Taiwan: Land of Many Tongues

Similar to the US, Taiwan is made unique by the mixture of cultural groups that call it “home”. The island was originally inhabited by Taiwanese aboriginals and was then colonized by the Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish as a trading post. Later, Ming dynasty supporter Koxinga claimed Taiwan as a base to overthrow the Qing dynasty, which eventually annexed Taiwan when Koxinga failed. After the first Sino-Japanese War, Taiwan was ceded to the Empire of Japan, which was forced to give up control of Taiwan after World War II. Finally, in 1949, the Republic of China relocated to Taiwan as part of their plan to eventually overthrow the People’s Republic of China and to reclaim all of China.

Throughout its rich history, Taiwan has been infused with a bit of each culture and has gradually become the melting pot of identities that it is today. This diversity is reflected in countless facets of Taiwanese culture, particularly in the languages that are currently spoken on the island.

An approximate, incomplete breakdown of the various ethnic groups on Taiwan. Click for larger image.

An approximate breakdown of the various ethnic groups on Taiwan. This is by no means comprehensive.

Although Standard Mandarin Chinese is the official language of Taiwan and is spoken fluently by almost the entire Taiwanese population, several other languages are also spoken in Taiwan, including Taiwanese Hokkien, Hakka, the aboriginal languages, Taiwanese Mandarin, Japanese, and English. Taiwanese Hokkien, which is a variant of Southern Min, originated from southern Fujian and other regions of China that spoke Southern Min. When people emigrated from these regions to Taiwan due to political and economic reasons and began to intermingle with the Taiwanese aborigines, the Hokkien dialects spoken in Taiwan began to deviate significantly from the original Hokkien spoken in China. After absorbing loanwords from Japanese and the aboriginal languages and being subject to influences from other languages throughout Taiwan’s rich history, today’s Taiwanese Hokkien is distinct from and is not mutually intelligible with Mandarin or other Chinese languages.

A map of where different variants of Southern Min are spoken. Click for larger image.

A map of where different variants of Southern Min are spoken. Click for larger image.

Taiwanese Hokkien is spoken by about 70% of the Taiwanese population and is consequently colloquially referred to as “Taiwanese”. However, although Taiwanese Hokkien is spoken by the majority of the Taiwanese population, referring to Hokkien as “Taiwanese” fails to recognize the presence of Hakka, the aboriginal languages, and the other languages spoken on the island.

The Hakka people, who account for 15-20% of the Taiwanese population, form the second-largest ethnic group on the island and are descended from Hakka who migrated from northern and southern Guangdong to Taiwan at the end of the Ming Dynasty. The Hakka people are thought to have originated from the present-day Henan and Shaanxi provinces of China. Due to war and civil unrest, the Hakka migrated to southern China. The Hakka language was influenced by the languages of the areas through which the Hakka people migrated; as a result, the Hakka language has developed several different dialects that are spoken throughout the world. In Taiwan, there are two main dialects: Sixian and Haifeng (also known as Hailu). These two dialects are mutually intelligible, but differ fairly significantly in pronunciation and tone. Hakka is distinct from and is not mutually intelligible with Taiwanese Hokkien, Mandarin, or other Chinese languages.

A chart of where the Sixian and Hailu dialects of Hakka are spoken in Taiwan

A map of where various dialects of Hakka are spoken in Taiwan. Click for larger image.

The aboriginal languages of Taiwan, also known as the Formosan languages, are the languages of the indigenous people, who comprise about 2% of the island’s population. However, very few indigenous people can still speak their ancestral language after centuries of language shift. At least ten of the twenty-six Formosan languages are extinct, another five are moribund, and several others are endangered. In an attempt to preserve the indigenous languages of Taiwan and to stop the gradual replacement of Formosan languages by the culturally dominant Mandarin Chinese, the Taiwanese government established a Romanized writing system for all of Taiwan’s aboriginal languages in 2005 and also helped establish classes and language certification programs.

A chart of where each aboriginal language is spoken in Taiwan.

A chart of where each aboriginal language is spoken in Taiwan. Click for larger image.

No one cultural group on Taiwan can claim to represent all. Similarly, referring to just one language as “Taiwanese” does not do justice to the amazing cultural diversity of Taiwan and undermines the identity of those who have roots in Taiwan. Each of the various cultural groups that call Taiwan “home” has an equally legitimate claim to their treasured Taiwanese identity, and we encourage everyone to learn more about these diverse cultural groups.

As part of our mission to promote understanding about Taiwan, Outreach for Taiwan will be including a Hokkien and Hakka vocabulary section in each future issue of our newsletter, More Taiwan.  Each month, we will feature audio files of certain phrases in Taiwanese Hokkien and Hakka from the online dictionary moedict. Unfortunately, moedict does not yet have a database for the aboriginal languages, so we will not be able to include the aboriginal languages in our vocabulary section. However, we will continue searching for resources in this area so that we may continue to help everyone more fully appreciate the beautiful diversity of Taiwan.
To subscribe to our newsletter, More Taiwan, please click here.

Click here to read more about the struggle of the Taiwanese people to preserve their native languages in the face of increasing usage of Standard Mandarin Chinese.

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One thought on “Taiwan: Land of Many Tongues

  1. Brock Freeman says:

    Certainly agree with the melting pot analogy for Taiwan. However the chart at the top of the article breaking down the ethnicities of Taiwan does not reflect the reality in Taiwan. DNA research in Taiwan (see http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2007/11/21/2003388825) has shown that 85% of Taiwanese have Aboriginal ancestry. This certainly makes the manipulated 98/2% statistic that has been thrown around for ages by pro-China partisans a non-starter. It simply is not true and has continued to be used to push a pro-China agenda that the Taiwanese has clearly rejected. The reality is that simplistic breakdowns that show supposedly “pure” bloodlines (which in itself is a myth) do not work in multi-ethnic societies such as Taiwan or the U.S.

    Liked by 2 people

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