An Introduction to Taiwanese Vocabulary


The modern language that we call Taiwanese has been passed on for several generations primarily through oral tradition without a standardized writing system. It may be considered a variant of the Amoy dialect of Chinese brought by Fujianese settlers from mainland China to the island of Taiwan (Formosa). The Taiwanese language has captured the history of the island in its borrowing of words from Aboriginal Languages, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, and English.

Modern Taiwanese has extensive colloquial vocabulary from Ancient Chinese (ca. start of common era) as well as literary vocabulary from the eras of the Tang Dynasty (ca. 618-907) and South Song Dynasty (1127-1279). However, it is still not natural for many people to write modern Taiwanese with Han characters. Until the late 19th century, educated Taiwanese speakers wrote solely in literary Chinese. Where Han characters have been used to record spoken Taiwanese, they are not always etymological or genetic; the borrowing of similar-sounding or similar-meaning characters is a common practice. The lack of a written standard and the difficulty in learning the relatively complicated Han characters posed a great barrier to written record of Taiwanese speech.

A system of writing Taiwanese using Latin characters called POJ, meaning "vernacular writing", was developed in the 19th century. The indigenous Presbyterian Church in Taiwan has been active in promoting the language since the late 19th century. In 1945, Professor Liim Keahioong, formerly of the Cheng-Kung University in Taiwan, pioneered a system based on POJ called the Taiwanese Modern Spelling System (TMSS). TMSS has evolved into Modern Taiwanese Language (MTL), also known as Modern Literal Taiwanese (MLT). This page uses MTL to write Taiwanese.

Review of Tones in MTL

af, ar, ax, aq, aa, (ar), a, ah

Sample phrases

Lie hør! (Hello!)
Ciaqpar`bøe? (Hello. Literally, "have you eaten?")
Kafmsia! (Thanks!)
Cyn tøsia! (Thank you very much!)
Biern khehkhix! (Don't be polite!)

More Common Phrases

Han Chinese

Most (75% to 90%) Taiwanese words have cognates in other Chinese languages. Thus they can be written with the same Han Chinese Characters used to write Mandarin Chinese. Here are just a few:
Harnji MTL English
thvyday, sky, God
jitday, sky, heaven, sun, date
gøeh/goatmoon, month
tøe (tQe)ground, earth
høea (hQea) fire
kogkingdom, country, nation
kaf/kefhousehold, clan/home, family

Harnji used differently than Mandarin

Here's a small sample from the category of personal pronouns.
goarn/gurnwe; us; (not including listener)
yhe; she; it; his; her

Mixed Han and Roman

Some terms can be written partially or completely with Han Characters but perhaps not the same ones used for Mandarin. Some words just have no standard Harnji.
citmar這má/這馬now/at this moment
juxnpviar潤餅a type of spring roll, or a type of cake/cookie
twciaqN/Amoment ago
hiahniqN/Ain that way

Bach Viet and Austronesian

Taiwanese (and Mandarin) have words that have Austroasiatic origins in the Bách Việt (Yuet) languages.
Original Word
MTL English
baibaebad, ugly
batbadin the past
bibiqsecretly escape/to hide
khiuwhen rice noodles have a certain chewiness
lymto drink
lalilalieTaiwan anteater
u-tsao (Rukai) cho (Favorlang) sa/ u (Pazeh)zabor woman
"zapof man
di (Malay/Indonesian)tiat, in, on
lut, lut (Indonesian) luu (Hawaiian) lud to shed
tahun (Proto-Austronesian) taon (Tagalog)tafngyear
diam, diamdiam (Malay/Indonesian)tiam, tiaxmtiamquiet
t, ukt, uk (Proto-Austronesian)thuqto perforate, to excavate

Some Taiwanese terms came from the Austronesian Formosan Aboriginal Languages.
Aboriginal Word MTL English
moa-sat-bak moasatbak, satbaghiiwoodfish, big milkfish (Chanos chanos)
bunglai, onraionglaaipineapple
lapat, biabas, bayabasnafpoat, padarguava
igosQrgiQoFicus pumila awkeotsang: A variety of fig found in Taiwan, Fujian, and Zhejiang
bokkoi bogkoefpapaya
assey (no, useless)asefsilly goose
rauwa (spider)lawar, lut'archeater, swindler

The West


Here are some Taiwanese terms that come from or through English:
MTL English
khaqkhiikhaki (from urdu)
li'afkhaqrear car, pull cart
bogto hit, to box (sport)
cip, tib (sib)to sip (sib means moist)


The Dutch ruled Taiwan for about 30 years during the Ming dynasty until they were driven out by Koxinga in 1662.
Here are some Taiwanese terms that show Dutch influence:
Old Dutch MTL English
akkarkahthe Dutch acre (acre is roughly an area that could be plowed in one day)
pachtpakto rent/to contract (to or for)
holt lant ("wood land")HQlaanHolland

Some Taiwan place names show Dutch influence:
Dutch Word Modern English
Modern Taiwanese
Fort ZeelandiaFort Anping, Tainan. a fortress built over ten years from 1624–1634 by the Dutch. Anpeeng
Fort ProvintiaFort Provintia, Tainan. built in 1653 by the Dutch.Chiahkhaxm-laau
a place in Taipei, six plows of land (one plow is 5 Dutch acres)Lagtviulee


The Japanese ruled Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. Here are some Taiwanese terms that come from Japanese (some actually came from English through Japanese):
rōmaji MTL English
パン pan pharngbread
気持ち kimochi khimofciqemotion, mood
あつさり atsari asaflix, asafliqstraightforward, clear-cut
注文chuumon zuobuunto place an order
案内 annai arnnaito receive, to instruct
浅い asai axsaethere is no need; why should
衛生eisei oexsefnghealth, sanitation
主義shugi zwgiideology, principle
gei kekkhoarnaffectation/artificial
お婆さんobaasan obafsarng refers to older women
お爺さんojiisan ojysarng refers to older men
オートバイōtobai otofbaemotorcycle, autobike
トラックtorakku tholakkhuqtruck

Place Names

Many Taiwan Place Names (about 70-80% of them) have origins in the Formosan Aboriginal Languages. However, the Modern Chinese names were often borrowed as graphic loans from Japanese Kanji, which were phonetic loans of the Taiwanese Harnji, which were phonetic loans of the original Aboriginal names.
Aboriginal Word MTL Old Hanji
Modern Chinese Modern Name
Tayuan, TayoanTaioaan台員臺灣, 台灣, 台湾 Taiwan
Makatao Tvafkao打狗高雄 Kaohsiung
Rutung (monkey)LQtofng老懂羅東 Luodong
MilongBilofng美濃 Meinung
Bangca/Bangka (canoe) Bafngkaq艋舺 萬華 Wanhua
Thokhox土庫 Tuku Township
Lakuli Lagkw六龜 Liukuei
Goran GQloanphvi鵝鑾鼻 Eluanbi
Soara Soalak沙鹿 Shalu
Pongso No Tao Lansu/Angtausu蘭嶼 Orchid Island
Poasoa Pvoarsvoax彰化 Changhua
Rokau-an Logkarng鹿港 Lukang
Chiv-Chiv Cibcip集集 Chi-Chi
Ramtau Lamtaau南投 Nantou
Chakam Chiahkhaxm赤崁 Chi-kan
Tabani Giogzvea玉井 Yu-ching
Moatau Moatau麻豆 Madou
Tsurosan ZulQsafn諸羅山, 嘉義 Tirosen (Chiayi)
Taneaw, Dovoha Tvafniaw打貓民雄 Minsyong Township
Bari (plain)Biaulek貓裡 苗栗 Miaoli
Truku Thaelofkoq太魯閣 Taroko
Mansu/Mansyu/Wanchu Bafngsud蚊蟀滿州 Manchou Village
Pattsiran (spring)Suxliim八芝蘭士林 Shilin
Toavokang Toaxbagkaxng大目降新化 Sin-hua
BakaloanBagkaliuoafn善化鎮 Shanhua
SoulangSiaulaang蕭壟 Hsiao-long
JarissangAlysafn阿里山 Alishan

The Spanish came in 1626, built Fort Santo Domingo on the northwest coast of Taiwan near Keelung, which they occupied until 1642 when they were driven out by a joint Dutch-Aborigine invasion force. Some Taiwan place names come from Spanish. The Modern Hanji may have been influenced by Japanese.
MTL Old Hanji
Kanji/Modern Hanji Modern English
Santo DomingoSamkiQh'erng三角湧三峽鎮 Sansia Township, southwestern part of Taipei County
San DiegoSamtiaukag三貂腳三貂角 Cape of San Diego, eastern part of Taipei County

Here are some Taiwanese terms that come from Spanish:
Modern Spanish MTL
jabón satbuunsoap


Here are some miscellaneous terms in Taiwanese that you may recognize in English.
MTL Tai. Hanji English Meaning
tee tea (from Amoy)
khaothaau叩頭kowtow (to kneel and touch the forehead to the ground in token of homage, worship, or deep respect)
kafmsia感謝 cumshaw (grateful thanks, from Amoy)
sampafn'ar舢舨仔sampan (a flat-bottomed skiff used in eastern Asia and usually propelled by two short oars)
Sekkhiaf 釋迦 sweetsop (sugar-apple), resembles top part of Gautama Buddha's (Sakyamuni) head

Literary vs. Colloquial: The Numbers

There are two sets of numbers in Taiwanese: the literary style (usually used to recite numbers 0 through 9) and the colloquial style (usually used to count objects). The colloquial readings come from Ancient Han Chinese (ca. 0 BCE/CE), whereas the literary readings come from Han Chinese during the South Song Dynasty (南宋, 1127-1279).
1idid, cit
2jiji, nng (a pair)
10 sipzap


Directional Words

MTL English
saywest 西
tQrpeengleft 左旁
cviarpeengright 正爿, 正旁
thauzeengin front of 頭前
auxpiaqback in location 後壁
exkhafbeneath 下腳
tefngthaauon top of頂頭

Some Taiwanese Sayings

U Tngsvoaf Kofng, bQo Tngsvoaf Mar. (有唐山公、無唐山媽)
Literally, "Have Tangshan grandfathers, but not Tangshan grandmothers."
Meaning: "We have Chinese forefathers but no Chinese foremothers."

Svaf hun laang, chid hun zngf. (三分人,七分妝)
Three parts nature, seven parts makeup.

Zhawmeh'ar lang køekafng. (草蜢仔弄雞公)
Grasshopper teases a cock...making a provocation does one in.

More Proverbs here