X marks the spot?

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!)

pro-Tongyong protesters hold up signs against using Hanyu Pinyin

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
  • Xinbei would be the correct romanization and not repeat the misleading pei of bastardized Wade-Giles
  • 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.

sources:

See also

(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.)

Taipei County switches to Hanyu Pinyin

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.

street sign in Banqiao, Taiwan, in Hanyu Pinyin: 'Fuzhong Rd.' 'Chongqing Rd.'

Xianmin Blvd. Sec. 1 (This is a vertical sign, too narrow for 'Xianmin' on one line, so it's hyphenated, with 'min' on the second line)

Zhongshan Rd. Sec. 1

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.]
JHONG SHAN RD. SEC.1

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.

signs in Atayal

During my recent trip to Wulai (Ulay in Atayal) I was pleased to see at least a few signs in the Atayal language.

This one — no Chinese characters! no English! — appears on the fronts of several stores on the Old Street that have water from hot springs piped into tubs there. I asked a couple of shop owners about this. They clearly had only vague notions about the signs being for hot springs; they couldn’t read the signs themselves.

habun_tngtong

This sign takes the form of personal pledges for a healthy lifestyle. Most have to do with [not] drinking.
The top line reads 'glgan smru nbuw qwaw gaga na qnhan'. It's followed by 6 numbered points in romanized Atayal and then Mandarin in Chinese characters. Finally, it's identified as being from the local government as well as the Rotary Association and other groups.

Gaga is the Atayal word for traditions/customs/rules (especially those handed down from their ancestors).

Wulai — or something like that

All of the romanization systems commonly seen in Taiwan — bastardized Wade-Giles, MPS2, Tongyong Pinyin, and Hanyu Pinyin — use the same spelling (tones aside) for the unnecessarily ugly but scenically situated Taipei County town of Wulai (Mandarin: W?lái / ???). And the formerly official but little-seen Gwoyeu Romatzyh isn’t so different: Ulai. So getting this one spelled correctly shouldn’t be a big deal.

But on a recent trip there I saw the spelling of “Ulay” on relatively recent official signage.

two brown (culture) signs with 'Ulay Old Street' and 'Ulay Atayal Museum', along with their respective Chinese characters

three brown (culture) signs with 'Ulay Waterfall', 'Lover's Trail', and 'Ulay Hot Spring', along with their respective Chinese characters

Actually, none of those particular signs really needed any spelling of Wulai. For example, if you’re in Wulai and a sign points toward “Old Street”, you don’t really need to wonder if perhaps it’s pointing toward the Old Street in Sanxia or some other town instead. But officialdom here relies on its lists of official names and seldom exercises anything in the way of imagination or even just common sense. (That reminds me: I really must finish that half-completed post on wordy signage.)

So, about the “Ulay” spelling: Could it be the correct spelling in the system used to write the language of the Atayal people indigenous to the area? A search of some Taiwan government Web sites leads to me to believe that, yes, it could be. But I asked several people in Wulai who said they were literate in Atayal script, and they said that “Wulai” was the correct spelling for the town’s name in the Atayal language.

Still, these were not linguists or teachers, and this is Taiwan, where chabuduo-ism and outright ignorance of romanization are strong. So when I returned home I went to Wulai’s official website, which only made matters worse. There I found all of the following forms: Wulai, WuLai, Wulia, Wulay, and Ulay.

wulai_wulay_wulia
Ulay

  • Wulia — in big letters, no less. Remarkably, the township uses the URL of www.wulia.gov.tw for its site, though, fortunately, www.wulai.gov.tw also works. I doubt this is anything other than a typo that has somehow not been corrected but has instead gained force.
  • Wulai — This spelling is the one used for at least most of the text.
  • Wulay
  • WuLai — Die, intercaps, die!
  • Ulay — found in the Mandarin portion of the site.

Elsewhere I also found the form Ulai; but in these cases that spelling almost certainly has nothing to do with Gwoyeu Romatzyh.

Here are the numbers for some Google searches:

spelling .gov.tw domains all .tw domains any domains, but pages must include “Taipei County” or
“台北縣”
Wulai 2,760 10,900 5,540
Wulia 381 838 307
Ulay 50 649 592
Ulai 33 237 249
Wulay 9 25 16

So, whatever the correct spelling is, that is the government should be using, not this mishmash. And it should let people know how to pronounce it correctly in the original language, not just Mandarin. Perhaps it’s too late for this name, though, as “Wulai” is so well known.

Regardless of the spelling, though, the name is another example of Chinese characters being used to represent a name that did not originate with a Sinitic language. Thus, the name doesn’t really have anything to do with crows (?) coming (?). Instead, it refers to the hot springs in the area.