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Taiwanese Mandarin Starter Kit

The wild and wacky world of Taiwanese Mandarin


Taiwanese Mandarin Starter Kit

The wild and wacky world of Taiwanese Mandarin


Taiwanese Mandarin (台灣國語, Táiwān Guóyǔ) is a fascinating mélange of many disparate elements from Hokkien to Haka, Japanese to English, and Taiwan Standard Mandarin (國語) to ancient Austronesian languages. On my first flight to Taiwan a Taiwanese passenger next to me offered me a crash course on the differences between Taiwanese Mandarin and Putonghua as it is spoken in the Chinese mainland. He said I’d need to loose my erhua (儿话) that I’d worked so hard to perfect for years in Beijing.  He said that Taiwanese don’t 卷舌 (roll their tongue) and tend to drop the “H” when saying things like 是不是 (shì bú shì, isn’t it?) becomes “sì bú sì”. He also said the common question 是吗, becomes 真的.

That was of course just the tip of the iceberg, I soon realized that I wasn’t in Beijing anymore and there were a whole host of adjustments to be made including fancy traditional characters, the silent h, tonal differences, basic vocabulary differences, and strong influence from Taiwanese dialect as well as other dialects and languages. As soon as I got off the plane I was bewildered by radically different terms for basic things I’d taken for granted. Taxi was now 計程車 instead of 出租车, bicycle was 脚踏车 not 自行车, and most bizarrely trash 垃圾 (lājī) became “lèsè”.  It took me a long time to wrap my mind around pronouncing lèsè, apparently it is from the Wu dialect. Local Taiwanese got hours of enjoyment out of my Beijing accent, constantly mocking my 儿endings and my heavy tongue curling with words using sh, zh, and ch.

Simplified vs. Traditional 

On the streets of Taipei you’ll soon find many of your old friends in the Chinese mainland will have morphed into ancient, alien-looking versions of their simplified offspring on steroids. 电话 becomes 電話, 车 becomes 車, 医院  becomes 醫院, and 动物园 is now 動物園. Oh, and have fun trying to find your way back to the airport 飞机场 is now 飛機場! If you’re stressed out, you can still make your way to a bar because those characters were never simplified 酒吧. If you’re out of cash, you can head to the local bank 銀行, that’s not too different from 银行. One quick tip, many of the radicals have only been slightly modified, so if you just realize that 讠is 訁, 钅is 釒, and 纟is 糹, you can get really far.

Pinyin vs. Wade-Giles

Though it officially discontinued use of Wade-Giles in 2008, it’s still alive and going strong in Taiwan in 2014. In the late 1800s, Thomas Wade and later Herbert Giles undertook the noble task of trying to devise a romanized system for Chinese. It wasn’t bad for a first try, but over a hundred years later, the shortcomings are glaring. There’s no distinction between G and J sounds, and they are all lumped in with the letter K for some strange reason. Gaoxiong is Kaohsiung and Jilong is Keelung. There’s also no distinction between “B” and “P”, thus Taibei is spelled Taipei and Pingzhen City is spelled Pingjhen City. They struggled mightily with the “X” sound and instead decided to use “Hs”, so 新竹 (Xinzhu) is spelled Hsinchu.

One of the weirdest and most vexing Wade-Giles based spellings for street names I ever found was Jenai Lu (仁爱路) the Pinyin version is “Rén’ài Lù”, what Wade or Giles were smoking when they came up with the spelling “Jen” to represent the sound “Ren”, I’ll never know.  Surnames such as Zhou becomes Chou , Zhang becomes Chang, Guo becomes Kuo, etc… Some cities and districts in Taiwan have started to adopt Hanyu Pinyin for street signs, but most city names retain their original Wade-Giles name such as Taipei, Taitung, Taichung, Kaohsiung, Hualien, Kenting, etc… The Taiwanese education system does use a very effective, arguably superior pronunciation system called zhuyin or colloquially Bopomofo, but it takes some time to learn.

Pronunciation differences

和 (hé) vs. (hàn)
So far, Taiwan is the only place where I’ve heard 和 pronounced this way.

垃圾 (lājī) vs. (lèsè)
This pronunciation for “trash” originates from Wu dialect (吴语) and is in stark contrast to the pronunciation in the Chinese mainland.

H’s are silent.  A piece of paper, 一张纸 (yì zhāng zhǐ), becomes something that sounds to a northerner like 一脏紫 (yì zāng zǐ, a dirty purple).

Fa is pronounced like “Hua”. So a sentence like 发生什么事儿?  (Fāshēng shénme shìr? What happened?) combines the hua and silent h pronunciation to produce something completely nonsensical like 花生森么寺(Huāshēng sēnme sì, peanut forest temple).

Basic vocabulary differences
洗手間 or 化妝間 = 厕所 (bathroom)
In Taiwan they like to be vary delicate and polite when referring to the toilet so they call it things like “makeup room” or “hand washing room”.

脚踏车 =  自行车 (bicycle)
The Taiwanese prefer the term  脚踏车 (foot pedaling vehicle) to 自行车 (self moving vehicle) to describe a bicycle.

司機 = 师傅 (driver)
In the Chinese mainland anyone can be referred to as a shifu or master, but in Taiwan drivers are simply called  司機 (driver).

番茄 = 西红柿 (tomato)
When not using Japanese to refer to the tomato, they use the Chinese characters 番茄 (foreign eggplant).

馬鈴薯 = 土豆 (potato)
Taiwanese will laugh at you if you call a potato (馬鈴薯) a peanut (土豆).

鳳梨= 菠萝 (pineapple)
This word will come in handy when you want to buy Taiwan’s tasty treat – 鳳梨酥 (pineapple cake).

起士 or 乳酪 = 奶酪
Nobody in Taiwan knows what 奶酪 is, but if you just say the English “Cheese” there will be 100% recognition.

計程車 = 出租车
If you say 出租车, it sounds like you’re trying to rent a car.

曉得 =  知道
Wu dialect. You’ll notice people Shanghai say this a lot as well instead of 知道

服務生 or simply 小姐 = 服务员
Yes, they still say 小姐 to refer to waitresses in Taiwan, it’s a sad state of affairs that “miss” now only refers to prostitutes in the Chinese mainland.

提款機 = 取款机 (ATM)

網路 = 网络 (Internet)

軟體 = 软件 (software)

光碟  = 光盘 (CD)

Same word different meaning

小姐- prostitute vs. miss

While in the Chinese mainland it would be a massive faux pas to refer to any female by this term other than full-time professional prostitutes, in Taiwan it is still acceptable to refer to females as “miss”.

愛人- spouse vs. lover
On the other hand, Taiwanese would find it very odd to refer to your spouse as your 愛人 (lover), while in the Chinese mainland you will still hear this term used by the older generation.

搞 – to make or do, vulgar
In the Chinese mainland, 搞 is a verb meaning to make or do, while in Taiwan it can mean the f-word.

In some cases, word order is reversed, as in the case of the word authentic 地道  vs. 道地(Taiwan). Components of characters can even be reversed in the case of the word enough – 够 vs. 夠 (Taiwan).

Tonal differences

法國 (Fàguó) vs. 法国 (Fǎguó)
My friends Palanka and Gubo always told me in the Practical Chinese Reader that the 法 in 法国 is always pronounced with the third tone (fǎ) , so I always suffer an existential crisis with Taiwanese pronounce it fà (fourth tone).

星期 (xīngqí) vs(xīngqī

微波爐 (wéibōlú) vs. 微波炉 (wēibōlú)

企業 (qìyè) vs. (qǐyè)

暴露 (pùlù) vs. (bàolù)

炸雞腿 (zhàjītuǐ) vs. (zhájītuǐ)
This tonal differences can lead to humorous misunderstandings, in the last instance mentioned above. A Taiwanese asking for fried chicken leg in Beijing might be laughed at for ordering an “exploding chicken leg”.

Taiwanese words

歹勢 (pháiⁿ-sè) = 不好意思 (Sorry, excuse me)
龜毛(ku-mo) = 不乾脆 (Stingy and picky)
Q (糗, khiū) = 软润有弹性 (Soft and chewy)
查埔 (cha-po) = 男孩 (Boy)
查某 (cha-bó) = 女孩 (Girl)
呷飯 (chia-bun) = 吃饭 (To eat)
阿兜仔 (a-doh-ah) = 老外 (Foreigner, literally protruding nose person)

Aborigine words

芭樂 = 番石榴 (Guava)
馬啦桑 = 喝醉 (Drunk)

Japanese words

便當 = 盒饭 (Box Lunch)
歐巴桑 = 姑妈 (Obasan, old lady)
麻糬 = 年糕 (Maji, Mochi)

English words

優格 = 酸奶 (Yogurt)
起士 = 奶酪 (Cheese)

In case you’re wondering, the advertisement in the master image is using the Taiwanese pronunciation of Obama to make a play on words. Obama in Taiwanese sounds like the Mandarin 黑白买 (black white purchase), which means to buy something recklessly. They further accentuate this by contrasting the pale, white Bush with the dark-skinned Obama. They also refer to Bush as 不C, which means “no vitamin c” and sounds like the Mandarin pronunciation of his name. It’s funny if you know both dialects, I promise!