Introduction to Taiwanese Vocabulary

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The modern language that we call Taiwanese has been passed on for several generations primarily through oral tradition without a standardized writing system. It may be considered a variant of Hokkien brought by Fujianese settlers from mainland China to the island of Taiwan (Formosa). The Taiwanese language has captured the history of the island in its borrowing of words from Formosan languages, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, and English.

Modern Taiwanese has words coming from Old Chinese (ca. 0 BCE/CE) as well as the Tang Dynasty (ca. 618-907). However, it is still not natural for many people to write modern Taiwanese with Han characters. Until the late 19th century, educated Taiwanese speakers wrote mostly in Classical Chinese. Where Han characters have been used to record spoken Taiwanese, they are not always etymological or genetic; the borrowing of similar-sounding or similar-meaning characters is a common practice. The lack of a written standard and the difficulty in learning the relatively complicated Harnji posed a great barrier to written record of Taiwanese speech.

A system of writing Taiwanese using Latin characters called POJ, meaning "vernacular writing", was developed in the 19th century. The indigenous Presbyterian Church in Taiwan has been active in promoting the language since the late 19th century. In 1945, Professor Liim Keahioong, formerly of the Cheng-Kung University in Taiwan, pioneered a system based on POJ called the Taiwanese Modern Spelling System (TMSS). TMSS has evolved into Modern Taiwanese Language (MTL), also known as Modern Literal Taiwanese (MLT). This wiki uses MTL to write Taiwanese.

Common Phrases

Main article: Common Taiwanese phrases

Lie hør! 
Ciaqpar`boe? 🔊 
Hello. (Literally, "have you eaten your fill?")
Bexbae! 🔊 
Not bad.
Kafmsia! 🔊 
Thank you.
Mxbiern-khehkhix! 🔊 
You're welcome. / That's OK.


Main reference: Taiwanese Hokkien#Lexicon

Han Chinese

Modern linguistic studies (by Robert L. Cheng and Chin-An Li, for example) estimate that most (75% to 90%) Taiwanese words have cognates in other Han Chinese languages. False friends do exist; for example, zao 🔊 () means "to run" in Taiwanese, whereas the Mandarin cognate, zǒu, means "to walk". Moreover, cognates may have different lexical categories; for example, the morpheme phvi 🔊 () means not only "nose" (a noun, as in Mandarin ) but also "to smell" (a verb, unlike Mandarin).

Harnji MTL Reading English
id one (1)
si to be
jiin person
pgoar bgvor me, I
ptoa btai big
laai to come
kog kingdom, country, nation
tlie you/your
bte ground, earth
pnii blieen year

In Taiwanese, Harnji often have differing literary and colloquial readings (pronunciations). See Buun-peh-i-thak.

Some words just have no standard Harnji, and are variously considered colloquial, intimate, vulgar, uncultured, or more concrete in meaning than the pan-Chinese synonym. Some examples: laang 🔊 (person, concrete) vs. jiin 🔊 (, person, abstract); zabor 🔊 (woman) vs. lwjiin 🔊 (女人, woman, literary); baq 🔊 (meat). See Taiguo Siong'iong 460-ji and Taioaan Banlamgie thuiciexn ioxngji.


Main article: Taiwanese words from Austronesian

Some Taiwanese terms originate from the Austronesian Formosan Aboriginal Languages. For example, asef 🔊, meaning "silly goose", is from Sirayan. Many Taiwan placenames came from these languages, including Taioaan 🔊, Alysafn 🔊, Kelaang 🔊, etc. It is said that 70 to 80% of Taiwan placenames are from the Formosan Austronesian languages.


Main article: Taiwanese words from Japanese

The Empire of Japan ruled Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. Extensive contact with the Japanese language has left a legacy of Japanese loanwords. Examples are: piexntofng, iafkiuu, piexnsor, huilengky, bixsox.

Western Languages

See Also: 台灣閩南語用詞#西洋語言

Taiwanese has words that come from Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish via its history (see Hølaan ee Formosa). Aside from placenames (like Samtiaukag and Huokuiekag), most western words might be from English via Japanese (see Taiwanese words from English).

MTL Notes
bihluq 🔊 from Dutch bier via Japanese
kaq 🔊 from Dutch akker (acre)
pak 🔊 from Dutch pachten (to lease)
phorngphuq 🔊 from Dutch pomp (pump)
angmngthoo 🔊 they called the Dutch "angmo" savages (紅毛番 or 紅毛)。
sapbuun 🔊 soap, from Portuguese: sabão

Getting started

Words you may recognize

MTL Tai. Hanji English Meaning
tee 🔊 tea (from Amoy)
khaothaau 🔊 叩頭 kowtow (to kneel and touch the forehead to the ground in token of homage, worship, or deep respect)
kafmsia 🔊 感謝 cumshaw (grateful thanks, from Amoy)
sampafn'ar 🔊 舢舨仔 sampan (a flat-bottomed skiff used in eastern Asia and usually propelled by two short oars)
Jidpurn 🔊 日本 Japan/Nippon
Sekkhiaf 🔊 釋迦 sweetsop (sugar-apple), resembles top part of Gautama Buddha's (Sakyamuni) head

How to Count

There are two sets of numbers in Taiwanese, colloquial and literary. Use the colloquial style to count objects.

1 2 3 / 三 4 / 四 5 / 五 6 / 六 7 / 七 8 / 八 9 / 九 10 / 十
Peh 🔊 cit () nng () svaf six go lak chid peq kao zap
Buun 🔊 id () ji () safm sux gvor liok pad kiuo sip

Further study