Taiwan personal names: a frequency list

Imagine taking everyone in the United States named Johnson, Williams, Jones, Brown, Davis, Miller, Wilson, Moore, Taylor, and Anderson … and giving them all the new family name of “Smith.” Then add to the Smiths everyone surnamed Thomas, Jackson, White, Harris, Martin, Thompson, Garcia, Martinez, Robinson, Clark, Rodriguez, Lewis, Lee, Walker, Hall, Allen, Young, Hernandez, King, Wright, and Lopez. Those are, in descending order beginning with Smith, the 32 most common family names in the United States. It takes all of those names together to reach the same frequency that the name “Chen” (Hoklo: Tân) has in Taiwan.

Chen covers 10.93 percent of the population here, according to figures released by Chih-Hao Tsai based on the recent release of the names of the 81,422 people who took Taiwan’s college entrance exam this year.

By way of additional contrast, Smith, the most common family name in the United States, covers just 1.00 percent of the population there.

In Taiwan, the 10 most common family names cover half (50.22 percent) of the population. Covering the same percentage in the United States requires the top 1,742 names there. And covering the same percentage as Taiwan’s top 25 names (74.17 percent) requires America’s top 13,425 surnames.

So if you’re just getting started in Mandarin, consider that you’ll get a lot of mileage out of memorizing the tones for the top ten names.

family name (Mandarin form) spelling usually seen in Taiwan percent of total cumulative percentage
Chén Chen 10.93% 10.93%
Lín Lin 8.36% 19.29%
Huáng Huang 6.06% 25.35%
Zhāng Chang 5.39% 30.74%
Li, Lee 5.20% 35.94%
Wáng Wang 4.20% 40.14%
Wu 4.03% 44.17%
Liú Liu 3.18% 47.36%
Cài Tsai 2.86% 50.22%
Yáng Yang 2.64% 52.86%
Hsu 2.32% 55.18%
Zhèng Cheng 1.86% 57.05%
Xiè Hsieh 1.77% 58.82%
Qiū Chiu 1.50% 60.32%
Guō Kuo 1.48% 61.79%
Zēng Tseng 1.45% 63.24%
Hóng Hung 1.40% 64.64%
Liào Liao 1.38% 66.02%
Hsu 1.33% 67.35%
Lài Lai 1.32% 68.66%
Zhōu Chou 1.24% 69.90%
Yeh 1.18% 71.08%
Su 1.17% 72.25%
Jiāng Chiang 0.97% 73.22%
Lu 0.94% 74.17%

For those wanting the Taiwanese (Hoklo) forms of these names, see Tailingua’s list of Common Family Names in Taiwan.

On the other hand, common given names have much greater variety in Taiwan than in America, especially in the case of males. In the United States the top 10 names for males cover 23.185 percent of the male population, and the top 10 names for females cover 10.703 percent of the population. In Taiwan, however, the top 10 given names (male and female together) cover just 1.49 percent of the population.


further reading:

President-elect Ma favors Hanzi-only writing of Taiwanese: report

If the Chen Shui-bian administration had bothered to do much of anything really useful to promote Taiwanese, especially as a written language, then we probably wouldn’t be faced with crap like this.

President-elect Ma Ying-jeou met last week with Chen Fang-ming (陳芳明), the chairman of the Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature at National Chengchi University (Zhèng-Dà). Although Professor Chen is a former DPP official and supported Frank Hsieh in the recent election, the two reportedly found much to agree on, such as that the idea that Chinese characters are all that are needed for literature in Taiwanese; romanization and other such phonetic spellings, they agreed, aren’t necessary.

Zǒngtǒng dāngxuǎnrén Mǎ Yīngjiǔ jīntiān bàihuì Zhèng-Dà Táiwān wénxué yánjiūsuǒ suǒzhǎng Chén Fāngmíng, tā biǎoshì liǎng rén jīntiān tándào běntǔhuà, zhuǎnxíng zhèngyì, běntǔ wénxué, dàxué píng jiàn děng yìtí, lìng tā yǒu “kōnggǔzúyīn” zhī gǎn, liǎng rén hěn duō kànfǎ dōu bùmóu’érhé, lìrú Chén Fāngmíng rènwéi zhǐyòng Zhōngwén xiě, Héluòhuà niàn, jiùshì Táiyǔ wénxué, bùyīdìng kèyì yào yòng Luómǎzì, yīn lái pīn.

This is certainly discouraging though not unexpected news for romanization supporters — and for those whose idea of Taiwanese lit isn’t stuck in the Qing dynasty or even earlier. But there’s always hope that this is another of those times in which Ma is simply persuaded by or agreeing with whatever is in front of him; and he may change his mind later. Regardless, though, it doesn’t augur well for a modern Taiwanese literature or for government work on — much less promotion of — romanization over the next four years.

source and further reading:

status of Cantonese: a survey-based study

The latest new release from Sino-Platonic Papers is one that I think will be of particular interest to readers of Pinyin News. It’s an extensive study of not only the attitudes of speakers of Cantonese and Mandarin toward the status of Cantonese but also their beliefs about its future, especially in Hong Kong: Language or Dialect–or Topolect? A Comparison of the Attitudes of Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese towards the Status of Cantonese (650 KB PDF), by Julie M. Groves.

This study reports on a comparative survey of three groups of Chinese: 53 Hong Kong Cantonese speakers, 18 Mainland Chinese Cantonese speakers, and 72 Mainland Chinese Putonghua speakers. It was found that the Putonghua speakers held more ‘classic’ views, the majority seeing Cantonese as a dialect. In contrast, only just over half the Hong Kongers and two-fifths the Mainland Cantonese speakers considered it clearly a dialect, while one-third of all respondents favoured a mid-point classification. The differing perspectives held by the groups can be traced to their different political and linguistic situations, which touch issues of identity.

The author notes, “The uncertainties in classification also reflect a problem with terminology. The Chinese word usually translated dialect, fangyan (??), does not accurately match the English word dialect.” Groves recommends the adoption of Victor Mair’s proposed English word for fangyan: topolect.

Although this focuses on the dialect vs. language debate, it covers much more than that. Those being surveyed were also asked questions such as:

  • Where do you think the best Cantonese is spoken?
  • Do you think Putonghua will eventually replace Cantonese as the main, everyday language of Hong Kongers?
  • Do you think it is possible for someone to consider themselves to be a Hong Konger (or Hong Kong Chinese/Chinese Hong Konger) without being able to speak Cantonese?

The results of the study may also prove useful for those interested in the future of other languages of China and Taiwan, such as Taiwanese and Shanghainese.

Here are a couple of the many graphs found in the study.

HK Cant = Hong Kong Cantonese speakers
MCant = mainland Cantonese speakers
MPTH = mainland speakers of Mandarin (“P?t?nghuà“)

graph of responses to the question 'Will Putonghua replace Cantonese as the main language of Hong Kongers?' Most say 'no' -- and this is strongest among mainland Cantonese speakers

graph of responses to the question 'Can a person be a Hong Konger without speaking Cantonese?' Most Hong Kong Cantonese speakers say no; but the answer is closer to a tie for mainland Mandarin speakers

Taiwanese, eh?

I’m so far behind on posts that when Taffy of Tailingua sent this to me people in Taipei probably really were wearing short sleeves. They’re certainly not wearing so little now, with the cold, damp, miserable weather we’ve been having lately. Oh well, at least it’s better than what so many people have been having to endure in China. I hope Pinyin News readers there are keeping warm and didn’t get stuck in some transportation-related hell.
photo discussed in this post -- large blue text against a white background, Ma and Siew shown from the waist up with their arms crossed; a blue bird on the left
This poster on the back of a bus is for Taiwan’s presidential campaign.

It reads:

Táiwān ei lìliang
Shìjiè dǎ tōngguān

Mǎ Yīngjiǔ — Xiāo Wàncháng



馬英九 蕭萬長

It’s hard to put this into English that makes sense. Perhaps “Taiwan shows its power to the world.” The idea is something like “Taiwan can overcome all obstacles.” It doesn’t strike me as a good slogan. But maybe I’m missing something.

The interesting part is that it has Taiwanese written with zhuyin (bopomofo): ㄟ (ei). But the ㄟ is basically just for show, since it doesn’t serve any linguistic purpose that the expected Chinese character — 的 (de), indicating the possessive — wouldn’t provide. The sign is still in Mandarin. (Dǎ tōngguān, for example, is not a Taiwanese expression, according to several native speakers I questioned about this.)

For those who don’t know, Mǎ Yīngjiǔ and Xiāo Wàncháng comprise the KMT’s ticket for next month’s presidential election.

Both Ma and Xiao use unusual spellings for the way they write their names in the Roman alphabet: Ma Ying-jeou and Vincent Siew, respectively.

The “Ying-jeou” of Ma’s name gives the appearance of Gwoyeu Romatzyh. But in that system his name would be “Maa Ing-jeou.”

“Siew” for Hanyu Pinyin’s Xiāo indicates that the source is likely a language other than Mandarin. But Taiwanese isn’t it, though Siew, unlike Ma, was born here. Because of that spelling, many foreigners in Taiwan pronounce his family name like the English word “shoe.” “Vincent” is of course an “English name” rather than a romanization of his birth name.

As I’m fond of pointing out, perhaps the only prominent Taiwan politician whose name is recognizably Hanyu Pinyin and only Hanyu Pinyin is President Chen Shui-bian, the man most responsible for seeing that Taiwan did not adopt Hanyu Pinyin during his tenure.

wanted: linguistically interesting Taiwan campaign material

Taiwan’s new method for electing legislators (with one directly elected legislator per relatively small district instead of many legislators for large districts) means that areas no longer have an enormous variety of campaign signs on display. So I don’t get to see nearly as many signs as during previous elections.

Outside my neighborhood I’ve seen some signs with zhuyin (usually there for writing something in Taiwanese). But I haven’t been able to get any photos of these or other such signs. So I’m hoping that others might send in some photos, if you see anything interesting.

I’m specifically looking for:

  • signs with zhuyin (bopomofo) or romanization
  • signs using languages other than Mandarin (e.g., Taiwanese, English)
  • signs using puns, esp. if the puns involve more than one language
  • anything else linguistically interesting

Please e-mail me your finds. (I promise to try to get them online quicker than with my usual six-month delay.) Or add comments here pointing me toward examples you’ve already put online or seen elsewhere.

Some examples in previous posts:

Taipei City Government screws the English language again

In addition to skewering Tongyong Pinyin in his latest column, Johnny Neihu reports on a new Web site from the Taipei City Government with bizarre romanization and completely crappy English.

However, it hasn’t taken long for things [in Taipei’s English-language environment] to start deteriorating — 11 months to be precise. Mayor Hau Lung-bin (???) has already begun to make his mark, if the English moniker of the metropolis’ most recent culinary fiesta is anything to go by.

I am talking about Taipei’s “Newrow Mian” Festival, which, for those ignorant of Mayor Hau’s personal Romanization system, means beef noodles. “Newrow”? It sounds more like the sort of French-accented Mandarin you would expect from a badly congested Inspector Clouseau if they ever made The Pink Panther in Beijing. But then what can you expect from a mayor with a master’s degree in food science?

Any laowai getting into a cab and asking for a lift to the nearest “newrow” store will no doubt be greeted with a look more vacant than that of Hau at a council meeting.

My guess is that the city government brokered some sort of deal on purchasing livestock for the festival with “La New” of shoes fame. The city got the right to use La New’s dodgy transliteration of the Mandarin word for cow, and so the carcasses were split, with the shoe company getting the leather and the noodle festival getting the beef, so to speak.

But the title of the noodle extravaganza was not the only questionable translation circulating last week. One of the festival’s contests was named the “International Teamwork Intercourse Competition.” What that has to do with beef noodles is anyone’s guess, but I bet the tickets sold pretty fast.

The Web site was set up to promote a “festival” for one of Taipei’s standard foods: niúròumiàn (beef noodle soup / ???).

This is yet another example of Taiwan trying to promote its English-language environment by using machine-generated Chinglish, and by coming up with Anglicizations that don’t work as romanizations of Mandarin and mean nothing to local Mandarin speakers. Although the sound of the English word “row” is not too far from that of the Mandarin ròu, “new” for niú is a much bigger stretch. In fact, “new” is probably closer to n? (?), meaning female, which would give us a female flesh festival (n? ròu jié). Maybe the organizers could work in that International Teamwork Intercourse Competition after all. Now that would likely be a successful tourist draw, albeit the wrong sort.

This gives me an excuse to toss in something for lagniappe: niúròu ch?ng (???), which literally means “beef area” but which is actually a slang term for a place with strippers — a place to see “meat” on display. (Compare this with English, in which “beefcake” refers to men, not women.) Even within the not-so-high-class world of strip joints, niurou chang are relatively low class.

According to the 2005 Mandarin-language article linked to below, niurou chang began in Taiwan in 1984. The article also provides an etymolgy, though perhaps an invented one.

Bi?oy?n de nèiróng d?u g?n niúròu wúgu?n, wèihé jiào niúròu ch?ng?

Yuánlái niúròu de Táiy? jiù zuò “y?u ròu,” su?y? lù “ròu,” mài ròu de su?zài jiù jiào “niúròu ch?ng.” Zhèige bù mài ròu què jiào “niúròu ch?ng de sèqíng ch?ngsu?.”

This states that such places were originally called in Taiwanese “have meat,” which sounds like “reveal flesh.” Perhaps Taffy, A-giâu, or someone else who knows Taiwanese can comment.

Just in case the Taipei City Government should develop a sense of shame and fix the English on this Web site (ha!), click on the image for a screen shot of the first page of the English site.
website image reading '2007 Taipei International Newrow Mian Festival' and '????????' (i.e., Taibei guoji niuroumian jie)


Tailingua.com: an introduction to Taiwanese

My friend Michael Cannings has just unveiled his new Web site on the Taiwanese language, Tailingua. Here is how he introduces it:

Taiwanese is a Chinese language spoken by two-thirds of the population of Taiwan. It forms one dialect of the group known as Southern Min, which has a total of around forty-nine million native speakers, making it the twenty-first most widely-spoken language in the world.

However, there is very little information in English available on the internet (or in print, for that matter) about Southern Min in general, and Taiwanese in particular – a lack that Tailingua is designed to remedy, at least in part.

The site provides concise summaries of romanization and other methods for writing Taiwanese. It also offers fonts, input methods, a list of useful books, and more.

A very promising beginning!

A nose for foreign food?

Imagine some white guys in a fairly large U.S. city open a restaurant named “Mr. Taiwan Slant-Eyes Asian Cuisine.” And imagine that this restaurant specializes in distinctly Americanized dishes such as egg foo yong, fortune cookies, and California wraps. Now imagine the response. Isn’t this fun?

OK, now imagine a different situation: In Taiwan’s fifth-largest city some locals open a place specializing in Taiwanized Western food and dub their restaurant “Miss UK Cafe Pointy-Nose Foreign Food.”

As you’ve probably guessed, the second scenario is real. The “Miss UK Cafe ??? ????” (Miss UK Cafe a-tok-a yìguó m?ishí) recently opened not far from my apartment in Banqiao.

A-tok-a (???) is Taiwanese for “pointy nose” (i.e., Westerner), though perhaps the common translation of “big nose” conveys the spirit a little better. As Tempo Gain explains in the Forumosa thread on this word, “the initial ‘a’ often preceds names, and the final ‘a’ often is attached to nouns like the Mandarin ‘zi’ haizi, chezi, etc.”

Although most foreigners I know in Taiwan find the use of a-tok-a offensive to some degree, reactions are usually tempered by the knowledge that the word is very seldom used intentionally as a pejorative. It’s just the word most Hoklo speakers would use for “Westerner,” and they mean nothing bad by this and perhaps even see it as “cute” in a favorable way. So since I’m certain the restaurateurs didn’t intend any insult in choosing this name, I’m not going to carp about this any more than I already have — which is not to say that I will ever buy anything from that restaurant.

It’s still an interesting name, though. (Actually, this is probably two names: the standard one (??? ????), which is for most people, and the English one (Miss UK Cafe), which is probably there in an attempt to look modern/foreign/cool.)

For those keeping count, that’s three scripts and as many languages on just one sign.

  • Miss UK Cafe: English, in the Roman alphabet
  • ???: Taiwanese, in a mixed script of zhuyin (?) and Chinese characters
  • ????: Mandarin, in Chinese characters

The mixing of scripts in “???” is representative of the sad fact that most people in Taiwan are unsure how to write Taiwanese. Here are some of the ways this word gets written, along with the number of Google results and Baidu results for that exact phrase.

  • ??? Google 555 / Baidu doesn’t recognize the ?
  • ??? 3,440 / Baidu 1,320
  • ??? 6,730/ Baidu 13,400
  • ??? 11,300 / Baidu 2,810
  • ??? 12,500 / Baidu 24,700
  • ??? 12,500 / Baidu 24,700 (Google and Baidu apparently refuse to differentiate ? and ?)

Also interesting is the use of yìguó (??) instead of the more common wàiguó (??), for “foreign.”

  • “??” Google 1,510,000 / Baidu 14,700,000
  • “??” Google 6,420,000 / Baidu 46,500,000

Yìguó m?ishí, however, is more common than wàiguó m?ishí.

  • “????” Google 41,100 / Baidu 26,400
  • “????” Google 114,000 / Baidu 152,000

This, I suspect, is because yìguó m?ishí “sounds fancier” because of how relatively common the word waiguo is.

photo of the storefront of the restaurant discussed in this post

further reading: