A Beginner's Guide to Taiwanese
Lie hør! Taiwanese is a beautiful and musical language spoken in Taiwan and by Taiwanese people around the world. This Beginner's Guide to Taiwanese will provide you with a brief introduction to the spoken language as well as a writing system called Modern Taiwanese Language (MTL).
Most speakers of Taiwanese are not aware that there exist several ways to write it down. MTL and Taiwanese Romanization System both derive from Pe̍h-ōe-jī (POJ), which had over 100,000 users in the mid-20th century. While no single system has been widely adopted (whether romanized or in Han characters), MTL is a very useful tool for learning Taiwanese. Most Taiwanese speakers may not be able to read any of these systems but will understand you better because you used it.
- 1 Phonology
- 1.1 Initial consonants
- 1.2 Vowels
- 1.3 Syllabic structure
- 1.4 Tones
- 1.5 Three special symbols
- 2 Further study
- 3 External links
We will first introduce all of the phonetic sounds of Taiwanese, using the Taiwanese alphabet. Some sounds have an approximation in English, while others may be less familiar. In the examples, we have underlined tone indicators that are silent, which we will explain later.
Here are the 18 initial consonants in MTL, which come at the beginning of the syllable.
|p||B / crispy||father|
|ph||P (crisp)||to hit|
|s(i)||she / sea||yes|
The p vs. b and k vs. g may be hard to differentiate at first. They are part of a three-way distinction, going from muddy to plain to aspirated.
- The muddy b and g are voiced, meaning the vocal cords vibrate along with the consonant.
- The plain p and k (and t) are unvoiced, not as aspirated as in English, but do have a distinct click or pop.
- The aspirated consonants are composed of the plain symbol followed by h.
Note that s and j appear twice: these are slightly different when followed by an i vs other vowels.
These are the pure vowel sounds (monophthongs).
We saw m earlier as a consonant, but it can stand alone as a vowel. In fact, both m and ng are complete syllables and complete words. We will see them both again later as final consonants.
These vowels are a combination of two (or three) pure vowel sounds.
|øe||øe||to be able to (dialectal)|
These vowel sounds are made using your nose. Most vowels have a nasal form. A v is placed in front of the vowel to designate it.
|va||filling (for dumplings etc.)|
|vai||to carry on back|
|voai||to close a door|
Vowel plus nasal final consonant
The following finals are composed of vowels capped with the nasal m, n and ng as final consonants.
A syllable in Taiwanese follows one of these two patterns:
- [consonant] + [nasal] vowel
- [consonant] + vowel + [nasal final consonant]
As a bare minimum, only a vowel is required. The items in the brackets are optional.
A word can be formed with one or more syllables, but two syllables is most typical.
Taiwanese is a tonal language which means that pitch is used to convey meaning. Many words are differentiated solely by tone. Learning to speak and hear the tones of Taiwanese correctly is often difficult for an English speaker since there are no tones in English. With practice you will be able to hear and speak it. Taiwanese has seven tones (Mandarin has four). Again most speakers of Taiwanese are not aware of the different tones but they can all understand it when you pronounce it.
|1||High||high level tone||f|
|2||Shouting||start high, then sharp downward||r|
|3||Low Falling||start mid then downward tone||x||ax|
|5||Curving||start mid level then down and up||doubling of vowel||aa|
|7||Basic||mid level tone||default||a|
|8||Short high||short high tone||ends with h, p, t or k||, , ,|
|4||Short low||short low tone||ends with q, b, d or g||, , ,|
The letters f, r and x are silent tone indicators for long tones.
Here are some common examples of the long tones:
The tone indicators always come to the right of the vowel, with one exception. To indicate the curving tone of a compound vowel, normally its last letter is repeated. But when there is an a, it is the one repeated, even when it doesn't sit at the very end of the vowel. For example:& .
Here are some examples of the short tones:
|high||(to eat)||(to close)||(slippery)||(deer)|
|low||(to hit)||(to catch)||(bone)||country)(|
The ending letter of a short tone tells both final consonant and tone. Looking at the high short tones first: the h is a glottal stop, then the p, t and k are stops sounding similar to how they're used as an initial consonant. The low short tones are then the same as the corresponding high tone version but in lower pitch.
For certain vowels in certain tones, there are a few substitutions/shortcuts: five for the shouting-out tone, plus two in the high tone. There is also a shortcut for the curving tone of ø.
| Special vowel
|u||ur||uo||(of time) long|
|i||if||y||he / she / it|
The basic unit of speech is the syllable, which can change tone depending on where it is spoken in a sentence. This is referred to as tone sandhi, which is extensive in Taiwanese.
If a syllable is spoken in the middle of a word, phrase or sentence, it changes tone according to the Tone Circle diagram. If a syllable is spoken at the end of a phrase or sentence, it does not change tone. Most nouns do not change tone.
These tone changes are probably by far the hardest part of learning Taiwanese.
Three special symbols
When two syllables are put together, it may be necessary to indicate a syllable boundary with an apostrophe, given the rule that letters must be grouped into a syllable starting from the right.
Example: of + kix vs og + ix
Suppose we want to combine of, meaning “black”, with kix, meaning “mole”. We simply take the modified tone of the first syllable and follow it by the second syllable. The result is(meaning “black mole”). Following the rules of MTL reading, kix is the longest possible syllable starting from the right. Thus the first syllable is the simple vowel o and the second syllable is kix, and no apostrophe is needed.
If we combine og (“evil”) and ix (“intention”) without an apostrophe, we also get okix. By the rules of reading MTL, the final syllable appears to be kix. Therefore, we must insert an apostrophe (ok'ix) to indicate that the last syllable is ix. Now we know the first syllable is ok, which is the modified tone of og. The wordmeans “evil intention”.
A hyphen is used to join two, or more isolated words to make a new compound word with its own meaning.
When reading these hyphenated words, the syllable directly before the hyphen must undergo tone change.
Grave accent (`)
When a word contains a grave accent, all the syllables after it are accented in a weaker, lower tone -- either a low-falling tone or a low stop. The tone of the syllable before the grave accent remains unchanged.
- kviaf`sie ((v.) to freak someone out) - kviaf keeps its high tone but sie is pronounced with a weakened low tone.
- kviasie ((adj.) scared of death) – kviaf is pronounced with normal tone change from high to basic while sie is pronounced as a shouting tone. Kiasi is Hokkien phrase that describes the attitude of being overly afraid or timid.
- Practical Taiwanese Conversation
- Taiwanese-English Dictionaries
- Frequently-Used Syllables in Frequently-Used Words of Taiwanese Hokkien