Taiwan is on the fault line of the world stage, a glittering prize suspended between the competing commercial and political interests of China and the USA. And Mandarin Chinese as spoken on the isle is the linguistic star, spokesmodel for countless SKUs and memes. And due to a problem on the set with direction, rewrite is pretty busy cobbling together the script as the show goes on, character by character.
Victor Mair, one of my favorite bloggers over at Language Log, just got back from Taiwan. He writes of his experience, “I find myself stunned by the multilingual, polyscriptal creativity of the people on that ‘renegade island’ (formerly known as Ilha Formosa, Portuguese for ‘Beautiful Island’). One thing that could not escape my notice is the widespread use of English letters for English words as well as for Taiwanese morphemes and Mandarin words.” And Japanese too, natürlich.
Take Chinese ideograms, combine with Roman letters, and mix with Taiwanese, Mandarin and English for unforgettable Taiwanese taglines. Victor takes apart 酷碰A個GO! (kùpèng A ge GO!) The slogan defies direct translation into English because it operates on several different levels at the same time. A very rough attempt to convey the information it embodies would be something like “Just go ahead and take your chances of getting quite a windfall of cool coupons.” Read how Victor got to that translation…
But all this avant-garde alphabetical acromania is a sideshow to the real problem with script in Taiwan. It’s traditional. And that’s no good for their mainland neighbors looming to the left who insist on a simplified version.
Last month President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) spoke in favor of juxtaposing traditional and simplified Chinese in textbooks for schools for overseas Taiwanese.
“Ma caught the ire of lawmakers across the political spectrum in June last year when he expressed the hope that Taipei and Beijing could reach an agreement on the teaching of traditional and simplified Chinese characters at schools for overseas Taiwanese and Chinese, so that students would be taught to read traditional characters and write simplified characters.
“‘Academics from the mainland said many young people now read traditional Chinese because they listen to Jay Chou’s [周杰倫] songs so much that they just learn it like that,’ he said.
“Many people in Singapore and Malaysia also learned Mandarin by watching Taiwanese TV programs, he said, and many Chinese living in North America watch Taiwanese political programs more frequently than those living in Taiwan.
“‘It is a good thing to see a common language bridge the gap between Chinese around the world through modern technology,’ he said.”
Simplified Chinese is used and is the official writing system in mainland China (PRC) and in Singapore. Traditional Chinese is used and is the official writing system in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. Important to keep in mind that the variants of Mandarin Chinese spoken in each region vary by more than character set alone.