Taipei street names and the monosyllabic myth

I spent much of the weekend revising and correcting the list of Taipei’s street names that I have on an old Web site on romanization. (I’m afraid I’ve almost completely neglected that site since getting running. I’m trying to rectify the situation some because the new edition of the Taiwan Lonely Planet is to mention both sites.)

The street names (632 in all) are almost exclusively disyllabic. The only monosyllabic name is 後街 (Hou St.), unless people want to count a few others like 安東街 (Andong St.) and 安西街 (Anxi St.); but even those wouldn’t work because people in Taiwan see those names as single units rather than as distinct parts: “Andong Street” and “Anxi Street,” not “An East Street” and “An West Street.” And I’m not so sure that Hou St. isn’t a typo, because it doesn’t really pass the “sounds OK” test.

The list has only three names longer than two syllables. But two of these are not “Chinese” but loan words: 羅斯福路 ([Franklin Delano] Roosevelt Rd.) and 凱達格蘭大道 (Kaidagelan Blvd., which is from one of Taiwan’s indigenous tribes). And the final example, 竹子湖路 (Zhuzihu Rd.), is a good example of the exception proving the rule, because the road is named after a lake (hu) with a disyllabic name (Zhuzi); I’ve written the name solid (i.e., with no space before “hu”) only because there’s no longer any lake there alongside the road.

Yet misunderstandings about Mandarin and the other Chinese languages persist, despite refutations of the monosyllabic and other myths.

For the sake of comparison, let’s look at the 20 most common street names in the United States:

Second, Third, First, Fourth, Park, Fifth, Main, Sixth, Oak, Seventh, Pine, Maple, Cedar, Eighth, Elm, View, Washington, Ninth, Lake, and Hill.

All but five of those are monosyllabic, but no one goes around claiming English is predominantly monosyllabic.

An examination of the street names reveals a few other interesting points.

Another myth is that Chinese characters are needed to resolve the supposed problem of homophony in the language. So, let’s look at the street names. Would anyone care to guess how many of the 632 names are homophonous?

The answer is zero. For that matter, just a handful would need tone marks to distinguish themselves from similar — but not identical — sounding names: Jinghua St. (Jǐnghuà and Jǐnghuá), Tong’an St. (Tōng’ān and Tóng’ān), Wanqing St. (Wànqīng Wànqìng), Wuchang St. (Wǔchāng Wǔcháng), and Xiangyang Rd. (Xiāngyáng Xiàngyáng).

Finally, I want to note that not even one ü (u with an umlaut) is needed in any of the street names.

5 thoughts on “Taipei street names and the monosyllabic myth

  1. Additional note:
    Kaidagelan Boulevard is a good example of the confusion that can result in using Hanzi to write words from other languages, because Mandarin is relatively phonetically poor, having only about 410 different syllables (not counting tones), and Chinese characters are not well equipped to indicate sounds outside that range. So, is the street’s name really pronounced “Kaidagelan,” or is that a Mandarinization of the original? Maps and other guides are too inconsistent to be of much help.

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