no one else. But which foreigners, exactly, is this supposed to appeal to? Perhaps Taiwan is going after those old enough to remember the “Tamsui” spelling, though I wonder just how large the demographic bracket is for centenarian tourists … and just how mobile most of them might be.

So it’s basically another example — retroactively applied! — of a spelling that breaks the standard of Hanyu Pinyin and substitutes something that foreigners aren’t going to know how to pronounce (and the government will probably not help with that either): i.e., it’s another “Keelung” (instead of using “Jilong”), “Kinmen” instead of “Jinmen,” and “Taitung” instead of “Taidong.”

A key point will be how “Tamsui” is pronounced on the MRT’s announcement system. (I haven’t heard any changes yet; but I haven’t taken the line all the way out to Danshui lately.) The only correct way to do this would be exactly the same as it is pronounced in Taiwanese. And if the government is really serious about renaming Danshui as Tamsui, the Taiwanese pronunciation will be the one given in the Mandarin and Hakka announcements as well as the English one. Moreover, public officials and announcers at TV and radio stations will be instructed to say T?m-súi rather than Dànshu?, even when speaking in Mandarin.

Fat chance.

But, as years of painful experience in this area have led me to expect, my guess would be that the announcements will not do that. Instead, it will be another SNAFU, with a mispronunciation (yes, it is almost certain to be mispronounced by officialdom and those in the media) being labeled as “English”.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong about saying “T?m-súi.” But it’s a pretty safe bet that isn’t going to happen: the name will likely be given a pronunciation that a random clueless English speaker might use as a first attempt; then that will be called English. This sort of patronizing attitude toward foreigners really makes my blood boil. So I’m going to leave it at that for the moment lest my blood pressure go up too much.

So, once again, the MRT system is taking something that was perfectly fine and changing it to something that will be less useful — and all the while continuing to ignore miswritten station names, stupidly chosen station names, mispronunciations, and Chinglish-filled promotional material.

Please keep your ears as well as eyes open for instances of “Tamsui” and let me know what you observe. The city, by the way, has already started using “Tamsui” instead of “Danshui” on lots of official road signs, as I started seeing several months ago and which I noticed in increasing use just last week when I passed through that way.

I probably should have taken a more active stance on this months ago; but I was too busy working against the bigger and even more ridiculous anti-Pinyin change of “Xinbei” to “New Taipei City.” Fat lot of good that did.

14 thoughts on “back to Tamsui

  1. One reason they’re going to Tamsui is that this is how the name appears on a variety of Roman-alphabet (not always just English) documents. And I’ll wager it’s also because that’s what residents of the area prefer.

    Like most residents of it, I like ‘New Taipei’ as an English name for Taiwan’s largest city.

    It’s OK to use English in an English name. Everything doesn’t have to be Pinyin. Really.

  2. This would be OK if Tamsui was actually a common pronunciation among foreign residents of Taiwan, but given that the only pronunciation I ever hear is Danshui it is in fact ridiculous. There should have first been some effort to see what foreigners living here actually use.
    Personally I like Keelung, because it is closer to the Hokkien pronunciation. It’s a different situation from Danshui since it had already entirely taken over from Tamsui.

  3. To ATK:

    Foreigners are not always English speakers. Why should we use a name which is not fully based on our official language?

  4. If “oldest name” is the criterion for renaming places, when are they going to start calling Kaohsiung “Takao” or Tainan “Taiwanfoo”?

  5. “Tamsui” is not just Taiwanese. It actually is the traditional English name of the place (just like “Taipei” or “Keelung”), which as far as I can tell was being used the whole time by the township/district government and local businesses. Didn’t ever notice the “Welcome to Danshui” mural as you come into the area on the metro? I suspect it was only supplanted by “Danshui” in the last few years, when the Taipei government switched to Hanyu Pinyin and the MRT administration followed.

    I admit it’s confusing, and I’m partly with you on those issues; but there’s also something to be said for calling a place by its longstanding English name when speaking English. We go to “Germany” and “Japan”, not “Deutchland” and “Nippon”.

  6. According to @Meow’s tweet[1], Taibei MRT has just switched broadcasting the interchange information from the termini to the names of the lines: ‘transfer station for xxx line.’

    The ‘xxx’ above could be Tamsui (??), Bannan (??), Wenhu (??), and Luzhou (??). However, the new Xinyi Line (???) is going to join the service next year in 2012. From the current mode, we could easily assume that the combination of ??? and ??? (the Red Line) would be called ‘???’ in Chinese. But how about in Romanisation?

    Tamxin Line? Danxin Line? Or in Hoklo entirely: Tamsin Line?

    [1] https://twitter.com/#!/meowgoddess/status/144687739156172800

  7. @Evan,
    You’re making Danshui sound like an independent country instead of a city district.

    There are no such things as ‘English names’ when it comes to Chinese places. Both ‘Taipei’ and ‘Keelung’ are Romanisation—Mandarin Romanisation. Even the spellings are not widely-used nowadays, it’s still Mandarin pronunciation.

    ‘Tamsui,’ however, is in Hoklo, which brings a lot of problems during communication. For instance, it’s not like everyone in Taiwan understands Hoklo but they do understand Mandarin. Easiest and simplest name: Danshui.

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