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

Most Common Taiwanese Given Names

Below are the most common given names for Taiwanese, as of June 2016. For the numbers of people with any of these given names, see the graph below. Note that there are more Taiwanese with even the tenth-most-popular name for girls than the most popular name for boys.

If you would like a chart of such names for Taiwanese in their twenties and thirties (specifically, those born 1976–1994), see Common Taiwanese given names. For the most common family names in Taiwan, see Taiwan personal names: a frequency list.

For the most likely spelling, bastardized Wade-Giles is given.

Most popular given names for Taiwanese males

No. Hanzi Pinyin Spelling Likely Used by Someone with This Name
1 家豪 Jiāháo Chia-hao
2 志明 Zhìmíng Chih-ming
3 俊傑 Jùnjié Chun-chieh
4 建宏 Jiànhóng Chien-hung
5 俊宏 Jùnhóng Chun-hung
6 志豪 Zhìháo Chih-hao
7 志偉 Zhìwěi Chih-wei
8 文雄 Wénxióng Wen-hsiung
9 金龍 Jīnlóng Chin-lung
10 志強 Zhìqiáng Chih-chiang

Most popular given names for Taiwanese females

No. Hanzi Pinyin Spelling Likely Used by Someone with This Name
1 淑芬 Shūfēn Shu-fen
2 淑惠 Shūhuì Shu-hui
3 美玲 Měilíng Mei-ling
4 雅婷 Yǎtíng Ya-ting
5 美惠 Měihuì Mei-hua
6 麗華 Lìhuá Li-hua
7 淑娟 Shūjuān Shu-chuan
8 淑貞 Shūzhēn Shu-chen
9 怡君 Yíjūn Yi-chun
10 淑華 Shūhuá Shu-hua

Graph, in Mandarin, of the most common male and female names in Taiwan

Note: Although I refer to these as “Taiwanese” names, I give the Mandarin forms (since Hanyu Pinyin is a system for writing Mandarin), not names in Hoklo/Hokkien (the language often referred to as Taiwanese).

Source: ROC Ministry of the Interior.

Tai vs Tai

Taipei’s MRT system, wonderful though it is, continues to find new ways to irritate me. Today I present the case of

台 vs. 臺

Semantically, there is no difference between these two characters. They both represent the tái in Taipei/Taibei and Taiwan. But the 台 form is more common in Taiwan, where it is seen as a variant form and thus not as one of the “simplified” characters used in China.

So why is the MRT’s new airport line using a huge “臺” on its signs when a normal “台” would do just as well? In fact, the regular 台 form is found six times on the same sign, with the fourteen-stroke “臺” seen just once.

To show that this isn’t just a one-off, I’m providing photos of a few more signs in a station along the “purple” (airport) line.

So, in the first sign alone, we have:

  • 臺北 (×1),
  • 台北 (×4),
  • 月台 (yuetai, platform), and
  • 台鐵 (×1), for Tai-Tie, Taiwan’s railroad company, and thus any ordinary train line.

I blame Ma Ying-jeou.

Zhou Youguang, 1906-2017

Zhou Youguang

Zhou Youguang, who is often called the “father of Hanyu Pinyin,” died earlier today.

He lived to the age of 111. He was “the man God forgot,” he liked to joke. And he did like to laugh. His sense of humor, which he kept despite some of the trials he suffered, no doubt helped him flourish so long.

He was most remarkable, however, not for his longevity but for his monumental contribution to literacy, his dedication to helping others, and his sense of justice.

I’ll add more information later.


Taipei to spend NT$300 million making MRT signage worse

Taipei MRT station
Commonwealth Magazine (Tiānxià zázhì) recently interviewed me for a Mandarin-language piece related to the signage on Taipei’s MRT system.

As anyone who has looked at Pinyin News more than a couple of times over the years should be able to guess, I had a lot to say about that — most of which understandably didn’t make it into the article. For example, I recall making liberal use of the word “bèn” (“stupid”) to describe the situation and the city’s approach. But the reporter — Yen Pei-hua (Yán Pèihuá / 嚴珮華), who is perhaps Taiwan’s top business journalist — diplomatically omitted that.

Since the article discusses the nicknumbering system Taipei is determined to implement “for the foreigners,” even though most foreigners are at best indifferent to this, but doesn’t include my remarks on it, I’ll refer you to my post on this from last year: Taipei MRT moves to adopt nicknumbering system. Back then, though, I didn’t know the staggering amount of money the city is going to spend on screwing up the MRT system’s signs: NT$300 million (about US$10 million)! The main reason given for this is the sports event Taipei will host next summer. That’s supposed to last for about ten days, which would put the cost for the signs alone at about US$1 million per day.

On the other hand, the city does not plan to fix the real problems with the Taipei MRT’s station names, specifically the lack of apostrophes in what should be written Qili’an (not Qilian), Da’an (not Daan) (twice!), Jing’an (not Jingan), and Yong’an (not Yongan) — in Chinese characters: 唭哩岸, 大安, 景安, and 永安, respectively. And then there’s the problem of wordy English names.

Well, take a look and comment — here, or better still, on the Facebook page. (Links below.) I’m grateful to Ms. Yen and Commonwealth for discussing the issue.


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.

Biscriptal butt texting

Now there’s a headline you don’t see every day.

I’ve had mobile phones for years but never butt-dialed or butt-texted anyone … until a couple of months ago, when I seemed to make up for lost time by sending off a series of messages and Line calls to one of my wife’s relatives. To make matters worse, this relative is in the States, where it was then after midnight.

Anyway, the messages start off in nonsense English and then switch mainly to nonsense Mandarin.

Most of the Chinese characters are isolated and have no semantic relationship to those around them. Predictably, most of the characters are for few simple sounds

  • 凹 [āo] — concave
  • 鞥 [ēng] — quite rare: leading rein (of a horse)

But there are a few instances of at least two characters working together:

  • 偶爾 ǒu’ěr (“occasionally”)
  • 怨偶 yuàn’ǒu (“unhappy couple”)
  • 鱷魚 èyú (“crocodile”)
  • So just in case anyone has ever wondered what butt texting in Chinese characters looks like, here you go. People whose phones have different methods for inputting Chinese characters will likely see somewhat different results.

    composite screenshot of a series of text messages sent in garbage English and garbage Mandarin Chinese (in Chinese characters)

I took several screenshots and stitched them together in Photoshop.

Shanghai considers deleting Pinyin from street signs

The Shanghai Road Administration Bureau is considering removing Hanyu Pinyin from street signs in the city.

Typically, the bureau’s division chief, Wang Weifeng, seems to be confused about the difference between Pinyin and English. He also justifies the move by claiming that larger Chinese characters would benefit Chinese citizens, ignoring the high number of people in China who are largely illiterate.

“Of course we will keep the English-Chinese traffic signs around some special areas, such as the tourism spots, CBD areas and some transport hubs,” Wang said.

A German newspaper article notes:

Ob sie die Umschrift wortwörtlich „aus dem Verkehr“ zieht, will Schanghai angeblich von einer „Umfrage“ unter „Anwohnern“ abhängig machen, ebenso vom Urteil nicht näher genannter „Experten“. Dies ist eine gängige Formulierung, wenn chinesische Regierungsstellen ihren einsamen Entscheidungen einen basisdemokratischen Anstrich geben wollen.

[Google Translate: Whether they literally “out of circulation” pulls the inscription, Shanghai will supposedly make a “survey” of “residents” depends, as of indeterminate sentence from “experts”. This is a common formulation, when Chinese authorities want to give their lonely decisions a grassroots paint.]

This is a situation all too common in Taiwan as well, such as in Taipei’s misguided move to apply nicknumbering to subway stops. “Experts” — ha!

Shanghai’s survey on Pinyin use and signage is of course in Mandarin only, with no English. The poll ends on August 30 (next week!), so add your views to that soon.

So far, public opinion seems to be largely against removing Hanyu Pinyin from signs. But that doesn’t mean this might not happen anyway. After all: Shanghai has its “experts” on the case. Heh.

If Shanghai really wanted to help the legibility of its signs, it should consider using word parsing even with text in Chinese characters. For example:

  • use 陕西 南路, not 陕西南路
  • use 斜土 路, not 斜土路
  • use 建国 西路, not 建国西路

That would also permit the use of superscript on the generic parts of names (e.g., “南路”) to save space. This could also be done with the Pinyin/English, with the Pinyin in large letters and the English “Rd” etc. in superscript.

Thanks to Michael Cannings for the tip.