foregoing fours forestalls misfortune: government in action

Eddie Murphy's paranoid character of Kit Ramsey, from the movie 'Bowfinger'
Kit: The letter K appears in this script 1,456 times. That’s perfectly divisible by 3.
Freddy: So what? So what you saying?
Kit: What am I saying? KKK appears in this script 486 times!

–from Bowfinger

Webmaster’s note: I just came across this old post, which for some reason I failed to put online half a year ago, back when it was actually news. So when I refer to the government here, that means the Chen administration, not the current one of Ma Ying-jeou — not that it would probably make any difference on this issue. This is one change the Ma administration doesn’t seem interested in rescinding. And, anyway, with China starting the Olympics ceremony tonight at 8 p.m. — that’s 08/08/08 at 8:00 (or is the time supposed to be 8:08:08?) — a number-related post doesn’t seem out of order.

The deadly number four is in the news again. Eliminating fours from Taiwan license plates wasn’t enough, as millions of people in Taiwan still have the potentially life-threatening burden of one or more fours in their official ID no.

In Mandarin, the word for “four” () sounds similar but not identical to the word for “die/death” (). In Taiwanese, too, the words are similar but not identical sounding.

So the government has decided to pander to the superstitious treat the issue with appropriate cultural sensitivity. Removing 4 entirely from Taiwan’s two-letter, eight-digit ID numbers would affect too many IDs, officials decided, so at least one 4 can remain — but never in the final position. (The latter restriction has been in force since 2000.)

Luckily, for those who need to have every last 4 removed from their ID number, help is at hand.

Let’s just hope that whatever massive amount of taxpayers’ money the government will have to spend on this, the figure won’t have an unlucky four in it, because then some people might start to question the wisdom of this project.

sources and further reading:

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.

MOI and Tongyong Pinyin: update

I have spent many hours over the past few days trying to find out exactly what is behind the recent news story about the Ministry of Education and moves to expand Tongyong Pinyin by the end of the year.

I have sent out no fewer than five e-mail messages to various government officials but have received no responses. I have also made more than a dozen phone calls to various ministries and government-information lines. But nobody I spoke with knows what is going on. My wife helped by making some calls on her own. She was eventually able to get through to someone at the Ministry of the Interior who does have a clue about all this.

Here is basically what is happening.

On October 30, Taiwan’s Ministry of the Interior promulgated the government’s guidelines for writing place names (including not just town names but physical features, such as rivers, mountains, temples, bridges, etc.) in English and romanization: Yùgào dìngdìng “biāozhǔn dìmíng yì xiě zhǔnzé” (預告訂定「標準地名譯寫準則」) (MS Word document).

Most of the pages of this document are simply a list of townships and districts throughout Taiwan, as given in Tongyong Pinyin. But it also contains a few pages of general guidelines. Local governments and interested individuals (yes, that could include you, o reader) who wish to comment on these guidelines may do so before the deadline of Thursday, November 8. The question of Tongyong Pinyin vs. Hanyu Pinyin, however, is supposedly off the table, as the Ministry of the Interior must follow the administration in this — though I encourage anyone who writes the ministry to bring up the issue anyway. I will post contact information as soon as I get it.

To return to the matter of the promulgated document, these are the guidelines that Taiwan’s local governments are ordered to use, with local governments’ offices of land administration compiling lists of place names to be standardized within their jurisdictions and submitting these lists to the MOI’s Department of Land Administration (dìzhèng sī fāngyù kē / 地政司方域科).

If local governments reject Tongyong Pinyin and use a different romanization system, the MOI does not have the authority to compel them to switch to Tongyong. But the central government can and and almost certainly will exert pressure on them to toe the line.

Making matters worse for advocates of Hanyu Pinyin, the international standard romanization system for Mandarin, is the fact that many local officials — even in “blue” regions — do not believe they have autonomy in this matter, as I know from having spoken with several of them about precisely this topic. Nor, unsurprisingly, do they take the word of a foreigner over what they “know” to be “correct”: that they must use Tongyong whether they like it or not. As an example, the city of Jilong (”Keelung”), which is controlled by the anti-Tongyong “blues,” instituted a plan to standardize street names there with Tongyong Pinyin. Nor will most officials bother to look up the rule they are supposedly following — and which, BTW, I can’t show them because it doesn’t exist.

The recently promulgated proposal has extremely limited guidelines. These are most certainly inferior to the fuller guidelines for Hanyu Pinyin — to say nothing of the book-length supplementary guidelines for Hanyu Pinyin (Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and Orthography and the Xinhua Pinxie Cidian) and carefully produced dictionaries in Hanyu Pinyin.

Probably the best thing I could say about the guidelines is a negative: At least they didn’t adopt Taipei’s StuPid, StuPid PolICy Of InTerCapITaLiZaTion.

The problem that is likely to affect more names than other deficiencies — other than the fundamental matter of Tongyong Pinyin, that is — is the recommended use of the hyphen. Basically, the guidelines call for a hyphen where Hanyu Pinyin would use 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.

The reason that is a big problem, beyond the failure to follow the standard of Hanyu Pinyin, is that hyphens cannot then be put to the good use they have in Hanyu Pinyin. Hyphens are often needed in signage because they are used in short forms of proper nouns, for example the correct short form of Taiwan Daxue (National Taiwan University) is “Tai-Da.”

Hyphens can thus help clarify names a great deal becuase they often indicate an abbreviation. Mandarin’s tendency toward Consider bridge names, in which the hyphen helps indicates the reason for the name:

  • not Huazhong but Hua-Zhong (for [Wan]hua to Zhong[he])
  • not Huajiang but Hua-Jiang (for [Wan]hua to Jiang[zicui])

Or the case given in the guidelines of 嘉南大圳. The recommendation there is for “Jianan dazun.” But giving “Jia-Nan” instead of “Jianan” would help clarify that this is something in Jiayi and Tainan counties.

The government guidelines’ failure to employ the hyphen in the same manner as Hanyu Pinyin is a major deficiency.

Taiwan should have Tongyong Pinyin’s orthography follow the well-established guidelines for Hanyu Pinyin. But the administration’s petty difference-for-the-sake-of-difference policy will likely rule out that course.

more on Taiwan’s new Tongyong move

This morning all three of Taiwan’s English-language newspapers ran the AP story on the Ministry of the Interior’s plan to expand the use of Tongyong Pinyin. (Bonus points to the copy editor at the Taipei Times who changed the original article’s sloppy “Taiwan will standardize the English transliterations of its Chinese Mandarin place names by the end of the year” to “The Romanization of Mandarin place names will be standardized by the end of this year.”)

I have made a few calls about this, but to little effect so far. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time today to track down someone at the Ministry of the Interior who can give some definitive information about this.

Meanwhile, here’s another article. It gives a little more information: no intercapping (good), hyphens instead of apostrophes (bad), some screwed-up word parsing (bad).

But all of this sounds like old news. How this will be any different in implementation is still unclear.

Wàijí rénshì lái Táiwān gōngzuò huò lǚyóu, zǒng bèi Táiwān de dìmíng yì xiě gǎo de “wù shàsha,” jiéjú cháng yǐ mílù shōuchǎng. Nèizhèngbù 30 rì gōng bù “biāozhǔn dìmíng yì xiě zhǔnzé” cǎo’àn, míng dìng dìmíng yì xiě yǐ “yīnyì” wèi yuánzé, bìng cǎi “Tōngyòng Pīnyīn” wèi jīzhǔn, ruò dìmíng yǒu lìshǐ, yǔyán, guójì guànyòng, shùzì děng tèxìng, zé yǐ dìmíng xìngzhì fānyì, rú Rìyuè Tán yì wéi “Sun Moon Lake;” 306 gāodì yì wéi “Highland 306.”

Gāi cǎo’àn shì yījù “guótǔ cèhuì fǎ” dìngdìng, bìng nàrù Jiàoyùbù zhìdìng de “Zhōngwén yìyīn shǐyòng yuánzé” zuòwéi yì xiě biāozhǔn, dìmíng yì xiě fāngshì yóu dìmíng zhǔguǎn jīguān zìxíng juédìng.

Cǎo’àn zhǐchū, wèi bìmiǎn yì xiě zhě duì wényì rènzhī bùtóng, chǎnshēng yì xiě chāyì, tǒngyī xíngzhèng qūyù de biāozhǔn yì xiě fāngshì, shěng “Province,” shì “City,” xiàn “County,” xiāng-zhèn “Township,” qū “District,” cūnli “Village.” Jiēdào míngchēng yě tǒngyī yì xiě, dàdào “Boulevard,” lù “Road,” jiē “Street,” xiàng “lane,” nòng “Alley.” Lìrú Kǎidágélán Dàdào wéi “Kaidagelan Boulevard.”

Cǎo’àn míng dìng, biāozhǔn dìmíng de yì xiě cǎi tōngyòng pīnyīn, dàn dìmíng hányǒu “shǔxìng míngchēng” shí, yǐ shǔxìng míngchēng yìyì fāngshì yì xiě, rú Dōng Fēng zhíyì wéi “East Peak.”

Ruò shǔxìng míngchēng yǔ biāozhǔn dìmíng zhěngtǐ shìwéi yī ge zhuānyǒu míngchēng shí, bù lìng yǐ yìyì fāngshì fēnkāi yì xiě, rú “Jiā-Nán dà zùn [zhèn?]” yì wéi “Jianan dazun;” Yángmíng Shān yì wéi “Yangmingshan;” Zhúzi Hú yì wéi “Jhuzihhu.”

Lìngwài dìmíng yǒu dāngdì lìshǐ, yǔyán, fēngsúxíguàn, zōngjiào xìnyǎng, guójì guànyòng huò qítā tèshū yuányīn, jīng zhǔguǎn jīguān bào zhōngyāng zhǔguǎn jīguān hédìng hòu, bù shòu “shǔxìng míngchēng” xiànzhì, rú Yù Shān zhíyì wéi Jade Mountain; zhōngyāng shānmài yì wéi “Central Mountains.”

Cǎo’àn guīdìng, biāozhǔn dìmíng yì xiě shūxiě fāngshì, dì-yī ge zìmǔ dàxiě, qíyú zìmǔ xiǎoxiě, rú bǎnqiáo yì wéi “Banciao,” ér fēi “Ban Ciao” huò “Ban-ciao.” Dàn dìmíng de dì-yī ge zì yǐhòu de pīnyīn zìmǔ, chūxiàn a, o, e shí, yǔ qián dānzì jiān yǐ duǎnxiàn liánjiē, rú Qīlǐ’àn yì wéi “Cili-an,” Rén’ài Xiāng wéi “Ren-ai Township.”

Cǐwài, cǎo’àn yě tǒngyī zìrán dìlǐ shítǐ shǔxìng míngchēng, rú píngyuán, péndì, dǎoyǔ, qúndǎo, liè yǔ, jiāo, tān, shāzhōu, jiǎjiǎo, shān, shānmài, fēng, hé xī, hú, tán děng shíwǔ zhǒng yì xiě fāngshì. Lìrú, Dōngshā Qúndǎo yì wéi “Dongsha Islands;” Diàoyútái liè yǔ “Diaoyutai Archipelago;” Běiwèi Tān “Beiwei Bank;” “Ālǐ Shān shānmài” yì wéi “Alishan Mountains;” zhǔfēng yì wéi “Main Peak;” Shānhútán zhíyì wéi “Shanhu Pond.”

source: Yīngyì yǒu “zhǔn” — lǎowài zhǎo lù bùzài wù shàsha (英譯有「準」 老外找路不再霧煞煞), China Times, October 31, 2007