Old Taipei street sign

Pinyin News reader Channing Bartlett passed along this photo he took c. 1980 in Taipei at the corner of Jianguo North Road section 1 and Chang’an East Road section 2. As you can see, inconsistencies on Taiwan street signs weren’t restricted to matters of romanization. Here we have 建國北路一段 (Jiànguó Běi Lù yī duàn) and 長安東路二段 (Cháng’ān Dōng Lù èr duàn) — or rather “段二路東安長.”

One sign is written left to right, the other right to left.

Also, if you look closely at the characters for lu and duan, you can see that the fonts are different, likely indicating the signs are of different ages. But if one sign was replaced, why not the other? Mysterious are the ways of Taiwan street signs.

Bartlett described the experience of trying to read street signs quickly back then:

As I was on a bus barreling by, I had just a quick moment to read one. But often it took up my quick moment just to see whether it was written L to R or vice versa. The practice was inconsistent, as you can see in this photo.

Article on early Tongyong Pinyin on Taipei street signs

Reader Jens Finke recently came across a newspaper clipping from about twenty years ago, the dark ages of Taipei’s street signs. Back then most roads in the city were identified in bastardized Wade-Giles and wildly misspelled variations thereof. Two or even more spellings for one name at the same intersection was not uncommon. (Outside of Taipei, many signs were in MPS2, which is often mistaken — including in the article below — for the Yale system.) And so the foreign community of Taiwan by and large cried out for the use of Hanyu Pinyin. But that’s not what foreigners got. Instead, Taipei Mayor Chen Shui-bian decided to go with a half-baked local invention called Tongyong Pinyin.

Really, half-baked. Incredibly, not long after street signs started to go up in this system in 1998, its creator changed it. For example, the article mentions “Zhongsiao” (“Zhongxiao” in Hanyu Pinyin). Scarcely had the paint dried on the new street signs than the spelling in the supposedly same system was changed to “Jhongsiao.” This and other changes rendered most of the new signs obsolete.

But before many signs went up in the old new system or the new new system, Chen lost his December 1998 reelection bid. His successor, Ma Ying-jeou, didn’t pursue Tongyong Pinyin. Ma even took the surprising step of asking foreigners what they wanted and took action to implement the overwhelming choice of the foreign community (both then and now): Hanyu Pinyin, though unfortunately the road to this was not without monumentally foolish detours, bad ideas, and still-unfixed errors.

In 2000, Chen was elected president. He asked his minister of education, Ovid Tzeng, to decide on a romanization system for Taiwan. After Tzeng picked Hanyu Pinyin, he was given the boot. His successor saw the writing on the wall and quickly announced his support of Tongyong Pinyin. Meanwhile, Ma, who remained mayor of Taipei, said he had no plan to change to Tongyong Pinyin. This time marks the beginning of Taiwan’s romanization wars, which raged in the first decade of the century and have still not been completely resolved.

Some readers may suspect the reporter in the article below of pulling people’s legs (e.g., “Special thanks to janitorial assistant Shaw Toe-now of the Jyii Horng Bus Company in Tainan for faxing a copy of his employer’s self-designed romanization table”). But I assure you, it would be very difficult to outdo the craziness of Taiwan’s romanization situation back in those days.

Feel free to use the comments section below if you’d like to share any recollections of Taiwan’s signage mess of the 1990s and before.

In my transcription, I’ve fixed a few typos and omitted the article’s Cyrillic system for Mandarin.

photo of newspaper article on the enactment in Taipei of an early version of Tongyong Pinyin

Friday, May 8, 1998

It’s all Roman
By Ian Lamont
STAFF REPORTER

Throw out all of the new business cards, office stationery and checkbooks that you ordered a few months back to include Taipei’s new telephone numbers. Just three months after the phone company made all the city’s phone numbers eight digits long, the Taipei City Government has decided it wants to institute a new romanization system for street signs to make the city more accessible to international visitors.

Well, at least that’s the plan. Someone in the city government’s vast bureaucracy finally figured out that the screwed-up mix of Wade-Giles and Yale (the same guys who brought you “Peking”) was not really helping anything by having foreign nationals attempting to say “Jen-ai Road” or “Kien-kwo South Road” to bewildered taxi drivers.

Not that taxi drivers won’t be any less confused by the new linguistic concoctions that will result under the new system:

“I’d like to go to Her-ping West Road, please.”

“Huh?”

“You know, Her-ping West Road. It’s on the way to Manka?”

In case you didn’t understand this little exchange, “Herping” (rhymes with “burping”) is the new Mandarin romanization for the current Hoping East/West Road, while “Manka” is the Taiwanese name for Taipei’s Wanhua neighborhood. According to the Taipei City Government, both of these names will be in common use once all the city’s street signs are replaced.

Professor Yu Boh-chuan, the Academia Sinica linguist who helped design the new system, says his way reflects the local culture while at the same time following international standards.

Currently, there is only one international standard — the hanyu pinyin system developed by China some forty years ago and now almost universally accepted as the official Mandarin romanization system by governments, universities, libraries and publishers around the world. While there are many similarities between hanyu pinyin and Taipei’s new system, there are also several glaring differences, most notably the puzzling use of the letter “r” at the end of some syllables, the omission of the palatal spirant “sh” sound in certain Mandarin words, and the inclusion of Taiwanese, Hakkanese and Aborigine place names.

Since Taipei will soon have at least three different romanization systems floating around, Weekend has decided to create a handy chart that will help readers (and potentially psychotic mail sorters) survive the sticky transition period.

As an added bonus, we’ve decided to include several other alternative spelling systems for non-Chinese speakers. Special thanks to janitorial assistant Shaw Toe-now of the Jyii Horng Bus Company in Tainan for faxing a copy of his employer’s self-designed romanization table, as well as Prof. Vladimir Torostov of the Sinitic Languages Department of Khabarovsk University in Russia for submitting a conversion table with the cyrillic spellings for Taipei street names. Dosvidanya!

Old Romanization New Romanization Mainland Jyii Horng Bus Co.
Chunghsiao Zhongsiao Zhongxiao Chunggshaw
Jenai Renai Renai Lenie
Hsinyi/Shinyi Sinyi Xinyi Shynyii
Hoping Herping Heping Huhpeeng
Keelung Kelang Jilong Cheerlurng
Pateh Bader Bade Patiih

Unnecessarily wordy sign

Directional road sign high on post. It reads (in Chinese characters) 'Caizhengbu, Nanqu Guoshuiju, Taidong Fenju' and (in English) 'Taitung Branch, National Taxation Bureau of the Southern Area, Ministry of Finance', as discussed in the post itself.

Above is a directional road sign at an intersection in Taitung (Taidong), Taiwan. It reads:

財政部
南區國稅局
臺東分局

[Cáizhèngbù
Nánqū Guóshuìjú
Táidōng Fēnjú]

Taitung Branch, National Taxation
Bureau of the Southern Area,
Ministry of Finance

Although Taiwan has a lot of this sort of directional signage, I don’t think I’ve written before about why I think so many examples of it are downright awful.

Not only is the sign unnecessarily wordy, the part that receives the greatest emphasis (by appearing in large characters) is the least useful: 臺東分局. Taidong Fenju means simply “Taitung branch office.” But since the sign is in Taitung itself, mention of an office being in Taitung provides zero useful information. (It’s a safe bet that drivers will already know which part of the country they’re in and that they aren’t driving around that neighborhood looking for the Taipei office.) The same thing goes for mention of this being the office for the Nanqu (“Southern Area”).

Nor do motorists care in the least what ministry the National Taxation Bureau belongs to. They simply need to be able to comprehend quickly and easily the main point of the sign. Too much information becomes clutter, a fatal problem on signs that drivers need to be able to read and comprehend quickly and easily.

A fundamental of good signage is to keep it simple.

The sign would be much better if it read simply “國稅局 Tax Office” and had an arrow. (Also, though this would be a moot point if the line were deleted, I’d prefer 台稅局 over 臺稅局. We have Ma Ying-jeou to thank for the prevalence of 臺.)

My private word for unnecessarily wordy signs in Taiwan is “signese,” which should not be confused with the good kind of Signese.

Sorry about the poor quality of the photo. I had to quickly use a cell phone camera on zoom through a taxi windshield — not ideal.

Dungan-English Dictionary published

Eastbridge Books, an imprint of Camphor Press, is pleased to announce the publication of its Dungan-English Dictionary, by Olli Salmi.

Dungan-English Dictionary sample page spread

Dungan is interesting for Chinese studies because it has an alphabetic orthography. It is also important because it shows very little influence from the Chinese literary language. It has preserved original features of the local dialects of about 150 years ago. It also has loans from Persian and Arabic, from Turkic languages, and from Russian.

The Dungans are Muslims who fled China for Russian territory in Central Asia after the failure of the Dungan Revolt (1862-1877). Their language, which UNESCO classifies as “definitely endangered,” is related to northwestern Mandarin Chinese. Dungan has two main dialects: the so-called Gansu dialect, which is similar to the Muslim Chinese communal dialects in the southern part of the province of Xinjiang, and the Shaanxi dialect, which has more in common with the dialects of southern Shaanxi around Xi’an. In the Soviet Union an alphabetic orthography and a literary language was developed for the Gansu dialect.

Although Dungan is now spoken primarily outside of China and employs an alphabet rather than Chinese characters, it is not really a peripheral dialect of Chinese. The Dungan Revolt started near Xi’an, Shaanxi, the cradle of the Chinese civilization and a frequent site of the capital of the country. (This is where the terracotta soldiers were buried.) The speakers that gave rise to Gansu Dungan came from a place west of the Shaanxi speakers, but still a totally Chinese-speaking area.

This dictionary is based on words and examples collected from Dungan-language newspapers and books published before the fall of the Soviet Union. Special attention has been paid to not only vocabulary (9,945 headwords) but also grammatical features; the dictionary may even provide material for the study of syntax. An effort has been made to find characters for Dungan words in dialect dictionaries published in China.

This work is available through Camphor Press and Amazon.

Note: I am part of Camphor Press and so stand to make a small amount of money from sales of this book. But that’s not why I’m recommending it to everyone interested in Dungan.

Pinyin-friendly display faces at Google Fonts

As of January 9, 2018, Google Fonts had 848 font families, 183 of which are display faces. Of those, the following 20 can handle Hanyu Pinyin with tone marks.

Pinyin-friendly handwriting faces at Google Fonts

As of January 9, 2018, Google Fonts had 848 font families, 80 of which are handwriting faces. Of those, just 3 can handle Hanyu Pinyin with tone marks.

  • Dekko (Caveat: Although Dekko handles some seldom-seen diacritics, it doesn’t deal well with curved apostrophes or quotation marks, so use it with caution.)
  • Itim
  • Sriracha

Pinyin-friendly sans serif faces at Google Fonts

As of January 9, 2018, Google Fonts had 848 font families, 134 of which are sans serif faces. Of those, 22 can handle Hanyu Pinyin with tone marks.