Friday, May 22, 2009

Dai Gi

As most of us know, the Taiwanese language and the local language of southern Fujian (Minnanhua) are almost identical. In Chinese class - I'll post a nice long rant about that later, suffice it to say that I'm a bit fed up with the Mandarin Training Center - my teacher consistently calls Taiwanese "Minnanhua" and everywhere you turn people will testify that they are the same language.

Fair enough. For most purposes, they are. But I posit that "for most purposes" is not quite as comprehensive as it should be, and that Taiwanese is a dialect of Minnanhua...related to it, and more or less the same language, but not exactly. Rather like Indian English, which is, of course, "English" - but who reading this has been to India and can testify that Indian English is sounding the same as American English, only? People are speaking it quite differently isn't it? If you want to be communicating pukka Indian English, of course you have to be changing-changing a few leetle things, only, so it is not same. So then you are having New Yark people or all people in USA speaking in one kind of English only and Mumbai desi speaking other kind.

Now I'm no linguist, but perhaps someday I'd like to be (to be posted forthwith on my rant about Shi-da, the reasons why I'm equally likely to get an MA in Linguistics as I am in Chinese at this point). I don't even speak Taiwanese well...just a few phrases here and there, and the names of lots of food, because food is the ultimate bonding agent between new friends. Food and alcohol. The Chinese and Taiwanese understand this, hence the term jiu-rou pengyou ("liquor-meat friends" - friends who are more 'buddies' that you go drinking with, but wouldn't necessarily confide in).

Even someone like me, however, with a very limited knowledge of, well, stuff, can point out loads of differences between Dai-gi and Minnanhua. The first is the most obvious - if the accent of Taiwanese speakers as well as the slang used changes between Taipei and Kaohsiung (and it does - my Taiwanese-speaking friends from both cities have confirmed this), then how can one possibly expect it to be the same between Taiwan and southern Fujian? From student reports, the difference is minimal - the difference, maybe, between American English and British English. Some words and phrases are different and the accent is quite varied but they're generally mutually understandable.

The next point is a little less obvious, but still quite true: Taiwanese has a plethora of vocabulary that is quite different from that of Minnanhua. Huge swaths of even the most basic vocabulary for everyday communication is completely different. By completely different, I mean from an entirely different language. The most basic subsets of Dai-gi vocabulary do not come from Fujian; they come from Japan.

Here's just a short list of the ones I've discovered so far (some of which were brought to my attention by my friend Joseph, whose Taiwanese is better than mine...for now):

Dai-fu - doctor
Sian-si / Sian-sei - Teacher (from "sensei", which one student says came from "xiansheng"...?)
neku tai'u - necktie, from English via Japanese
hinoki - redwood, clearly from Japanese...the Japanese loved consuming the cypress tree resources of Taiwan
obasan - an older woman, also from Japanese

I could see the argument that having a few vocabulary words borrowed from Japanese makes no difference in the relatedness of Taiwanese and southern Fujianese...and indeed in terms of basic structure or language family lineage, it doesn't. Just like English isn't any more closely related to French than it was when it evolved simply because we borrowed a bunch of words from it.

However, I'd also note that English is a decidedly different language from a lot of languages spoken across northern Europe (most strikingly, Icelandic, which apparently is closer to Old English than the English we speak now is) and one for that is the sheer weight of word borrowings from other languages. There's also the fact that the words that come from Japanese seem to be the most basic vocabulary - we're not talking high-falutin' words or 'elite' or 'literary' terms (the way Korean borrows a lot of Chinese), we're talking words like "doctor", "teacher" and "old lady".

Seems to me that this makes a pretty good case for Minnanhua and Dai-gi to be dialects, not identical languages. But like I said, I'm no Linguist.


Sasha said...

there are 2 different systems to read Taiwanese. so even 大夫(the doctor ) in 語音(orally pronounciation) is Dua Hu. but 讀音(literally pronounciation) is Dai-Hu. so I would say Dai-Hu is not from Japanese.

it's interesting to learn Taiwanese. and actually I think Taiwanese is more elegangt than Chinese. but most people don't know how to speak elegant Taiwanese. therefore, Taiwanese is thought vulgar one. I feel sorry because I teach you too many vulgar vocabularies. I hope you speak elegant Taiwanese instead of vulgar one. ( i have to say the bad words in Taiwanese sounds very powerful..but we just know it instead of using it in our life.i have to say hearing those is grating to us Taiwanse.)

David said...

Some people in Taiwan consider the use of Taiwanese a misnomer. Actually Taiwan has many languages -- Chinese and Austronesian -- so why should one of these be labelled Taiwanese. Using Minnan is clear and unambiguous, I don't see it as a problem. The differences in pronunciation around Taiwan relate to people migrating to Taiwan from different parts of Fujian Province.

Jenna said...

I see what you mean about it being a misnomer, though there's not much that can be done about that. Part of why I posted this is that I'm a little annoyed about how my teachers at Shi-da call it "Minnanhua" but they way they talk about it, and refer to it as "Southern Fujianese", there's a clear undercurrent of thinking that people in Taiwan and people in China are one and the same.

But my point is also that the differences between different "Minnanhua" dialects isn't *just* because of people coming from different parts of's also evolved in the way languages do to take on different characteristics in southern Taiwan than those of northern Taiwan. That's not surprising - English switches dialect between the north and the south in the USA, and in England you get a new dialect every few towns over. To take other languages as examples, Brendan's German teacher admitted that she "couldn't understand Austrians", and I admit that I can't easily understand Scottish people, occasionally Indians, and sometimes even Australians.

I'm not saying none of these languages are "English" - they are, just like "Taiwanese" (for lack of a better word) and "Minnanhua" are the same languages. My argument is only that they're dialects. They're not identical.

Jenna said...

And hey Sasha, the secretary at work (a native speaker of Taipei-style Taiwanese) doesn't say "dua hu" for doctor, she says "daifu". :)

You can rest assured that I'm learning not only the bad language you've taught me. Yesterday, when my student was late for a class held at my office (a rarity - most of my classes are at the offices of my clients), the secretary and I had a nice little language exchange. I learned all sorts of useful, non-vulgar stuff, because I can't ask the secretary at work to teach me curses!

Jenna said...

Sorry the above is so poorly written. I didn't sleep well and haven't finished my coffee.

David said...

Shi-Da teachers are another story. However, in general, their views do not reflect the mainstream views of Taiwanese society.

Cahleen Hudson said...

Let me apologize ahead of time because my comment is not exactly on topic, which I know is probably annoying. I looked for your email on your blog so I could just email you my question instead, but I couldn't find it. Sorry!

I see you go to the Mandarin Training Center. How do you like it? I live by NCCU, so naturally I wanted to go there. But not only is their price almost 30,000 NT, they wouldn't let me observe a class before I hand them over said 30,000 NT, and they stressed that I would be put into the very beginning class because that's the level of my character writing (as for speaking, I"m just about at the second book for PAV Chinese). I want to learn to read and write, but not at the same rate as my speaking, which I consider to be much more important. I also think that if they want me to write, they should just allow me to use a computer, which seems much more useful and sensible to me. What should I do?

By the way, I think you live in Jingmei. That means we're practically neighbors! =)

Sasha said...

Hey,Jenna.i forgot to clarify about the way we say " doctor " in Taiwanese. as the differenct of 語音 and 讀音, we only say "dai hu " for the doctor.(but it's new for me to hear of "dai fu",too. probably different accent...) I am just back from 唐伯虎點秋香 tonight,it's AWESOME !!

Hey,David,Taiwanese isn't 100% from FuJian language. Actually,for the parts from China,FuJian,QuanZhou,ZhanZhou,contribute to Taiwanese,too. I agree that Chinese / Mandarine is kind of official language to communicate with different races in Taiwan but it's always great to speak mother tongue what is not official language.

Jenna said...

I know their views don't reflect the mainstream of Taiwanese society (I'd be very worried if they did)...but I doubt anyone would disagree with me that a huge amount of Taiwanese language (or Taiwanese Minnanhua, but not Minnanhua as it's spoken in Fujian - see why I say "Taiwanese" and not "Minnanhua"?) vocabulary comes from Japanese, especially Taipei Taiwanese.

Jenna said...

And Sasha - that's just what I mean! Minnanhua (southern Fujian) may be the same mutually intelligible language as Minnanhua (Taiwan), though I'd argue that they're not quite so mutually intelligible anymore simply because how does one communicate those simple words like "teacher" and "old woman"? - but that doesn't mean they are identical.

阿牛 said...

I, too, consider Southern Min to be an appropriate term for the language, which includes many dialects other than Holo Taiwanese. Though just how political the term sounds depends on how it's used.

The primary reason for the North-South split of the language in Taiwan actually originates from Fujian, with the vast majority of Taiwanese immigrants coming from either 漳州 or 泉州, which spoke S. Min slightly differently, and which also happen to be the birthplace of Southern Min languages in general.

This split is melding away in the younger generation and in mass media. Look up information on "Emerging General Taiwanese" for more information.

The most noticeable differences between Taiwanese and other mutually intelligible S. Min dialects come from borrowed Japanese terms and a slight difference in the way tonal categories are realized.

Jenna said...

Fair enough, I mean you can call it whatever you want (Southern Min, Taiwanese, whatever). I still don't think Southern Min is an appropriate term, which is why I say "Taiwanese" - how many native Taiwanese speakers say "I speak Southern Min"? Approximately zero, from my experience. They say "I speak Taiwanese" (in Taiwanese).

I totally see where David is coming from in that "Taiwanese" isn't a great term either, but I still feel it's better than Southern Min.

I also still don't entirely buy that all the differences between northern Taiwanese and Southern Taiwanese originated in Fujian. That's like saying that all the differences between northern England English and, say, the dialects of London English all originated in Saxony.

I'm sure the difference started out with different groups coming from Fujian, but 400 years with poor transportation between northern and southern Taiwan would have undoubtedly led to dialectical change between the two. If native English speakers from Washington DC and New York can have slight differences in their speech (and Washington DC is barely a few hundred years old), why is it so hard to believe that the same thing has happened between Taipei and Kaohsiung?

So, uh, sorry, I realize I'm not an expert but I'm just not buyin' it.

Jenna said...

By the way, I'm not saying that the original split didn't occur in Fujian...obviously it did. That's proven.

I'm just saying that 400 years of settlements in northern and southern Taiwan (most of it with poor transit systems) have almost certainly helped deeper differences evolve, because that's how language works. I don't see how it could not have happened!

Sasha said...

As a native Taiwanese speaker,I always say " I speak Taiwanese " when I am asked by other people. I didn't know " Minanhua " until I started going to school. Because teachers told me " You shouldn't say Taiwanese, it's Minanhua. " but everybody knows it's hard for us to communicate with those people really from Fujian or Minan very well.

and I agree with 阿牛 about 漳州 and 泉州.as we know 漳泉械鬥. at least, i still understand some 泉州phrase. For example, "Miss, young lady " in 泉州話 is "阿娘 Ah Niu ".

I'm just thinking...since I live in Taiwan. and I speak some language works in Taiwan, why can't I just call it Taiwanese ? it's easier ^^a

Brendan said...

Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian are effectively dialects of the same language and are less different from each other than are the Italian of Milan and the Italian of Sicily. Malay and Indonesian are effectively the same language separated by a political border. And practically the only differences between Romanian and Moldovan are vocabulary differences that developed while the latter was spoken within the borders of the Soviet Union.

(Bear in mind I don't speak any of the above languages, so I'm going entirely on what I've read. Apologies if I'm spreading misinformation.)

So yeah, I have no problem with calling Taiwanese Taiwanese. That said, we all know if we heard someone say "I don't speak no freakin English. I speak American!" we'd make fun of him to no end.

David said...

Sorry for taking so long to come back with a follow up to my previous comment. Nobody has mentioned the use of "Hoklo" to refer to the version(s) of Minnan spoken in Taiwan. I think this is probably the most politically correct term and seems preferred by some media and academics. I usually use this term.

The problem is that the term Taiwanese is misused/abused. Some people will claim that Taiwanese refers only to Hoklo speaking people in Taiwan. Hence by their logic >20% of people in Taiwan are not Taiwanese.

Jenna said...

Fair enough...I think Hoklo is also fine (I also won't argue with anyone who calls it "Minnanhua" that they shouldn't...just that I won't). I use "Taiwanese" because in Taiwanese, the word is "Dai gi" which means "Taiwanese". So I'm trying to call it the closest English equivalent to what the speakers of it use to refer to their own language.

I asked a student today, one who I know is from Pingdong and has views similar to mine. I asked him if he'd ever refer to his native language as "Minnanhua" and he laughed..."Absolutely not! Why I do that? I am not from Fujian." "Why *would* I do that." "Sorry. Why would I do that?" "By the way, how do you say 'Min Nan Hua' in Taiwanese?" "It's....uh...I don't know! We don't say that word."

But I'm sure even he would be cool with calling it 'Hoklo'.

Unknown said...

I am so excited to have stumbled upon your blog (even though I really should be focusing on studying for my final exams haha.) Taiwanese has fascinated me because of my heritage (I'm an ABC with a mother who constantly brought me and the sister back to her homeland Taoyuan district when we were younger.)
Just a few points I'd like to mention:
-You note "Sian-si / Sian-sei - Teacher (from "sensei", which one student says came from "xiansheng"...?)" as a vocabulary term; this is most likely from "sensei" which is teacher in Japanese
-This leads to the prominence of Japanese terms in Taiwanese: From discussions with my family, it seems that Japanese language enforcement was quite heavily carried out. From a class on Filipino history, I do believe that colonial forces historically have demanded the use of the foreign imperial language to both a)support the cultural superiority of their own people and b)facilitate communication/save the time of learning a foreign language themselves. This may explain the prominence of Japanese terms in commonly-used, everyday terms.
-I haven't had time to go through more of your blog (I really should get some sleep as it is 3:30 am here,) but have you done a post on comparing Taiwanese/Cantonese aurally? I would love to learn how to better differentiate between the two-it'd be convenient when listening to these modern pop songs which seem to eliminate tones to fit a melody.

In any case, just wanted to say that I look forward to browsing more of your blog. Perhaps you would not be terribly opposed to discussion regarding living in Taiwan as an American/Taiwanese linguistics?