More rare characters in Taiwan

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Not too long ago, we looked at some "Difficult Taiwanese characters" (11/8/15).  By "difficult Taiwanese characters", I am referring to sinographs that literate Mandarin speakers are unfamiliar with.

The same situation obtains for Cantonese.  See, for example:

"Cantonese and Mandarin are two different languages " (9/25/15)

"Cantonese novels " (8/20/13)

"Hong Kong Multilingualism and Polyscriptalism " (7/26/10)

"Mutual Intelligibility of Sinitic Languages " (3/6/09)

Rachel Kronick writes:

I was looking over some maps and found what I thought was an interesting example of rare characters causing trouble. There's a village called Shuǐjiǎntóu 水梘頭 a little way from Danshui, in New Taipei City. A wiki of the area seems to definitively give its name as 水梘頭, but the name appears to have caused a lot of trouble for mapmakers. Note that the second character, apparently pronounced xiàn, jiàn or jiǎn (according to this online dictionary of unusual characters maintained by the Taiwan Ministry of Education), has a wood radical, not a 'spirit' radical.  Google Maps seems to call it 水粯頭, with the second character pronounced xiàn and having the 'rice' radical (although they get the name of the bus stop correct), and a local organization calls it 水視頭 (note the vastly more common character shì 視, as in diànshì 電視 ["television"]) on their website. The mapmakers for the map I found it on apparently didn't have the character 梘 in the font they were using, or they didn't know how to pronounce the character, because the map actually says "水 木見 頭", with the 木 and 見 being half the usual width and compressed together, but not actually forming a single character. (Let me know if you'd like a photo.)

In Taiwanese, 梘 is pronounced as hian7, kian2, and keng2. One of my informants told me that 水梘頭 refers to some sort of mechanism through which water passes (perhaps from a spring to be diverted for purposes of irrigation) and that in Taiwanese it is pronounced chui2keng2thau5

Another informant from Taiwan writes:

Unfortunately, I have never seen this character "梘" before so I am not sure of its Mandarin or Taiwanese pronunciation. I have never heard of this place 水梘头 either. However, I would say 水视头 is definitely a typo. Maybe the local organization or people simply used a common character "视" to replace this very rare one “梘". And since most Taiwanese people use "Zhuyin" to type characters, when they don't know the pronunciation of a rare character, they may simply break it into two characters, and thus mùjiàn 木見 instead of 梘. For example, I have seen people type jíjí 吉吉 instead of 喆 (zhe2). I even remember seeing people calling (or typing the name of) the former Taiwanese Premier Yu Shyi-kun (Yóu Xīkūn) 游锡堃 as Yóu Xīfāngfāngtǔ 游锡方方土, simply because they didn't know how to type the character 堃 (kun1).

I found a website which has a picture of the 水梘头 at a school in Tamsui 淡水.

Another web  search yields a place called 水枧頭, which was the beginning of the irrigation system established in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). During the reign of Qianlong 乾隆 (r. 1735-1796), a hydraulic engineer, Guo Xiliu 郭錫瑠, helped establish facilities to draw water from Xindian Stream 新店溪 for irrigation.

An interesting fact is that the name of one location, Jingmei 景美 (in Taipei), is actually related to this place, 水枧頭. As indicated, 水枧頭 is the beginning of this irrigation system. Jingmei 景美 is the end of the irrigation system and it used to be called 枧尾 (tóu 頭 means "head" and wěi 尾 means "tail").  The pronunciation of 枧尾 in Taiwanese is kíng-bué or kíng-bé.

During the Japanese colonial period, it is rumored that Japanese rulers did not recognize the word 梘, so they changed the name 枧尾 to 景尾 (lit., "view tail"). Later the name was further changed to jǐngměi 景美 (lit., "view beautiful") to make it have an even better meaning. The Taiwanese pronunciation of 景尾 and 景美 were the same or nearly the same as 梘尾.

The irrigation system developed by Guo Xiliu 郭錫瑠 was later called Liú gōng zhèn 瑠公圳 ("Mr. Liu's Canal System"). 

The details in Chinese are listed on this web page.

Mark Swofford notes that place names in Taiwan are overwhelmingly disyllabic — not counting the generic element at the end (e.g., shì 市 ["city], qū 區 ["area"], zhèn  鎮 ["town"], xiāng 鄉 ["township"]). A name longer than two syllables is likely an indication of a name rooted in a language of one of Taiwan's aboriginal tribes or a name otherwise quite old.  However, Mark cautions that his observation on polysyllabic names is based on general observation rather than close study.

So much for the refractory character 梘.

Michael Cannings observes that the last character of his Chinese name, Huáng Kǎimíng 黃凱詺, is quite unusual too (formerly he used míng 明, but changed it on the urging of his mother-in-law, who had some suànmìng ["fortune teller"]-induced phobia of it). People would more often write it as míng 銘, and on one occasion he was simply listed as 黃凱 (dropping the troublesome last character altogether) for a hospital visit.  "Describing how to write it over the phone," says Michael, "often leads to the response 'Méiyǒu zhège zì ba 沒有這個字吧!'  I have not been able to discover a definitive source to indicate the Taiwanese pronunciation, so I generally assume it to be bîng."

Such are the uncertainties surrounding special characters for writing Taiwanese.

[Thanks to Grace Wu, Milton Wu, Melvin Lee, and Sophie Wei]


  1. Stephan Stiller said,

    January 14, 2016 @ 10:11 am

    I'm reminded of differences between vernacular and official/government spellings of placenames in HK (vernacular spellings before the 'vs', official spellings after the 'vs'):

    Tai Mei Tuk [daai6mei5duk1] (apparently the most popular destination for biking): 大尾篤/大美督 vs 大美督 (it seems that Mainlanders use only Dàměidū/大美督)

    Chek Nai Ping [cek3nai4ping4] (a village next door to CUHK): 赤泥坪 vs 赤坭坪

    (Tung) Ping Chau [(dung1)ping4zau1] (the most remote outlying island): 東平洲 vs (東)平洲 (the gov't uses both; the 東-version seemingly exists for differentiation from the homophonous Peng Chau [ping4zau1]: 坪洲)

    It's not always clear what "official" means: there are road signs, bus stops, weather stations, parks, and government-sponsored recreational institutions.

  2. Chau said,

    January 14, 2016 @ 2:13 pm

    The “unusual sinograph” 詺 in Michael Cannings’ name 黃凱詺 is really not that unusual after all. It can be found in Kangxi (under the 言 radical, 6 strokes) as well as zdic ( Its Taiwanese pronunciation (POJ) is bi (first tone). It is listed in William Campbell’s 廈門音新字典 (p. 18). One of the classic dictionaries 類篇 defines 詺 as ‘categorize all things (目諸物也)’. Judging from the excellent Website Michael sets up on Taiwanese, I would say, his mother-in-law is indeed a very wise lady.

  3. Mark Mandel said,

    January 14, 2016 @ 8:18 pm

    Ah! No Sinologue, I'd never heard of Zhuyin till I Googled it. Wikipedia saith:

    Zhuyin fuhao, Zhuyin or Bopomofo is … The first two are traditional terms, whereas Bopomofo is the colloquial term, also used by the ISO and Unicode.

    Bopomofo I know, and now I know the rather more esoteric (in my milieus) terms as well.

  4. Rachel said,

    January 15, 2016 @ 10:54 pm

    Thank you, Prof. Mair, for all the additional research! So interesting to know that 水梘頭 is related to 景美。And the rest of the details are just as interesting.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    January 16, 2016 @ 8:02 am

    From Bob Bauer:

    梘 is pronounced gaan2 in Cantonese, as in 番梘 faan1 gaan2 'soap' ;番 faan1 refers to its foreign origin, as it was first introduced by foreigners probably back in the late 19th century. It's a fairly productive morpheme in Cantonese in that it occurs in a number of lexical items related to 'soap'. I think the character may be a colloquial simplified form for 鹼 gaan2 'alkali' which has been used to make soap.

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