Today I’d like to talk about a sign at a stand that sells guabao, a quintessential Taiwanese snack.

I took my own photo, but it didn’t make the guabao look particularly appetizing, so I’m using a public-domain image instead so you can see what one looks like if you don’t already know. But when I buy one I have them leave off the cilantro/xiāngcài. I hate that stuff.

Here’s the sign.

guabao sign, as described below



(NT$50 is about US$1.50.)

The sign uses some Taiwanese, specifically “a刈包.” If the whole thing were in romanized Taiwanese, it would be

Su-pâng ê

To̍k-ka kháu-bī
50 îⁿ

But parts of that are unidiomatic, as Taiwanese expert Michael Cannings informs me. (Alas, my Taiwanese sucks.) So this is a sign in both Taiwanese and Mandarin, which isn’t particularly surprising given that guabao is a Taiwanese food but most people in northern Taiwan use Mandarin most of the time. (I’m using the spelling “guabao” rather than “koah-pau” in most of this post because this is a Pinyin site.)

Something about this sign did surprise me a lot. Can you guess?

  • It’s not the use of a Roman letter — I should probably say “English letter” in this case, since here the letter is meant to be pronounced much like the “A” in “ABC” — though regular readers know that’s certainly more than enough to get me interested.
  • It’s not that the sign has “刈包” rather than “割包” for guabao. In searches restricted to .tw domains, Google returns 181,000 results for “刈包” and just 41,900 results for “割包”, even though Taiwan’s Ministry of Education prefers the latter form. Even on government Web pages “刈包” beats “割包” by a ratio of more than two to one.
  • It’s not the style in which “刈包” is written by hand, though I kinda like that.
  • And it’s not even that “a” was used instead of a different Roman letter: “ê”.

What seems to me most distinctive about this sign is that the Roman letter appears in lowercase rather than as “A”.

A single letter being used to represent a Sinitic morpheme in a text otherwise in Chinese characters is almost always written in upper case, e.g., A菜, 宮保G丁, K書. (Oh, that reminds me: I really need to answer that e-mail message about K. Sorry, Steven.)

In other words, if a sign is going to have the Roman letter “a” stand in for the Taiwanese possessive particle (the equivalent of Mandarin’s de/的), I would expect in this particular case for the sign to have “私房A” rather than “私房a”. I’m pleased by the use of lowercase; capital letters should be mainly for proper nouns and the beginnings of sentences.

It’s probably a one-off. But just in case I’ll be on the lookout to see if there’s a trend toward greater use of lowercase.

The text also presents a challenge: How should this be written in Pinyin? The last part (獨家口味 / 50元) is easy, because it’s just straight modern standard Mandarin:

dújiā kǒuwèi
50 yuán

But what to do with this?


Probably this:

Sīfáng ê

Aiyo! OED fails to use Pinyin for some new entries

The Oxford English Dictionary has just added some new entries, including several from Sinitic languages.

A lot of these come by way of Singapore and so reflect the Hokkien language. For example, among the new entries is “ang pow,” which is Hokkien’s equivalent of Mandarin’s “hongbao,” which also made the list.

A few of the entries, however, come from Mandarin, for example two common interjections for surprise. Oddly, though, the OED uses “aiyoh” and “aiyah” instead of their proper Pinyin spellings of “aiyo” and “aiya.”

“Ah,” you say, “but maybe the aiyoh and aiyah spellings are more common in English.”


Even in Singapore domains (.sg), the Pinyin spellings are more common than those the OED calls for. As the tables below show, in every instance the Pinyin spellings are also more common in Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan. Throughout the world, the Pinyin spellings are more common — the vast majority of the time by a factor of at least two.

Google search results for “aiyo” (Pinyin) and “aiyoh” (spelling used in the OED)

  aiyo aiyoh
.sg 12,200 5,680
.hk 2,570 187
.cn 6,040 984
.tw 4,690 196
all domains 1,250,000 137,000
all domains  + “chinese” 97,700 77,100
all domains  + “mandarin” 51,800 14,100

Google search results for “aiya” (Pinyin) and “aiyah” (spelling used in the OED)

  aiya aiyah
.sg 17,600 8,310
.hk 6,400 2,360
.cn 13,200 1,860
.tw 5,910 1,710
all domains 3,370,000 332,000
all domains  + “chinese” 238,000 63,200
all domains  + “mandarin” 36,500 22,800

Searching Google Books also reveals that the Pinyin forms are more common.

In short, I do not see any good reason for the OED to have adopted ad hoc spellings rather than the Pinyin standard. They must have their reasons, but it looks like they botched this.

Languages, scripts, and signs: a walk around Taipei’s Shixin University

Recently I took some trails through the mountains in Taipei and ended up at Shih Hsin University (Shìxīn Dàxué / 世新大學). Near the school are some interesting signs. Rather than giving individual posts for each of these, I’m keeping the signs together in this one, as this is better testimony to the increasing and often playful diversity of languages and scripts in Taiwan.

Cǎo Chuàn

Here’s a restaurant whose name is given in Pinyin with tone marks! That’s quite a rarity here, though I suspect we’ll be seeing more of this in the future. The name in Chinese characters (草串) can be found, much smaller, on a separate sign below.



Right by Cao Chuan is Èrgē de Niúròumiàn (Second Brother’s Beef Noodle Soup). Note the use of the Japanese の rather than Mandarin’s 的; this is quite common in Taiwan.



This store has an ㄟ, which serves as a marker of the Taiwanese language. Here, ㄟ is the equivalent of 的 — and of の.

Bālè ei diàn

A’Woo Tea Bar


I couldn’t find a name in Chinese characters for this place. The name is probably onomatopoeia, as in “Werewolves of London — awoo!”

Taiwanese romanization used for Hanzi input method

Since I just posted about the new Hakka-based Chinese character input method I would be amiss not to note as well the release early this year of a different Chinese character input method based on Taiwanese romanization.

This one is available in Windows, Mac, and Linux flavors.

See the FAQ and documents below for more information (Mandarin only).

Táiw?n M?nnány? Hànzì sh?rùf? 2.0 b?n xiàzài (?????????? 2.0???) [Readers may wish to note the use of Minnan, which is generally preferred among unificationists and some advocates of Hakka and the languages of Taiwan’s tribes.]

source: Jiàoyùbù Táiw?n M?nnány? Hànzì sh?rùf? (?????????????); Ministry of Education, Taiwan; June 16, 2010(?) / February 14, 2011(?) [Perhaps the Windows and Linux versions came first, with the Mac version following in 2011.]

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.

A clang on the Taipei MRT announcements

photo of a sign at the Zhongxiao Xinsheng MRT stationPeople generally don’t listen carefully to the announcements on the Taipei MRT, a subway/elevated train mass-transit system. With four languages to get through — Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka, and English — that’s a lot of talking. And anyway, the cars can be so full that it’s hard to hear such things clearly over all the background noise anyway. Still, you’d think that at least the people who make the recordings would be paying attention.

Below is a link to a recording of a relatively new announcement, advising people on the Danshui line that Minquan West Road is the place to change trains for the Luzhou line, which opened late last year: Mínquán West Road Station. Attention: passengers transferring to Sānchóng, Lúzhōu, or Zhōngxiào-Xīnshēng please change trains at this station.

Or at least what I typed above is what the announcement is supposed to give. As you may have noticed, however, “Zhōngxiào-Xīnshēng” is rendered “Zhongxiao-Xinshang,” with a very un-Mandarin shang that rhymes with the English words clang, pang, hang, and sang. And that’s without getting into the matter of tones.

I pointed out this error to Taipei City Hall and the authorities in charge of the MRT. As usual, I had to spend some time repeatedly explaining: “No, Xinshang is not the English pronunciation of Xīnshēng. Xīnshēng isn’t English. It’s Mandarin. What the announcement gives is simply an error….” I was pleasantly surprised, however, that the main person I spoke to at TRTS did not require the usual explanations. He understood the problem and said it would be fixed.

This, however, was a couple of months ago. The recordings have not yet been changed. I haven’t been holding my breath over this, though, because the official with the MRT system warned that it would take time to run a public bid notice for a new recording, make the new recording, and then install the recording in the front and back cars of some 100 trains. Still, the system has been known to move fairly quickly; unfortunately, this usually happens only when the change is for the worse, such as renaming Xindian City Hall as Xindian City Office (now Xindian District Office), or renaming the whole Muzha line because some superstitious nitwits thought that a joking, non-official nickname was bringing the system bad luck.

For longtime residents of Taipei, the shang mispronunciation will likely bring back memories of the bad old days when the MRT system first opened. Back then the signage was predominantly in bastardized Wade-Giles, with the pronunciations in the English announcements matching what a clueless Westerner might say when shown names like Kuting and Nanking (properly: Gǔtíng and Nánjīng, respectively). Perhaps the most offensive pronunciation on the system then was given to Dànshuǐ, which at the time was [mis]spelled Tamshui on the MRT system. This was pronounced as three syllables: Tam (rhymes with the English word “dam”) + shu (“shoe”) + i (as in “machine”).

By the way, the Xinbei City Government has been changing signs around Danshui from Danshui to the old Taiwanese spelling of Tamsui (note: not Tamshui). But more about that in a different post.

Taiwanese-English, English-Taiwanese dictionaries posted

Maryknoll Language Service Center has put online the complete texts of its Taiwanese-English and English-Taiwanese dictionaries. Better still, these have been released under a Creative Commons license. These are a terrific resource for anyone who’s interested in Hoklo.

Maryknoll deserves praise for this great work. Thanks are due, too, to Tailingua, which I know has been working behind the scenes to help make this happen.

From the English Amoy Dictionary (???????):
screenshot from the English-Taiwanese dictionary

And from the Taiwanese-English Dictionary (??????):
screenshot from the dictionary

source: Maryknoll dictionaries now free to download, Tailingua, June 17, 2010

recent milestones for Sino-Platonic Papers

The Web site for Sino-Platonic Papers, Professor Victor Mair’s iconoclastic journal, has expanded to the point that, as of the most recent batch of reissues, it offers more than half of the journal’s 198 (and counting) issues in full and for free. So if you haven’t visited that site recently you might want to have another look.

I’ll mention just a few of the recent additions:

Other recent milestones for SPP include

Below: A chart from SPP 198, Aramaic Script Derivatives in Central Eurasia, by Doug Hitch.
chart of scripts derived from Aramaic. See SPP 198 (the link for this image) for a version of this chart with machine-readable text.