Google Maps switches to Hanyu Pinyin for Taiwan (sloppily)

Until very recently, Google Maps gave street names in Taiwan in Tongyong Pinyin — most of the time, at least. This was the case even for Taipei, which most definitely has long used Hanyu Pinyin, not Tongyong Pinyin. The romanization on Google Maps was really a hodgepodge in the maps of Taiwan. And it’s still kind of a mess; but now it’s at least more consistent — and more consistent in Hanyu Pinyin.

First the good. In Google Maps:

  • Hanyu Pinyin, not Tongyong Pinyin, is now used for street names throughout Taiwan
  • Tone marks are indicated. (Previous maps with Tongyong did not indicate tones.)

Now the bad, and unfortunately there’s a lot of it and it’s very bad indeed:

  • The Hanyu Pinyin is given as Bro Ken Syl La Bles. (Terrible! Also, this is a new style for Google Maps. Street names in Tongyong were styled properly: e.g., Minsheng, not Min Sheng.)
  • The names of MRT stations remain incorrectly presented. For example, what is referred to in all MRT stations and on all MRT maps as “NTU Hospital” is instead referred to in broken Pinyin as “Tái Dà Yī Yuàn” (in proper Pinyin this would be Tái-Dà Yīyuàn); and “Xindian City Hall” (or “Office” — bleah) is marked as Xīn Diàn Shì Gōng Suǒ (in proper Pinyin: “Xīndiàn Shìgōngsuǒ” or perhaps “Xīndiàn Shì Gōngsuǒ“). Most but not all MRT stations were already this incorrect way (in Hanyu Pinyin rather than Tongyong) in Google Maps.
  • Errors in romanization point to sloppy conversions. For example, an MRT station in Banqiao is labeled Xīn Bù rather than as Xīnpǔ. (埔 is one of those many Chinese characters with multiple Mandarin pronunciations.)
  • Tongyong Pinyin is still used in the names of most cities and townships (e.g., Banciao, not Banqiao).

Screenshot from earlier this evening, showing that Tongyong Pinyin is still being used in Google Maps for some city and district names (e.g., Gueishan, Sinjhuang, Banciao, Jhonghe, Sindian, and Jhongjheng rather than Hanyu Pinyin’s Guishan, Xinzhuang, Banqiao, Zhonghe, Xindian, and Zhongzheng, respectively).
map of Taipei area, with names as shown above

I don’t have any old screenshots of my own available at the moment, so for now I’ll refer you to an image that Fili used in an old post of his. Compare that with this screenshot I took a few minutes ago from Google Maps of the same section of Tainan:

Note especially how the name of the junior high school is presented.

  • Previously “Jian Xing Junior High School”.
  • Now “Jiàn Xìng Jr High School”.

This is typical of how in old maps some things were labeled (poorly) in Hanyu Pinyin. (Words, not bro ken syl la bles, are the basis for Pinyin orthography. This is a big deal, not a minor error.) And now such places are still labeled poorly in Hanyu Pinyin, but with the addition of tone marks.

I’d like to return to the point earlier on sloppy conversions. Surprisingly, 成都路 is given as “Chéng Doū Road” rather than as “Chéngdū Road“.
screenshot from Google Maps of 'Cheng Dou [sic] Rd', near Taipei's Ximending
Although “Xinpu” might not be the sort of name to be contained in some romanization databases, there is nothing in the least obscure about Chengdu, the name of a city of some 11 million people. Google Translate certainly knows the right thing to do with 成都路:
screenshot from Google Translate, showing how Google will translate '成都路' as 'Chengdu Rd'

But Google Maps doesn’t get this simple point right, which likely points to outsourcing. Why would Google do this? And why wouldn’t it ensure that a better job was done? Because, really, so far the long-overdue conversion to Hanyu Pinyin in Google Maps for Taiwan is something of a botch.

A nose for foreign food?

Imagine some white guys in a fairly large U.S. city open a restaurant named “Mr. Taiwan Slant-Eyes Asian Cuisine.” And imagine that this restaurant specializes in distinctly Americanized dishes such as egg foo yong, fortune cookies, and California wraps. Now imagine the response. Isn’t this fun?

OK, now imagine a different situation: In Taiwan’s fifth-largest city some locals open a place specializing in Taiwanized Western food and dub their restaurant “Miss UK Cafe Pointy-Nose Foreign Food.”

As you’ve probably guessed, the second scenario is real. The “Miss UK Cafe ㄚ度仔 異國美食” (Miss UK Cafe a-tok-a yìguó měishí) recently opened not far from my apartment in Banqiao.

A-tok-a (ㄚ度仔) is Taiwanese for “pointy nose” (i.e., Westerner), though perhaps the common translation of “big nose” conveys the spirit a little better. As Tempo Gain explains in the Forumosa thread on this word, “the initial ‘a’ often preceds names, and the final ‘a’ often is attached to nouns like the Mandarin ‘zi’ haizi, chezi, etc.”

Although most foreigners I know in Taiwan find the use of a-tok-a offensive to some degree, reactions are usually tempered by the knowledge that the word is very seldom used intentionally as a pejorative. It’s just the word most Hoklo speakers would use for “Westerner,” and they mean nothing bad by this and perhaps even see it as “cute” in a favorable way. So since I’m certain the restaurateurs didn’t intend any insult in choosing this name, I’m not going to carp about this any more than I already have — which is not to say that I will ever buy anything from that restaurant.

It’s still an interesting name, though. (Actually, this is probably two names: the standard one (ㄚ度仔 異國美食), which is for most people, and the English one (Miss UK Cafe), which is probably there in an attempt to look modern/foreign/cool.)

For those keeping count, that’s three scripts and as many languages on just one sign.

  • Miss UK Cafe: English, in the Roman alphabet
  • ㄚ度仔: Taiwanese, in a mixed script of zhuyin (ㄚ) and Chinese characters
  • 異國美食: Mandarin, in Chinese characters

The mixing of scripts in “ㄚ度仔” is representative of the sad fact that most people in Taiwan are unsure how to write Taiwanese. Here are some of the ways this word gets written, along with the number of Google results and Baidu results for that exact phrase.

  • ㄚ度仔 Google 555 / Baidu doesn’t recognize the ㄚ
  • 阿凸仔 3,440 / Baidu 1,320
  • 阿多仔 6,730/ Baidu 13,400
  • 阿卓仔 11,300 / Baidu 2,810
  • 阿荳仔 12,500 / Baidu 24,700
  • 阿豆仔 12,500 / Baidu 24,700 (Google and Baidu apparently refuse to differentiate 荳 and 豆)

Also interesting is the use of yìguó (異國) instead of the more common wàiguó (外國), for “foreign.”

  • “異國” Google 1,510,000 / Baidu 14,700,000
  • “外國” Google 6,420,000 / Baidu 46,500,000

Yìguó měishí, however, is more common than wàiguó měishí.

  • “外國美食” Google 41,100 / Baidu 26,400
  • “異國美食” Google 114,000 / Baidu 152,000

This, I suspect, is because yìguó měishí “sounds fancier” because of how relatively common the word waiguo is.

photo of the storefront of the restaurant discussed in this post

further reading:

Banqiao’s orificial signage

David, who for just a little while longer lives in the same Banqiao neighborhood as I, sent me a photo of a street sign in our highly populated but little-discussed city.

'Guanciao W. Rd.': streetsign in Banqiao, Taiwan, labeled in misspelled Tongyong Pinyin and English

The sign tells us this is “Guanciao” West Road. In Hanyu Pinyin this would be “Guanqiao.” Guanqiao? The only word in my biggest Mandarin-English dictionary under that spelling is guānqiào (關竅/关窍), which is defined as “orifices on the human body.” Hmm. Taiwan might have the questionable taste of having many a road still named after a dead dictator, but orifices?

This oddity is explained by the fact that Banqiao is simply continuing its tradition of typos — even on relatively new signs. (The style of the sign and the choice of Tongyong Pinyin both indicate this went up within the past few years.)

Guanciao (Guanqiao) should be Guancian. (In Hanyu Pinyin, 館前西路 is written Guǎnqián Xīlù.) It’s worth noting this is not a tiny lane but a road in a well-traveled part of town.

As long as I’m putting up yet another post with photos and doing further damage to my reputation of having one of the Taiwan blogosphere’s fastest-loading, least Turtonesque sites*, I might as well go ahead and add one more so I can mention something else about this sign.

Let’s look at the relative size of the Chinese characters and the alphabetic text. The majority of the letters are but one quarter of the height of the Chinese characters.

sign showing the relative percentages of the height of the letters/Hanzi on the sign

Although in this particular case the lettering might not be too small, this style often leads to nearly illegible romanization, especially on signs posted high above streets.

* Just in terms of the average number photos per post, that is. (But that’s in part because I’m a lousy photographer.) Congratulations, Michael, on reaching two thousand posts!

Banqiao signage SNAFU

Here’s an example of the mixing of romanization systems and addition of errors that used to be common in Taipei before the city switched to Hanyu Pinyin. These signs are on a corner in Banqiao, Taipei County, not far from Banqiao City Hall.

First, let’s set the scene. We have two types of signs, both with a mix of romanization and English. One set of signs gives street names; the other points toward places of possible interest.
establishing shot of signage (at one corner) discussed in this post

The blue-panel signage on the right represents something introduced during the term of the previous mayor, a member of the Democratic Progressive Party. And since the DPP backs Tongyong Pinyin for Mandarin, that’s the romanization system used most of the time on such signs. A number of the photos on these signs feature the previous mayor, who had relatively little recognition among the public since he had succeeded someone else’s term rather than being elected to his own. He put his photo on all sorts of things. But he failed to be elected to the city’s top spot. His challenger, the current mayor of Banqiao, spreads her name recognition by having her recycling speech broadcast from the city’s trash trucks.

photo of the top piece on a streetsign pole in Banqiao. It reads OK, now note the cap on the signpost. It reads “Ban ciao” in black letter. Although I spotted several of these today, I’d never seen any before, which would mean it’s very likely that a KMT-led city administration under a KMT-led county government is putting up new signs in Tongyong Pinyin, a romanization system the Kuomintang (Guomindang) opposes. (The KMT used to oppose Hanyu Pinyin as well, which is how Taiwan ended up with MPS2, the Tongyong Pinyin of the 1980s.) Similarly, Banqiao has relatively new signs in prominent places around the city that read (in a particularly clumsy script face) “Bravo Banciao.” (What exactly about Banqiao is worthy of such a cheer is not stated.) Even though the city administration is under the mistaken impression that it must use Tongyong (and it does suffer from this idea), that doesn’t mean it has to go around putting up new signage in this.

To get back to the cap, the likely story is that the transportation department had some leftover money in its budget which had to be spent lest the following year’s budget be cut; but rather than spend it on fixing errors, which would involve study and actual work, people decided to make something that the boss thinks would look cool.

I wonder, though, how many Taiwanese would even recognize this reads “Banciao” unless they had it specifically pointed out to them. A few months ago I spotted an innocent-looking teenager shopping with her mother. The girl was wearing a shirt with the following text:

'f uck you' written in black letter

Although it’s almost certain she would know both English words and understand their meaning together, I think it extremely unlikely she knew what words were on her shirt.

OK, let’s have a closer look at the signs themselves.
detail of signs discussed in this post

Here we have

  • “Zhongzheng” (Hanyu Pinyin)
  • “Simen” and “Banciao” (Tongyong Pinyin for what would be “Ximen” and “Banqiao” in Hanyu Pinyin)
  • “Panchial” (bastardized Wade-Giles of “Panchiao” plus a typo, for what would be “Banqiao” in Hanyu Pinyin)

And then there’s the matter of “The Lin’s Family Residence At Panchail,” which would be much better written simply “Lin Family Residence” or by the most commonly used English name “Lin Family Gardens.”

So that’s three romanization systems, a typo, and clumsy English on official signage at just one corner — to say nothing of how relatively small the alphabetic text is. And there’s no solution in sight.

Taiwan’s MPS2 romanization system is not the same as Yale

Taiwan does not now nor has it ever officially used the Yale romanization system. But that hasn’t stopped the relatively common belief that the Yale romanization system for Mandarin can be found on some official signage here.

What most people take as Yale is in fact MPS2, a Taiwan-devised romanization system that dates from the mid 1980s. MPS2 was developed Taiwan in a vain attempt to counter the growing popularity around the world of Hanyu Pinyin. In other words, it was basically the Tongyong Pinyin of the 1980s, though its supporters (there must have been some) never embraced it with the same level of nationalistic fervor as Tongyong Pinyin has received from some quarters. Little wonder, then, that most people — including many who really should know better — don’t seem to have noticed that MPS2 even exits, much less that a great deal of the island’s signage remains in this system.

To some degree the confusion of MPS2 for Yale is understandable, given that the two systems have many points in common on which they differ with Hanyu Pinyin. Here are some examples.

-au rather than -ao

MPS II and Yale Hanyu
au ao
bau bao
chau chao
dau dao
gau gao
hau hao

-ung rather than -ong

MPS II and Yale Hanyu
chung chong
dung dong
gung gong
hung hong

chr, jr, r, shr

MPS II and Yale Hanyu
chr chi
jr zhi
r ri
shr shi

ts- instead of c-

MPS II and Yale Hanyu
tsai cai
tsan can
tsau cao
tseng ceng
tsou cou
tsu cu
tsung cong
tsz ci

And neither uses Hanyu Pinyin’s abbreviated vowel forms (such as -ui for -uei, -iu for -iou, and -un for -uen). But here we can begin to see some of the differences between MPS2 and Yale.

MPS II Yale Hanyu
chuei chwei chui
duei dwei dui
tzuei dzwei zui

Yale often uses w as a medial where other systems would use u.

MPS II Yale Hanyu
shuei shwei shui
suan swan suan
guang gwang guang

Yale often uses y as a medial where other systems would use i

MPS II Yale Hanyu
jia jya jia
niau nyau niao
chiung chyung qiong

This sign, in Banqiao, would read Shrjyan in Yale, not Shrjian, which is MPS2.
street sign reading 'SHR JIAN RD'

To review all of the similarities and differences among these and other systems, see my comparison chart of romanization systems.

To close, here are some more signs in MPS2. What in Hanyu Pinyin is written zhong is jung in both MPS2 and Yale. What in Hanyu Pinyin is xiao, however, is written differently in MPS2 and Yale: shiau and syau, respectively.

photo of street signs in Jilong. One sign reads 'JUNG 1 RD', the other 'SHIAU 1 RD'
This photo was taken in Jilong.

Banqiao street names

Although Banqiao — spelled “Panchiao” in bastardized Wade-Giles and “Banciao” in Tongyong Pinyin — is one of Taiwan’s most populous cities, it doesn’t get much attention, overshadowed as it is by its neighbor Taipei.

To a certain degree that’s deserved: With a population of some 542,000 (which, if it were transplanted to the United States, would make it that nation’s 26th largest city), Banqiao really ought to have more of interest. But, still, it has been my home for about nine years and it isn’t completely awful. (How’s that for a recommendation?) And the city has been improving, especially with the development around the enormous new train station and the equally enormous Taipei County Government Hall. (David has a few additional photos of Banqiao. I’m amazed I have yet to run into him on the street, especially since foreigners tend to stick out here.)

Until a few years ago, street signs in Banqiao were relatively uniformly in MPS2 (often confused with the Yale romanization system), along with the usual assortment of mistakes and smatterings of other systems. Then signs in Tongyong Pinyin began to replace some but not all of those in MPS2. Last year’s elections, however, saw the DPP lose power in both Taipei County (Banqiao is the county’s largest city) and Banqiao itself. So a move toward Hanyu Pinyin can be expected — eventually. As far as I know, though, the city’s department of transportation, which is in charge of such signage, is still under the erroneous belief that the city must follow the central government’s guidelines and thus use Tongyong. Jilong (Keelung) is another example of a city under a pan-blue administration that thinks it has to use Tongyong.

For people’s reference, I have compiled a list of Banqiao street names in Chinese characters, Hanyu Pinyin (with tone marks), and the mix of romanization and English generally seen in Taiwan.