A Beginner's Guide to Taiwanese

Lie hør! Welcome to LearnTaiwanese.Org! (Li1hø2!)

Taiwanese is a beautiful and musical language spoken in Taiwan and amongst Taiwanese people around the world. This guide will provide you with a brief introduction to the spoken language as well as a writing system. We will write all of the Taiwanese in this web page in a system called Modern Taiwanese Language (MTL).

*Note: Most speakers of Taiwanese are not aware that there are established ways to phonetically write down the language. While there is not a single widely adopted system for the written form of the language (not even in Harnji), MTL is a very useful tool for learning Taiwanese. There are several other systems in use in Taiwan, such as Pe̍h-ōe-jī (POJ), Daighi tongiong pingim, and Taiwanese Romanization System. Unfortunately most Taiwanese speakers will not be able to read any of these phonetic systems but they will understand it when you read it.

Introduction to Taiwanese Phonetics

We will first introduce all of the phonetic sounds that you will encounter in Taiwanese. Some sounds have an English equivalent while others are totally new sounds to an English speaker.

Let's start with the consonants.

Consonants

MTL English sound equivalent example English
p'b' as in bearpapaffather
ph'p' as in poorphaqhit
m'm' as in momminoodle
bdeeper lower 'b' soundbaqmeat
t'd' as in daretitstraight
th't' as in takethehtake
n'n' as in nutniiyear
l'l' as in learnlaangperson
k'g' as in getkafadd
kh'c' as in cowkhixgo
h'h' as in helphiifish
gdeeper lower 'g' soundgofive
c'j' as in jeepciafhere
ch'ch' as in cheesechiafcar
s'sh' as in shoesiyes
jshort buzzing “zzzz” soundjitday
z'ds' as in yardszefthis
zh'ts' as in itszhaixvegetable
s's' as in samsvaf3
j'z' as in grazingjoahhot

The 'k' vs. 'g' as well as the 'p' vs. 'b' may be hard to differentiate at first. The 'g' and the 'b' are voiced, meaning that you try to pronounce the sound before you say the consonant and make it deep and low in your throat. The 'k' and 'p' are unvoiced, not as aspirated as in English but do have a distinct click or pop.

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

Vowels

Single Vowels

MTLEnglish sound equivalentexampleEnglish
a'a' as in makabite
i'y' as in yestichopsticks
u'w' as in wantuhave
e'ay' as in haykelow
o'o' as in orloroad
ø hørgood
mnasal "m" sound with mouth closedmno
ng hngfar

The 'm' can be both vowel and consonant.

Compound Vowels

These vowels are a combination of two vowel sounds.

MTL English sound equivalent example English
ai'igh' as in sighlaisharp
au'ow' as in cowauback
ia'yah' as in yahiaspread
iu chviuelephant
 kiøobridge
iau'eow' as in meowliaumaterial/stuff
Ui'wii' as in 'wii'uistomach
oa toabig
oe hoemeeting
øe øeable
oai koaixweird

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 English sound equivalent example English
va thvafother
vi hviear
ve gvestiff
vo gvocomprehend
vai vaicarry on back
vau gvauthe lotus root
via thviaflisten
viu sviuthink
viau gviauitchy
voa voaexchange
voai kvoaicountry

Ending vowel

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

MTL English sound equivalent example English
-am lammix
-im kimaunt
-iam liamnagging
-an banslow
-in kinnear
-un tundull
-ien lienpractice
-oan goanwish
-ang bangdream
-eng tenghard
-ong gongdumb
-iang liangbright
-iong ionguse

A word or sound unit in Taiwanese is either a

      [Consonant] + [nasal] vowel

      [Consonant] + vowel + [rear nasal ending]

The brackets mean the consonant, nasal or  rear nasal ending can be left out.

Tones

Taiwanese, like Mandarin, is a tonal language which means that the vowel 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 listen for the tones correctly is 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 7 tones (mandarin has 4). Again most speakers of Taiwanese are not aware of the different tones but they can all understand it when you pronounce it.  

#TonesDescriptionMTLExample
1Highhigh level tonefaf
2Shoutingstart high  then sharp downwardrar
3Low Fallingstart mid then downward tonexax
5Curvingstart mid level then down and up doubling of vowelaa
7Basicmid level tonedefaulta
8Short highshort high toneends with h,p,t, or k ah, ap, at, ak
4Short lowshort low toneends with q,b,d or gaq, ab, ad, ag

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

Examples of the seven tones

Tone MTL English
Basicsiis
Highhiafthere
Low Fallingzhaixvegetable
Shoutingzarearly
Curvinghiifish
   
Short highciaheat
Short lowphaq

     hit

Short highhapclose
Short lowciabcatch
Short highkutslippery
Short lowkudbone
Short highlokdeer
Short lowkogcountry

In MTL there are a few special letters for certain tones.

MTL special vowels

air

becomes

ae
ir

becomes

ie
ur

becomes

uo
er

becomes

ea
aur

becomes

ao
if

becomes

y
uf

becomes

w
øø

becomes

øo

A word or sound unit is a called a syllable. A syllable changes tone depending on where it is spoken in a sentence. If a syllable is spoken in the middle of a word, phrase or sentence, it changes tone according to the Tone Circle diagram below. If a syllable is spoken at the end of a phrase or sentence, it does not change tones. Most nouns do not change tone.

The different tones and the tone changes (sandhi) in Taiwanese are 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.

Example:

Kviaf`sie (scary) - the kviaf is pronounced without any tone changes while the sie is pronounced with a weakened low tone.

Kviaf-sie (scared of dying) – the kviaf is pronounced with normal tone change from high to basic while sie is pronounced as a shouting tone. See Kiasi.

Further study

A primer on Taiwanese vocabulary!