Written Taiwanese and Cantonese

With the mercury in Taipei rising incessantly (roads have started melting and all), it seemed as good a time as any to expand the horizons of Sinoglot’s coverage to the Pénghú 澎湖 archipelago, a group of islands in the Strait of Taiwan. Fishing and tourism are the mainstays of the economy on these islands, which are also known in Taiwan for their boisterous religious festivals and the well-preserved local culture.

So, with a little trepidation at flying in a little turboprop plane for the first time, your correspondent bravely went where no Sinoglot post had gone before. It soon turned out that the preservation of the islands’ local culture extends to its language: unlike in Taipei, Taiwanese (Mǐnnányǔ 閩南語 / Táiyǔ 台語) is still going strong on these islands – you hardly hear any Mandarin on the streets, even among the younger generations. I asked a few islanders and they all agreed that almost all kids are still learning how to speak Taiwanese and using it actively in everyday life, again unlike in Taipei.

Even more interestingly, you can see written Taiwanese in quite a number of places: in the local museum of history, on market stalls, and in a remarkably well-preserved traditional village called Èrkàn 二嵌 on Xīyǔ 西嶼 island. Of course, all this had to be documented, so if you’re interested, check out the photos of some signs in written Taiwanese that I took during my stay. These are just some of the more striking examples; I’ll have some more photos of written Taiwanese in Èrkàn in an upcoming post on their folk songs, which are sung in Taiwanese. (A nice old lady tried to teach me how to sing one of them, but I’m a classical case of 五音不全, so you’ll have to listen to her rendition instead.)

Let me close with another piece of non-Mandarin writing that I saw in Pénghú: a postcard that a girl from Hong Kong was writing to a friend back in HK, and which I was given by the owner of the 民宿 we were both staying at. He claimed he couldn’t even decipher the characters, let alone figure out what it meant. I struggled quite a bit too, until she pointed out that it was written in Cantonese. It’s interesting how difficult reading Chinese handwriting becomes when you can’t rely on your knowledge of common phrases, at least for me.

Check out the photo I took below (click to enlarge). If like me, you know only a bit of Cantonese, I’m curious to hear whether you can read this just as easily as Mandarin – and of course, by reading I don’t mean understanding, but just recognizing the characters.

For more on written Cantonese, the go-to book is Don Snow, Cantonese as a Written Language: The Growth of a Written Chinese Vernacular. You may also be interested in his article Cantonese as Written Standard? (PDF) and a hand-out on the development of written Cantonese (PDF). For written Taiwanese, check out Henning Klöter, Written Taiwanese.

4 responses to “Written Taiwanese and Cantonese”

  1. Karan says:

    I consider my understanding of Cantonese to be sufficient for the language used in the postcard, but due to the extremely cursive (I’m trying to avoid using the term “sloppy”) handwriting, I have to admit that it was fairly challenging for me to read it. And although I was able to read the first half without much trouble, the second half especially towards the end was definitely very difficult to understand for me. In any case, thank you very much for posting this. It has been a very entertaining exercise in reading.

  2. huixing says:

    美女,仲記唔得我?你試吓唔記得我,下次見到你鏟光你個頭!!! from:澎湖中屯風車 雖然我哋好日都無會約出嚟見一日,但我寫明信片都有預你㗎,要唔要我寫多張俾你愛人㗎? XD
    我嚟咗澎湖三個禮拜,日日都討得好開心,有藍天、夕陽、星星,香港真的撾唔到。我好快返架喇,唔好每晚都因為掛住我而流馬尿喇,好嗎?love you
    beauty, you still remember me? if you say don’t, i’ll cut off your head!!!
    from: penghu zhongtun fengche although we some while not meet each other, but i reserve you a post card, do i need for your lover also? XD
    I came penghu thee weeks, everyday i very happy there is blue sky, sunset, star. Hongkong really not up to this. i go back soon, please don’t miss me to tear, OK? love you.

  3. GF says:

    Just to be a pedant, the title of one of the books you mention is actually “Cantonese as Written Language: The Growth of a Written Chinese Vernacular”, not “Cantonese as a Written Language”… As an HKU staff member I got the PDF of the book for free from the HKU Digital Editions site! Thank you for recommending it!

    • Daan says:

      Thanks for pointing this out! So much for working from memory :) And glad you’re enjoying the read. It’s a fascinating topic, I think.

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