Bill on indigenous languages of Taiwan moves forward

It is my impression that most of what the bill detailed below calls for has already been enacted, so I’m not sure what’s really new here. But if those painfully obvious points indeed have not yet been codified into law, it’s about damn time. (Speaking of related things that are long overdue: how about full secondary education on Lanyu (Orchid Island), with at least some classes taught in the language there?)

Citing UNESCO on anything concerning Taiwan, whose government is excluded by the United Nations, certainly raises eyebrows. And it would surprise me if any of the languages of Taiwan’s tribes are not at least “vulnerable.” But, for the record and later reference, here’s the story.

The Executive Yuan passed a draft bill Thursday to foster the development of indigenous languages.

The draft bill states that the government should hold accreditation tests for aboriginal language proficiency and that signage written in indigenous languages should be installed at government agencies and public facilities in indigenous areas.

It will be submitted to the Legislative Yuan for deliberation in the near future.

The Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP, 原住民族委員會) said that Taiwan’s indigenous languages are important cultural assets and that indigenous languages are gradually dying out amid socio-cultural changes.

According to the UNESCO list of endangered languages, nine of the 42 languages and dialects spoken by Taiwan’s indigenous peoples are considered vulnerable: Amis, Bunun, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Taroko, Tayal, Tsou, and Yami, while Kanakanavu, Kavalan, Saaroa, Saisiyat and Thao are in critical danger of disappearing, and Siraya is considered severely endangered.

The indigenous language development bill states that the CIP should work out a system for writing the languages, complete the compilation of teaching materials of the languages and formulate policies for their preservation.

The CIP should also hold accreditation tests for aboriginal language proficiency, work out policies to cultivate teachers of the languages, compile teaching materials and data, publish textbooks and promote the development and preservation of the languages by offering subsidies, according to the bill.

source: Cabinet approves indigenous language development bill, CNA, November 26, 2015

Lan Yu signage examples

The island known in Mandarin as Lán Yǔ (蘭嶼 / 兰屿) has a lot of different names, including Orchid Island, Ponso no Tao, Pongso no Tawo, Irala, Tabako Shima, Tabaco Xima, Botol, Buturu, Kotosho, and Botel Tobago.

In texts in the roman alphabet, most of the time it’s referred to as “Lanyu.” That’s how I’ve written it in the past. But the Xinhua Pinxie Cidian (p. 21) gives such island names with the yu separate, so I’m going with the Pinyin standard from now on.

Anyway, there are plenty of names for this beautiful place off the southeast coast of Taiwan. But it doesn’t have much in the way of official signs. In large part, that’s because it doesn’t really need many, given the fact that the entire island has only a couple of roads: a ring around the island and another cutting over the mountains, plus a few minor side roads, some not much larger than a sidewalk. It’s not overrun with tourists; and the inhabitants certainly don’t need any signs to tell them where they are or to keep them from getting lost.

Click on any photo for a larger version.

road along the coast of Lan Yu; this is one of the wider spots; in many areas it's just one lane

Someone there told me that a long time ago the government assigned some roads the usual crop of Sino-centric names so beloved by the KMT: Zhongshan (i.e., Sun Yat-sen), Zhongzheng (i.e., Chiang Kai-shek), etc. But none of the Yami (Tao) people on the island were in the least bit interested in going along with that and ignored or even removed such signs. (Cars without license plates are also a common site there.)

In one village I found an official sign (but not one for a road) that had been appropriated for part of a wall on someone’s house or shed. This would, of course, have made for a great photo; but circumstances were such that I probably couldn’t have taken the shot without seeming disrespectful, so I passed the opportunity by.

I saw no trace of any official street signs. And even unofficial street signs were few and far between. (See the signpost image near the bottom.)

“Yehyu” and “Hungtou” are both in Wade-Giles. These would be Yēyóu Cūn and Hóngtóu Cūn in Hanyu Pinyin (and Tongyong Pinyin and MPS2 — though with the tone marks indicated differently) — for the Mandarin version of the name.
two directional signs reading '椰油村 YEHYU VILLAGE' and '紅頭村 HUNGTOU VILLAGE'

sign reading '椰油村 Yehyu Village'

But Yayo appears to be the Yami name.
mural of manned Yami boats on the sea, with text reading '椰油部落 YAYO'

The sort of marker shown below is fairly standard. Note that the name in roman letters (Ivalino) is not a romanization of the Mandarin form (Yěyín Bùluò / 野銀部落). Note also the backward N, which is a mistake, not a special letter.
concrete marker reading '野銀部落 IVALINO' (with a backwards N on one side of the sign and a correct N on another)

closeup of the above marker

This photo perhaps best captures the nature of signage on Lan Yu — when there is any signage to be seen, that is.

dead tree at an intersection being used as a post for unofficial wooden signs; and a goat is wandering by

I was saddened when I was there to hear children speaking only Mandarin with each other rather than the Yami language. But perhaps those I heard weren’t a representative sample.

Saint Joe’s

A Catholic church in Jinlun (Jīnlún/金崙), Taidong, Taiwan. Note the absence of Chinese characters.

photo of a church, with 'KIOKAI NI' and 'SANTO YOSEF' written on it in large letters

The town of Jinlun being in an area with many members of the Paiwan tribe, I checked with a Chen Chun-Mei (Chén Chūnměi / 陳春美), a Paiwan specialist at Guólì Zhōngxīng Dàxué (National Chung Hsing University / 國立中興大學), who wrote that kiokai is one of many words Paiwan borrowed from Japanese (kyōkai/教会: meaning church), and that ni in Paiwan means of or by.

So this is the Church of Saint Joseph.

I was also interested to hear on the train to Jinlun that some of the announcements in advance of some stations in Taidong County were in not only Mandarin, Taiwanese, and English, but also an aboriginal language. I’m guessing Paiwan. Even in the announcements in that language, however, the place names themselves sounded like they were given in Mandarin forms, though the descriptions were not.

Further reading:

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.


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: Wūlái / 烏來). 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.


  • Wulia — in big letters, no less. Remarkably, the township uses the URL of for its site, though, fortunately, 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 domains all .tw domains any domains, but pages must include “Taipei County” or
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 (烏) coming (來). Instead, it refers to the hot springs in the area.

Documenting and Revitalizing Austronesian Languages: free online book

Language Documentation & Conservation, a refereed, open-access journal sponsored by the National Foreign Language Resource Center and published online by the University of Hawai‘i Press, has released its first online book: Documenting and Revitalizing Austronesian Languages, edited by D. Victoria Rau and Margaret Florey.

Half of the chapters in the new book (ISBN 978-0-8248-3309-1) focus specifically on Austronesian languages of Taiwan. I have indicated those with bold text below.


Introduction: documenting and revitalizing Austronesian languages
I. International capacity building initiatives

  • The language documentation and conservation initiative at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa
  • Training for language documentation: Experiences at the School of Oriental and African Studies
  • SIL International and endangered Austronesian languages

II. Documentation and revitalization activities

  • Local autonomy, local capacity building and support for minority languages: Field experiences from Indonesia
  • Documenting and revitalizing Kavalan
  • E-learning in endangered language documentation and revitalization
  • Indigenous language-informed participatory policy in Taiwan: A socio-political perspective
  • Teaching and learning an endangered Austronesian language in Taiwan

III. Computational methods and tools for language documentation

  • WeSay, a tool for engaging communities in dictionary building
  • On designing the Formosan multimedia word dictionaries by a participatory process
  • Annotating texts for language documentation with Discourse Profiler’s metatagging system

There have also been two issues of the journal issued to date, though neither of these has anything specific about languages spoken in Taiwan.

This is indeed a promising beginning. I look forward to more such titles from the journal.

critique of proposed guidelines for writing Taiwan place names

Several months ago I wrote about the move by Taiwan’s Ministry of the Interior (MOI) to impose Tongyong Pinyin by instituting standards for the writing of place names. (See MOI and Tongyong Pinyin: update). I was told that my remarks had been translated into Mandarin and distributed to those involved. But I have never received any response, despite more than one follow-up call. Although I never much expected to receive a useful response anyway, I had hoped for at least something.

Keep in mind that these are remarks aimed at those in the central government, who, at least for the time being, are compelled to work within the framework of Tongyong Pinyin. Also, I tried to stick as much as possible to the examples in the government’s draft, thus my use of “Jhuzih Hu,” which is both Tongyong Pinyin and a name whose word parsing is more complicated than most.

I have amended a few details, deleted some sections with personal details, and removed the conclusion, which was mainly polite blah-blah-blah.

I would welcome comments and suggestions for revisions.

Response to Taiwan’s Proposed Guidelines for Place Names in Romanization and English

As you are surely aware, Taiwan’s government has a very poor record when it comes to romanization. So the government now has an important opportunity to show Taiwan’s foreign community and others here who care about standards and are pained by the nation’s sloppiness in this regard that it is finally giving the issue the care it deserves. Unfortunately, the proposed guidelines in their present state would do little to improve the situation and in some cases could make things worse. Specifically, the proposed guidelines have seven basic problems.

  1. Failure to use Hanyu Pinyin
  2. Failure to use apostrophes correctly
  3. Failure to use hyphens correctly
  4. Partial failure to indicate individual words correctly
  5. Failure to handle non-Chinese names correctly
  6. Failure to consider instances where tone marks might be useful or even necessary
  7. Failure to fix old, misleading spellings

Before I give details about the problems listed above I would like to note that the guidelines are, however, correct in one important way: Place names should begin with a capital letter followed by lower-case letters. The Taipei City Government made an enormous mistake when it instituted the practice of adding extra capital letters where none are needed.

NanJing East Road Nanjing East Road
TianMu Tianmu
TaiNan Tainan

The Taipei City Government’s foolish policy of ExTra CaPiTal LettErs also helped bring about another major problem in Taipei: the omission of apostrophes before syllables beginning with a, e, and o. This will be addressed in my second point. But first comes the introductory one.

1. Failure to use Hanyu Pinyin

I know that the issue of Hanyu Pinyin vs. Tongyong Pinyin is not supposed to be on the table, so I do not expect any action to be taken on this for now. Nevertheless, I believe it necessary to remind the Ministry and those responsible for reviewing the guidelines that members of the international community — both within and outside of Taiwan — overwhelmingly support the adoption of Hanyu Pinyin for Mandarin and oppose the use of Tongyong Pinyin. There is simply no green/blue divide among foreigners on this issue; an overwhelming majority of “green” foreigners oppose Tongyong Pinyin and strongly support Hanyu Pinyin; and an overwhelming majority of “blue” foreigners feel the same way. For foreigners, this is a practical matter, not a political one.

The government’s insistence upon the use of Tongyong Pinyin has cost Taiwan respect and is having an impact on students’ choices of where to study Mandarin. Moreover, the lack of a consistent, correct, and internationalized romanization system considerably complicates Taiwan’s efforts to lure more tourists to the island. The government should abandon Tongyong Pinyin immediately, before it does any more harm. Too much time, money, and effort have been wasted already.

Nevertheless, some of the damage that has been done could be repaired if the government implements the best possible guidelines for the use of the romanization system it continues to insist upon. The proposed guidelines, however, are at best insufficient and thus are in need of significant revision.

This brings me to my main points.

2. Failure to use apostrophes correctly

The MOI guidelines correctly indicate that something is needed to distinguish syllables beginning with a, e, and o. But the MOI guidelines use the wrong method to indicate these breaks.

The MOI says that people should use a hyphen before syllables beginning with a, e, and o. This is a very bad idea. The correct way to do this is by using an apostrophe. Here is the rule Taiwan should adopt: “Put an apostrophe before any syllable that begins with a, e, or o, unless that syllable comes at the beginning of a word or immediately follows a hyphen or other dash.”

Table: Examples of how to write words that have inner syllables beginning with a, e, or o

Da-an Da’an
Su-ao Su’ao
Ren-ai Ren’ai

The main reason it is crucial not to use a hyphen in such places is that hyphens have other important uses, which I will discuss next.

3. Failure to use hyphens correctly

Hyphens are especially important when it comes to assigning names to places and things (especially things representing abbreviations and things that join two places).

Suhua Expressway Su-Hua Expressway This road runs between Su‘ao and Hualian
Beiyi Expressway Bei-Yi Expressway This road runs between Taipei (Taibei) and Yilan. (And for heaven’s sake don’t make this “Pei-Yi.”)
Jianan dazun Jia-Nan dazun Jia-Nan refers to Jiayi and Tainan (嘉南大圳).
Huajiang Bridge Hua-Jiang Bridge The bridge joins Wanhua and Jiangzicui.
Sun Moon Lake Sun-Moon Lake These are joined elements.
Taida Tai-Da An abbreviation for Taiwan Daxue (台灣大學)

See for details and additional ways that hyphens can help clarify Pinyin.

4. Partial failure to indicate individual words correctly

The guidelines are correct that there should be spaces between words (詞) but not between mere syllables (字). But the guidelines are too vague — and sometimes incorrect! — about how to determine what a word is (and thus what should be written separately).

Taiwan should use the guidelines that have already been worked out for these principles and have been accepted internationally. I am referring, of course, to the guidelines for Hanyu Pinyin, which are covered in general here — — and in detail in two books: Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and Orthography (漢語拼音和正詞法) (ISBN 7-80052-148-6) and 新華拼寫詞典 (ISBN 7-100-03414-0). The latter book is sometimes available at the main Eslite bookstore near Taipei City Hall. The best Mandarin-English dictionary following these principles is the ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary, edited by John DeFrancis; you should also use it as a standard reference.

Supporters of Tongyong Pinyin have often touted that system’s supposed “compatibility” with Hanyu Pinyin. Having the two systems share the same basic guidelines would be a good way to demonstrate that this is something more than empty words.

Most of the examples in the guidelines are correct. A few need revision.

Yangmingshan Yangming Shan
Jhuzihhu Jhuzih Hu [Zhuzi Hu]

5. Failure to handle non-Chinese names correctly

Just a few days ago President Chen Shui-bian (whose name, I note, is spelled in Hanyu Pinyin, not Tongyong Pinyin; but no one confuses him with the president of the People’s Republic of China!) was in Tainan County to mark the opening of some new roads around the Southern Taiwan Science Park. Each of the three roads has been given a name from an aboriginal language, something the president praised. Yet the government’s guidelines would force Mandarin upon the aboriginal names, changing them to something that would be incorrect.

Similarly, the administration has supported Aborigines regaining their original names and even villages reacquiring their original, non-Chinese names. (See, for example, )

Ideally, no Chinese characters would be used with some of these names; but I don’t expect that to happen soon.

Kaidagelan Ketagalan
Tailuge Taroko
Sihmakusih (司馬庫斯) Smangus

Attention must also eventually be given to the issue of using Sinitic languages other than Mandarin (specifically Taiwanese and Hakka) in place names.

6. Failure to consider instances where tone marks might be useful or even necessary

Because Mandarin is a tonal language, a few names that are different may appear to be identical in romanization unless tone marks are included. In practice, only a very small percentage of names are subject to this ambiguity. Taipei, for example, has more than 600 different street names; but only the following would need attention there.

Chinese characters Pinyin and English mix
景華街 Jǐnghuá St.
景化街 Jǐnghuà St.
同安街 Tóng’ān St.
通安街 Tōng’ān St.
萬慶街 Wànqìng St.
萬青街 Wànqīng St.
五常街 Wǔcháng St.
武昌街 Wǔchāng St.
向陽路 Xiàngyáng Rd.
襄陽路 Xiāngyáng Rd.

For the benefit of foreigners and to aid clarity, tone marks should follow the practice of Hanyu Pinyin, not of Zhuyin Fuhao, i.e. first tone should be indicated (ā, ē, ī, ō, ū, and ǖ; not a, e, i, o, u, and ü). This is especially important because most names are written without tone marks; we should not get these confused with words that have only first-tone syllables, such as Tōng’ān (通安).

One possibility would be to tone marks on only the less common name(s). For example, we would write 五常街 as “Wǔcháng Street” but 武昌街 simply as “Wuchang Street” (rather than as “Wǔchāng Street“).

Some would advocate using tone marks on most if not all signage with Pinyin. This deserves study.

7. Failure to fix old, misleading spellings

Several years ago when the central government promulgated Tongyong Pinyin it kept the old spellings for some cities and all counties (other than Yilan, which changed from “Ilan”). This was a mistake. The old spellings are inherently ambiguous in pronunciation and are often quite simply misleading.

The government should end the policy of retaining most old spellings. Quite simply, there is nothing useful to foreigners or anyone else about retaining, for example, “Taitung” for what should be spelled “Taidong.” A limited, practical approach for the time being would be to immediately change all names that are spelled the same way in Tongyong Pinyin and Hanyu Pinyin, with the possible exception of retaining “Taipei” instead of switching to “Taibei.”

Taitung Taidong
Matsu Mazu
Kinmen Jinmen
Hualien Hualian
Chiayi Jiayi
Pingtung Pingdong
Keelung Jilong

New roads in Tainan County, Taiwan, given non-Sinitic names

On Sunday President Chen Shui-bian spoke at a ceremony marking the opening of Tackalan Boulevard, which connects the Southern Taiwan Science Park to the Sun Yat-sen Freeway. This name differs from most Taiwan road names in several ways:

Rather, it is from a language spoken in Taiwan hundreds of years ago.

Chen said giving the major road an Aboriginal name was inspiring and symbolic of the trailblazing spirit of the Aboriginal tribes known as the Pingpu.

Authorities chose the name “Tackalan” because the new road crosses Anting Township (安定), which Dutch colonizers called by the Aboriginal name.

Note: “Anting” is bastardized Wade-Giles. The proper spelling — in Hanyu Pinyin, as well as in all of Taiwan’s official romanization systems for the last twenty years is Anding (Āndìng.

Centuries ago, Tackalan was a thriving river-fishing location populated by Aboriginals. It gradually grew into a farming village as the river became congested with silt….

Another of the three major roads [around the science park], Baccloangh Boulevard, is open to traffic, while the third, Siraya East Road — named after a Pingpu tribe — is under construction.

Here are the names as well as Chinese characters given in news reports:

  • Tackalan Boulevard (in Mandarin: Zhíjiānòng Dàdào / 直加弄大道)
  • Baccloangh Boulevard (in Mandarin: Mùjiāliū Dàdào / 目加溜大道)
  • Siraya East Road (Mandarin stories give this as Siraya Boulevard: Xīlāyǎ dàdào / 西拉雅大道)

For the spellings in romanization I’m having to take the CNA story’s word for it, which is often not a good idea.

I do not know what the street signs themselves look like. The new guidelines from the Ministry of the Interior, however, do not make me confident that the spellings will follow those of the original languages. (They give, for example “Kaidagelan Boulevard” — a romanization of the Mandarinized 凱達格蘭大道 / Kǎidágélán Dàdào — rather than the proper “Ketagalan Boulevard.”) Thus, the signs may well give Mandarinized forms in Tongyong Pinyin (i.e., not Tackalan but Jhijianong, not Baccloangh but Mujialiou, and not Siraya but Silaya). I’d greatly appreciate pictures, in case any readers are ever in that area.