T-shirts with romanized Taiwanese

If you’re in Taiwan, make a trip to your local 50% Fifty Percent Píngjià Shíshàng (50% FIFTY PERCENT 平价时尚) (50 percent bargain-price fashion) and pick up one of their shirts of various Taiwanese foods, each of which is labeled in romanized Taiwanese. (Place name hashtags (e.g., #Yilan) are not included on the shirts.)

The only problem is that you may want to carry a magnifying glass with you, because the images and letters are tiny. (C’mon, people! When you want people to read something, size matters.)

This is the one I picked for myself: tshang-iû-piánn (in Mandarin: cōngyóubǐng / 蔥油餅 / 葱油饼). Those scallion pancakes are wonderful.

Advertising image of the graphic for a T-shirt that has a drawing of Taiwanese scallion pancake (congyoubing in Mandarin) and the text 'tshang-iu-piann' (partially obscured by a superimposed image of a T-shirt.

More images on the 50% Fifty Percent Facebook page.

OEC is D-licious

Recently, on my way to Wulai (just south of Taipei), I spotted an interesting sign. Normally, the combination of “interesting sign” and “Wulai” means something in a language of one of Taiwan’s Indigenous Peoples. But for today I have something different: Japanese, Taiwanese, and Mandarin. Plus another bonus sign in Japanese (I think) — but more on that later.

I wasn’t able to get a good photo of my own, so here’s one from Google Street View.

Sign labeled 'OEC', plus another store's sign reading '一豆'

The “OEC” on the sign on the left is meant to represent Japanese “oishī” (美味しい / おいしい), which means “delicious.” Knowledge of some Japanese words is very common in Taiwan, much as knowing a few words in Spanish is common in parts of the USA.

The whole top line is “OEC 手工麵線” (OEC shǒugōng miànxiàn) = “delicious handmade noodles.” The letters on the sign work like the hyphenated combinations in William Steig’s charming C D B.

The line below the sign’s headline is also linguistically interesting.

大腸, 蚵仔, 肉羹
(intestines, oysters, meat soup)

The second word, 蚵仔, would be pronounced kezi in Mandarin. But in Taiwan it’s standard for that to be read in Taiwanese as “ô-á.” Also notable is the use of handwriting — rather rare these days — instead of a computerized font.

The brunch shop next door also has what I strongly suspect is an interesting sign: 一豆, which in Mandarin is yi dou (lit. “one bean”). Someone who knows Japanese help me out with this one.

Prevalence of single-syllable Chinese given names

How common are single-syllable Chinese given names — names that take just one Chinese character to write?

Much less common than they were in the 1980s and 1990s. The downward trend is not likely to change, because China wants to avoid being a place filled with the equivalent of John no-middle-name Smiths.

The proportion of two-character names (i.e., a single-syllable family name plus a single-syllable given name) in China increased from 7.6% in the 1960s to peak at 27.6% in the 1990s. But the figure has now fallen to just 6.3%.

Although some of the three-character names will be those of people with two-character family names and single-syllable given names (as opposed to single-syllable family names and two-syllable given names), the figure is statistically insignificant, as only 0.11% of people in China have two-character family names and only about 6.3% of them will have single-syllable given names (or only about one person in fifteen thousand).

Although in the chart below the number of people with names totaling four or more characters/syllables is small (and largely within minority groups), such names have been on the increase, growing from from just 0.3% and 0.4%, respectively, in the 1950s to 1.6% and 1.7%, respectively, at present.

My translation of a graph from the PRC government, showing the popularity of two-syllable given names in China being high in the 1980s and 1990s and lower before and since then.

Source: Ministry of Public Security Household Administration Research Center System. Translation of labels by Pinyin.info.

In Taiwan, single-syllable given names are much less common than in China. Also, in Taiwan the majority of those with single-syllable given names are female; I don’t know if that tendency exists in China as well, but I suspect that it does.

Source: 《2020 nián quánguó xìngmíng bàogào》 fābù (《二〇二〇年全国姓名报告》发布), Gōng’ānbù wǎngzhàn (公安部网站), February 2, 2021

Further reading: 85 percent of Han in China have two-syllable given names: report, Pinyin News, August 10, 2008

Thanks to Qin-Hong Anderson for her input.

Malaysian state moves to boost Hokkien

Penang, Malaysia, is reportedly moving to adopt the Penang dialect of the Hokkien language as a thing of “nonmaterial cultural heritage” (fēi wùzhì wénhuà yíchǎn / 非物质文化遗产).

In Taiwan, Hokkien is also known as “Taiwanese” and “Hoklo.”

The chairman of the Penang Tourism and Creative Economy Affairs Committee said that to preserve Hokkien in Penang, the government there would support a “Speak Hokkien” campaign and allocate funds to NGOs and other groups for activities promoting Hokkien. He also hopes organizations will host competitions not only in Pinyin(!) but also in speaking topolects.

Topolects are an important part of the legacy of Chinese culture, he said.



Other Sinitic topolects (fangyan) could also be considered for nonmaterial cultural heritage status, he said.

Whether this really happens, and whether it will be enough to make a difference, remains to be seen. But at least it looks like someone influential in Penang is working hard to move things in the right direction.


History podcast episode on loanwords

Formosa Files logo

Formosa Files, the internet’s most informative podcast on the history of Taiwan, recently focused on the topic of language and loanwords: Local Language Loanwords: A Lovely Hot Pot of Fujianese, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, English, and More (season 3, episode 5). Lots of linguistic goodness, so give it a listen, and stick around for some of the many other episodes.

Although I, like Eryk, have never found jiayou (lit. “add oil”) much to my taste, the word has already made it past the gatekeepers and into English.

Formosa Files is also on Spotify and other popular content providers.

Further reading:

Who you callin’ “grandma”?!

Late last year a police officer in Taichung (Taizhong), Taiwan, was checking on a fifty-something-year-old woman when he made the mistake of addressing her as “ama” (Taiwanese for “grandmother,” and generally preferred here to Mandarin forms for elderly women).

Addressing a fifty-something Taiwanese woman even as “ayi” (auntie) would be inadvisable, assuming, of course, she’s not your actual aunt. But “ama”?

I pity the fool.

In response to complaints, the police have come up with guidelines for how to address members of the public, and most terms are now discouraged.

Tǒngyī lǜ dìng 4 zhǒng chēnghu, rúguǒ shì niánqīng rén, kàn shì xuéshēng, bù fēn nánnǚ, tǒngyī chēnghu “tóngxué,” rúguǒ shì niánqīng nǚxìng, tǒngyī chēnghu “xiǎojiě,” zīshēn (niánzhǎng) nǚxìng zé shì tǒngyī chēnghu “nǚshì,” zhìyú nánxìng, chúle niánqīng xuéshēng zhī wài, dōu chēnghu “xiānshēng.”


So there are now four categories:

  • young people (regardless of gender) who look like students: tóngxué (a term used to refer to students or one’s classmates)
  • young women: xiǎojiě (miss, Ms.)
  • older women: nǚshì (this one’s tricky; it’s more formal than “ma’am”; more like “madame,” I suppose).
  • men who look older than students: xiānshēng (mister, sir)

As I remarked above, “nǚshì” is a bit tricky, but not just in terms of translation. It’s quite formal and something people usually would write rather than say. Consider, for example, how one might begin a letter to a stranger “Dear [name]”; but if you were standing in front of that person you would not begin a conversation with them with the same words.

So, if in doubt, call a Taiwanese woman “xiǎojiě.” But calling a Chinese woman “xiaojie” is not a good idea these days (if not used in combination with a surname), though it was fine when I lived in China back in the early 1990s.

By the way, if you ever need to see if a font face will handle Hanyu Pinyin with tone marks well, “nǚshì” is an excellent test word, as “ǚ” is the combination of letter and tone least likely to be supported.

Further reading:

Year of the Tiger puns, part 1

This is a cute ad for a bakery in Banqiao, Taiwan. The text in Chinese characters reads “虎年送吼禮” (Hǔnián sòng hǒu lǐ).

What’s odd about this is the character 吼, which is the character used to write the Mandarin word “hǒu” (howl, roar). So the text in English reads something like “[In the] Year of the Tiger, give roar gifts.”

This only makes proper sense when one knows that here “hǒu” is standing in for the Taiwanese word for “good” (in Mandarin: hǎo/好).

image with two cute cartoon tigers, one of which is baying. The speech bubble for that is the Chinese character 吼



Today I’d like to talk about a sign at a stand that sells guabao, a quintessential Taiwanese snack.

I took my own photo, but it didn’t make the guabao look particularly appetizing, so I’m using a public-domain image instead so you can see what one looks like if you don’t already know. But when I buy one I have them leave off the cilantro/xiāngcài. I hate that stuff.

Here’s the sign.

guabao sign, as described below



(NT$50 is about US$1.50.)

The sign uses some Taiwanese, specifically “a刈包.” If the whole thing were in romanized Taiwanese, it would be

Su-pâng ê

To̍k-ka kháu-bī
50 îⁿ

But parts of that are unidiomatic, as Taiwanese expert Michael Cannings informs me. (Alas, my Taiwanese sucks.) So this is a sign in both Taiwanese and Mandarin, which isn’t particularly surprising given that guabao is a Taiwanese food but most people in northern Taiwan use Mandarin most of the time. (I’m using the spelling “guabao” rather than “koah-pau” in most of this post because this is a Pinyin site.)

Something about this sign did surprise me a lot. Can you guess?

  • It’s not the use of a Roman letter — I should probably say “English letter” in this case, since here the letter is meant to be pronounced much like the “A” in “ABC” — though regular readers know that’s certainly more than enough to get me interested.
  • It’s not that the sign has “刈包” rather than “割包” for guabao. In searches restricted to .tw domains, Google returns 181,000 results for “刈包” and just 41,900 results for “割包”, even though Taiwan’s Ministry of Education prefers the latter form. Even on government Web pages “刈包” beats “割包” by a ratio of more than two to one.
  • It’s not the style in which “刈包” is written by hand, though I kinda like that.
  • And it’s not even that “a” was used instead of a different Roman letter: “ê”.

What seems to me most distinctive about this sign is that the Roman letter appears in lowercase rather than as “A”.

A single letter being used to represent a Sinitic morpheme in a text otherwise in Chinese characters is almost always written in upper case, e.g., A菜, 宮保G丁, K書. (Oh, that reminds me: I really need to answer that e-mail message about K. Sorry, Steven.)

In other words, if a sign is going to have the Roman letter “a” stand in for the Taiwanese possessive particle (the equivalent of Mandarin’s de/的), I would expect in this particular case for the sign to have “私房A” rather than “私房a”. I’m pleased by the use of lowercase; capital letters should be mainly for proper nouns and the beginnings of sentences.

It’s probably a one-off. But just in case I’ll be on the lookout to see if there’s a trend toward greater use of lowercase.

The text also presents a challenge: How should this be written in Pinyin? The last part (獨家口味 / 50元) is easy, because it’s just straight modern standard Mandarin:

dújiā kǒuwèi
50 yuán

But what to do with this?


Probably this:

Sīfáng ê