A Beginner's Guide to Taiwanese

From Taioaan Wiki
Revision as of 10:09, 6 December 2017 by Hongthay (talk | contribs) (Special vowels)
Jump to: navigation, search
"Hello" in Taiwanese, written Lie hør!

Lier! 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.


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.


MTL Approx. Example Meaning More Examples
p B / crispy papaf father Taipag
ph P (crisp) phaq to hit
m me mi noodle
b mumble baq meat bin, bexbae
t D (crisp) tit straight Taioaan, tee
th Thomas theh to take
n neat nii year
l Lima laang person laai
k gear kaf to add ka'iuu, kafmsia
kh key khix to go khaothaau
h heap hii fish
g gaggle go five Gilaan, goar
c(i) G ciaf here
ch(i) cheese chiaf car
s(i) she / sea si yes
j(i) Z jit day Jidpurn
z yards zef this
zh cats zhaix vegetable zheq
s Saul svaf three (3) samparn
j zoo joah hot

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.

Note that s and j appear twice: these are slightly different when followed by an i vs other vowels.


Single Vowels

MTL Example Meaning
a ka to bite
i hvi ear
u u to have
e ke low
o lo road
ø r good
m m no
ng hng far

The m can be both vowel and consonant.

Compound Vowels

These vowels are a combination of two vowel sounds.

MTL Example Meaning
ai lai sharp
au au back
ia ia to spread
iu chviu elephant
kiøo bridge
iau liau material/stuff
ui ui stomach
oa toa big
oe hoe meeting
øe øe to be able to
oai koaix weird

Nasal Vowel

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.

MTL Example Meaning
va va filling (for dumplings etc.)
vi hvi ear
ve gve stiff
vo gvo to comprehend
vai vai to carry on back
vau gvau lotus root
via thviaf to listen
viu sviu to think
viau gviaugviaw itchy
voa voa to exchange
voai kvoaimngg to close a door

Ending vowel

Taiwanese has ending nasal vowel sounds using m, n and ng.

MTL Example Meaning
-am lam to mix
-im a'kim (akim) aunt
-iam liam to nag
-an ban slow
-in kin near
-un tun dull
-ien lien to practice
-oan goan wish
-ang bang dream
-eng teng hard
-ong gong dumb
-iang liang bright
-iong iong to use

Syllabic structure

A syllable in Taiwanese follows one of these two patterns:

  • [consonant] + [nasal] vowel
  • [consonant] + vowel + [rear nasal ending]

A valid syllable only needs to have a vowel. 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 the vowels are pronounced with a distinctive tone that relate a distinctive meaning. A vowel spoken with a different tones has different meanings. 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.

# Tones Description MTL Example
1 High high level tone f af
2 Shouting start high, then sharp downward r ar
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 ah, ap, at, ak
4 Short low short low tone ends with q, b, d or g aq, ab, ad, ag

The tone indicators (f, x, r, etc) are placed after the vowel.

Examples of the seven tones:

Tone Example Meaning
Basic si is
High hiaf there
Low Falling zhaix vegetable
Shouting zar early
Curving hii fish
Short high ciah to eat
Short low phaq to hit
Short high hap to close
Short low ciab to catch
Short high kut slippery
Short low kud bone
Short high lok deer
Short low kog country

Special vowels

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
Example Meaning
ai air ae hae sea
i ir ie lie you
u ur uo kuo (of time) long
e er ea bea horse
au aur ao kao dog
i if y y he / she / it
u uf w wtiu universe
ø øo øo kiøo bridge

Tone sandhi

Taiwanese tones in isolation, and the changes they undergo when they precede another tone.

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

Apostrophe (')

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 okix (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 word ok'ix means “evil intention”.

Hyphen (-)

A hyphen is used to join two, or more isolated words to make a new compound word with its own meaning.

Examples: Taioaan-laang (Taiwanese person); Bykog-kongbiin (American citizen).

When reading these hyphenated words, the syllable directly before the hyphen must undergo tone change.

Back-quote (`)

When a word contains a back-quote, all the syllables after the back-quote are accented in a weaker, lower tone -- either a low-falling tone or a low stop. The tone of the syllable before the back-quote 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.

Further study

External links