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.



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.



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

A’Woo 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!”

Every which way

Here’s a photo (blurry, I know) of the side of a bus in Taipei. I took this because the bus has text in Chinese characters running in three different directions: top to bottom, right to left, and left to right.

Taiwanese wouldn’t find this particularly confusing, as this sort of thing is not entirely uncommon here, though right-to-left horizontal writing is seen less and less.

photo of the side of a bus in Taipei, Taiwan's Nangang district, showing text in Chinese characters running top to bottom, right to left, and left to right

same image as above, but with arrows superimposed to show the directions of the text

I’m posting this mainly so I can refer to this example later if need be.

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,

“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.


Google introduces many new errors to Taipei-area maps

What on earth is going on over at Google?

Just last week I had nothing but love for Google Maps because it had finally made some important improvements to its maps of Taiwan. But just a few days later Google went and screwed up its maps again. The names of most of Taipei’s MRT stations are now written incorrectly. In most cases, this is merely a matter of form, with capitalization — and the important designation of MRT — missing. But in more than just a few instances some astonishing typos have been introduced. What’s especially puzzling and irksome about this is that in most of these cases Google Maps swapped good information for bad.

Meow tipped me off in a comment yesterday that “In Google Maps, Jiannan Rd. Station and Gangqian Station become Jianan road station and Ganggian station.”

Here’s a screenshot taken today of some MRT stations in Dazhi and Neihu:

As Meow said, Jiannan is written Jianan, and Gangqian is written Ganggian. What’s more, Dazhi is written Dachi, and Xihu is written His-Hu (Cupertino effect?).

There are now many such errors.

Here’s a screenshot taken last week.

And here’s the same place today.

As you can see, one of the instances of Jieyunsongjiangnanjing has been removed, which is good. But that’s the end of the good news. Another Jieyunsongjiangnanjing remains. And the one that was removed was replaced by Songjian nanjing station, with Songjiang misspelled and Nanjing and Station erroneously in lower case. And “MRT” is missing too.

It’s not just the station name that was changed, as the switch of one location from the Thai tourism office to the Panamanian embassy shows. (Perhaps both are in the same building.)

Here are some more examples of recently introduced errors.

Luchou should be Luzhou.
screenshot from Google maps showing 'Luchou' for 'Luzhou'

click to see unrotated image

screenshot from Google maps showing 'Sun-yat-sen memorial hall station' for 'Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall Station'

The westernmost station on the blue line is now labeled Tongning. The pain! The pain! It should be Yongning, which is also visible.
screenshot from Google maps showing 'Tongning' instead of 'Yongning'

In perhaps the oddest example, Qili’an, which has been miswritten Qilian for years, has been redesignated Chlian.
screenshot from Google maps showing 'Chlian' instead of 'Qili'an'

Above we saw Gangqian written incorrectly as Ganggian and Minquan written incorrectly as Minguan. Here’s another example of a q being turned into a g: Banqiao has become Bangiao. Even the train station, which is a different rail system than the MRT, has been affected. But the High Speed Rail Station name remains in Tongyong Pinyin, which I most certainly disapprove of but which at least represents the current state of signage in the HSR system.
screenshot from Google maps showing 'Bangiao' instead of 'Banqiao'

Sloppy work, Google. Very sloppy. How could this have happened?

Christ Avenue

I thought some of you might like this.

No, this isn’t an official city street sign. (For one thing, Taipei translates dàdào as boulevard, not avenue.) But Christ Avenue (J?d? Dàdào / ????) really is what Chinese Culture University in Taipei uses for one of its internal roads, though I didn’t find it in Google Maps.

photo of a large decorative road sign reading 'Christ Avenue / ????' with 'Chinese Culture University' at the bottom

Or, if you’d rather walk a different road, you might try the campus’s Confucius Avenue.

Google improves its maps of Taiwan

Two years ago when Google switched to Hanyu Pinyin in its maps of Taiwan, it did a poor job … despite the welcome use of tone marks.

Here are some of the problems I noted at the time:

  • The Hanyu Pinyin is given as Bro Ken Syl La Bles. (Terrible! Also, this is a new style for Google Maps. Street names in Tongyong were styled properly: e.g., Minsheng, not Min Sheng.)
  • The names of MRT stations remain incorrectly presented. For example, what is referred to in all MRT stations and on all MRT maps as “NTU Hospital” is instead referred to in broken Pinyin as “Tái Dà Y? Yuàn” (in proper Pinyin this would be Tái-Dà Y?yuàn); and “Xindian City Hall” (or “Office” — bleah) is marked as X?n Diàn Shì G?ng Su? (in proper Pinyin: “X?ndiàn Shìg?ngsu?” or perhaps “X?ndiàn Shì G?ngsu?“). Most but not all MRT stations were already this incorrect way (in Hanyu Pinyin rather than Tongyong) in Google Maps.
  • Errors in romanization point to sloppy conversions. For example, an MRT station in Banqiao is labeled X?n Bù rather than as X?np?. (? is one of those many Chinese characters with multiple Mandarin pronunciations.)
  • Tongyong Pinyin is still used in the names of most cities and townships (e.g., Banciao, not Banqiao).

I’m pleased to report that Google Maps has recently made substantial improvements.

First, and of fundamental importance, word parsing has finally been implemented for the most part. No more Bro Ken Syl La Bles. Hallelujah!

Here’s what this section of a map of Tainan looked like two years ago:

And here’s how it is now:

Oddly, “Jiànx?ng Jr High School” has been changed to “Tainan Municipal Chien-Shing Jr High School Library” — which is wordy, misleading (library?), and in bastardized Wade-Giles (misspelled bastardized Wade-Giles, at that). And “Girl High School” still hasn’t been corrected to “Girls’ High School”. (We’ll also see that problem in the maps for Taipei.)

But for the most part things are much better, including — at last! — a correct apostrophe: Y?u’ài St.

As these examples from Taipei show, the apostrophe isn’t just a one-off. Someone finally got this right.

Rén’ài, not Renai.
screenshot from Google Maps, showing how the correct Rén'ài (rather than the incorrect Renai) is used

Cháng’?n, not Changan.
screenshot from Google Maps, showing how the correct Cháng'?n is used

Well, for the most part right. Here we have the correct Dà’?n (and correct Ruì’?n) but also the incorrect Daan and Ta-An. But at least the street names are correct.
click for larger screenshot from Google Maps, showing how the correct Dà'?n (and correct Ruì'?n) is used but also the incorrect Daan and Ta-An

Second, MRT station names have been fixed … mostly. Most all MRT station names are now in the mixture of romanization and English that Taipei uses, with Google Maps also unfortunately following even the incorrect ones. A lot of this was fixed long ago. The stops along the relatively new Luzhou line, however, are all written wrong, as one long string of Pinyin.

To match the style used for other stations, this should be MRT Songjiang Nanjing, not Jieyunsongjiangnanjing.
screenshot from Google Maps, showing how the Songjiang-Nanjing MRT station is labeled 'Jieyunsongjiangnanjing Station' (with tone marks)

Third, misreadings of poyinzi (pòy?nzì/???) have largely been corrected.

Chéngd?, not Chéng D?u.
screenshot from Google Maps, showing how the correct 'Chéngd? Rd' is used

Like I said: have largely been corrected. Here we have the correct Chéngd? and Chóngqìng (rather than the previous maps’ Chéng D?u and Zhòng Qìng) but also the incorrect Houbu instead of the correct Houpu.
screenshot from Google Maps, showing how the correct Chóngqìng Rd and Chéngd? St are used but also how the incorrect Houbu (instead of Houpu) is shown

But at least the major ones are correct.

Unfortunately, the fourth point I raised two years ago (Tongyong Pinyin instead of Hanyu Pinyin at the district and city levels) has still not been addressed. So Google is still providing Tongyong Pinyin rather than the official Hanyu Pinyin at some levels. Most of the names in this map, for example, are distinctly in Tongyong Pinyin (e.g., Lujhou, Sinjhuang, and Banciao, rather than Luzhou, Xinzhuang, and Banqiao).

Google did go in and change the labels on some places from city to district when Taiwan revised their names; but, oddly enough, the company didn’t fix the romanization at the same time. But with any luck we won’t have to wait so long before Google finally takes care of that too.

Or perhaps we’ll have a new president who will revive Tongyong Pinyin and Google will throw out all its good work.

New row about old foolishness

It appears that few things are harder to get rid of than a Taipei City Government official’s bad idea.

Four years ago I noted that city hall was sponsoring a “festival” for beef noodle soup and promoting it to foreigners through a machine-translated Chinglish Web site and the absurd use of the supposedly English “Newrow Mian” for niúròumiàn (???/???).

The city has continued to host the annual event. This year, the city appears to have moved to solve its Chinglish problem by simply failing to provide English translations — though one wonders just where the “international” part comes in without much of anything in English. Thus, useful English is lacking; but fake English like “Newrow Mian” remains.

image of logo that reads '2011 Taipei International New row Mian Festival'

This has come to the attention of the media. For example, see this video report: Niúròumiàn = New Row Mian? Shì-f? zhíyì r?yì.

Táib?i Shìzhèngf? j?bàn niúròumiàn jié, xiànzài yào tu? w?ng guójì, buguò què y?u y?nji?n mínzhòng f?xiàn, huódòng h?ibào, b? Zh?ngwén “niúròumiàn” zhíji? y?n yìchéng Y?ngwén de “New Row Mian,” bùsh?o guówài l?kè kànle d?u t?nyán, wánquán bù d?ng shénme yìsi, zhìyí shì-f? shìbushì Y?ngwén f?nyì yòu ch?b?o, buguò shì-f? chéngq?ng, shu?shì wèile xu?nchuán “niúròumiàn” de Zh?ngwén niànf?, ràng t? xiàng shòus?, p?sà y?yàng, ràng quánshìjiè d?u zh?ozhe yuánwén niàn.

According to the brief write-up above, some people had noticed that foreigners had no idea what this “new row mian” was or even how to say it, so the municipal authorities explained that this is for the sake of publicizing the Chinese pronunciation of niúròumiàn. City authorities dream that English will take on “new row mian” as a loan term, just like sushi and pizza. (Apparently it’s important to convey to the world the Chinese-ness (with Taiwanese characteristics) of this dish, so “beef noodle soup” — which is what just about everyone in Taiwan calls this when speaking in English — just won’t do.)


Really, this isn’t that difficult. If you want to use the roman alphabet to write a Mandarin term, use Hanyu Pinyin. Although Pinyin will not be helpful in all situations to people who know nothing about the system, neither will anything else. But Hanyu Pinyin stands the best chance of working because it’s the international system for writing Mandarin in romanization. It’s also Taiwan’s official system for writing Mandarin in romanization. And it’s even the Taipei City Government’s official system for writing Mandarin in romanization, which means the city is supposed to use it rather than employing ad hoc bullshit year after year.

Anyway, the festival doesn’t start until November 17, so if you have ever wanted to “beef the world” — and who hasn’t? — now’s the time. (That this is being run by an ad agemcy agency that somehow missed getting its own name right, however, doesn’t inspire confidence.)

If anyone would like to let the city know your thoughts about this, the contact person is Ms. Yè, who can be reached at 1999 ext. 6507, or at 02-2599-2875 ext. 214 or 220. Tell them this concerns the Táib?i Guójì Niúròumiàn Jié.

Further reading:

And for still more reading, see the Taipei City Government’s massive PDF (157 MB!) for the 2008 event. This has lots of English (and Japanese!), which appears not to have been machine translated; but some parts could certaintly use improvement, such as “The regretful beef noodles have been staying in my memory.” Additionally, the romanization system employed is Tongyong Pinyin, rather than Taipei’s official Hanyu Pinyin (e.g., “Rih Pin Shan Si Dao Siao Mian” instead of “Rì P?n Sh?nx? d?oxi?omiàn” and “HONG SHIH FU SIN JHUAN” instead of Hóng Sh?fu X?n Zhuàn).

Of course, it’s not consistent even in its incorrect use of Tongyong. It also contains broken bastardized Wade-Giles (e.g., the “Kuan Tu” MRT station instead of “Guandu”) and the city’s “new row” whenever it gets the chance (e.g., HUANG ZAN NEWROW MIAN FANG instead of Huáng Zàn Niúròumiàn Fáng / ??????).

Later, all of the stores’ addresses are given in Tongyong Pinyin (e.g., Chongcing, Mincyuan, Jhihnan, Mujha, Singlong, Jhongsiao).

back to Tamsui

photo of sticker with 'Tamsui' placed over the old map's spelling of 'Danshui'It’s time for another installment of Government in Action.

What you see to the right is something the Taipei County Government (now the Xinbei City Government, a.k.a. the New Taipei City Government) set into action: the Hanyu Pinyin spelling of “Danshui” is being replaced on official signage, including in the MRT system, by the old Taiwanese spelling of “Tamsui.” I briefly touched upon the plans for “Tamsui” a few months ago. (See my additional notes in the comments there.)

I have mixed feelings about this move. On the one hand, I’m pleased to see a representation of a language other than Mandarin or English on Taiwan’s signage. “Tamsui” is the traditional spelling of the Taiwanese name for the city. And it hardly seems too much for at least one place in Taiwan to be represented by a Taiwanese name rather than a Mandarin one.

On the other hand, the current move unfortunately doesn’t really have anything to do with promoting or even particularly accepting the Taiwanese language. It’s not going to be labeled “Taiwanese,” just “English,” which is simply wrong. It’s just vaguely history-themed marketing aimed at foreigners and no one else. But which foreigners, exactly, is this supposed to appeal to? Perhaps Taiwan is going after those old enough to remember the “Tamsui” spelling, though I wonder just how large the demographic bracket is for centenarian tourists … and just how mobile most of them might be.

So it’s basically another example — retroactively applied! — of a spelling that breaks the standard of Hanyu Pinyin and substitutes something that foreigners aren’t going to know how to pronounce (and the government will probably not help with that either): i.e., it’s another “Keelung” (instead of using “Jilong”), “Kinmen” instead of “Jinmen,” and “Taitung” instead of “Taidong.”

A key point will be how “Tamsui” is pronounced on the MRT’s announcement system. (I haven’t heard any changes yet; but I haven’t taken the line all the way out to Danshui lately.) The only correct way to do this would be exactly the same as it is pronounced in Taiwanese. And if the government is really serious about renaming Danshui as Tamsui, the Taiwanese pronunciation will be the one given in the Mandarin and Hakka announcements as well as the English one. Moreover, public officials and announcers at TV and radio stations will be instructed to say T?m-súi rather than Dànshu?, even when speaking in Mandarin.

Fat chance.

But, as years of painful experience in this area have led me to expect, my guess would be that the announcements will not do that. Instead, it will be another SNAFU, with a mispronunciation (yes, it is almost certain to be mispronounced by officialdom and those in the media) being labeled as “English”.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong about saying “T?m-súi.” But it’s a pretty safe bet that isn’t going to happen: the name will likely be given a pronunciation that a random clueless English speaker might use as a first attempt; then that will be called English. This sort of patronizing attitude toward foreigners really makes my blood boil. So I’m going to leave it at that for the moment lest my blood pressure go up too much.

So, once again, the MRT system is taking something that was perfectly fine and changing it to something that will be less useful — and all the while continuing to ignore miswritten station names, stupidly chosen station names, mispronunciations, and Chinglish-filled promotional material.

Please keep your ears as well as eyes open for instances of “Tamsui” and let me know what you observe. The city, by the way, has already started using “Tamsui” instead of “Danshui” on lots of official road signs, as I started seeing several months ago and which I noticed in increasing use just last week when I passed through that way.

I probably should have taken a more active stance on this months ago; but I was too busy working against the bigger and even more ridiculous anti-Pinyin change of “Xinbei” to “New Taipei City.” Fat lot of good that did.