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Romanization and
Language Planning in Taiwan

Wi-vun Taiffalo Chiung

5.    The Future of Romanization in Taiwan

Although any romanization is much more efficient[1] than Han characters, romanizations are currently not widely accepted by people in Taiwan.[2] Writing in roman script is regarded as the low language in digraphia.[3] There are several reasons for this phenomenon:

First, people's preference for Han characters is caused by their internalized socialization. Because Han characters have been adopted as the official orthography for two thousand years, being able to master Han characters well is the mark of a scholar in the Han cultural areas. Writing in scripts other than Han characters may be regarded as childish writing (Chiung 2000b). For example, when Tai-oan-hu-sian Kau-hoe-po, the first Taiwanese newspaper in romanization, was published in 1885, the editor and publisher Rev. Thomas Barclay exhorted readers of the newspaper not to “look down at Peh-pe-ji; do not regard it as childish writing” (Barclay 1885).

Second, misunderstanding of the nature and function of Han characters has enforced people's preference for Han characters. Many people believe that Han characters are ideally suited for all members of the Han language family, which includes Holo and Hakka Taiwanese. They believe that Taiwanese cannot be expressed well without Han characters because Han characters are logographs and each character expresses a distinctive semantic function. In addition, many people believe Lian Heng's (1987) claim that “there are no Taiwanese words which do not have corresponding characters.” However, DeFrancis (1996:40) has pointed out that Han characters are “primarily sound-based and only secondarily semantically oriented.” In DeFrancis’ opinion, it is a myth to regard Han characters as logographic (DeFrancis 1990). He even concludes that “the inefficiency of the system stems precisely from its clumsy method of sound representation and the added complication of an even more clumsy system of semantic determinatives” (DeFrancis 1996:40). If Han characters are logographs, the process involved in reading them should be different from phonological or phonetic writings. However, research conducted by Tzeng et al. has pointed out that “the phonological effect in the reading of the Chinese characters is real and its nature seems to be similar to that generated in an alphabetic script” (Tzeng et al. 1992:128). Their research reveals that the reading process of Han characters is similar to that for phonetic writing. In short, there is no sufficient evidence to support the view that the Han characters are logographs.

The third reason that romanization is not widespread in Taiwan is because of political factors. Symbolically, writing in Han characters was regarded as a symbol of Chinese culture by Taiwan's ruling Chinese KMT regime. Writing in scripts other than Han characters was forbidden because it was perceived as a challenge to Chinese culture and Chinese nationalism. For example, the romanized New Testament “Sin Iok” was once seized in 1975 because writing in roman script was regarded as a challenge to the orthodox status of Han characters (Li 1996).

Usually, many factors are involved in the choice and shift of orthography. From the perspective of social demand, most people in current Taiwan have already attained the reading and writing skills in Han characters to a certain level. It seems not easy for them to abandon their literacy conventions and shift to a completely new orthography. However, for the younger generation who are at the threshold of literacy, a new orthography may be attractive to them if it is much easier to learn to read and write. If education in romanized writing could be included in schools and taught to the beginners, romanization could quickly be a competing orthography to Han writing.

From the perspective of politics, political transitions usually affect the language situation (Si 1996). In the case of Taiwan, the current ambiguous national status and diversity of national identity reflect people's uncertain determinations on the issues of written Taiwanese. On the other hand, people's uncertain determinations on the Taibun issues also reflect the political controversy on national issues of Taiwan. My research (Chiung 1999) on the attitudes of Taiwanese college students toward written Taiwanese reveals that national identity is one of the most significant factors that affect students' attitudes toward Taiwanese writing. It is true that national identity played an important role in the orthographic transition of Vietnam, where romanization eventually replaced Han characters and became the official orthography (Chiung 2000a; DeFrancis 1977). Will this replacement happen to the case of Taiwan? Whether or not roman script will replace Han characters and Taiwanese replace Chinese depends on people's orthographic demands and their attitudes toward written Taiwanese. Moreover, people's national identity will play a crucial role in the transition. From my point of view, Han characters, at least, will retain their dominant status until the Taiwanese people are released from their ambiguity in regard to national identity.

[1] Regarding the efficiency issues, refers to DeFrancis 1996, 1990; Chiung 2000b.

[2] For more details about the public’s attitudes toward Han characters and romanization, see Chiung 1999.

[3] Digraphia, which parallels to Ferguson's (1959) idea of diglossia, has been defined by Dale (1980:5) as “the use of two (or more) writing systems for representing a single language,” or by DeFrancis (1984:59) as “the use of two or more different systems of writing the same language.” For discussion on the digraphia in Taiwan, refer to Tiun 1998; Chiung 2001.