People 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.
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.
The sign in the photo below has been up for years; but only recently did I finally get a chance to take a halfway decent photo of it. It’s just outside the second terminal of Taiwan’s main international airport and thus is the first example of road signage that many visitors to Taiwan see.
The atrocious typography displayed in how “Nankan” (南崁/Nánkàn) is written is certainly a good introduction to the chabuduo world of Taiwan’s signage.
I was recently in southern Taiwan’s Pingdong County to spend a few quiet days — I wish it had been more — by the sea. (Taiwan’s official spelling for this county remains the bastardized Wade-Giles form, Pingtung, rather than Pingdong, which is how it is spelled in MPS2, Tongyong Pinyin, and Hanyu Pinyin.)
The official signs I saw were predominantly in Tongyong Pinyin. The exceptions to this were generally errors (though perhaps official errors — see below) rather than instances of Hanyu Pinyin or other systems. I was surprised to see that this was the case not only with street signs but also with highway signage. Street signs are local. But highway signs fall under the jurisdiction of a ministry of the central government and thus usually follow national guidelines — and follow them more quickly than other signage. But while highway signs in many other parts of Taiwan have been changed to Hanyu Pinyin, Pingdong lags, for whatever reason.
Click on the photos for larger versions.
Here’s a street sign unmistakably in Tongyong Pinyin. “Wunzih” is written “Wenzi” in Hanyu Pinyin.
Here’s a fancy street sign for the tourists in Hengchun — thus the stylized “?” (below “Hengnan Rd.”) for “??” (Héngch?n). “Hengnan” could be any of lots of romanization systems. The interesting parts are the use of a counter-productive English translation (“South Bay”) rather than the Mandarin place name “Nanwan” and the use of the bastardized Wade-Giles form Kenting for Kending. The Kenting spelling, though wrong, was by far the most common one on official signage, which leads me to suspect that this is another case of the Taiwan government embracing the delusion that an obscure-to-the-world place is actually world famous in its bastardized Wade-Giles spelling and thus foreigners would be confused if signs actually represented the right way to pronounce this. Ugh. So even though every one of Taiwan’s official romanization systems for the past quarter century would spell this the same, Kending, the government says it should be spelled Kenting … at least from one source; but the Ministry of the Interior, which should have the greater jurisdiction, says to use Kending.
If you look carefully (click on the image to zoom in), you can see that the previous version of the sign (underneath the new one) did not have any romanization. The ‘r’ in Erluanbi is especially odd, given that it doesn’t belong there. (Éluánbí / ??? / n.: bulbous nose) The error appears to come from Taiwan government itself, whose Research, Development, and Evaluation Commission’s site on “bilingual” forms gives the r spelling — though it also gives the correct “Eluanbi” spelling for other instances of this.
Or maybe the sign makers just borrowed the r from this sign.
Another distinctly Tongyong sign:
I was pleased to see this trilingual sign, with Mandarin, English, and Vietnamese.
Poagao sent me this photo of signs on Zhong’an Bridge, which joins Xindian and Zhonghe (both in Taipei County). (So the zhong is probably for Zhonghe; but I’m not sure what the an is meant to be short for.) The signs are a good illustration of the sloppy approach to romanization in Taiwan. Because this is a new bridge, these are definitely new signs and thus should be in Hanyu Pinyin, which is official not just in Taipei County but nationally.
As the table below shows, however, the only name that definitely isn’t written in MPS2 — the romanization system that predated Tongyong, which in Taiwan predated Hanyu Pinyin — is a typo. MPS2 hasn’t been official for the better part of a decade.
on the sign
wrong in all systems
(MPS2, Tongyong, Hanyu Pinyin)
And there’s no excuse for making “Shioulang Bridge” so small and squashed. This also brings to mind another aspect of Hanyu Pinyin: because of its design and the fact that it uses abbreviated forms of some vowel combinations (e.g., uei -> ui, iou -> iu), it doesn’t need as much horizontal space as MPS2 or Tongyong Pinyin, which means it can be written with larger letters — an important factor in signage. (See the second table of the comparative typing chart to see such differences between Hanyu Pinyin and Tongyong Pinyin.)
In December Taiwan will be getting a new city. In fact, it will be the most populous city in the entire country: X?nb?i Shì (???).
For those not familiar with the situation, I should perhaps give a bit of background. Taiwan won’t suddenly have more people or buildings. Instead, the area known as Taipei County (which does not include the city of Taipei but which occupies a much greater area than Taipei and has a much greater total population) will be getting a long-overdue official upgrade to a “special municipality,” which means that it will get a lot more money and civil servants per capita from the central government. And as such the area will be dubbed a city, even though in appearance and demographic patterns it isn’t really a city at all but still a county containing several cities (which are to become “districts” despite having hundreds of thousands more inhabitants than some other places labeled “cities”), lots of towns, and plenty of empty countryside.
The Mandarin name will change from Táib?i Xiàn to X?nb?i Shì. (X?n is the Mandarin word for “new.” Xiàn is “county.” Shì is “city.” And b?i is “north.”)The official so-called English name is, tentatively, “Xinbei City.” Hanyu Pinyin! Yea!
Talking about “English” names is often misleading, since many people conflate English and romanization of Mandarin; and the usual pattern of Taiwanese place names not written in Chinese characters tends to be MANDARIN PROPER NAME + ENGLISH CATEGORY (e.g., “Taoyuan County”). So, at least in this post, I’m going to be a bit sloppy about what I’m calling “English.” Forgive me. OK, now back to the subject.
A couple of days ago, however, both major candidates for the powerful position of running the area currently known as Taipei County (Táib?i Xiàn) had a rare bit of agreement: both expressed a preference for using “New Taipei City” instead of “Xinbei City.” Ugh.
And to top things off, a couple dozen pro-Tongyong Pinyin protesters were outside Taipei County Hall the same day to protest against using Xinbei because it contains what they characterize as China’s demon letter X. Actually, that last part of hyperbole isn’t all that much of an exaggeration of their position. The X makes it look like the city is being crossed out, some of the protesters claimed.
This is, of course, stupid. But unfortunately it’s the sort of stupidity that sometimes plays well here, given how this is a country that pandered to the superstitious by removing 4’s from license plate numbers and ID cards and by changing the name of a subway line because if you cherry-picked from its syllables you could come up with a nickname that might remind people of a term for cheating in mah-jongg (májiàng). (Why bother with letting competent engineers do things the way they need to be done when problems can be fixed magically through attempts to eliminate puns!)
The protesters would prefer the Tongyong form, Sinbei. I suspect foreigners here would rapidly change that to the English name “Sin City,” which I must admit would have a certain ring to it and might even be a tourist draw. Still, Tongyong has already done enough damage. Those wanting to promote Taiwan’s identity would be much better off channeling their energy into projects that might actually be useful to their cause.
The reason the government selected “Xinbei City” is that “New Taipei City” would be too similar to “Taipei City,” according to the head of the Taipei County Government’s Department of Civil Affairs. And, yes, they would be too similar. Also, Xinbei is simply the correct form in Hanyu Pinyin, which is Taiwan’s (and Taipei County’s) official romanization system. It would also be be much better still to omit “city” altogether.
Consider how this might work on signs, keeping in mind that Taipei and X?nb?i Shì are right next to each other. So such similar names as “New Taipei City” and “Taipei City” would run the risk of confusion, unlike, say, the case of New Jersey and Jersey. I wonder if the candidates for mayor of Xinbei are under the impression that they should change the name of the town across from Danshui from B?l? to something else because visitors to Taiwan might otherwise think they could drive to the Indonesian island of Bali from northern Taiwan.
They probably said they liked “New Taipei City” better because it sounds “more English” to them. And it is more English than “Xinbei.” But that’s not a good thing.
Once again it may be necessary to point out what ought to be obvious: The reason so-called English place names are needed is not because foreigners need places to have names in the English language. If it were, I suppose we could redub many places with appropriate names in real English: “Ugly Dump Filled With Concrete Buildings” (with numbers appended so the many possibilities could be distinguished from each other), “Nuclear Waste Depository,” “Armpit of Taiwan,” “Beautiful Little Town that Turns Into a Tourist Hell on Weekends,” etc. The possibilities are endless, though perhaps some of the nicer places would need to be given awful names — following the Iceland/Greenland model — lest they be overrun. The problem is that Chinese characters are too damn hard, and people who can’t read them (i.e., most foreign residents and tourists) need to be able to find places on maps, on Web pages, through signs, etc. And they need to be able to communicate through speech with people in Taiwan about places. Having two different names — the Mandarin one and the so-called English one — is just confusing. Having one name in Mandarin written in two systems (Chinese characters and romanization), however, makes sense and works best. (If Taiwan were to switch to using Taiwanese instead of Mandarin, that would be a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.)
But things that make sense and politicians don’t often fit well together.
Consider the signs. What a @#$% mess this could be. Let’s compare a few ramifications of using Xinbei and Taipei vs. using New Taipei City and Taipei City.
Xinbei and Taipei.
basically no chance of confusing one with the other
short (6 characters each), thus fitting better on signs
preexisting “Taipei [City]” signs wouldn’t have to be changed
definitely no need to add “city” to either name, because there would be no “Taipei County” that might need to be distinguished from the city of Taipei, nor would there be a “Xinbei County” that would need to be distinguished from the city of Xinbei
Now let’s look at the case of New Taipei City and Taipei City.
relatively easy to confuse at a glance
relatively easy to confuse in general
long, and don’t fit as easily on signs (“New Taipei City” = 15 characters, including spaces; “Taipei City” = 11 characters, including the space)
“New Taipei City” would continue to ill-advised and outdated practice of using bastardized Wade-Giles spellings
any time the common adjective new needs to be applied to something dealing with “New Taipei City” or “Taipei City” the chances for confusion and mistakes would increase even more, esp. in headlines
the worst choice
The Taipei County Council will determine the final version of the name in September.
(By the way, if any Taiwan reporters want to pick up on this blog post, please don’t just follow the usual practice here of simply asking one or two random foreigners if they think the name “New Taipei City” sounds OK, so then you conclude that there’s no problem. Try to get people who’ve actually thought about the situation for more than a few seconds and who could give you an informed opinion. My apologies to those reporters who of course know better.)
Street signs in Taipei County are beginning to be changed to Hanyu Pinyin. For Pinyin supporters here, this is a long-awaited development.
Here are some examples of new signs in Banqiao, the seat of the Taipei County Government. They were taken near the Fuzhong MRT station.
This is one of the Tongyong signs about to be taken down. It’s at the same intersection as the “Zhongshan” sign at above right. [November 17 update: The sign is now gone.]
The first roads to receive these signs are large ones, especially those connecting one city to another. This is probably going to be a long, slow process, which is certainly to be expected given (a) how damn long it took them to get this started and (b) that most signs never got changed to Tongyong Pinyin during the previous administration. My impression is that most street signs in Taipei County, especially in smaller towns and on smaller roads, remain in MPS2 (the Tongyong Pinyin of the 1980s).
Has anyone noticed any changes yet in Xindian, etc.?
I wish I could provide links to official announcements, etc. But so far I haven’t been able to find any. I have, however, spoken with officials from the county government who confirm the new policy, so I’m going ahead and announcing this here.
Nice to see no InTerCaps. Unfortunately, the apostrophe situation is SNAFU, with those responsible for the signage using outdated guidelines (calling for a hyphen instead of an apostrophe). But I’ve forwarded the central government’s current rules on this to those concerned, which I hope will help get the problem fixed before any such signs go up.
Parts of Penang, Malaysia’s George Town are scheduled to get some new street signs that will include Chinese characters. (Penang has a high concentration of ethnic Chinese.) Controversy over whether to pick traditional Chinese characters or simplified Chinese characters has led authorities there set up an online poll to help resolve the matter.