No matter where you go…

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My current trip to the Far East has now brought me to… well, the question is how to name the country for you and preserve strict political correctness. We could perhaps call it the SCTTPKMCT for short. I pointed out once before on Language Log that one of the many versions of its name is the longest official country name in the world. Since I've already identified the general region of the world that I'm in, you should be able to guess it without even clicking that link.

The island was originally called Formosa, and linguists interested in it as the cradle of the Austronesian language family still talk about Formosan languages. But Formosa (a Portuguese word meaning "beautiful" — and while Greenland is in general not green, Formosa really is beautiful) was never a country name. The Japanese ruled it for some time, but China got it off Japan in 1945.

When the Nationalist Chinese conceded the mainland of China to the advancing communists and fled to Formosa, they took with them what they regarded as the official and legally recognized government of China (as well as a mass of treasures of Chinese artistic and literary culture, some of which I saw yesterday in the National Palace Museum, guided by a Chinese-speaking Language Log reader, the very generous Randy Alexander), as far as they were concerned the name of their new home was very simple: the Republic of China (ROC).

But the People's Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland (where I woke up yesterday: Hong Kong is just a specially administered region of their country now) regarded Formosa and other nearby islands as constituting a province of the PRC that was temporarily under illegal control — it was occupied by an unrecognized regime that they have chosen thus far not to oust.

Of course, the island of Formosa has a Chinese name: Taiwan. So it became natural to refer to the ROC as Taiwan (in the same way as it is natural to refer to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland by the name of the island of Great Britain, which is geographically the major part of the space it occupies). But technically neither Britain nor Taiwan is a country name.

The linguistic situation is complex, but the bottom line is that members of the Chinese language family (mainly Mandarin, Minnan, and Hakka) dominate the island now (to the tuns of 98%), and the aboriginal Austronesian languages are marginalized and highly endangered.

The geopolitical situation is even more complex. Although ROC is de facto a thriving, modern, capitalist state that is not under the control of the PRC at all, it is PRC policy not to admit that. And although the growth of the PRC as a major world power and UN voice makes it a bit weird for there to be a prosperous and important country that it refuses to recognize, it is US policy not to admit that, and to treat the ROC as de facto independent, without actually asserting the point in ways that would annoy the PRC.

So the real crunch came when ROC wanted to be admitted to the World Trade Organization. The solution reached was to admit it under a special walking-on-eggshells name: the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu (Chinese Taipei). This it is not exactly an abbreviation that is going to fit well in a song title for some future Taiwanese Bruce Springsteen ("Born in the S C T T P K M C T") or Lennon and McCartney ("Back in the S C T T P K M C T")

So how shall I express my pleasure at being there when I start the plenary lecture I have to give? One doesn't want to offend anyone in the region.

I imagine myself clearing my throat, and stammering: "I'm delighted to be here in… on the island of Formosa… in the Republic of China… in Tai… in the Separate Customs Territory of…"

But no, I think I may try saying simply: "I'm delighted to be here." You can't go wrong with deictics. No matter where you go, there you are.


  1. J.J. E. said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 2:02 am

    And where will your lecture be? (for the benefit of those of non-linguist hangers on like myself who may be interested in attending said lecture) Please respond "Academia Sinica".

  2. J.J. E. said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 2:26 am

    I asked before I remembered that Google Exists. My apologies.

    It seems like your lecture will be at 1:20, overlapping almost precisely a talk I am presenting. Oh well. And the abstract looks very lively. What a pity.

    Consider asking your hosts to take you out to eat at 鼎泰豐 (Dintaifung = Ding3 tai4 feng1 in pinyin). I prefer the original one on 信義 (xin4 yi4), not the new one. Very good soup dumplings.

  3. A-gu said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 2:27 am

    I'm here down south in Pingtung/Kaohsiung area… if you are around, say something and perhaps I can show you a bit around town.

    And tip– you can't offend anyone by saying you're delighted to be here in Taiwan ;)

  4. Chris said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 3:48 am

    Yeah, I'd second that, "Taiwan" is the best bet. Because sometimes you might also cause offense by using "ROC", it all depends on the person you're talking to. But if you use "Taiwan", your interlocutor won't necessarily know if you're referring to a country, province or island, and can fill out the blanks whatever way they want…

  5. Chris said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 3:56 am

    oh, to clairify my comment: I meant to cause offense in Taiwan by using "ROC". Since the talk is given in Taiwan, I don't think it would cause much offense outside of Taiwan, unless you did so by going there in the first place, as would be the case with sitting heads of state and other cabinet level ministers/secretaries…

  6. Barbara Partee said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 4:14 am

    Oh, please say hi to Randy Alexander for me! We first met on Flickr when he commented on the Chinese-to-English translation on a sign in a picture I had taken when we were in China in 2007, and have since added connections on Facebook and Language Log. What fun this internetted world is! Since we only got acquainted after I was back from China, I've never met Randy in person. I'm glad you have!

  7. language hat said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 8:00 am

    Oh, how I miss the dumplings of Taipei! If I were still there, I would definitely attend your talk. And have dumplings afterwards.

  8. Ellen said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 11:08 am

    But wouldn't "in" indicate one is thinking of Taiwan (or Greenland, or Australia, or Ireland, or Great Britain, etc) as a country, in some sense or another, not as an island? If I were strictly using a name as an Island name, I would say "on", like, "on Long Island", "on Hispaniola". I couldn't use "in"… that makes is sound to me like one is underground. So, seems to me one would know if one is referring to the Island or some other use of the word by the choice of "in" or "on".

  9. Mark P said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 12:08 pm

    When I was in graduate school in the early '80s, we had students from Taiwan as well as mainland China. The former were insulted to have their country referred to as "Taiwan."

  10. y said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

    The really funny thing is that for many years–possibly still, in principle, for all I know–the official ROC position was the mirror image of the PRC position. That is, the ROC held that the mainland constituted provinces of the ROC that were temporarily under illegal control, occupied by an unrecognized regime that they had chosen thus far not to oust. So, both the PRC and the ROC were firmly agreed that Taiwan and the mainland were parts of a single country, and on that basis they managed a rather awkward working relationship, carefully glossing over the little matter on which they disagreed–namely, which was the legitimate government and which the insurgency.

    The relationship has changed somewhat in recent years as new parties have come to power in the ROC, but there is still a delicate balance that remains, mainly based on keeping silent about uncomfortable truths. Thus one ends up with locutions like SCTTPKMCT (even longer than the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia").

    This is also connected with the relationship within Taiwan between the (mainly Mandarin-speaking) Nationalists from the influx of the late 1940s, and the (mainly Minnan-speaking) pre-war Chinese population. The latter have always been the majority, but until recently the former held political power. Terms like "Taiwan" and "Taiwanese" may sometimes be seen as significant in this context. It's hard to avoid offending anyone, especially since no-one is likely to tell you which group they belong to–this is another relationship that depends heavily on silence.

  11. KYL said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

    I think quite a few people will dispute your statement that "China got it off Japan in 1945."

    The Unificationists will argue that since various Chinese regimes (under various definitions of "Chinese," another complex matter) ruled Taiwan before the Japanese occupation, China merely got it back from Japan. The Independents will argue that either Japan merely abandoned Taiwan in 1945, granting it independence, that in fact Taiwan was and remains an American territory as a result of Japan's surrender, or that the ROC was and remains an illegal foreign power that has no legitimacy against native rule.

    I always refer to it as the "Former Japanese Colony of Taiwan" — technically correct and always infuriating to everyone.

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

    y and/or KYL, perhaps you'd like to join me in referring to the entity immediately south of the FYROM as the "Formerly Macedonian Republic of Greece." (Tentatively pronounced FIM-rahg.)

  13. marie-lucie said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 3:21 pm

    A few months ago I attended a conference with a focus on endangered languages and heard a Taiwanese speaker talk about the lack of concern in Taiwan about the growth of Mandarin, especially through the school system.

  14. Faldone said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

    How about, "It's nice to be here in Taipei"?

  15. Jon May said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

    If you happen to be in LA you can always go to the 鼎泰豐 there…I can't say how they rank against the Taiwan shops, but they certainly taste good to me.

  16. J.J. E. said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 8:09 pm

    @ Mark P

    In the early 80s, Taiwan was still under martial law imposed by the KMT (國民黨). If you knew anyone in graduate school during that time, there is a pretty good chance that they were among the 15% or so of the population with roots from the 1949 KMT migration. As a result, many of the the benefits of the "elites" of Taiwan (like the ability to travel abroad and obtain a U.S. education) were reserved for those allied with the KMT. At that time, it was still popular for KMT folks and those with KMT sympathies to maintain that the R.O.C. was still the legitimate government of China in exile, and as a result they would be offended at saying that Taiwan was merely Taiwan and not in fact the legitimate seat of government for all of China. The early 80s was a time only recently separated from the time that the U.S. and the U.N. switched recognition from the R.O.C. to the P.R.C., so that perspective isn't absurd as it seems now.

  17. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 9:34 pm

    > But no, I think I may try saying simply: "I'm delighted to be here." You can't go wrong with deictics. No matter where you go, there you are.

    Though when videoconferencing, you have to be sure not to stress the "here": "I'm delighted to be here" can mean "I'm delighted to be videoconferencing with you", but "I'm delighted to be HERE" would imply "I'm delighted not to be with you in person." That's the fun thing about language: you can always go wrong with anything. No word is safe.

  18. acilius said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 10:17 am

    @Ellen: I'm sure you're right, but I can think of one counterexample: you don't say "on Manhattan," but "in Manhattan."

  19. Ellen said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 11:02 am

    But Manhattan is also a burrough, a part of the city, and it's the city one is usually referring to. So I don't see it as an exception. There are also more ghits for "in Staten Island" than "on Staten Island".

    [Let's have a little spelling discipline here, Ellen. Rabbits live in burrows; the Tarzan books were written by Burroughs; Manhattan and Staten Island are boroughs. Yes, it's an appallingly chaotic orthography, but it's better than the Chinese one. —GKP]

  20. Randy Alexander said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

    @Barbara: Geoff indeed said hi from you! Hi! I hope you'll be coming to greater China (or maybe even eastern Russia) soon (and often) so we can finally meet in person.

    Geoff's talk was wonderfully crisp, direct, and of course thoroughly enjoyable. It was a big hit.

    @Geoff: I hope you'll have time to post some of the contents of your lecture here soon.

  21. Bob Ladd said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

    @Ellen and acinius: I don't think the situation is as clear as Ellen says. I frequently have occasion to be in/on Sardinia, and I sometimes" hesitate over the preposition, but on balance I think "in" sounds better than "on", even though Sardinia isn't a country. I think the size of any island is a relevant factor, too – the bigger it is, the more appropriate "in" is – though political status certainly counts too. (And there's also the complication that the bigger an island is, the more likely it is to be a country.)
    Google roughly confirms the effect of size (e.g. in the Mediterranean you get roughly equal occurrence of "in" and "on" with Lesbos, 6:1 for "in" with Crete, 12:1 "in" with Sardinia, and 16:1 "in" with Sicily). Google also confirms your intuition about Hispaniola (slight majority for "on"), but other two-state islands don't work that way (Borneo 7:1 for "in", New Guinea 11:1 for "in", Tierra del Fuego 13:1 for "in". Some islands with the word "Isle" or Island" in their name favour "on" (Vancouver Island and Isle of Wight show about 3:1 "on"), but Long Island goes 2:1 for "in", as does the Isle of Man.
    Here's a puzzle: Honshu favours "on" by a margin of 3:1, but the other three main Japanese islands prefer "in" by anywhere from 3:1 to 8:1. Go figure.

  22. K. said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 8:44 am

    @ Ellen,

    >But Manhattan is also a burrough, a part of the city, and it's the city one is usually referring to.

    By the same token, I think it would be safe (or at least ambiguous) to say "in" in this case.

    The position of the PRC is that the island of Taiwan is coterminus with a province of the same name, thus making "In Taiwan," no more incendiary than "In Sichuan." This is the form I have most often heard from English-speaking Chinese here on the mainland in any event, and I doubt it would cause any offense.

    However, on the other side of the strait, such a solution may be less felicitous if one's interlocutors take umbrage at not having their home referred to as the ROC, though I think any such resentment could be quickly (if unsatisfactorily to some) deflected by explaining that this…administrative unit…is commonly referred to as "Taiwan" by English speakers internationally (which is true), and a comparison to Britain can be easily thrown out in defense.

    I just avoid the whole bugbear by explaining "我是美国人。我不明白中国的地理。"

  23. John said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 10:14 pm

    Argh, I can't believe I missed the chance to see an LL writer in the flesh… by one day! Guess that teaches me to check in here more often.

    I would agree with A-Gu here that you can't cause offense by saying that it's great to be in Taiwan. I certainly don't know anybody who would take issue with that remark (in fact, I don't know anybody who wouldn't be utterly delighted by it!)

  24. nenikhkamen said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 8:12 am

    @Bob Ladd

    I think your puzzle can be mostly explained by noticing that Hokkaido is both the name of the island and the name of the prefecture. In the cases of Kyushu and Shikoku, they are not now (and have never been as far as I know) coterminous with prefectural divisions, but they are small enough (read: cohesive enough culturally) to be thought of as regions–whereas Honshu being the largest island (by both area and population–about 80% of Japan's population lives on Honshu) cannot be thought of as a region of its own. Honshu, being most of the country, contains most of the diversity of Japan, but if you wanted to indicate that you were in a region that contained most of the diversity of Japan, you would just say "in Japan" not "in Honshu." The only time Honshu is worth mentioning is when you mean it explicitly as the name of the piece of land, whereas the others can be meant/understood as regions.

    Google corroborates this analysis in several ways:

    1. Searching for "in/on Shikoku" results in a lot of pages which say explicitly or imply "Shikoku region" in the former case and a lot which say or imply "Shikoku island" in the latter case.
    2. The strongest case by my logic would be for Hokkaido to have a high in:on ratio (it seems to be about 30:1), and more to the point many of the first hits for "on Hokkaido" are even false positives ("on" in the sense of "about" as in "article on Hokkaido," or "Hokkaido" being used as the beginning of a larger phrase as in "on Hokkaido Day").
    3. Regarding Honshu, there are fewer hits for "on/in Honshu" than for any of the other islands, despite the fact that it is the largest and most frequently visited which would seem to legitimate my claim that whereas the other islands' names can proxy for a regional identification, Honshu can only be used when one really wants to talk about the physical piece of land.

    For what it's worth, Okinawa also prefers in by about a 4:1 ratio.

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