Tue, Mar 05, 2019 - Page 8 News List

All mother tongues are beautiful

By Lee Hsiao-feng 李筱峰

International Mother Language Day — Feb. 21 — should be especially meaningful for Taiwan, as it is a land of many tongues. All the more so as under the decades-long one-party rule of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), local languages were discriminated against and oppressed — to the extent that Taiwan has been listed by UNESCO as a region where some languages are vulnerable, endangered or even extinct. For this reason, International Mother Language Day should be all the more thought-provoking for Taiwanese.

In December 2017, media reported that entertainer Cheryl Hsieh (謝忻) was walking through the underground Taipei City Mall when a woman promoting skincare products came up and asked her whether she would like a sample.

Speaking in Hoklo, commonly known as Taiwanese, Hsieh said: “It’s OK, thanks — I have quite a lot of stuff at home that I haven’t used up yet.” To her surprise, the saleswoman said: “You are so pretty. Don’t speak Taiwanese.” Hsieh asked: “Why does being pretty mean I can’t speak Taiwanese? Why shouldn’t I speak Taiwanese if I want to?”

Later on, Hsieh wrote on Facebook: “Is the mindset behind the idea that ‘speaking Taiwanese equals not being beautiful’ really so deeply ingrained in people’s hearts? Could it be that no matter how much effort is put into promoting things like native culture and mother-tongue teaching, there is no way to make people see Taiwanese as something elegant?”

The linguistic discrimination that Hsieh faced on that occasion is just one example. More than 30 years have passed since martial law was lifted, but this kind of thing still happens. Of course, this shows that the discriminatory “education” — or “brainwashing” — that the KMT once imposed is still having an effect.

People born in the 1950s and 1960s belong to the generation that underwent the most extensive, linguistically prejudiced KMT brainwashing. They saw or experienced the humiliation of being made to stand on a spot, kneel down, get slapped on the mouth, and have a sign hung around one’s neck or pay a fine for speaking one’s mother tongue.

Over time, a kind of Pavlovian reflex was instilled in Taiwanese that native languages are low-class, and that to be high-class, they need to speak what the government defined as the “national language,” namely Mandarin. This mindset got passed down to the next generation, so people grew up feeling ashamed of their mother tongue and stopped speaking it.

Linguistically, languages do not bear either high-class or low-class characteristics. Rather, each language includes a spectrum of usage.

When Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) was campaigning for election as mayor of Taipei, he said he chose to become a surgeon because being a physician was like being a miner.

He said that for an ear, nose and throat specialist, there were five holes to go down, but in gynecology, there was just one hole — and that gynecologists made a living between women’s thighs. Making them in Mandarin did not make Ko’s remarks any less vulgar and offensive.

If speaking Taiwanese is vulgar, does that mean that when the Tang Dynasty poets Du Fu (杜甫) and Li Bai (李白) recited their poems with the pronunciation of that time — which is known to have been relatively close to the Taiwanese of today — that was vulgar, too?

Among students and researchers in Chinese language departments who study Chinese historical phonology, those with a good knowledge of Taiwanese or Hakka have an easier time than those who only know Mandarin, which is based on language in Beijing. Surely this classical connection shows that Taiwanese and Hakka speakers are no less sophisticated than those who only speak Mandarin.

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