Taiwanese is one of several names for one of the important southern Chinese dialects, also known as Southern Min, spoken in Taiwan and Mainland China's Fujian province, as well as in Southeast Asia. Below is a discussion of this and several other names for this language.

In general, the names given to languages are subject to misunderstanding. They tend to be strongly determined by sociological considerations and are rarely objective or exact in how they refer to languages. Although there are differences in the character of the language we are talking about, depending on whether it is spoken in Taiwan (rural or urban, south or north), in China, or in Southeast Asia, it is still linguistically one language with its own dialects and variants. Most of its names are ethnic terms.

  • "Southern Min" is a translation of Mandarin Min3-nan2-hua4/yu3 (Taiwanese Ban5-lam5-oe7). It is a geographical term, meaning "the language of southern Fujian", using the traditional one-syllable name Min3 for Mainland China's Fujian province (also written Fukien). Speakers of this language almost all have ancestors (by blood or by culture) in the southern part of Fujian, around the cities of Amoy/Xiamen, Zhangzhou, and Quanzhou, where this language is still dominant. And so the name is historically apt, even if other names are preferred in certain Min3-nan2-speaking societies. Linguists working outside of Taiwan now tend to prefer the name Min3-nan2-yu3 unless they are describing Taiwan varieties. The situation is complicated by the fact that Mainland Chinese linguists use "Tai2-yu3" to refer to the Tai language group, especially as spoken within Chinese territory. I'll tell you a little story about one of the implications of the name Min3-nan2-yu3 at the end of this write-up.
  • The name Taiwanese appears to translate Tai2-yu3, Taiwanese Tai5-gi2/Tai5-gu2. This name has been around at least since the period of Japanese rule (1895-1945), and is the native Taiwan name for the language we are talking about. It seems to be a geographic term, but it has a strong ethnic element because it is Taiwanese speakers' own name for their language. Some people from Taiwan who don't speak Taiwanese dislike it because it seems to imply that only Min3-nan2 people are truly "Taiwanese". One friend of mine, with a strong emotional bond to the Mainland, declared that "any language spoken in Taiwan is Taiwanese." I have heard Hakka people say the same thing with considerable heat. But in spite of the logic of this objection, "Taiwanese" has the force of common usage in Taiwan, and is unlikely to be replaced.
  • Hokkien is an English equivalent for the name Hok4-kien3-oe7, which is how the name Fujian is pronounced in this language. So the name means none other than Fujianese/Fukienese, the language of Fujian/Fukien. I would call it an ethnic name, too, because it seems to have originated in overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, where speakers of a number of different forms of Chinese were in frequent contact. Hokkien is distinguished there from Teochew (Chaozhou), Hakka, and Cantonese. The great majority of Southeast Asian people claiming Fujian ancestry look to southern Fujian as their ancestral home, even though other Min3 dialects are also known in smaller overseas communities. "Hokkien" had come into English by the early 1800's as Protestant missionaries began their intensive study of southern Chinese, and it has had a life of its own ever since. Fujianese is simply a newer name, reflecting a Pinyin spelling of the Mandarin name for what is considered the homeland of the language. The name Fujianese tends to be used in U.S. cities, where newer immigrant communities from Fujian (especially eastern Fujian, around Foochow/Fuzhou) have been established.
  • Hoklo, Taiwanese Ho5-lo2 is another term sometimes seen. It is occasionally rendered in Mandarin as Fu2-lao3. I think this is originally also a Southeast Asian ethnic name, and I believe it originates in Hakka and was adopted into Cantonese. Based on what I have heard from Hakka people, it has pejorative connotations, although I have been told off angrily when I have told that to some Taiwanese people. But the Hakka suffix -lo2 is generally used pejoratively for men, so where is the argument? Many ethnic names have such origins.

When I first arrived in Taiwan in 1984, on a number of occasions I was sternly corrected when I referred to this language as "Tai2-yu3" - I should have said "Min3-nan2-yu3", I was told. The choice of Taiwanese or Min3-nan2-yu3 was evidently felt to have political connotations - Min3-nan2-yu3 was a neutral Chinese name, said one side, while the other side said it was intended to suppress Taiwanese majority identity. Saying Tai2-yu3 was felt by some to suggest anti-KMT leanings, still a contentious matter in 1984. So without realizing it I had apparently expressed solidarity with the political opponents of certain of my interlocutors. I discovered then that I could innocently repeat language I had picked up on the street and get into mild trouble because I was thought to be expressing a political opinion. The term "Tai2-wan1-ren2" - "Taiwanese" - was another of these covertly sensitive terms. Everyone seemed to use it, but certain people would tell you in a chilly voice, "The only true Taiwanese are the aborigines."

(By the way, the aborigines have, in the years since then, led a successful movement to stop being called "Mountain People" shan1-di4-ren2 and start being called "Aborigines" - yuan2-zhu4-min2.)

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