Kinmenese in change: language shift, language identity and language ideologies

Written by Tsung-Lun Alan Wan.

The relationship between Kinmen, a small group of islands only two kilometres from Xiamen, and Taiwan is tricky. Since Kinmen was demilitarized in 1992, Kinmenese people have never ceased to be embarrassed by their affinity with China, which is in every respect incompatible with the rising Taiwanese identity. Such an awkward situation is encoded in the changing social meanings of Kinmenese language.

Both Kinmen and Taiwan belong to Southern Hokkien speaking regions. The first major wave of Han Chinese started to settle in Taiwan during Dutch rule in seventeenth century. Most of these immigrants were Southern Hokkien speakers from Quanzhou and Zhangzhou. After more than 400 years, the two varieties of Hokkien have formed a dominant variety called Quan-Zhang mixture (泉漳濫). The Southern Hokkien language used in Taiwan was then rendered with its new name as “Taiwanese”, and includes many Japanese words imported during Japanese rule.

In contrast, the Southern Hokkien spoken in Kinmen, the island traditionally under Quanzhou’s administration until 1914, is basically Quanzhou-oriented. While this island was temporally occupied by the Japanese army during WWII, Kinmen was never formally governed by Japan. Instead, most of the loanwords in Kinmenese Southern Hokkien are in the Malay language and were brought in by waves of Kinmenese migrant workers returning from Malaysia and Singapore. For example, Kinmenese call potatoes as “kantan”, which is “kantang” in Malay.

Since demilitarization, the interaction between the two islands has deepened. Linguistically, it is not surprising that Kinmenese people, when they study or work in Taiwan, accommodate the Taiwanese language rather than stick to their Southern Hokkien language. However, when those Kinmenese in Taiwan move back home, they seem to bring Taiwanese linguistic features back. Younger people tend to abandon Kinmenese central vowels [ɨ] and [ə] and shift to Taiwanese [i]/[u] and [ue]. For instance, while elder people above 40 years old tend to call fish “hîr” and skin “phêr” younger people are observed tend to say “hî” and “phuê”. Such a phonetic change comes with social change, especially when Yu Tsai also notes that the people who do business in Taiwan seem to avoid pronouncing Kinmenese central vowels because Taiwanese phonetic features have been linked to a higher social class, the mobile class, who frequently travelled between Taiwan and Kinmen. I would say it is an issue concerning the contrast between a modernized Taiwan as center and a previously-militarized Kinmen as periphery.

Southern Hokkien activity at an elementary school in Kinmen. Guavas are called nâi-á-pút in Kinmenese Southern Hokkien.

I personally observed that language change at the phonetic and lexicon levels also happens through Taiwanese pop music, a carrier of modernity. When I stayed in Kinmen, a countryside elementary school held a Southern Hokkien language singing competition on Mother’s Day. At that time, most of the students chose songs of Nine One One (玖壹壹) or Nana Lee (李千那). For example, several girls who sang Nana Lee’s popular song “Sim Hue Khui” (心花開) surely pronounced “you” as “lí” rather than “lír” and “fly” as “pue” instead of “per”. Also, pupils really liked Nine One One’s songs “Tshi-tsîng Meiguihua” (癡情玫瑰花) and “Tshi-tsîng-ê Lâm-tsú-hàn” (癡情的男子漢) where Japanese loanwords were involved, such as “a-na-ta” (“dear”; あなた, 阿娜達) and “at-sa-lih” (“assertive”; あっさり, 阿莎力). I also heard people say words like “oo too bai” (scooters; オートバイ), “bak kuh” (“to back a car”; バック), and “khang pang” (signboards;かんばん) in daily life. When I reminded the locals of their borrowing from Taiwanese, some of them only just realized they were employing Japanese words in Taiwanese language.

The impact of demilitarization on Kinmenese Southern Hokkien is not restricted to pronunciation and vocabulary. To form a neutral question, some young Kinmenese speakers who have interpersonal experiences with Taiwanese speakers or learn Southern Hokkien from TV have shifted from the Kinmenese structure of “VP-negative” to a Taiwanese structure of “kám-VP”. For instance, the sentence “Are you going to Taipei?” expressed as “Lír berh khìr Tâi-pak bo?” (汝欲去台北無) may be replaced with “Lír kám berh khìr Tâi-pak?” (汝敢欲去台北)

Compared to phonetics (pronunciation) and lexicon (vocabulary), syntax (grammar) is the more stable part in language. When younger people in Kinmen show linguistic change in syntax, it is understandable why elder people start to be concerned about an emergent language shift. For elder Kinmenese, if younger people abandon Kinmenese Southern Hokkien and embrace Taiwanese, it is unacceptable.

The elementary at which I stayed in Kinmen only had a small number of students. They did not have the budget to hire a specialized teacher to teach the native language so several Kinmenese teachers were asked to teach this subject. In contrast, they did not consider Taiwanese teachers even though some of them spoke very fluent Taiwanese. Some of the Kinmenese teachers were very young – they sometimes expressed their anxieties about teaching students Southern Hokkien language because they did not consider themselves to be “good” Southern Hokkien speakers. Elder teachers, in their late-thirties or early-forties, spoke fluent Southern Hokkien, but they also prepared for the class very hard, repeatedly listening to the audio files because they believed their Southern Hokkien had been Taiwanized when they studied in Taiwan.

Sociolinguists address such an issue as linguistic insecurity, a phenomenon whereby people feel their own language use to be bad or inferior when compared to another certain linguistic form, usually a prestigious one. Kinmen is an interesting case because Kinmenese is not a dominant dialect of Southern Hokkien in the language market. Nevertheless, we can easily find articles on Kinmen Daily News (KDN) complaining about linguistic discrimination encountered in Taiwan.

As what I observed, language ideologies have been developed to support such linguistic insecurity, persuading Kinmenese people that their Southern Hokkien is worth speaking. Language ideologies basically concern how people culturally understand the nature of language. Such a term has no intention to claim the way they discuss language is wrong or right but tries to link it to a larger social context.

The first language ideology is about victimizing the Kinmenese variety. For example, one article on KDN accused Taiwanese as chauvinist, having little respect to Kinmenese Southern Hokkien. Such an idea was also observed when a teacher complained about how hegemonic the official Romanization system of Southern Hokkien was to Kinmenese people. The other political ideology entangled with this discourse is their distrust of the so-called nativization project in Taiwan. Since the DPP proposed the idea to withdraw army from Kinmen and Matsu in 1990s, some Kinmenese people have been aware that a new Taiwan Republic may not include Kinmen as the traditionally China-owned island. Thus, a total immersion into Taiwanese language can be seen as harmful to one’s Kinmenese identity. When hegemony and chauvinism are linked to the Taiwanese language, Kinmenese language becomes a victim, a weak language that deserves protection.

The first ideology can be related to the second, moralizing the language use. While young Kinmenese people may find Taiwanese attractive to use, they generally still think they have the obligation to learn Kinmenese. A young speaker in her 30s was scolded by her mother for using Taiwanese words because such language use for her mother meant she forgot her origins. In relation to Taiwanese language with Taiwanese identity, loyalty to Kinmenese Southern Hokkien is seen a must for loyalty to one’s cultural identity. Therefore, if people are still Kinmenese, they should speak Kinmenese.

The third language ideology is quite interesting. Kinmen is very close to the Chinese mainland, so the Chinese settlement can be at least dated to ninth century. In contrast, Taiwan was home to Austronesian people and was colonized by Japan for 50 years. Some Kinmenese speakers therefore believed Kinmenese Southern Hokkien was more authentic and older, preserving more Zhongyuan (central plain) features, compared to Taiwanese as a hybrid language.

In 2017, a music festival held by local young people in Kinmen bridged such discourses to their commodification of Kinmenese language. The festival was about exploring new elements from the old things in Kinmen. Kinmenese language was targeted as one of them together with old houses and Eurasian Hoopoe (戴勝), Kinmen’s iconic bird which is culturally connected to cemeteries (seen holding a guitar in the picture below). A Kinmenese word was introduced on a special package of local beef jerky, with the slogan saying “Eat Kinmenese food. Speak Kinmenese language.” There were three versions of such special packages. People could buy them and learn different Kinmenese words from them.

Special package of beef jerky at Kinmen’s musical festival (Source: Local Methodology)

All these ideologies conclude with the idea that people should feel insecure when they fail to speak Kinmenese Southern Hokkien. Linguistic anthropologist Susan Gal points out that contact usually brings about differentiation rather than similarity through changes in the ways people think of their own difference from their counterparts. In Kinmen’s case, we see how geopolitical process can also be a sociolinguistic process, where Kinmenese people deal with the identity crisis of demilitarization through cultural imaginations about Kinmen-Taiwan differences.


Tsung-Lun Alan Wan is a PhD student of linguistics at University of Edinburgh. He is also a writer for UDN Global. This paper is part of EATS 2019 conference special issue. Photo Credit: Flickr/ Vincent Chien

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