Despite the fact that it is the most widely spoken vernacular on the island of Taiwan, it is not the official language of the Republic of China that governs the island. The government has promoted Mandarin in the Taiwan standard as the official language.
Min is the only branch of Chinese that cannot be directly derived from Middle Chinese. This may account for the difficulty in finding the appropriate Chinese characters for some Min Nan vocabulary. This is maybe also part of the reasons why it is almost totally mutually unintelligible with Mandarin or other Chinese dialects.
There is both a colloquial version and a literary version of Taiwanese. Spoken Taiwanese is almost identical to spoken Amoy. Regional variations within Taiwanese may be traced back to Hokkien variants spoken in Southern Fujian (Quanzhou and Zhangzhou). Taiwanese also contains loanwords from Japanese and the Formosan languages. Recent work by scholars such as Ekki Lu, Sakai Toru, and Lí Khîn-hoāⁿ (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 basic vocabulary of the colloquial Taiwanese with the Austronesian and Tai language families; however, such claims are still controversial.
A literary form of Min Nan once flourished in Fujian and was brought to Taiwan by early emigrants. Nāi-kèng-kì, the manuscript for a series of plays published during the Ming Dynasty in 1566, is one of the earlist known works. This form of the language is now largely extinct.
|Nasal||m /m/||n /n/||ng /ŋ/|
|Plosive||voiced3||b /b/||g /ɡ/|
|plain||p /p/||t /t/||k /k/||h4 /ʔ/|
|aspirated||ph /pʰ/||th /tʰ/||kh /kʰ/|
|Fricative||s /s/||h /h,ç/|
The vowel o is akin to a schwa; in contrast, o͘ is more open. In addition, there are several diphthongs and triphthongs (for example, iau). The consonants m and ng can function as a syllabic nucleus and are therefore included here as vowels. The vowels may be either plain or nasal: a is non-nasal, and aⁿ is the same vowel with concurrent nasal articulation. This is similar to French, Portuguese, and many other languages.
There are two pronunciations of vowel o. It is [ɤ] in Southern Taiwan mainly such as Tainan and Kaohsiung, and [o] in Northern Taiwan such as Taipei. But because of people moving and the development of communication, these two pronunciations are common and acceptable throughout the entire island.
In the traditional analysis, there are eight 'tones', numbered from 1 to 8. Strictly speaking, there are only five tones. But as in other Chinese dialects, the two kinds of stopped syllables are considered also to be 'tones' and assigned numbers 4 and 8. In Taiwanese tones 2 and 6 are the same, and thus duplicated in the count. Here the eight tones are shown, following the traditional tone class categorization, named after the tones of Middle Chinese:
| Pitch in|
|Description|| Pitch in|
|1||yin level (陰平)||a||˥ (55)||high||˦ (44)||high|
|2 (6)||rising (上聲)||á||˥˩ (51)||falling||˥˧ (53)||high falling|
|3||yin departing (陰去)||à||˧˩ to ˨˩ (31~21)||low falling||˩ (11)||low|
|4||yin entering (陰入)||ah||˧˨ʔ (32)||mid stopped||˨˩ʔ (21)||low stopped|
|5||yang level (陽平)||â||˩˦ to ˨˦ (14~24)||rising||˨˦ (25)||rising|
|7||yang departing (陽去)||ā||˧ (33)||mid||˨ (22)||mid|
|8||yang entering (陽入)||a̍h||˦ʔ (4)||high stopped||˥ʔ (5)||high stopped|
See (for one example) Wi-vun Taiffalo Chiung's modern phonological 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.
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.
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. A frequent use of this tone is to denote a question, such as in "Chia̍h-pá--bē?", literally meaning "Have you eaten yet?". This is realized by speaking the syllable with either a low-falling tone (3) or a low stop (4). The syllable prior to the "--" maintains its original tone.
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’ (or ‘intonational phrase’) 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-hông 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.
Among the apparently cognate-less words are many basic words with properties that contrast with similar-meaning words of pan-Chinese derivation. Often the former group lacks a standard Han character, and the words are variously considered colloquial, intimate, vulgar, uncultured, or more concrete in meaning than the pan-Chinese synonym. Some examples: lâng (person, concrete) vs. jîn (人, person, abstract); cha-bó͘ (woman) vs. lú-jîn (女人, woman, literary). Unlike the English Germanic/Latin contrast, however, the two groups of Taiwanese words cannot be as strongly attributed to the influences of two disparate linguistic sources.
Extensive contact with the Japanese language has left a legacy of Japanese loanwords. Although a very small percentage of the vocabulary, their usage tends to be high-frequency because of their relevance to modern society and popular culture. Examples are: o͘-tó͘-bái (from オートバイ ootobai "autobike", an "Engrish" word) and pháng (from パン pan "bread," which is itself a loanword from Portuguese). Grammatical particles borrowed from Japanese, notably te̍k (from teki 的) and ka (from か), show up in the Taiwanese of older speakers.
Whereas Mandarin attaches a syllabic suffix to the singular pronoun to make a collective form, Taiwanese pronouns are collectivized through nasalization. For example, i (he/she/it) and goá (I) become in (they) and goán (we), respectively. The -n thus represents a subsyllabic morpheme. Like all other Chinese languages, Taiwanese does not have true plurals.
Unlike English, Taiwanese has two first-person plural pronouns. This distinction is called inclusive, which includes the addressee, and exclusive, which excludes the addressee. For example, goán means we excluding you, while lán means we including you (that is, pluralis auctoris). The inclusive lán may be used to express politeness or solidarity, as in the example of a speaker asking a stranger "Where do we live?", but meaning "Where do you live?". This distinction is a relatively common feature of Sino-Tibetan languages, the canonical example from Mandarin being 我們 (wǒmen, exclusive) versus 咱們 (zánmen, inclusive).
With this, more complicated sentences can be constructed: Goá kā chúi hō͘ 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.
Listen to an Tai JintianDaoJiaKanWo.wav for the sentence: "Kin-á-jit hit-ê cha-bó͘ gín-á lâi góan tau khòaⁿ góa." (Today that girl came to my house to see me.)
Taiwanese does not have a strong written tradition. Until the late 19th century, Taiwanese speakers wrote solely in literary Chinese. A system of writing Taiwanese using Latin characters called pe̍h-oē-jī (POJ) was developed in the 19th century. Today, Taiwanese speakers most commonly write in vernacular Chinese, which uses the vocabulary and grammar of Mandarin, though Chinese characters are also used to represent spoken Taiwanese in writing.
In some situations, Taiwanese is written with the Latin alphabet using an orthography called pe̍h-oē-jī (POJ), meaning "vernacular writing". POJ was 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 most significant being Taiwanese Language Phonetic Alphabet (TLPA), Tongyong Pinyin, Modern Literal Taiwanese (MLT), and Phofsit Daibuun (PSDB). MTL and PSDB both employ tonal spelling to indicate tone without use of diacritic symbols.
In POJ, the traditional list of letters is
In 2006, the National Languages Committee (Ministry of Education, Republic of China) proposed a scheme called "Tâi-ôan Lô-má-jī" (literally, "romanized orthography for Taiwanese"). This scheme reconciles the two of the more senior orthographies, TLPA and POJ. The changes for the consonants involved using "ts" for POJ's "ch" (reverting to the orthography in the 19th century), and "tsh" for "chh". For the vowels, "o͘" could optionally represented as "oo". The nasal mark "ⁿ" could also be represented optionally as "nn". The rest of the scheme, most notably the use of diacritics to mark the tones, appeared to keep to the POJ tradition. One of the aims of this compromise was to curb any increase of "market share" for Tongyong Pinyin. It is unclear whether the community will adopt this new agreement.
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 Cantonese, Vietnamese chữ nôm, Korean hanja and Japanese kanji. These are usually not encoded in Unicode (or the corresponding ISO/IEC 10646: Universal Character Set), thus creating problems in computer processing.
All Latin characters required by pe̍h-oē-jī can be represented using Unicode (or the corresponding ISO/IEC 10646: Universal character set), using precomposed or combining (diacritics) characters. Prior to June 2004, the vowel [ɔ] akin to but more open than o, written with a dot above right, was not encoded. The usual workaround was to use the (stand-alone; spacing) character middle dot (U+00B7, ·) or less commonly the combining character dot above (U+0307). As these are far from ideal, since 1997 proposals have been submitted to the ISO/IEC working group in charge of ISO/IEC 10646 – namely, ISO/IEC JTC1/SC2/WG2 – to encode a new combining character dot above right. This is now officially assigned to U+0358 (see documents N1593, N2507, N2628, N2699, and N2770). Font support has followed: for example, in Charis SIL.
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 in Changhua County), and the northern (northeastern) coastal speech (dominant in Gî-lân). The distinguishing feature of the coastal speech is the use of the vowel 'uiⁿ' in place of 'ng'. 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 [ɨ] or [ø] between 'i' and 'u', which may be represented as 'ö'.
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. Older people tend to use Taiwanese, while younger people tend to use Mandarin. In the broadcast media, soap opera/dramas and variety shows tend to use Taiwanese, while game shows and documentaries tend to use Mandarin. Political news is broadcast in both Taiwanese and Mandarin.
There is a special form of musical/dramatic performance koa-á-hì: the Taiwanese opera; the subject matter is usually a historical event. A similar form of puppetry, pò͘-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.
This set the tone for the uneasy relationship between this language community and the colonial establishments in the next few centuries.
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 Taiwanese 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.
As with many other languages, the translations of the Bible in Taiwanese marked milestones in the standardization attempts of the language and its orthography.
The first translation of the Bible in Amoy or Taiwanese in the pe̍h-ōe-jī orthography was by the first missionary to Taiwan, James Laidlaw Maxwell, with the New Testament Lán ê Kiù-chú Iâ-so͘ Ki-tok ê Sin-iok published in 1873 and the Old Testament Kū-iok ê Sèng Keng in 1884.
The next translation of the Bible in Taiwanese or Amoy was by the missionary to Taiwan, Thomas Barclay, carried out in Fujian and Taiwan. A New Testament translation was completed and published in 1916. The resulting work containing the Old and the New Testaments, in the pe̍h-ōe-jī orthography, was completed in 1930 and published in 1933 as the Sin-kū-iok ê Sèng-keng (Amoy Romanized Bible). This edition was later transliterated into Han characters and published as Sèng-keng Tâi-gí Hàn-jī Pún (聖經台語漢字本) in 1996
The Ko-Tân (Kerygma) Colloquial Taiwanese Version of the New Testament (Sin-iok) in pe̍h-ōe-jī, also known as the Red-Cover Bible (Âng-phoê Sèng-keng), was published in 1973 as an ecumenical effort between the Protestant Presbyterian Church in Taiwan and the Roman Catholic mission Maryknoll. This translation used a more modern vocabulary (somewhat influenced by Mandarin), and reflected the central Taiwan dialect, as the Maryknoll mission was based near Tâi-tiong. It was soon confiscated by the Kuomintang government (which objected to the use of Latin orthography) in 1975.
A translation using the principle of functional equivalence, Hiān-tāi Tâi-gú Sin-iok Sèng-keng (Today's Taiwanese Romanized Version), containing only the New Testament, again in pe̍h-ōe-jī, was published in 2008 as a collaboration between the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan and the Bible Society in Taiwan. A translation of the Old Testament, following the same principle, is being prepared
Although the use of Taiwanese over Mandarin was historically part of the Taiwan independence movement, the linkage between politics and language is not as strong as it once was. Some fluency in Taiwanese is arguably a de facto requirement for political office in Taiwan for both independence and unificationist politicians. At the same time even some supporters of Taiwan independence have played down its connection with Taiwanese language in order to gain the support of the Mainlanders and Hakka.
James Soong restricted the use of Taiwanese and other local tongues in broadcasting while serving as Director of the Government Information Office earlier in his career, but later became one of the first Mainlander politicians to use Taiwanese in semi-formal occasions. Since then, politicians opposed to Taiwan independence have used it frequently in rallies even when they are not native speakers of the language and speak it badly. Conversely, politicians who have traditionally been identified with Taiwan independence have used Mandarin on formal occasions and semi-formal occasions such as press conferences. An example of the latter is President Chen Shui-bian who uses Mandarin in all official state speeches, but uses Taiwanese in political rallies and some informal state occasions such as New Year greetings, although in the latter case he never uses Taiwanese exclusively.
In the early 21st century, there are few differences in language usage between the anti-independence leaning Pan-Blue Coalition and the independence leaning Pan-Green Coalition. Both tend to use Taiwanese at political rallies and sometimes in informal interviews and both tend to use Mandarin at formal press conferences and official state functions. Both also tend to use more Mandarin in northern Taiwan and more Taiwanese in southern Taiwan. However at official party gatherings (as opposed to both Mandarin-leaning state functions and Taiwanese-leaning party rallies), the DPP tends to use Taiwanese while KMT and PFP tend to use Mandarin. The Taiwan Solidarity Union, which advocates a strong line on Taiwan independence, tends to use Taiwanese even in formal press conferences. In speaking, politicians will frequently code switch. In writing, almost everyone uses vernacular Mandarin which is farther from Taiwanese, and the use of semi-alphabetic writing or even colloquial Taiwanese characters is rare.
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 Legislative Yuan 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. Because of these objections, support for this measure is lukewarm among moderate Taiwan independence supporters, and it appears very unlikely to pass.
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.