Hoklo, part 2

« previous post | next post »

The following article is a lucid and linguistically sound discussion concerning the nomenclature for the main non-Mandarin language of Taiwan:

"The Problem of Naming the Most Popular Non-Mandarin Language Used in Taiwan," 6 December 2021", by Hung-yi Chien.

Considering the balanced and fair presentation of the article overall, one wonders why it scrupulously avoids one of the most common ways of referring to the language in question, namely, "Hoklo".  For some reasons why people might wish to refrain from referring to the language in question as "Hoklo", see the very extensive presentation here.

There seems to be no problem with saying “Taiwanese” or “Taigi” in English. People know Taiwanese is the most spoken non-Mandarin language in Taiwan, and Taigi (Tai[wan] language) is how the language calls itself. However, these names give a false impression that Taiwanese is the only language that genuinely belongs to Taiwan and neglects the existence of Hakka and indigenous languages in this culturally and ethnically diverse country. Hakka activists have complained about the name Taigi for decades. They urge to use other names to call this language and reserve Taiwanese/Taigi for all languages spoken in Taiwan. The Taiwanese/Taigi fellows do not welcome this proposal because there is no agreement on how to call this language if Taiwanese/Taigi is not an option. Up until today, the name of the most spoken non-Mandarin language in Taiwan is still in dispute.

Taiwan was the homeland of indigenous Formosan peoples. Their languages belong to the Austronesian Family, and Taiwan’s Council of Indigenous Peoples currently recognises sixteen indigenous languages. However, according to the current census design, the indigenous peoples take only 2.45% of the population. Today’s demographic majority of Taiwan is the descendants of Chinese immigrants who brought Southern Min, Hakka, and Mandarin Chinese to Taiwan in different periods. All three languages have developed distinct features in Taiwan and are different from their relatives. For example, multiple Southern Min varieties have merged into a common type in Taiwan. Speakers can easily distinguish the variety spoken in Taiwan from those spoken elsewhere, though they are still mutually intelligible. Languages in Taiwan also borrowed many loanwords from Japanese, such as piān-tong (< bentō, “meal box”), kháu-tsō (<kōza, “bank account”), pháng (<pan, “bread”), se-bí-looh (<sebiro, “dress suit”). Phonology, syntax, and vocabulary make Sinitic languages in Taiwan distinct varieties, and thus they deserve their own names.

The development of Sinitic languages in Taiwan was related to the indigenisation of Chinese immigrants. In the late nineteenth century, Taiwanese people began to use “Taiwan” to name the language they spoke. The evidence comes from the Taiwan Church News 台灣教會公報, the first romanised newspaper in Taiwan established in 1885. The language of the Taiwan Church News was very colloquial. On the Taiwan Church News, writers used khiuⁿ 腔 (dialect), khiuⁿ-kháu 腔口 (dialect), or thó͘-im土音 (local sounds) to refer to their language variety. They said the language spoken in Taiwan “Tâi-oân ê khiuⁿ” (Taiwan’s dialect), God went down “phah-loān khiuⁿ-kháu” (to confuse dialects), and missionaries “ha̍k-si̍p i-ê thó͘-im” (learned his local sounds) to create romanised scripts. People also used to form language names, such as Ji̍t-pún oē (Japanese language), Eng-kok oē英國話 (British language), and most importantly, Tâi-oân oē台灣話 (Taiwan language). The term Tâi-oân oē was frequently used by Lîm Bō͘-seng林茂生, the first Taiwanese who obtained an American doctoral degree. He published a series titled “Sin Tâi-oân-oē Tîn-lia̍t-koán”新台灣話陳列館 (The Exhibition Hall of New Taiwan Language) to discuss loanwords between November 1933 and December 1934.

It is important to note that the Taiwan Church News writers did not use Tâi-gí/Tâi-gú台語 throughout the Japanese colonial period (1895-1945). Although people used /語 to form language names, this usage was limited to a few instances, like Eng-gú英語 (English) and Kok-gú國語 (the national language, i.e., Japanese). So where did Tâi-gí/Tâi-gú come if they were not in the original native name? In fact, it came from the Japanese. The millennium-long history of cultural exchange between China and Japan makes their languages share many words. Since the late nineteenth century, the intensified contact increased the shared vocabulary between Chinese and Japanese, but the usages differed. In pre-modern Chinese, huà 話 ( in Southern Min) and yǔ/gí 語 are two common words to form language names, but they are used in different contexts. People usually used to call a language spoken in a larger region, like yíyǔ夷語 (foreigner’s language), Mǐnyǔ閩語 (the language spoken in Fujian), and Yuèyǔ粵語 (the language spoken in Guangdong). On the other hand, huà usually formed a language name with a smaller place, such as Xiàmén-huà廈門話 (Xiamen/Amoy language), Shànghǎi-huà上海話 (Shanghainese), Sūzhōu-huà蘇州話 (Suzhou language). 

These Chinese usages cannot apply to Japanese. In Japanese, wa話 (huà in Mandarin Chinese) was rarely used to form a language name. The term tōwa唐話 (Chinese language) is a pre-modern exception and an apparent Chinese influence. Instead of wa, the Japanese tended to use go語 ( in Mandarin Chinese) to name a language, such as ban-go蠻語 (foreigner’s language), Oranda-go阿蘭陀語 (Dutch), and Angeria-go諳厄利亜語 (English).

Because of the Japanese morphology, it is not surprising that the Japanese coined Do-go 土語 (native language) and Taiwan-go台灣語 (Taiwan language) to call the most spoken language in Taiwan. In December 1895, a few months after Japan established colonial rule in Taiwan, a language textbook titled Taiwan-Go already appeared in the market. The colonial government also opened the Taiwan-go seminar to teach Japanese officials the local language. The Japanese term Taiwan-go gradually influenced the colonised people. Taiwanese people began to read Taiwan-go as Tâi-oân gí/Tâi-oân gú台灣語 and developed a shortened form Tâi-gí/Tâi-gú台語 to call their language. In the 1920s, the term Tâi-oân gí appeared on the Taiwanese-own newspaper Taiwan Minpao台灣民報. In 1925, Lâu Khik-bîng劉克明, a teacher at the Taipei Normal School, published Tâi-GúTāi-Sêng台語大成 (The Compilation of Taiwan Language) for Japanese speakers to learn the language. Liân Hêng連橫 also published his studies on the language, titled Tâi-oân-gí Tián台灣語典, from 1929 to 1933. It is safe to say that, by the 1930s, the Taiwanese had adopted Tâi-oân gí and Tâi-gí as alternative names to call the most spoken local language in Taiwan. At the end of the Japanese colonial rule, Tâi-oân oē, Tâi-oân gí, and Tâi-gí were the three current names for the most spoken local language in Taiwan.

When Chiang Kai-shek’s government represented the Allied Forces to occupy Taiwan in 1945, they adopted the existing names but also introduced a new name, Mǐnnán-yǔ閩南語 (Southern Min [Fujian] language). The term Mǐnnán-yǔ emerged from the survey of Sinitic languages (so-called Chinese dialects) in Republican China. In 1937, linguist Li Fang-kuei李方桂 proposed a classification of Sinitic languages that divided the Min languages into Northern Group and Southern Group. Li Fang-kuei published this classification in English, but the contemporary sources showed that the Chinese rendering of the “Southern Min Group” is Mǐnnán-yǔ. Li Fang-kuei republished his 1937 classification in 1973, which significantly influenced the English scholarship of Chinese linguistics. In early post-war Taiwan, Tâi-gí/Tái-yǔ was much more popular than Mǐnnán-yǔ. However, on 27 October 1967, a government agency ordered the media to replace Tâi-gí/Tái-yǔ with Mǐnnán-yǔ because Tâi-gí/Tái-yǔ denied the existence of the Hakka language in Taiwan. Although the media did not diligently follow this order, it successfully increased the use of the name Mǐnnán-yǔ in Taiwan. 

The Hakka also voiced out in 1988. Hakka activists protested the government’s negligence of the Hakka language for decades. They also criticised the “Holo chauvinism” that implicitly equated Tâi-gí/Tái-yǔ to the most spoken non-Mandarin language and excluded the Hakka from the Taiwanese nation. They argued Tâi-gí/Tái-yǔ should include all languages spoken in Taiwan. However, it was difficult for speakers of “the language” to accept Hakka’s proposal. It is not because they did not embrace inclusivism, but because they had no agreement to call their language if Tâi-gí/Tái-yǔ is not an option. Some activists reject Mǐnnán-yǔ and consider it a discriminative name. Taiwan independentists also reject Mǐnnán-yǔ because it implies an association with Fujian Province in China. 

Taiwanese linguists tried to solve the name problem. The National Museum of Taiwan Literature invited Prof. Lí Khîn-hōaⁿ李勤岸 and Prof. Âng Ûi-jîn洪惟仁 to discuss the name problem in 2007. Taiwan Holo (Táiwān Holo-yǔ台灣Holo語), proposed by Lí Khîn-hōaⁿ, is a competitive candidate, and a certain number of speakers have already called the language with this name. However, there is no agreement on how to write the name with sinograms, and the romanised form is also less favoured. On the other side, Âng Ûi-jîn compared Mǐnnán with Austronesian and argued that Mǐnnán should be considered a common name of a nation, culture, or language. He did not consider Mǐnnán-yǔ a discriminative name but a compromise in contemporary Taiwan. He proposed Táiwān Mǐnnán-yǔ 台灣閩南語 for the language and noted Taiwan’s Ministry of Education had already formally adopted this name after deliberation in 2006.

Because of the controversial nature of the naming issue, I am not going to take a position in this article’s main text. However, I hope this article can open a discussion on how to call “the language” in English writing that reflects the linguistic diversity of Taiwan.

Hung-yi Chien identifies herself as Taiwanese Hokkien, though she is also a quarter-Hakka. She is both a linguist and historian and loves the histories behind words and ideas. She is now exploring the genealogy of Taiwan-related knowledge in European books but does not forget that linguistics is her original passion for Taiwan studies. The author thanks Prof. Ann Heylen’s comments to improve the draft, and all responsibilities of the work belong to the author.

This article was published as part of a special issue on Multilingual Taiwan.

I'm certainly not advocating that the language in question be referred to by Sinitic speakers as Hoklo (Fúlǎo 福佬 / Héluò 河洛 ("Hoklo"), only that, in a comprehensive treatment on the subject of the name of the language such as that which the article quoted above aspires to be.


Selected readings

(Thanks to Don Keyser)


  1. Jonathan Smith said,

    December 6, 2021 @ 9:34 pm

    Interesting read… setting aside the decisive facts that "Taigi" is fait accompli and that "not just speakers of Xish live in Xland" is a general international truth, may I propose

    SM sensu lato: "Southern Min", "Minnan(yu)"
    SM sensu stricto of Xiamen/Quanzhou/Taiwan etc.: Banlam(gi/u)
    Banlam as spoken in Taiwan >> Daiwan Banlam, Daiban for short

    and we're good :D

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 6, 2021 @ 11:09 pm

    I don't know that I have much to say that I didn't already say in the 2016 comment thread, although I had forgotten the interesting claim in that thread that "Hoklo" is (or was by origin at least) a somewhat derogatory exonym invented by the wicked Cantonese. Hakka sensitivities aside, I don't really think that "Taiwanese" (or Taigi etc.) should be considered offensive to speakers of the Austronesian languages, anymore than "English" as a name for a language should be considered offensive to speakers of Cornish or Welsh. If the Brythonic-Celtic-speakers had maintained political/military/cultural control of the place, it would never have been called "England" in the first place, but they didn't (such are the fortunes of war) so it is. Similarly, the Sinitic name "Taiwan" is only there because the indigenes were numerically overwhelmed by ethnic-Han incomers (regardless of topolect).

    I have a vague anecdotal impression that some subfactions of what the article calls "independentists" favor renewed usage of the archaic and non-Sinitic toponym Formosa, which I do think would put the Austronesian-speakers on a more level playing field (hey, they were still the majority when the first Portuguese mapmaker stuck that exonym on the island) as well as probably aggravating the Communist-bandit regime on the mainland. Whether that would make the Hakka less irked about "Taiwanese" as a label for a language that is not theirs is less clear to me. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaohsiung_Incident for one use of "Formosa" by anti-KMT Tangwai types in the 1970's.)

  3. Chas Belov said,

    December 7, 2021 @ 3:12 am

    I am in no place to say what the "right" name is, only to share my past interaction with this issue.

    In the early 90s when I was starting to collect popular music in various languages, I picked up a cassette with (at least) three different varieties of Chinese, which were noted beside the song title and artist name on the cover. They used Amoy (possibly 廈門話 but I can't say for sure as I no longer have the cassette – I seem to recall it was two characters, the second of which being 話 or 語 – but whatever it was I know it translated as Amoy because I looked it up at the time). And that is how I became aware of the existence of this language.

    When I wrote about an album in this language on my Geocities website, I referred to it as "Taiwanese." A commenter corrected me that it would correctly be "Southern Min" and, not knowing of the controversy, accepted that and updated my webpage.

    Perhaps it has to be like the former Yugoslavian languages and be the topolectal version of "our language."

  4. AntC said,

    December 7, 2021 @ 6:41 am

    I wonder … As Victor frequently reminds us, 'Taiwan' is a purely phonetic name/does not mean Terrace Bay.

    I hear Mandarin speakers in Taiwan twisting all sorts of place names to be 'Tai'-something. Not only -North, -Mid, -South, -East (Taipei, Taichung, Tainan, Taitung) but also Tai-lugu = Taroko Gorge/scenic area.

    [wp] In the early 17th century, the Dutch East India Company established a commercial post at Fort Zeelandia (modern-day Anping, Tainan) on a coastal sandbar called "Tayouan",[43] after their ethnonym for a nearby Taiwanese aboriginal tribe, possibly Taivoan people, written by the Dutch and Portuguese variously as Taiouwang, Tayowan, Teijoan, etc.[44] This name was also adopted into the Chinese vernacular (in particular, Hokkien, as Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Tāi-oân/Tâi-oân) as the name of the sandbar and nearby area (Tainan). The modern word "Taiwan" is derived from this usage, which is written in different transliterations (大員, 大圓, 大灣, 臺員, 臺圓 and 臺窩灣) in Chinese historical records.

    Is there enough of a Taivoan speech community remaining (or whatever language it was) to get a fix on the authentic pronunciation? Language policy could honour its authenticity by …

    "the Most Popular Non-Mandarin Language Used in Taiwan" getting itself called 'Taivoan-Min-gi'? Kind of south-of Southern Min. Or would Han languages just not countenance Wortbildung like that?

  5. AntC said,

    December 7, 2021 @ 6:53 am

    The Hakka also voiced out in 1988. …

    Is that verb merely a slip-of-the-tongue for "spoke out"? Or is there a different shade of meaning?

    @VHM one wonders why it scrupulously avoids one of the most common ways of referring to the language in question, namely, "Hoklo".

    But the article does consider 'Holo' — or is that not the same? (Perhaps this demonstrates the difficulty with the "romanised form"?)

    Taiwan Holo (Táiwān Holo-yǔ台灣Holo語), proposed by Lí Khîn-hōaⁿ, is a competitive candidate, and a certain number of speakers have already called the language with this name. However, there is no agreement on how to write the name with sinograms, and the romanised form is also less favoured.

  6. Allan from Iowa said,

    December 7, 2021 @ 9:01 am

    I first heard about this language when Raymond Chen wrote about relatives speaking Holo language. This term was not in the Ethnologue so I was mystified. After some searching I figured out he probably meant the variety of Min-Nan spoken in Taiwan.

    Chas, I still have a couple of Chinese music cassettes you gave me, but none of them have those characters.

  7. Jerry Packard said,

    December 7, 2021 @ 9:25 am

    As a non-native speaker of the language, I have always called it Tâi-oân oē or Hokien oē, sometimes Tâi-gí/Tâi-gú, but never 'Hoklo' in any language, and have seldom heard it referred to as 'Hoklo.' In English, I have always referred to it as 'Taiwanese' (mindful that it also means 'Taiwan Mandarin') or 'Southern Min'.

  8. Theo said,

    December 7, 2021 @ 8:41 pm


    Taiouan and its variants is most certainly not of Formosan origin. Ang Kaim has pretty well back it up.

  9. Chas Belov said,

    December 12, 2021 @ 12:47 am

    Hey, Allan, small world. I just double-checked and I definitely no longer have it. It only appeared on one cassette I ever picked up.

RSS feed for comments on this post