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So-called "Taiwanese" is a kind of Hokkien, which is a kind of Chinese. There are several major dialect families of Chinese: Cantonese, Mandarin, Hokkien, and Wu (including Shanghainese), to name four. The name Hokkien refers to southern dialects of the province of Fújiàn 福建 (called Hokkiàn in Hokkien), located on the mainland side of the Taiwan Strait, across from Taiwan. The official national language of China is a standardized variant of the Mandarin dialect family. A separate "Slightly Geeky Guide" is provided for Mandarin (link).
In Taiwan, ability to speak and understand Mandarin is nearly universal. And for most people Mandarin is the only form of Chinese in which they are able to read and write.
Until 1945, however, Chinese in Taiwan spoke either Hokkien (in most cases) or Hakka (in a few cases). Today Taiwanese Hokkien is what most people refer to when they use the term "Taiwanese" as the name of a language. Other English names for Taiwanese Hokkien (and sometimes its speakers) are Hoklo, Holo, Fujianese, Amoy, and Minnan or Minnanhua. (Hakka is a different Chinese dialect group, with most of its speakers in or from Guǎngdōng 廣東 [广东] province. It is not discussed on this web site.)
Colloquial writing systems have been devised for Hokkien. Some attempts have done this by expanding the set of Chinese Characters commonly used in Mandarin. Some have used expansions of Chinese phonetic script (so-called bo-po-mo-fo ㄅㄆㄇㄈ or zhùyīn fúhào 注音符號 [注音符号]) or of the Japanese katakana syllabary. Other attempts have involved various adaptations of the Latin alphabet.
But despite considerable inventiveness in creating scripts, no such system is widely used in Taiwan. Therefore people seeking to represent spoken Taiwanese Hokkien in writing do so by ad-hoc character invention or by approrpiating low-frequency or semantically "wrong" characters based on cognate sounds (what are called "white characters" or báizì 白字). Far more often people simply read and write in Mandarin, but translate between written Mandarin and spoken Hokkien on the fly, often with extraordinary skill.
For foreigners, in contrast, there has been great stability in Hokkien spelling since the late XIXth century —far more stability than for Mandarin or Cantonese. The system used is generally referred to by English speakers as "Mission" or "Missionary" spelling. That is the system described on this page and used on this web site, although a couple of compromises have to be made because the standard system uses some diacritics or extra letters that demand practical workarounds.
As noted above, the English word "Hokkien" derives from the name of the province of Fújiàn 福建 (Taiwanese: Hok-kiàn), which lies directly across the straits from Taiwan. This hilly region, still sometimes referred to by its ancient name of Mǐn 閩 (闽), is actually home to a whole range of dialects, usually grouped by linguists into Northern Mǐn (or Mǐnběi 閩北), sometimes also named "Foochow" after the northern city of Fúzhōu 福州, and Southern Mǐn 閩 (or Mǐnnnán 閩南), sometimes collectively named after the southern city of Xiàmén 廈門 (厦门). (Some English writers use as a dialect name the old postal spelling "Amoy." "Amoy" is derived from the Hokkien pronunciation of Xiàmén as Ēmn̂g).
Most Anglophone linguists use the term "Hokkien" for the Southern Mǐn group dialect group, and, by extension, its speakers.
Hokkien-speaking people —including the ancestors of the majority of modern Taiwanese— have been migrating to Taiwan from Fújiàn since the 1600s. They have also carried their language throughout southeast Asia, most notably to Singapore and to southern China's Hainan Province, the huge island directly south of mainland China, where several distinct dialects of Hokkien can be differentiated.
The migrants to Taiwan tended to come from two Fújiàn river basins, each with a distinctive set of subdialects. In Taiwan people tended to settle "with their own kind" for security reasons, and so the dialects of these two river basins, although mutually comprehensible, became the basis for the classification of Taiwanese Hokkien speakers into two broad groups, each named after a major city on one of the rivers: Zhāngzhōu 漳州 and Quánzhōu 泉州.
(A third group, apparently from the coastal city of Xiàmén and its environs, settled in the area of modern Lùgǎng 鹿港 in Central Taiwan, which remains dialectically distinctive.)
A map showing the river basins and the home towns of many Taiwanese is available on a separate web page identifying the patron gods of these groups (link).
With the passing of centuries, the Zhāngzhōu and Quánzhōu dialects in Taiwan evolved away from their mainland roots, and modern Taiwanese generally shows greater north-south differences than Zhāngzhōu-Quánzhōu differences. The most important difference is that in some words the vowel U in the north corresponds to the vowel I in the south, or vice versa. Thus some people speak of the Taiwanese language as tâi-gí while others refer to it as tâi-gú. Also distinctive, but less obvious to foreigners, the fourth and eighth tones tend to be reversed in the north and south.
The following sounds are represented in romanized Taiwanese Hokkien. The distinction between TS (before A , O, and U) and CH (before E and I) is not phonemic in Taiwan, and most textbooks and dictionaries spell both as CH. (A few reverse this convention and represent both as TS.) The distinction was observed in older dictionaries that are often still in use.
Tones are pitch patterns. Standard Mandarin has four tones, and they are just as important as consonants and vowels in telling Chinese syllables apart. Hokkien is traditionally thought of as having eight tones, each of which corresponds to two different pitch patterns: a "citation tone" heard when the syllable stands alone or at the end of a logical phrase or syntactic structure, and a "changed tone" heard everywhere else. This kind of variation in the pronunciation of a tone is characteristic of most dialects of Chinese, but is comparatively muted in Mandarin, which is why you don't hear much about it when you study Chinese in school. On this web site, the phenomenon is treated more broadly on a page devoted to Chinese tone (link). (Click here for More About Tone & Intonation.)
In Hokkien, diacritical marks are used to mark the tone categories, not the actual pronunciation, and whether a tone is citation or changed is not marked in the spelling. Unless you specifically study Taiwanese, you can ignore these marks, but since the XIXth century it has been conventional to write them (in contrast to ignoring them in Cantonese and Mandarin). Here is the list, using the letter A as a place to put the mark:
Now you know.
For more detail, see:
- JORDAN, David K.
- 1971 Guide to the romanization of Chinese. Taipei: Mei Ya Publications.
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