The Problem of Naming the Most Popular Non-Mandarin Language Used in Taiwan

Written by Hung-yi Chien.

Image credit: Taiwanese Hokkien Songbook from Japanese Era written in Hàn-jī. License: Public Domain.

There seems to be no problem with saying “Taiwanese” or “Taigi” in English. People know Taiwanese is the most spoken non-Mandarin language in Taiwan, and Taigi (Tai[wan] language) is how the language calls itself. However, these names give a false impression that Taiwanese is the only language that genuinely belongs to Taiwan and neglects the existence of Hakka and indigenous languages in this culturally and ethnically diverse country. Hakka activists have complained about the name Taigi for decades. They urge to use other names to call this language and reserve Taiwanese/Taigi for all languages spoken in Taiwan. The Taiwanese/Taigi fellows do not welcome this proposal because there is no agreement on how to call this language if Taiwanese/Taigi is not an option. Up until today, the name of the most spoken non-Mandarin language in Taiwan is still in dispute.

Taiwan was the homeland of indigenous Formosan peoples. Their languages belong to the Austronesian Family, and Taiwan’s Council of Indigenous Peoples currently recognises sixteen indigenous languages. However, according to the current census design, the indigenous peoples take only 2.45% of the population. Today’s demographic majority of Taiwan is the descendants of Chinese immigrants who brought Southern Min, Hakka, and Mandarin Chinese to Taiwan in different periods. All three languages have developed distinct features in Taiwan and are different from their relatives. For example, multiple Southern Min varieties have merged into a common type in Taiwan. Speakers can easily distinguish the variety spoken in Taiwan from those spoken elsewhere, though they are still mutually intelligible. Languages in Taiwan also borrowed many loanwords from Japanese, such as piān-tong (< bentō, “meal box”), kháu-tsō (<kōza, “bank account”), pháng (<pan, “bread”), se-bí-looh (<sebiro, “dress suit”). Phonology, syntax, and vocabulary make Sinitic languages in Taiwan distinct varieties, and thus they deserve their own names.

The development of Sinitic languages in Taiwan was related to the indigenisation of Chinese immigrants. In the late nineteenth century, Taiwanese people began to use “Taiwan” to name the language they spoke. The evidence comes from the Taiwan Church News 台灣教會公報, the first romanised newspaper in Taiwan established in 1885. The language of the Taiwan Church News was very colloquial. On the Taiwan Church News, writers used khiuⁿ 腔 (dialect), khiuⁿ-kháu 腔口 (dialect), or thó͘-im土音 (local sounds) to refer to their language variety. They said the language spoken in Taiwan “Tâi-oân ê khiuⁿ” (Taiwan’s dialect), God went down “phah-loān khiuⁿ-kháu” (to confuse dialects), and missionaries “ha̍k-si̍p i-ê thó͘-im” (learned his local sounds) to create romanised scripts. People also used to form language names, such as Ji̍t-pún oē (Japanese language), Eng-kok oē英國話 (British language), and most importantly, Tâi-oân oē台灣話 (Taiwan language). The term Tâi-oân oē was frequently used by Lîm Bō͘-seng林茂生, the first Taiwanese who obtained an American doctoral degree. He published a series titled “Sin Tâi-oân-oē Tîn-lia̍t-koán”新台灣話陳列館 (The Exhibition Hall of New Taiwan Language) to discuss loanwords between November 1933 and December 1934.

It is important to note that the Taiwan Church News writers did not use Tâi-gí/Tâi-gú台語 throughout the Japanese colonial period (1895-1945). Although people used /語 to form language names, this usage was limited to a few instances, like Eng-gú英語 (English) and Kok-gú國語 (the national language, i.e., Japanese). So where did Tâi-gí/Tâi-gú come if they were not in the original native name? In fact, it came from the Japanese. The millennium-long history of cultural exchange between China and Japan makes their languages share many words. Since the late nineteenth century, the intensified contact increased the shared vocabulary between Chinese and Japanese, but the usages differed. In pre-modern Chinese, huà 話 ( in Southern Min) and yǔ/gí 語 are two common words to form language names, but they are used in different contexts. People usually used to call a language spoken in a larger region, like yíyǔ夷語 (foreigner’s language), Mǐnyǔ閩語 (the language spoken in Fujian), and Yuèyǔ粵語 (the language spoken in Guangdong). On the other hand, huà usually formed a language name with a smaller place, such as Xiàmén-huà廈門話 (Xiamen/Amoy language), Shànghǎi-huà上海話 (Shanghainese), Sūzhōu-huà蘇州話 (Suzhou language). 

These Chinese usages cannot apply to Japanese. In Japanese, wa話 (huà in Mandarin Chinese) was rarely used to form a language name. The term tōwa唐話 (Chinese language) is a pre-modern exception and an apparent Chinese influence. Instead of wa, the Japanese tended to use go語 ( in Mandarin Chinese) to name a language, such as ban-go蠻語 (foreigner’s language), Oranda-go阿蘭陀語 (Dutch), and Angeria-go諳厄利亜語 (English).

Because of the Japanese morphology, it is not surprising that the Japanese coined Do-go 土語 (native language) and Taiwan-go台灣語 (Taiwan language) to call the most spoken language in Taiwan. In December 1895, a few months after Japan established colonial rule in Taiwan, a language textbook titled Taiwan-Go already appeared in the market. The colonial government also opened the Taiwan-go seminar to teach Japanese officials the local language. The Japanese term Taiwan-go gradually influenced the colonised people. Taiwanese people began to read Taiwan-go as Tâi-oân gí/Tâi-oân gú台灣語 and developed a shortened form Tâi-gí/Tâi-gú台語 to call their language. In the 1920s, the term Tâi-oân gí appeared on the Taiwanese-own newspaper Taiwan Minpao台灣民報. In 1925, Lâu Khik-bîng劉克明, a teacher at the Taipei Normal School, published Tâi-GúTāi-Sêng台語大成 (The Compilation of Taiwan Language) for Japanese speakers to learn the language. Liân Hêng連橫 also published his studies on the language, titled Tâi-oân-gí Tián台灣語典, from 1929 to 1933. It is safe to say that, by the 1930s, the Taiwanese had adopted Tâi-oân gí and Tâi-gí as alternative names to call the most spoken local language in Taiwan. At the end of the Japanese colonial rule, Tâi-oân oē, Tâi-oân gí, and Tâi-gí were the three current names for the most spoken local language in Taiwan.

When Chiang Kai-shek’s government represented the Allied Forces to occupy Taiwan in 1945, they adopted the existing names but also introduced a new name, Mǐnnán-yǔ閩南語 (Southern Min [Fujian] language). The term Mǐnnán-yǔ emerged from the survey of Sinitic languages (so-called Chinese dialects) in Republican China. In 1937, linguist Li Fang-kuei李方桂 proposed a classification of Sinitic languages that divided the Min languages into Northern Group and Southern Group. Li Fang-kuei published this classification in English, but the contemporary sources showed that the Chinese rendering of the “Southern Min Group” is Mǐnnán-yǔ. Li Fang-kuei republished his 1937 classification in 1973, which significantly influenced the English scholarship of Chinese linguistics. In early post-war Taiwan, Tâi-gí/Tái-yǔ was much more popular than Mǐnnán-yǔ. However, on 27 October 1967, a government agency ordered the media to replace Tâi-gí/Tái-yǔ with Mǐnnán-yǔ because Tâi-gí/Tái-yǔ denied the existence of the Hakka language in Taiwan. Although the media did not diligently follow this order, it successfully increased the use of the name Mǐnnán-yǔ in Taiwan. 

The Hakka also voiced out in 1988. Hakka activists protested the government’s negligence of the Hakka language for decades. They also criticised the “Holo chauvinism” that implicitly equated Tâi-gí/Tái-yǔ to the most spoken non-Mandarin language and excluded the Hakka from the Taiwanese nation. They argued Tâi-gí/Tái-yǔ should include all languages spoken in Taiwan. However, it was difficult for speakers of “the language” to accept Hakka’s proposal. It is not because they did not embrace inclusivism, but because they had no agreement to call their language if Tâi-gí/Tái-yǔ is not an option. Some activists reject Mǐnnán-yǔ and consider it a discriminative name. Taiwan independentists also reject Mǐnnán-yǔ because it implies an association with Fujian Province in China. 

Taiwanese linguists tried to solve the name problem. The National Museum of Taiwan Literature invited Prof. Lí Khîn-hōaⁿ李勤岸 and Prof. Âng Ûi-jîn洪惟仁 to discuss the name problem in 2007. Taiwan Holo (Táiwān Holo-yǔ台灣Holo語), proposed by Lí Khîn-hōaⁿ, is a competitive candidate, and a certain number of speakers have already called the language with this name. However, there is no agreement on how to write the name with sinograms, and the romanised form is also less favoured. On the other side, Âng Ûi-jîn compared Mǐnnán with Austronesian and argued that Mǐnnán should be considered a common name of a nation, culture, or language. He did not consider Mǐnnán-yǔ a discriminative name but a compromise in contemporary Taiwan. He proposed Táiwān Mǐnnán-yǔ 台灣閩南語 for the language and noted Taiwan’s Ministry of Education had already formally adopted this name after deliberation in 2006.

Because of the controversial nature of the naming issue, I am not going to take a position in this article’s main text. However, I hope this article can open a discussion on how to call “the language” in English writing that reflects the linguistic diversity of Taiwan.

Hung-yi Chien identifies herself as Taiwanese Hokkien, though she is also a quarter-Hakka. She is both a linguist and historian and loves the histories behind words and ideas. She is now exploring the genealogy of Taiwan-related knowledge in European books but does not forget that linguistics is her original passion for Taiwan studies. The author thanks Prof. Ann Heylen’s comments to improve the draft, and all responsibilities of the work belong to the author.

This article was published as part of a special issue on Multilingual Taiwan.


  1. As a speaker of “this language”, I don’t think “Minnanyu” is discriminative. It’s worse than that: it is Mandarin-centric, especially when it is transcribed in romanization and used in a non-Mandarin article. Just like “Taiwango” is Japanese-centric. The concepts behind both names are that Hanji should be pronounced in their (the colonists’) ways. You can hardly find words with phonemes “min”, “nan” and “yu” in “this language”. Imagine how weird it would be if you write “Ke-jia” instead of “Hakka”. Considering that the Mandarin-speaking regime is still ruling (unlike its Japanese predecessor), it would be worth it to point out this subtlety.


    1. Why not call it Ban Lam Ue then?

      Dont get what is so problematic with the association with Fujian. The langauge originated from Fujian anyway. Americans have no problem calling English English despite their independence.


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