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From Jason Cox (with additions and modifications by VHM):

In Taiwan, one often comes across efforts at using zhùyīn 注音 ("phonetic annotation") to hint to readers that a Hoklo Taiwanese reading of the sentence is preferred, rather than a Mandarin reading.  Sometimes the characters are "correct" Hoklo Taiwanese (they convey the meaning of the characters directly); sometimes they will simply sound like Hoklo Taiwanese when read in Mandarin. Two examples that come to mind:

lan e Tai-oan 咱ㄟ台灣 ("our Taiwan") as seen here, here and here in advertising and news (in Mandarin that would be zánmen de Táiwān 咱們的台灣 ["our Taiwan"])

si chin e 係金ㄟ — the internet has loads of examples (that would equal shì zhēn de 是真的 ["is real / true"] in Mandarin)

As in the above examples, the Hoklo Taiwanese possessive particle ê [e] is more often represented with ㄟ [ei] instead of the zhùyīn ㄝ [ɛ], neither of which is exactly the same as ê [e] — but  ㄟ [ei] being a dipthong, I would have imagined ㄝ [ɛ] would be the preferred substitute for ê [e].

My theory is that ㄟ was chosen not necessarily for the phonetic value, but because of Mandarin phonetic rules — where ㄟ  [ei] can be a stand alone syllable, but ㄝ [ɛ] cannot.  This rule seems to have been internalized deeply even by people who don't remember it's a rule.

Now, this ê [e], just as is de 的 in Modern Standard Mandarin, is by far the most frequent morpheme in Taiwanese. Michael "Taffy" Cannings, of Tailingua.com, writes:

Iûⁿ Ún-giân conducted a corpus analysis in 2005 on POJ (romanized; Church Romanization) texts and Han-lo (mixed romanization and Chinese character text). The study differentiated syllables and words, and conducted a frequency count for both. In both counts, ê was the most frequent result. I presume the word count is what Prof. Mair is after; in that case ê accounted for 8.13% of the entire POJ corpus, with the second most frequent being "i" (he/she/it) with 2.46% of the total.

The study itself is called Táiyǔwén yǔliàokù sōují jí yǔliàokù wéi běn Táiyǔ shūmiànyǔ yīnjié cípín tǒngjì 台語文語料庫蒐集及語料庫為本台語書面語音節詞頻統計 ("Taiwan Language Corpus collection and corpus-based Taiwanese written syllable word frequency statistics")

I should point out the usual caveats with regards to speech/written language differences, and also note that a large percentage of the POJ corpus is Christian material, so there will be some disparity between everyday street Taiwanese and the results obtained by Iûⁿ. However, I don't doubt that ê would still top the list if the corpus were more balanced.

Taiwanese ê [e] may be written with English "e" (I've often seen it written this way, even in the midst of Chinese characters), Mandarin de 的, Classical Chinese zhī 之, and even as Japanese no の (the latter three all possessive particles in their respective languages).  And, as we have see above, it may be phonetically transcribed by the zhùyīn 注音 ("phonetic annotation") symbols ㄝ or ㄟ.  One thing is certain:  there is no established Chinese character for this most frequent morpheme in Taiwanese.  This reminds me of a classic article by Robert L. Cheng (Zheng Liangwei) entitled "Taiwanese Morphemes in Search of Chinese Characters" in the Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 6.2 (June, 1978), 306-314.  The same is true of many common (and plenty of not-so-common) morphemes in all of the Sinitic topolects.

[Thanks to Mark Swofford and Grace Wu]

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12 Comments »

  1. Wentao said,

    November 19, 2013 @ 9:45 pm

    It's really inspiring to see Zhuyin being used to substitute native morphemes without Chinese characters – just like Japanese kana. Adapting a similarly mixed writing system can open up many possibilities for written representations of all Sinitic topolects… and one doesn't have to worry about the controversy/outrage entailed by the abolition of Hanzi.

  2. agau said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 12:12 am

    The written form 'e' may be a borrowing of Japanese 'he'. (へ)

  3. spandrell said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 3:04 am

    Now that they're at it they might think of changing the supremely stupid vernacular Mandarin hanzi like 没, 的, 这 et al. and replace them with phonetic symbols.

  4. Simon P said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 3:41 am

    For the sake of completeness, the Cantonese version is 嘅 (ge3). It is probably less common in Cantonese than the other ones are in their respective languages, however, since Cantonese often uses measure words instead, i.e. 我架車, ngo5 gaa3 ce1, "I [measure word] car".

  5. Jason Cox said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 11:52 am

    "One thing is certain: there is no established Chinese character for this most frequent morpheme in Taiwanese."

    There may not be an established character, but there are in fact official ones recommended for different contexts:
    臺灣閩南語推薦用字 (pdf)

    編號 建議用字 音讀 對應華語 用例
    061 的 ê 的 我的、公家的
    062 个 ê 個 一个、足濟个
    And in China there are also efforts to teach Southern Min, with one government site prescribing the same usage of both 的 and 个 (from lesson 3):

    Mandarin: 我介绍一下,这是我的父亲和我的母亲。
    Southern Min: 我来介绍一下,这是我的老爸甲我的老母。

    Mandarin: 有个弟弟,还有堂哥,姑表妹妹。
    Southern Min: 有一个小弟,野有隔腹兄甲姑表小妹。

  6. Mark Dunan said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 11:52 am

    Agau, I was just about to mention that; ㄟ does look a lot like へ !

    To add to that, へ [he] is pronounced as [e] when used as a particle (usually indicating direction "to" something). Many more words which contain [e] but once had the [he] sound, such as 前 まへ (mae, "front")、帰る かへる (kaeru, "return") were still spelled with this character until the post-WWII kana reform.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 1:03 pm

    @Jason Cox

    Those official prescriptions for Taiwanese ê [e] are arbitrary and, not paying attention to Taiwanese phonology and morphology, are unlikely to stick (i.e., gain broad acceptance).

    Incidentally, those mainland government character renditions of Taiwanese don't look very authentic (as genuine representations of Taiwanese grammar, pronunciation, and lexicon).

  8. yt said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 1:42 pm

    The origins of 注音 are based on ancient characters, see Wikipedia:Bopomofo:Etymology.

  9. William Steed said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 12:56 am

    I've read of Japanese の being used as well (at least historically), but I don't remember where, off the top of my head.

  10. Robert Sanders said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 7:21 pm

    If I am not mistaken, Japanese のis in fact the cursive form of 之.

  11. Ki-Tsìng said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 10:37 pm

    的 (tik in Taiwanese) actually has been proposed as the orthographic representation of ê as a possessive marker by the Taiwanese Ministry of Education. When used as a classifier, the orthography asserts that 个 should be used. The orthography is available here: http://www.edu.tw/pages/detail.aspx?Node=3682&Page=16935&WID=c5ad5187-55ef-4811-8219-e946fe04f725

    I suspect the prescribed distinction of the two characters is unnecessary though.

  12. Akito said,

    November 22, 2013 @ 4:06 am

    If I am not mistaken, Japanese の comes from cursive-style 乃. 之 gave rise to し.

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