A Beginner's Guide to Taiwanese

Wiki version available

Lie hør! 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 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 approximation in English, while others may be less familiar.

Consonants

MTL Approx. Example Meaning
p B / crispy papaf father
ph P (crisp) phaq to hit
m me mi noodle
b mumble baq meat
t D (crisp) tit straight
th Thomas theh to take
n neat nii year
l Lima laang person
k gear kaf (ka'iuu) to add
kh key khix go
h heap hii fish
g gaggle go five
c(i) G ciaf here
ch(i) cheese chiaf car
s(i) she/sea si yes
j(i) Z jit day
z yards zef this
zh cats zhaix vegetable
s Saul svaf three (3)
j zoo joah hot

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 the vocal cords vibrate along with the consonant. 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

MTL examplemeaning
a kabite
i hviear
u uhave
e kelow
o loroad
ø hørgood
m mno
nghngfar

The 'm' can be both vowel and consonant.

Compound Vowels

These vowels are a combination of two vowel sounds.

MTLexamplemeaning
ai laisharp
au auback
ia iaspread
iu chviuelephant
kiøobridge
iau liaumaterial/stuff
ui 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 example English
vava filling (for dumplings etc.)
vihviear
vegvestiff
vogvoto comprehend
vaivaito carry on back
vaugvaulotus root
viathviafto listen
viusviuto think
viaugviaugviawitchy
voavoato exchange
voaikvoaimnggto close a door

Ending vowel

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

MTLexampleEnglish
-amlammix
-ima'kimaunt
-iamliamnagging
-anbanslow
-inkinnear
-untundull
-ienlienpractice
-oangoanwish
-angbangdream
-engtenghard
-onggongdumb
-iangliangbright
-iongionguse

A syllable in Taiwanese follows one of these two patterns:

A valid syllable only needs to have a vowel. The brackets ([]) mean the consonant, nasal or rear nasal ending are optional.

A word can be formed with one or more syllables, but two syllables is most typical.

Tones

Taiwanese is a tonal language which means that the vowels 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 often 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

ToneMTLMeaning
Basicsiis
Highhiafthere
Low Fallingzhaixvegetable
Shoutingzarearly
Curvinghiifish
   
Short highciaheat
Short lowphaq

hit

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

There are a few special vowels for certain tones. There are five special vowels in the shouting-out tone, plus two special vowels in the high tone. There is also a shortcut for the curving tone of 'ø'.
vowel + tone = special vowel example
ai rae hae
i rie lie
u ruo kuo
e rea bea
au rao kao
i fy
u fw
øø øo

The basic unit of speech is the syllable, which can change 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:

Further study