Discussion: Taiwanese Grammar by Philip T. Lin

Discussions on the Hokkien (Minnan) language.
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Discussion: Taiwanese Grammar by Philip T. Lin

Post by Abun » Sat May 02, 2015 10:19 pm

About a week ago I stumbled upon Philip T. Lin’s newly published “Taiwanese Grammar: A Concise Reference” and resolved to share my thoughts about it with everybody, in case you are thinking of buying it yourself. If anybody else has read it, I would of course be happy to hear your comments as well.

Meta-issues and description of general structure:

The book is written in English and was first published by Greenhorn Media on 01/30/2015 and as far as I can see, it has only been published as an ebook up to this date; I don’t know whether or not a non-electronic version is planned. The version I will refer to is the updated version 1.4 from 04/28/2015, bought from Kobo. It is in Amazon’s Kindle store as well though. I am actually not quite sure how the shops handle the updates which apparently still happen every few weeks. In terms of ethics I would expect them to offer the updated versions for free if you bought it already (at least as long as it is not a true second edition), but given the often blurry laws on online trade and trademarking I fear that may not be the case. The ebook format also brings the problem that some readers may have trouble displaying Hàn-jī and/or some of the characters with diacritics used in the transcription. My ebook reader (Tolino Shine), did have issues displaying both but reading it on my notebook in Calibre was no problem.

In terms of content, the book consists of 35 chapters, the first two of which give some background information on Taiwanese Hokkien, its history, dialectal differences and sociolinguistic situation, followed by a chapter on pronunciation, including tone sandhi principles. The remaining 33 chapters cover the actual grammar (of course, tone sandhi arguably should be counted in that as well). For about the first half of these, the author discusses the behaviour of different word classes according to the traditional classification (although he devotes no fewer than four chapters to different types of verbs, five if one includes adjectives). The remaining chapters discuss broader syntactical questions such as passive sentences, the order of syntactical elements, how tense is expressed, formation and use of subclauses ect. Concluding the book are references and an index.

Every chapter is devided into multiple subchapters to discuss more specific phenomena. For every structure discussed, there are at least two example sentences. These are given in Taiwanese (in MoE characters and POJ) as well as a translation into Taiwanese Mandarin (traditional characters and Pinyin) and English. For a more detailed discussion of the content I will refer to section numbers instead of pages, seeing as the page numbering might differ depending on the reader and settings.

Discussion/Impression of content:

First of all, I found it a very enlightening read. Considering the lack of material, I had not yet read any Hokkien grammar before; my knowledge of the grammar is pieced together from the often rather scant information in teaching material, explanations from teachers and more often than not gut feeling based on personal observation. It was therefore very interesting to see this gut feeling more clearly deliniated in linguistic terms. As an example, I had felt the difference between teh (咧, e.g. Guán sió-tī teh sńg tiān-náu 阮小弟咧耍電腦) and ū-teh (有咧, Guán sió-tī ū-teh sńg tiān-náu 阮小弟有咧耍電腦), but I had never actively thought about it much and would probably not have been able to define it without spending quite a lot of thought. Seeing it described as continuous vs. habitual aspect (8.2 and 8.5) made things a little clearer to me. It doesn’t do much to improve my speaking ability, but I found it very enlightening in terms of background knowledge.

Also, the author went into a lot of detail, especially in comparing different ways of expressing similar things (for example the slight difference in using ē 會 or beh 欲 to mark future events in 28.2.1-2.). As someone who is not a total newcomer anymore, I find this kind of explanation extremely helpful, especially when it comes to slight differences in meaning/function which nevertheless have a huge impact on the sentence as a whole (as for example the one between complement markers liáu 了 and tio̍h 著 in 11.6).

However, I must say that in those cases where the explanations don’t confirm/give a name to a feeling I already had before, I am wary to trust them. The reason for this is that in three or four cases, the explanations directly contradict my gut feeling. For example, the author explicitly states in 11.2.1 that resultative complements are pronounced in neutral tone (and citation tone on the verb) if they appear at the end of the clause. I am 100% convinced that this is not true, not even with respect to most of his own examples (tsia̍h-pá 食飽, the̍h-tsáu 提走, phuà-khui 破開, tsē-m̄-tio̍h 坐毋著, tàn-tiāu 擲掉 ect.) In fact, only one of them indeed seems to have neutral tone on the complement (Piah pit--khui--ah. 壁必開矣。)

In one case this actually went so far as to seriously make me question where the author learnt Taiwanese: During his discussion of the passive marker hōo 予 (19.1), the author not once mentions the fact that in Taiwanese (unlike Mandarin), you cannot leave out the agent after the passive marker hōo 予 (although the position can be filled only with a generic lâng 人 ‘somebody’). Not only that, his examples also place hōo directly before the verb, e.g. “I ê tsînn hōo thau-the̍h--khì--ah. 伊的錢予偷提去矣。” For some sentences one might make a point that the hōo directly in front of the verb is hōo-i 予伊 ‘by him/her’ combined into one syllable, but for this sentence that doesn’t make much sense (“his money was stolen by him?”). So unless my understanding of Taiwanese grammar is very off in that aspect, this sentence is flat-out ungrammatical. (To the author’s slight defence, all other instances of passive sentences besides 19.1. have the agent mentioned.)

In fact, the there are a number of example sentences which feel weird to me. Whereas most of them (besides the passive issue) do not sound outright wrong, quite a few of them sound incomplete to me. For example, “I toh-á tshit hó. 伊桌仔拭好。” (11.1.1) sounds to me like it is missing an aspect marker (an ū 有 before the verb or an --ah 矣 at the end) or maybe it should be part of a longer sentence like: I toh-á tshit hó tsiah ē-sái khuànn tiān-iánn. 伊桌仔拭好才會使看電影。

What’s more, some also contain vocabulary that I find doubtful. In some cases these are words that I have so far not been able to verify with other sources (for example lōo-tâi 露台 for “balcony” (multiple times, ex. 14.3.3)). Others are unnecessary loan words from Mandarin, although the Taiwanese alternative in at least one case (ki-tshia 機車 instead of oo-tóo-bái (10.2.7)) is far more commonly used than the Mandarin loan. (I suspect the author chose ki-tshia over oo-tóo-bái to avoid the question of how to render oo-tóo-bái in the character line, but in my eyes that’s not a valid excuse.)

My second big criticism is the omnipresence of Mandarin. The author not only provides Mandarin translations for every single example besides an English one, he also frequently compares grammatical phenomena to similar ones in Mandarin and elaborates on how Taiwanese grammar influences that of Taiwanese Mandarin (e.g. yǒu 有 being used as a perfect aspect marker in Mandarin, too: 我昨天有寫一封信。 (8.1.1)). The last question may be interesting in its own right, but in my eyes it is a deviation from the topic in a reference book on Taiwanese Grammar, especially if it wants to be concise. For the grammatical comparison I see his point to a certain extent: Since in practice, the large majority of learners of Taiwanese will have some knowledge of Mandarin, comparisons can help them to understand the point more quickly. However even so, I believe it would have sufficed to mention possible pitfalls that the Mandarin-proficient student might fall into (such as using hōo without a noun denoting the agent :wink: ). Constant comparison however places too much unnecessary focus on Mandarin, if you ask me. As for the Mandarin translations for example sentences, I really do not see the reason at all. In any case, I feel that the omnipresence of Mandarin is in most cases unjustified and often does more harm than good. Especially the sentence translations can serve to subconsciously suggest to the reader that the Taiwanese and Mandarin sentences are completely equivalent in terms of content. More importantly, it may tend to let the reader think of Taiwanese only in relation to Mandarin, less as a language in its own right.

With respect to formal aspects, I had the feeling that there were still a little more typos in the text than there should be for a published book. In the English text only one or two lept to my eye (and I forgot to write down where, so no page numbers in this case, sorry) and the mistakes in POJ seemed not to be too numerous either (ex. giah(撠) instead of gia̍h(攑) (6.4.2)). There were however frequently erronous characters in the Mandarin (者 instead of 著 (, 己涇 instead of 已經 (, 午冬前 instead of 五冬前 (8.5.2), multiple examples of 己 instead of 已 ect.) and the Taiwanese character line often contained non-MoE characters when the author explicitly says he will follow the MoE character set (e.g. 怹 instead of 亻因 throughout, 打 instead of 拍 (11.4.1), 香水instead of 芳水( I can see that some of them (esp. 亻因) pose certain challenges on the typesetter, but fonts that include them do exist, and if the author explicitly mentions he will use one character set, I believe he should stay true to it. Nevertheless, I think this is at least as much (if not more) a mistake of the publisher than the author. When you write a book of several hundred pages, there are bound to be mistakes. It is the duty of the publisher to find and those mistakes and have them corrected. This feels like it was published before it was proofread enough, and I guess this is what is being corrected in the updates.


Philip Lin’s work is a very detailed and for the most part very good overview over the Taiwanese Grammar, but it has flaws, some bigger than others. The biggest problems in my eyes are the focus layed on comparisons with Mandarin and the presence of (as far as I can see) errnonous explanations. The first can be seen as a question of philosophy; the author obviously made a conscious decision to insert this many references to Mandarin and while I may not agree with him and criticize him for it, it is ultimately the author's decision and it doesn’t make the book more or less valuable to me personally. Errononous example and even explanations however are a serious problem because they make all of the author’s points lose credibility to the extent that I personally am wary to trust anything the author says unless it goes completely conform with a feeling I was having already or I am able to confirm it in another source.

Nevertheless, I don’t regret buying the book, even if it was only for additional insight into things I knew already and inspiration on how other phenomena might be working, although I may still have to confirm it. However if anybody of you is thinking of buying it, I would advise them to maybe wait until the mistakes are corrected (hopefully the contentual ones as well, although that might not happen until a true second edition).

(Oh and if mistaken interpretations of Taiwanese grammar on my side led me to draw wrong conclusions, please feel free to point them out of course :) )
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Re: Discussion: Taiwanese Grammar by Philip T. Lin

Post by AndrewAndrew » Mon Jun 22, 2015 2:01 pm

Thanks for the review, Abun. I have now downloaded this book and am enjoying going through it. Am impressed that the author is familiar with Penang Hokkien and has already mentioned it several times in the introductory chapters!
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Re: Discussion: Taiwanese Grammar by Philip T. Lin

Post by Ah-bin » Thu Jul 02, 2015 1:51 am

Many thanks Abun for the long and detailed review!

I am very interested to hear about this book, I do not however, own an e-book reader. Andrew, I'd be very interested to hear about the author's observations on Malaysian Hokkien.

I really try to avoid reading, hearing or speaking too much Taiwanese lest it have an undue influence on my observations of what happens in Malaysia, but eventually I may take it and use if for comparison.
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Re: Discussion: Taiwanese Grammar by Philip T. Lin

Post by AndrewAndrew » Sat Jul 11, 2015 8:48 pm

He only mentions Penang Hokkien in the introductory chapter. The rest is only about Taiwanese Hokkien.

You don't need an ebook reader; you can get a Kindle reader app for Mac or iOS