A museum for the languages of Taiwan

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Language Log readers will be aware that "Chinese", i.e., "Mandarin" (Guóyǔ 國語), is not the only language on the island.  Indeed, it is a Johnny-come-lately, having become the official language of the Republic of China on Taiwan in 1945, and was strongly enforced as such after 1949 when the retreating mainland KMT armies of Chiang Kai-shek occupied the island.

The earliest indigenous languages of Taiwan (Formosa) were Austronesian.  And we should not forget that there was a period of partial Dutch rule (1624-1662), especially in the south, and Spanish Formosa (Formosa Española) was a small colony of the Spanish Empire established in the northern part of the island from 1626 to 1642.  Consequently, both Dutch and Spanish had an impact on the linguistic development of Taiwan during the 17th century.  The first Europeans to take notice of Taiwan, however, were the Portuguese who, passing Taiwan in 1544, recorded in a ship's log the name of the island as Ilha Formosa ("Beautiful Island").

Taiwan was a dependency of Japan from 1895 to 1945, during which period Japanese was the official language.  As such, it was important for the development of language on the island, and its significance lasts till today.

The influence of English in Taiwan has been enormous during the last two centuries.

See "Languages of Taiwan".

In "Labors of Linguistics", Taiwan Today (1/1/20), Pat Gao takes advantage of the release of a documentary titled “Going Home”, which marks the first anniversary of the opening of the Ong Iok-tek 王育德 Memorial Museum in Tainan, to tell a concise, yet surprisingly comprehensive, history of the languages and writing systems of Taiwan.

A Tainan native, Ong gained fame for his pioneering research into the Holo language, also called Taiwanese, for which he earned a doctorate in linguistics from The University of Tokyo. As a political dissident, Ong was not allowed to return to his homeland from Japan before his death in 1985, two years before martial law came to an end in Taiwan.

The documentary is noteworthy as the first feature-length production by the bureau to use Holo subtitles alongside standard vernacular Chinese. One of the roles highlighted is that of Ang Ui-jin (洪惟仁‬), who helped establish the museum. A victim of political persecution, Ang has given numerous talks about Ong’s life and achievements in the field of Holo studies. In 2004, he became the founding director of National Taichung University of Education’s Department of Taiwanese Languages and Literature in central Taiwan, one of the first such tertiary education institutes in the country.

Ang is keen to emphasize Holo’s origins as a language brought over with immigrants from China’s Fujian province, where he has conducted a number of field work projects. It is currently spoken by about 65 percent of Taiwan’s population of 23 million people. Together with other native languages, Holo was suppressed under government policies to promote Mandarin during the martial law era. At that time, the use of non-Mandarin languages was banned at schools and rigorously restricted in popular music, film and TV.

In 2019, Ang’s decades of linguistic research culminated with publication of the two-volume “Studies on Social Language Geography of Taiwan,” which focuses on the classification and regionalization of Mandarin, Holo and Hakka—used by the country’s second largest ethnic group—as well as indigenous languages. This work marked the first major endeavor in Taiwan to map in great detail the geographic distributions of local languages and their regional dialects. “Although linguistic studies in Taiwan date back many years, it’s an area now incorporating cultural, ethnographical, historical and geographical research,” Ang said.

With Taiwan on the cusp of independence, its crucial position for the linguistic and genetic evolution of the southern portion of East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Polynesia – Oceania comes all the more sharply into focus.

Selected readings

[h.t. Nick Kaldis]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    January 5, 2020 @ 12:43 pm

    Is Taiwan really "on the cusp of independence" ? It seems to me that the PRC is no more likely to confer independence on Taiwan that it is on Tibet or Hong Kong, and it seems equally unlikely that it might look favourably on any attempt by Taiwan at secession …

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 6, 2020 @ 11:48 am

    The "Holo" v. "Hoklo" spelling variation tends to confirm for me the wisdom of using "Taiwanese" as the standard non-technical English name for the Sinitic topolect in question.

  3. AntC said,

    January 6, 2020 @ 5:31 pm

    the wisdom of using "Taiwanese" as the standard non-technical English name

    No that doesn't make sense from my point of view as an English speaker travelling non-technically to Taiwan. (And I've made this point to Victor before.) The predominant language everywhere in Taiwan is Putonghua (admittedly with local flavour). There's plenty of natives (esp younger generations) who don't understand Ho(k)lo/Hokkien/Fujianese/Southern Min (and don't forget there are topolectical variations in there too).

    Natives born in the 1960's/70's tend to claim they understand Holo even if they can't speak it; but I'm doubtful that's fully functional beyond common-day pleasantries.

    We might regret the dominance of the Martial Law era, but it started a long time ago, held sway for several decades, and was pretty effective. To the credit of the post-Martial reforms, there are now positive moves to support Holo and Hakka and aboriginal languages. There's even a TV soap in Holo with a sprinkling of Hakka.

    But anybody visiting Taiwan and expecting to speak "the" Taiwanese language should be learning Putonghua.

  4. Chas Belov said,

    January 7, 2020 @ 3:08 am

    Also some of Wu Bai & China Blue's albums, the soundtrack album to Dust of Angels, and at least one album by Lim Giong (Entertainment World) are in Holo. Labor Exchange Band records in Hakka.

  5. Leo said,

    January 7, 2020 @ 6:20 am

    @AntC: I'm no specialist, but the situation in Taiwan seems to some degree analogous with Wales and Ireland, where English is much more widely spoken than Welsh/Irish. Nobody (that I'm aware of) proposes using "the Welsh language"/"the Irish language" to mean English as spoken in those countries.

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    January 7, 2020 @ 8:27 am

    Agreed, but "The Scots language" (also known as "lallans", from — I think — "lowlands", as opposed to "highlands", where Gaelic is still attested) does indeed refer to a dialect of English …

  7. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 7, 2020 @ 12:19 pm

    "Taiwanese" is an example of a tendency among islanders of naming their traditional languages for the island, whether such a language is shared with other regions — as, for example, the inhabitants of the several Balearic islands calling their variants of Catalan mallorquí, menorquí or eivissenc — or if there are in fact several language varieties spoken on the island, as in the case of "Sardinian."

  8. AntC said,

    January 7, 2020 @ 4:42 pm

    @Leo, Celtic languages in Wales/Ireland date back well before Roman times; Germanic languages (in their various forms) are Johnny-come-latelys.

    The Sinitic (Sothern Min) languages/topolects are the Johnny-come-latelys. They arrived in Taiwan after European 'discovery', that is much later than Anglo arrived in Britain; and there's no historical reason to favour Holo as more dominant than Hakka (say). So to call Holo "Taiwanese" is to denigrate Hakka and other non-Putonghua topolects; and of course to dismiss the indigenous languages.

    Victor had a rich, formative experience with Holo in Taiwan. I think that's blinded him to what was a much more nuanced linguistic situation at the time; and to the situation on the ground in Taiwan today.

  9. Leo said,

    January 8, 2020 @ 1:08 pm

    @AntC: a delicate situation, I see, and not one with an obvious resolution.

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