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Japanese Words in Taiwanese

Updated on July 18, 2016

Romanized Taiwanese

Peh-oe-ji inscription at a church in Tailam (Tainan) commemorating Thomas Barclay.
Peh-oe-ji inscription at a church in Tailam (Tainan) commemorating Thomas Barclay. | Source

What is the Taiwanese Language?

In my earlier hub, Varieties of Spoken Chinese: Top 5 Dialects Worth Learning, I indicated that Minnan, or the Southern Min dialect, was one of the most important dialects of Chinese worth learning. The sub-dialect of Minnan, Taiwanese, is an especially interesting language which has fascinated me since the late 1960s.

Taiwanese has its origins in the city of Xiamen in Fujian Province of China. Most of the speakers of Taiwanese today are descendants of residents from Xiamen and surrounding areas of Fujian and Guangdong Provinces who settled on Taiwan in the 1600s. Other speakers are the descendants of military and civilian refugees from China who fled from the Communists in the years 1945 - 1950. The language as spoken today has its origins in China and differs from Minnan about the same way as American English differs from British English.

Taiwanese Words Borrowed From Other Languages

The Taiwanese language which has been spoken for more than 400 years reflects the long history of Taiwan. It includes words borrowed from its aborigine settlers, Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese, and English.

Most scholars disagree how and when the first settlers came to Taiwan. Everyone, however, agrees that the language of the aborigine people who now number 400,000 and live in the mountains is entirely different from the Chinese language. I do know that certain words have been absorbed into Taiwanese. One of these words is "i-a" which means mother.

Historical records indicate that the Portuguese were the first westerners to sight Taiwan in 1517. they called Taiwan, Formosa, which means beautiful island. This name exists up until today. The word, "sap-bun" which means soap is another word originating from Portuguese.

During the 1600s the Dutch controlled Taiwan for a few decades until they were finally driven out by the Chinese in the late 1600s. There probably are words in Taiwanese with origins from Dutch, but I am unaware of any examples to cite in this article.

Foreign Words Used in Taiwanese

Which foreign words do you see or hear being used most in Taiwanese

See results

Taiwanese Words Borrowed From Japanese

Japanese along with English have undoubtedly had the greatest number of words borrowed into the Taiwanese language. For Japanese, this is not surprising, because Japan controlled Taiwan from 1895 until 1945. With Japanese as the official language, all business was conducted in Japanese, and worthy Taiwanese students received education in Japanese run schools. Young Taiwanese men were conscripted into military service, and others were sent to Japan for further training in Japanese. During this period a lot of Japanese words started appearing in the Taiwanese language.

I will now detail the Japanese vocabulary which I encountered while using the Taiwanese language on Taiwan in the 1970s. the words are divided into categories with the Taiwanese Romanization of the word preceding its English meaning.

1. Food and Drink:

"phan" - bread; "ba-ta" - butter; "tho-ma-to" - tomato; "khe-chah-pu" - ketchup; and "bii-lu" - beer

2. Family Members:

"o-baa-san" - older woman or aunt; "o-ji-san" - older man or uncle; and "ok-san" - married woman

3. Means of Transportation:

"o-to-bai" - motorcycle; "to-lak-ku" - truck; "ba-su" - bus; and "ta-ku-si" - taxi

4. Clothing and Housewares:

"ne-ku-tai" - necktie; "wai-sjat-su" - shirt; "ka-ten" - curtain; "su-li-pa" - slipper; "tau-lu" - towel; "mat-chi" - match; "lai-ta" - lighter; "lo-lai-ba" - screwdriver; "la-chio" - radio; "ka-me-la" - camera; and "tan-su" - closet

5. Miscellaneous Words:

"at-sa-li" - straightforward; "gei" - artificial; "ga-su" - gas; "kam-pan" - signboard; "moa-chi" - sticky sweet bean dessert; "ben-so"; toilet; "?krit-ga-mi?" - lipstick or cosmetics; and "sensei" - doctor

In the future the Taiwanese language will continue to borrow many English words directly or through Japanese. Hopefully, this hub will give the reader a feeling for the origins of the Taiwanese language.

© 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn


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    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 6 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Thanks for the information ocoonocoon. I will check out your article on Chinese?Japanese.

    • ocoonocoon profile image

      ocoonocoon 6 years ago

      Hi Paul nice article. It is interesting to see how words travel. Japan imported words from Europe or America, and then those words got transmitted to Taiwan, one of their colonies.

      I believe that mainland China also imported many words from Japan, which were actually Chinese-style neologisms that Japanese created to translate western concepts. For example, the word "shakai" was formed using Chinese characters in order to translate the English word "society." And isn't this word used in China now? Read my article on Chinese/Japanese to see more!

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 6 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      English loan words used in Thailand. That's a good idea, Dan, because there are so many you encounter in speaking and in writing. I'll definitely do a hub on this topic in the future.

    • profile image

      Dan Bloom 6 years ago

      Paul, I really appreciated your article!!! about another article by you about English loan words and maybe even French loan words still used in THAILAND,,,there are many I hear from my Thai girlfriend in Taiwan...

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 6 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Thanks a lot for your comments Dan. I really appreciate them.

    • profile image

      dan bloom 6 years ago

      French loan words used in Vietnam today -- a long list from A to Z - "T? vay m??n c?a Ti?ng Pháp"

      and see also this newspaper story and blog below:


    • profile image

      dan e. bloom 6 years ago

      and don't forget

      HANDERU ....for handle in Japanese English meaning 'steerting wheel"

      and KYUKEI, )take a break, in nihongo) means short time rest at a local sex hotel, still used today in Taiwan with smirks all around!

      NAMA KON -- concrete truck to bring concrete to constructiion sites....NAMA is Japanese for fresh and KON is first part of CONCRETE.....

      ATAMA SHOTO.......means crazy person.....ATAMA is head in Japanese, SHOTO stand for short circuit in J-English

      ATAMA KON-GREE, means Head made of Concrete, therefore a stupid person

    • profile image

      danny bloom 6 years ago

      Great article sir.....Yes, many loan words from Japan were borrowed in Taiwan and used in Taiwanese and sometimse in combo with Mandarin too. Some of your spellings have alternative spellings, such as:

      1. Food and Drink:

      "PAN" - bread; ...."TO-ma-to" - tomato; "keh-chah-poo" - ketchup; and "BIRU" - for ''beer'' (some Japanese TV stars call beer in Japanese as RUBY, since it is BI-RU backwards in syllables, and is part of Japanese show biz secret langauge at pubs and bars, but this never happened in Taiwan. they say BIRU. Ru with a R, not BILU with an L. You heard wrong, sir.

      2. Family Members:

      "o-baa-san" - older woman or aunt; "o-ji-san" - older man or uncle; and "ok-san" - married woman. and ''ASAN'', which is a short form of OBASAN and means a woman a bit younger than an obasan

      3. Means of Transportation:

      "AUTOBAI" - motorcycle, ie, an ''automatic bicycle'' ; "TORUCKOO" - truck;

      4. Clothing and Housewares:

      "ne-ku-tai" - necktie; YES!

      "wai-sjat-su" - shirt; NOT USED NOW. Y-shirt? T-shirt? White Shirt?

      "ka-ten" - curtain; YES

      "su-li-pa" - slipper; YES

      "TAU ROO " - towel; again the R not the L but NOT USED NOW

      "lai-ta" - lighter; STILL USED TODAY

      "lo-lai-ba" - screwdriver;

      "RA-DIO" - radio;

      "KAMERA" - camera; R not L

      and "tan-su" - closet..NOT USED ANYMORE

      5. Miscellaneous Words:

      "at-sa-li" should be ASARI- straightforward;

      "kam-pan" - signboard; KANBAN

      "MOCHI" - from Japanese 0-mochi ...sticky sweet bean dessert;