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.

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.

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.

References:

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.

sources:

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.

cao_chuan

二哥の牛肉麵

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.

erge_de_niuroumian

芭樂ㄟ店

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
bala_ei_dian

A’Woo Tea Bar

awoo_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!”

Shit happens

Mandarin’s word for laboratory is shíyànshì (實驗室). The Hakka word, however, sounds different, of course.

When a school in Taiwan’s Xinzhu (Hsinchu) County, an area with many Hakka, put up some signs in romanization, some were quick to notice that the Hakka word contained what looked like the English word “shit.” That this was at an elementary school didn’t help matters. People there got a bit tired of explaining that this wasn’t obscene English but instead perfectly proper Hakka. The popular option now seems to be to spell the final syllable shid.

sign on a classroom wall reading '(?) ging ui sik / (?) gin vui shit'

Táiwān tuīdòng Kèjiā wénhuà, yě ràng Kèyǔ chéngwéi yuèláiyuè duōguānxīn jiāodiǎn, dàn yǒu mínzhòng dào Xīnzhú Dōngyuán Guó-xiǎo, fāxiànjiàoshì de Kèyǔ pīnyīn zěnme kànqilai guài guài de, shì zhègè zì yòng shì t, rúguǒ yòng Yīngwén niàn sìhū bù tài wényǎ, hòulái cái fāxiàn, yuánláiyòng Tōngyòng Pīnyīn, pīn qǐlái jiù shì shì t, suǒyǐ mínzhòng qiānwàn biéxiǎng wāi.
台灣推動客家文化,也讓客語成為越來越多關心焦點,但有民眾到新竹東園國小,發現教室的客語拼音怎麼看起來怪怪的,室這個字用是t,如果用英文唸似乎不太文雅,後來才發現,原來用通用拼音,拼起來就是是t,所以民眾千萬別想歪。

Láidào Xīnzhú Dōngyuán Guó-xiǎo, wàitou jǐngwèishì, yǒu Yīngwén pīnyīn hái yǒu Táiyǔ、 Kèyǔ pīnyīn, zhǐshì nín zhùyìdàole ma? Kèyǔ pīnyīn dezuìhòu yī gè zì shit, zhè bù shì màrén de huà ma? Shì bu shì pīncuò le a, zài dào xiàonèi kàn, bùguǎn jiàoshì háishi xiàoshǐ shì, shènzhì shìxiàozhǎng shì, zhǐyào shì shì jiéwěi de dōu shì zhèyàng pīn.
來到新竹東園國小,外頭警衛室,有英文拼音還有台語、客語拼音,只是您注意到了嗎?客語拼音的最後一個字shit,這不是罵人的話嗎?是不是拼錯了啊,再到校內看,不管教室還是校史室,甚至是校長室,只要是室結尾的都是這樣拼。

Měi cì yǒu rén wèn jiù yào jiěshì gè lǎobàntiān, yuánlái tānkāi Kèjiā yǔpīnyīn, xiàngshì jiàoshì de shì、 shìhé de shì、 zhīshi de shí, tōngtōngdōu pīn chéng shit, suǒyǐ méi wèntí de la, dàn yǒu xǔduō xiǎopéngyou kàndào, yī kāishǐ háishi juéde guài guài de, qíshí zhè shì cǎiyòng Tōngyòng Pīnyīn yǐjīng yòngle 10 nián, dàn xiànzài wèile bìmiǎn kùnrǎo, yào gǎichéng Táiwān Kèyǔ pīnyīn, shit jiù biànchéngle shid, huòxǔ jiù bù huì zài ràngrén wùhuì la.
每次有人問就要解釋個老半天,原來攤開客家語拼音,像是教室的室、適合的適、知識的識,通通都拼成shit,所以沒問題的啦,但有許多小朋友看到,一開始還是覺得怪怪的,其實這是採用通用拼音已經用了10年,但現在為了避免困擾,要改成台灣客語拼音,shit 就變成了 shid,或許就不會再讓人誤會啦。

source: Guó-xiǎo fānyì cǎi Kèyǔ pīnyīn jiāo「 shì」 biàn 「shit」 (國小翻譯採客語拼音 教「室」變 「shit」), Dongsen News, December 9, 2011 (Yes, the year is correct. I just didn’t get around to finishing the post back then.)

Taipei MRT moves to adopt nicknumbering system

“He’s much too unreasonable,” interrupted the Mathemagician again. “Why, just last month I sent him a very friendly letter, which he never had the courtesy to answer. See for yourself.”

He handed Milo a copy of the letter, which read:

4738 1919,

667 394017 5841 62589
85371 14 39588 7190434 203
27689 57131 481206.

5864 98053,
62179875073

“But maybe he doesn’t understand numbers,” said Milo, who found it a little difficult to read himself.

“NONSENSE!” bellowed the Mathemagician. “Everyone understands numbers….”

— from The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster

The Taipei MRT system has announced that it may be adopting a nicknumbering system for stations within the system.

Bad idea.

And, really, it should be obvious even to city officials what a bad idea this is, given what a complete failure the city’s previous attempt at a nicknumbering system was. (The old attempt, from 2000, had Ma Ying-jeou adding things such as “4th Blvd” to road signs rather than simply fix the signs to use correct Hanyu Pinyin. But the MRT system has used Hanyu Pinyin for years, so foreigners aren’t complaining about a lack of that in 2015.)

I have, however, been complaining for many years about mistakes in the names of some MRT stations and how the MRT system has chosen some bad names. To no avail. But when a politician with no particular history that I’ve seen of giving a damn about what foreigners in Taiwan want decides to grandstand his half-cocked notion, the authorities behind the MRT system jump to implement it, no matter what the supposed beneficiaries might want. Shame on them.

Indeed, this particular politician’s history is of opposition to what foreigners want in terms of signage, as shown by his partisan remarks in favor of Tongyong Pinyin (which is widely despised by Taiwan’s foreign population) and against Hanyu Pinyin (which is almost universally preferred). So I see ample reason to question his motives here.

This new nicknumbering system, by which MRT stations will be assigned additional names (e.g., “R13” and “O11”, for one particular station) is being touted as something aimed at helping foreigners. But I know of no foreigners who have needed any great help on the MRT system — at least not since the city finally implemented Hanyu Pinyin many years ago. Certainly there has been no great outcry from foreigners for any change of this sort. Instead, the nicknumbering system is simply a bad idea that will make things worse, not better. And it will be expensive to implement — money down the drain.

Let’s look at the fragment of the nicknumbering map that the Taipei City Government included with its post.

Taipei MRT nicknumbering map fragment

Try to ignore the horrific clutter for the moment.

Note the red line (which also has a line number … that no one uses except for the MRT system itself in its announcements, something implemented in the previous bad idea from the MRT system). Anyway, along the red line, Da’an Park (which the MRT system wrongly labels “Daan Park”) is nicknumbered “R06,” Da’an as R05, and Xinyi Anhe as R04. That would make Taipei 101 / World Trade Center station R03; and Xiangshan, which is presently the terminus, would be R02. The problem here is that at least two more stations are already planned for that end of the line: Songde (松德) and Zhongpo (中坡); that would mean the final(?) station would need to be oddly nicknumbered R00, though there are no other zero stations given elsewhere. And if any stations are added after that, either the whole system would need to be renumbered or the numbers would need to head into negatives. Absurd! Such is likely also the case with other lines.

This is the sort of thing that strongly indicates that the authorities haven’t really thought this through. They’re just going forward anyway, which is foolish.

For that matter, why are there zeros marked in the numbers below ten? (For example, why “R04” rather than “R4”?) Putting zeroes next to the capital letter O (for the orange line) is certainly not going to help clarity either. For example, are people going to get “O05” right at a glance? I doubt it.

Let’s get back to the matter of clutter. This is a real problem. The more information crammed into a map, the less clear the individual elements are.

And unlike distinct station names, nicknumbers are not easy to remember. If any foreign tourist asks someone how to get to BL13, for example, people likely won’t know how to answer them. Nicknumbering is thus the opposite of helpful, which is likely part of why almost no subway system in the world uses this, other than Tokyo, whose system is much larger than Taipei’s.

Also, I can’t help but wonder how they are planning on handling this in the announcements within the cars. Those announcements are in four languages (Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka, and English), which takes some time to get through. Adding nicknumbers in all of those languages is going to make for never-ending talking on the announcement system — and that’s without even figuring in the nicknumbers of transfer stations as well.

I note that, to date, the comments in English to the city’s Facebook post on this are more than twenty to one in opposition to the new system. Is anyone in the city government paying attention? I hope that readers here will add their own comments to the city’s Facebook page on this. (I’m not on Facebook myself.)

The last time the city of Taipei implemented nicknumbering for anything, this was met with near-universal derision from those it was supposedly designed to help. Most people in Taiwan’s foreign community quickly recognized it was a terrible idea — really, really terrible — which unfortunately didn’t stop Taipei from cluttering up the city’s signage with largely useless information. I would have thought that the city would have learned its lesson by now.

Ma Ying-jeou gives a thumbs-up in front of a nicknumbering system street sign in Taipei
This photo from 2000 shows an almost perfect storm of bad ideas supposedly meant to help foreigners. Ma Ying-jeou, during his days as mayor of Taipei, gives a thumbs-up to a road sign with his new nicknumbering system. And above the sign for 4th Blvd is a street sign from Chen Shui-bian’s tenure as mayor. It’s in the much-hated Tongyong Pinyin romanization system — or what was Tongyong Pinyin until the designers of Tongyong Pinyin changed the system (e.g., zh –> jh) and made a lot of their own signs wrong. And to top it off, it employs InTerCaPiTaLiZaTion, another annoying bad idea that still infects the street signs of Taipei.

Here, Taipei City Government officials, is what most foreigners need and want: correct Hanyu Pinyin. For the most part, that’s what the MRT system already has. Don’t screw it up.

sources: