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!”

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.


Dissolving Pinyin

Late last week, Victor Mair — with some assistance from Matt Anderson, David Moser, me, and others — wrote in “Lobsters”: a perplexing stop motion film about a short 1959 film from China that gives some Pinyin. In some cases, the Pinyin is presented for a second and then is quickly dissolved into Chinese characters. Since Victor’s post supplies only the text, I thought that I’d supplement that here with images from the film.

See the original post for translations and discussion.

The film often shows a newspaper. The headline (at 7:57) reads (or rather should read, since the first word is misspelled):



But since the image above doesn’t show the name of the paper, I’m also offering this rotated and cropped photo, that allows us to see that this is the “JIN YUAN DIGUO RI-BAO”

Elsewhere, there are again some g’s for q’s. For the first example of text dissolving from Pinyin to Chinese characters (at 2:11), I’m offering screenshots of the text in Pinyin, the text during the dissolve, and the text in Chinese characters. Later I’ll give just the Pinyin and Chinese characters.

Hongdang Louwang
Yipi hongdang zai daogi [sic] jiudian jihui buxing guanbu [sic] louwang




Soon thereafter (at 2:44), we get a handwritten note.


At 3:39 we’re shown the printed notice in the newspaper of the above text.


A brief glance at the newspaper at 3:23 gives us FA CHOU, which is probably referring to the stink the bad lobsters are giving off.

Here a man is carrying a copy of Zibenlun (Das Kapital), by Makesi (Marx).

Actually, it’s not really Das Kapital, just the cover of the book; inside is a stack of decadent Western material. “MEI NE” is probably supposed to be “MEINÜ” (beautiful women).

I imagine that, in the PRC of 1959, the artists for this film must have inwardly rejoiced at the chance to draw something like that for a change, and that is also why there’s a nude on the wall in one scene.

Pinyin font: Skarpa

Today’s Pinyin-friendly font is Skarpa, by Aga Silva of Poland. It’s a bit quirky (e.g., second-tone o’s and lowercase q’s) but still sharp.

Hanyu Pinyin pangram using the Skarpa font

Skarpa was later modified into Skarpa 2, which is not free but which comes in several weights and types.

Most of Silva’s other fonts also can handle Pinyin with tone marks. Those are all commercial rather than free.

Pinyin font: Noto

I shouldn’t go too long without mentioning Google’s ambitious Noto project, which offers both serif and sans-serif versions: Noto Serif and Noto Sans.

When text is rendered by a computer, sometimes there will be characters in the text that can not be displayed, because no font that supports them is available to the computer. When this occurs, small boxes are shown to represent the characters. We call those small boxes “tofu,” and we want to remove tofu from the Web. This is how the Noto font families got their name.

Noto helps to make the web more beautiful across platforms for all languages. Currently, Noto covers over 30 scripts, and will cover all of Unicode in the future. This is the Sans Latin, Greek and Cyrillic family. It has Regular, Bold, Italic and Bold Italic styles and is hinted. It is derived from Droid, and like Droid it has a serif sister family, Noto Serif.

Noto fonts for many other languages are available as web fonts from the Google Web Fonts Early Access page.

Noto fonts are intended to be visually harmonious across multiple languages, with compatible heights and stroke thicknesses.

(Emphasis added.)

And it’s free, of course.



PRC’s official rules for Pinyin: 2012 revision — in traditional Chinese characters

Last week I put online China’s official rules for Hanyu Pinyin, the 2012 revision (GB/T 16159-2012). I’ve now made a traditional-Chinese-character version of those rules for Pinyin.

Eventually I’ll also issue versions in Pinyin and English.

(Note: The image above is of course Photoshopped. I altered the cover of the PRC standard simply to provide an illustration in traditional Chinese characters for this post.)