On Mandarin, Taiwanese, Taiwan Mandarin, and Petri Dishes

My, I'm verbose lately.

My uncle asked about the relationship between Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese, and I think the answer is interesting enough to share it with everyone, since it does tell you more about my environment here, and impacts Taiwanese history, which is fairly interesting and tumultuous in its own right.

Basically, most of the languages in East Asia are considered to be members of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, much like most of the languages in Europe and India are members of the Indo-European family, and Hebrew and Arabic are part of the Semitic family.

The most widely spoken of the Sino-Tibetan languages is, of course, Mandarin Chinese, which originates from northeastern China, around Beijing.  Since Beijing is the capital of China, Mandarin has been the dominant language for most of its recorded history, which goes back 5,000 years or so.  There are many other languages in China, however, which are mutually unintelligible with Mandarin.  The most famous "local language" is probably Cantonese, which is spoken in the areas around Hong Kong.  Most of the famous Kung Fu movies are in Cantonese, since they are made in Hong Kong.  Other local languages are Wu, spoken around Shanghai, and Gan, spoken in parts of Hunan province.

The language which spawned Taiwanese is called Min, and is spoken in the southeast of China, in Fujian province and the surrounding areas, across the Taiwan Strait from Taiwan.  The dialect of Min spoken in Fujian province is called Min Nan, which means Southern Min.  In the late 1600's a lot of Fujianese, fleeing from the fall of the Ming (not the same as Min) dynasty, fled to Taiwan, taking their language with them.  Since then, the language has diverged a little bit, so that the Southern Min spoken in Taiwan, and now referred to as Taiwanese, is noticeably different from that spoken on the mainland, but still mutually intelligible.

Fast forward 250 years or so, and you see the Japanese taking over the island during their pacific expansion, and instituting Japanese as the official language.  Then you get Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communists running Chiang Kai Shek out of the mainland, at which point, protected by the US, he fled to Taiwan, along with several million Nationalist mainlanders whose mother tongue was Mandarin.  Once he got here, in a fit of fascism that would've made Mussolini proud, he established Mandarin as the official language and forbid the speaking of Taiwanese in places of government, including schools.  (This is not the only way in which he was a fascist.  He was a fascist in pretty much every way.  This is just the one way which is relevant to this e-mail.  I may go more into just how bad Chiang Kai Shek was as a ruler, but for now I will just keep it short: Chiang Kai Shek was a bad, bad, bad, bad man.  I do not like him, Sam I Am.)  As a result, practically everyone on the island speaks Mandarin.  In the north, where most of the Nationalists settled, Mandarin is the main language for everyday use.  In the south, Taiwanese still holds sway, but the majority of people can speak Mandarin, with the exception of those old enough to have attended school before 1945, when Japanese was the national language.  Some of those learned Mandarin anyway, but there are still many old Taiwanese people who can speak Japanese, but not Mandarin.

What makes speaking Mandarin in Taiwan really interesting is that many people here speak a very thickly-accented form called Taiwan Mandarin.  It's still Mandarin, not Taiwanese, but it's heavily influenced by Taiwanese.  For example, there are no "f" sounds in Taiwanese, so in Taiwan Mandarin, all the "f" sounds are replaced by "h" sounds.  There are several other phonetic differences which make rapidly-spoken Taiwan Mandarin very difficult to understand, even for a native Mandarin speaker.  So most people here speak standard Mandarin, Taiwan Mandarin, and Taiwanese, as well as English to varying degrees.  I have an adult English student who speaks all of those plus fluent Japanese.  And here I thought I was so cool learning a third language.  I am NOTHING compared to these people.

This is all not to mention that there is a large minority of Hakka people on the island, (they're spread all over China, sort of like the Gypsies in that they don't seem to have any defined homeland) with their own Chinese language, as well as nine aboriginal Austronesian tribes with their own languages, which aren't related to Chinese at all, but are in fact more related to the Polynesian languages and the Australian aboriginal languages.

This place is like a linguistic petri dish.  The funny thing is that you don't need to learn ANY of the above mentioned languages to live here.  I know lots of foreigners in Taiwan who don't speak a word of Chinese, or just enough to get by.  English is a required language in school, everyone has to take 6 years of it.  That's not to say that they learn it well, necessarily.  Most of it is just writing and grammar instruction, not actual speaking and listening practice.  But it's not necessary to speak anything other than English here, if you don't want to.  When you get on the subway, the announcements are given in 4 languages: Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka, and English.

Long live the multi-lingual society.


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