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Taiwanese (linguistics)


See alternative meanings for other possible definitions.

Taiwanese (Tâi-oân-oē or Hō-ló-oē; 台語 or 台灣話; Hanyu Pinyin: Táiyǔ or Táiwānhuà) is the home language for about 60% of the population of Taiwan. Native speakers of Taiwanese are known as Holo (Hō-ló) or Hoklo.

Table of contents
1 Classification
2 Phonetics
3 Vocabulary
4 Grammar
5 Scripts and orthographies
6 Sociolinguistics
7 References
8 External links
9 Alternative meanings


Taiwanese is the variant of Min-nan which is spoken in Taiwan. Taiwanese is often seen as a Chinese dialect within a larger Chinese language. On the other hand, it may also be seen as a language in the Sino-Tibetan family. As with most 'language or dialect?' distinctions, how one describes Taiwanese depends largely on one's political views. (But see Chinese dialect: Manifestations of language differentiation) In any case, the classification may be represented hierarchically as:
Sino-Tibetan Chinese Min (Fujian) Min-nan (southern Fujian) Taiwanese

Taiwanese is similar to the speech of the southern part of Fujian because most Taiwanese have ancestors who migrated from there in the 17th to 19th centuries. As a branch of Min-nan, there are both a colloquial version and a literary version of Taiwanese. The literary version--which was originally developed in the 10th century in Fujian and based on Middle Chinese--was brought to Taiwan by the migrants. Literary Taiwanese was used at one time for formal writing, but is now largely extinct.

Recent work by scholars such as Ekki Lu, Sakai Toru, and Lí Khîn-hoāⁿ (of Harvard University; also known as Tavokan Khîn-hoāⁿ or Chin-An Li)--based on former research by scholars such as Ông Io̍k-tek--has gone so far as to associate part of the deep structure (see Noam Chomsky) and basic vocabulary of the colloquial language with the Austronesian and Tai language families; however, such claims are not without controversy.


Phonetically, Taiwanese is a tonal language with extremely extensive tone sandhi rules. Syllables contain an initial consonant, a vowel, and a final consonant; each of these may be nasal.


There are the following consonants

voiced unvoiced/

There are no native labiodental phonemes.


There are the following vowels

 a  e  i  o  o·  u  m  ng
The vowel o is akin to a schwa; in contrast, is more open. In addition, there are several diphthongs and triphthongs (for example, iau). The vowels m and ng are nasal; the others are non-nasal. It is possible to make a non-nasal vowel nasal: a is non-nasal; aⁿ is the same vowel made nasal.


There are 7 tones; they are traditionally numbered from 1 to 8, with 2 and 6 representing the same tone (please note well). For example, the syllable a in each of the 7 distinct tones are

  1. a high flat
  2. falling
  3. low flat
  4. ah low stopping
  5. rising
  6. tone number 2 is repeated; there is no tone number 6 per se
  7. ā middle flat
  8. a̍h high stopping

Conventional linguistic analysis describes the tones on a five-level scale (shown after the traditional number, level 5 being the highest and 1 the lowest), and connects them with Middle Chinese tones (shown in Han characters, third column, below):
  1. 44 陰平
  2. 51 上聲
  3. 31 陰去
  4. 3 陰入
  5. 24 陽平
  6. tone number 2 is repeated
  7. 33 陽去
  8. 5 陽入
But see (for one example) Wi-vun Taiffalo Chiung's modern phonetic analysis in the References, which challenges these notions.

For tones 4 and 8, a final consonant p, t, or k may appear. When this happens, it is impossible for the syllable to be nasal. Indeed, these are the counterpart to the nasal final consonants m, n, and ng, respectively, in other tones. However, it is possible to have a nasal 4th or 8th tone syllable such as siaⁿh, as long as there is no final consonant other than h.

A tone number 0, typically written with a double dash (--) before the syllable with this tone, is used to denote the extent of a verb action, the end of a noun phrase, etc.

In the dialect spoken near the northern coast of Taiwan, there is no distinction between tones number 8 and number 4 -- both are pronounced as if they follow the tone sandhi rules of tone number 4.

Syllabic structure

A syllable requires a vowel (or diphthong or triphthong) to appear in the middle. All consonants can appear at the initial position. The consonants p, t, k; m, n, and ng (and some consider h) may appear at the end of a syllable. Therefore, it is possible to have syllables such as ngiau ("(to) itch") and thng ("soup"). Incidentally, both of these example syllables are nasal: the first has a nasal initial consonant; the second a nasal vowel.

Compare with Hangeul.

Tone sandhi

Taiwanese has extremely extensive tone sandhi (tone-changing) rules: in an utterance, only the last syllable pronounced is not affected by the rules. What an 'utterance' is, in the context of this language, is an ongoing topic for linguistic research. For the purpose of this article, an utterance may be considered a word, a phrase, or a short sentence. The following rules -- listed in the traditional pedagogical mnemonic order -- govern the pronunciation of tone on each of the syllables affected (that is, all but the last in an utterance):

See the work by Tiuⁿ Jū-hng and Wi-vun Taiffalo Chiung in the References, and the work by Robert L. Cheng (Tēⁿ Liông-úi) of the University of Hawaii, for modern linguistic approaches to tones and tone sandhi in Taiwanese.


Modern linguistic studies (by Robert L. Cheng and Chin-An Li, for example) estimate that except for a small but sizeable fraction (circa 10 % to 25 %), most Taiwanese words have cognates in other Chinese dialects. False friends do exist; for example, cháu means "to run" in Taiwanese, rather than the meaning of its cognate zǒu ("to walk") in Mandarin.

A curious fact and some common phrases for a taste:

goán and lán">

Special pronouns for "we": goán and lán

There are two pronouns for "we" or "us" in Taiwanese: goán is "us [excluding you]", and lán is "us [including you]." This is akin to English: "Let's go!" (including "you": translate with lán) and "Let us go!" (excluding "you": translate with goán).

Common phrases

See also Common phrases in different languages.


The grammar of Taiwanese is similar to southern Chinese dialects and akin to Hakka and Cantonese. The sequence 'subject verb object' is typical as in (say) Mandarin, but 'subject object verb' or the passive voice (with the sequence 'object subject verb') is possible with particles. Take a simple sentence for example: "I hold you." The words involved are: goá ("I" or "me"), phō ("to hold"), ("you").

Subject verb object (typical sequence)

The sentence in the typical sequence would be: Goá phō lí. ("I hold you.")

Subject object verb

Another sentence of roughly equivalent meaning is Goá kā lí phō, with the slight connotation of "I take you and hold" or "I get to you and hold."

Object hō· subject verb (the passive voice)

Then, Lí hō· goá phō means the same thing but in the passive voice, with the connotation of "You allow yourself to be held by me" or "You make yourself available for my holding."


With this, more complicated sentences can be constructed: Goá kā chúi hō· lí lim ("I give water for you to drink": chúi means "water"; lim is "to drink").

This article can only give a few very simple examples on grammar, for flavour. Linguistic work on the syntax of Taiwanese is still a (quite nascent) scholarly topic being explored.

Scripts and orthographies

In most cases, Taiwanese speakers write using the script called Han characters as in Mandarin, although there are a number of special characters which are unique to Taiwanese and which are sometimes used in informal writing. In some situations, Taiwanese is written using a romanized orthography with the Latin alphabet (Pe̍h-oē-jī, "vernacular writing") developed first by Presbyterian missionaries and later by the indigenous Presbyterian Church in Taiwan; they have been active in promoting the language since the late 19th century. Recently there has been an increase in texts using a mixed orthography of Han characters and romanization, although these texts remain uncommon. Other Latin-based orthographies exist, the more significant being TLPA (Taiwanese Language Phonetic Alphabet), Modern Literal Taiwanese, and Tongyong Pinyin. (In Wikipedia, Pe̍h-oē-jī is used de facto.)

The alphabet

In Pe̍h-oē-jī, the traditional list of letters is

a b ch chh e g h i j k kh l m n ng o o· p ph s t th (ts) u
Twenty-four in all--including the obsolete ts, which was used to represent the modern ch at some places. The additional necessities are the nasal symbol (superscript n; the capital form is seldom used), and the tonal diacritics.


Many keyboard layouts and input methods for entering either Latin or Han characters in Taiwanese are available. Some of them are free-of-charge, some commercial.

Language code

The language is registered per RFC 3066 as zh-min-nan [1].

Unicode (Universal character set) issues

When writing Taiwanese in Han characters, some writers create 'new' characters when they consider it is impossible to use directly or borrow existing ones; this corresponds to similar practices in character usage in Korean and Japanese. (See the entry 国字 in the Japanese Wikipedia). These are usually not encoded in Unicode (or the corresponding ISO/IEC 10646: Universal character set), thus creating problems in computer processing.

Nearly all Latin characters required by Pe̍h-oē-jī can be represented using Unicode (or the corresponding ISO/IEC 10646: Universal character set), using precomposed characters or combining (diacritics) characters. The only exception is the vowel akin to but more open than o, written with a right dot above. The usual workaround is to use the (stand-alone; spacing) character middle dot (U+00B7, ·; this is the de facto use in Wikipedia at the moment) or the combining character dot above (U+0307). However, these are far from ideal. There are proposals to the ISO/IEC working group in charge of ISO/IEC 10646--namely, ISO/IEC JTC1/SC2/WG2--to encode a new combining character right dot above: see documents N1593, N2507, and N2628.


Regional variations

Within the wider Min-nan (Hō-l-oē) speaking community in Southeast Asia, Amoy (Xiamen) is historically the variant of prestige (close to a 'standard language'), with other major variants from Choâⁿ-chiu (Quanzhou in Fujian), Chiang-chiu (Zhangzhou in Fujian), and Tio-chiu (Teochew; Chaozhou in Guangdong).

In Taiwan, however, the Tâi-lâm (Tainan, southern Taiwan) speech is the variant of prestige, and the other major variants are the northern speech, the central speech (near Taichung and the port town of Lo̍k-káng, that is, Lukang/Lugang), and the northern (northeastern) coastal speech (dominant in Gî-lân, that is, Ilan County). The distinguishing feature of the coastal speech is the change of the vowel 'ng' to 'uiⁿ'. The northern speech is distinguished by the absence of the 8th tone, and some vowel exchanges (for example, 'i' and 'u', 'e' and 'oe'). The central speech has an additional vowel between 'i' and 'u', which may be represented as 'ö'.


Most people in Taiwan can speak both Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese although the degree of fluency varies widely. Which variant is used depends strongly on the context, and in general people will use Mandarin in more formal situations and Taiwanese in more informal situations. Taiwanese tends to get used more in rural areas, while Mandarin is used more in urban settings, particularly in Taipei. Older people tend to use Taiwanese, while younger people tend to use Mandarin. In the broadcast media, soap operas and variety shows tend to use Taiwanese, while game shows and documentaries tend to use Mandarin.

Special literary and art forms

Chhit-jī-á (literally, "that which has seven syllables") is a poetic meter where each verse has 7 syllables.

There is a special form of musical/dramatic performance koa-a-hì ("Taiwanese opera"); the subject matter is usually a historical event. A similar form of puppetry, pò·-tē-hì ("Taiwanese puppetry"), is also unique and has been elaborated in the past two decades into impressive televised spectacles.

See Taiwanese cuisine for names of several local dishes.

Conceptualization and history

In the 18th and 19th centuries, civil unrest and armed conflicts were frequent in Taiwan. In addition to resistance against the government (both Chinese and Japanese), battles between ethnic groups were also significant: the belligerent usually grouped around the language they use. History recorded battles between the Hakka and the Taiwanese-language speakers; between these and the aborigines; and between those who spoke the Choâⁿ-chiu variant of what became the Taiwanese language and those who spoke the Chiang-chiu variant.

Later, in the 20th century, the conceptualization of Taiwanese is more controversial than most variations of Chinese because at one time it marked a clear division between the Mainlanders who arrived in 1949 and the pre-existing majority native Taiwanese. Although the political and linguistic divisions between the two groups have blurred considerably, the political issues surrounding Taiwanse have been more controversial and sensitive than for other variants of Chinese.

The history of Taiwanese and the interaction with Mandarin is complex and at times controversial. Even the name is somewhat controversial. Some dislike the name Taiwanese as they feel that it belittles other variants such as Mandarin, Hakka, and the aboriginal languages which are spoken on Taiwan. Others prefer the name Min-nan or Hokkien as this views Taiwanese as a variant of the speech which is spoken on Fujian province in Mainland China. Others dislike the name Min-nan and Hokkien for precisely the same reason. One can get into similar controversial debates as to whether Taiwanese is a language or a dialect.


Until the 1980s, the use of Taiwanese was discouraged by the Kuomintang on Taiwan through measures such as banning its use in schools and limiting the amount of Taiwanese broadcast on electronic media.

These measures were removed by the 1990s, and Taiwanese became an emblem of localization. Mandarin remains the predominant language of education, although there is a local language requirement in Taiwanese schools which can be satisfied with Taiwanese, Hakka, or aboriginal languages.

Although the use of Taiwanese over Mandarin is part of the Taiwan independence movement, the linkage between politics and language is not as strong as it once was. Fluency in Taiwanese has become a de facto requirement for political office in Taiwan for both independence and unificationist politicians.

Starting with James Soong, politicians who are opposed to Taiwan independence have used it frequently in rallies even when they are not native speakers of the language and speak it badly. The fact that James Soong was one of the first Mainlander politicians to use Taiwanese in semi-formal occasions and the fact that he loosened restrictions on the broadcast of Taiwanese has been noted as one large reason for his popularity.

Conversely, politicians who have traditionally been identified with Taiwan independence have used Mandarin on formal occasions. An example of the latter is President Chen Shui-bian who uses Mandarin in all official state speeches, but uses Taiwanese in party rallies and some informal state occasions such as New Year greetings.

Despite these commonalities, there are still different attitudes toward the relationship between Taiwanese and Mandarin. In general, while supporters of Chinese reunification believe that all languages used on Taiwan should be respected, they tend to believe that Mandarin should have a preferred status as the common working language between different groups. Supporters of Taiwan independence tend to believe that either Taiwanese should be preferred or that no language should be preferred.

In 2002, the Taiwan Solidarity Union, a party with about 10 % of the parliamentary seats at the time, suggested making Taiwanese a second official language. This proposal encountered strong opposition not only from Mainlander groups but also from Hakka and aboriginal groups who felt that it would slight their home languages, as well as others who objected to the proposal on logistical grounds and on the grounds that it would increase ethnic tensions.

In 2003, there was a controversy when parts of the civil service examination for judges were written in characters used only in Taiwanese. After strong objections, these questions were not used in scoring. As with the official-language controversy, objections to the use of Taiwanese came not only from Mainlander groups, but also Hakka and aborigines.


External links

Alternative meanings

Formosan (aboriginal) languages

In English, the phrase Taiwanese languages is also sometimes used to refer to the Austronesian languages spoken by the aborigines of the island. Some use the phrase Formosan (aboriginal) languages for clarity.

Taiwanese (dialect of) Mandarin (Chinese)

The phrase Taiwanese language is also sometimes incorrectly used to refer to Mandarin, which remains the de facto official spoken language of the Republic of China (which governs Taiwan) and is spoken fluently by about 80 % of Taiwanese. Mandarin Chinese as spoken informally in Taiwan has some differences in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation with the formal standard for Mandarin. The differences are on the order of the difference between American English and British English. Many modern linguists refer to this variation of Mandarin as the Taiwanese (dialect of) Mandarin (Chinese) (台灣華語) in their scholarly papers.

Taiwanese languages

As a gesture of equality, some propose that all languages prevalent in or special to Taiwan should be collectively referred to as Taiwanese languages; this would include all alternative meanings referred to in this article, plus Hakka and perhaps Japanese and English.