The Oxford English Dictionary, a major authority on the English language, has published its quarterly update of newly added words, which interestingly includes three that are transliterations from Southern Min, which is spoken in Taiwan, the southern part of China’s Fujian Province and parts of Southeast Asia.
It is better to call them “Southern Min” rather than “Taiwanese” words, because the additions came from Southeast Asia, not from Taiwan. Not calling them “Southern Min” words would be presumptuous and inappropriate when they are being used by ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, while Taiwanese is generally called Hoklo.
Two of the three words come from Singapore and Malaysia: bak kut the, a kind of bone broth, and bak kwa, meaning cured, dried meat. The third word, which comes from the Philippines, is bakya, meaning wooden clogs.
These three Southern Min words have long been widely used in Southeast Asian English, so the dictionary is simply describing an objective reality. After analyzing and judging potential entries, its editors sort and record them. Given its mission, Oxford consults with experts in Southern Min and offers the word’s correct spelling in the etymology.
The majority of words of Chinese origin in English dictionaries are spelled based on their Mandarin pronunciations. The remainder are words from the Chinese-language family, with Cantonese and Southern Min having a share.
Cantonese words, which account for most of the English words from the Chinese-language family, arrived via old Chinese emigrant communities and Hong Kong, while Southern Min words arrived through use in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines. Over the past few years, the number of Southern Min words has been catching up with Cantonese.
Two hundred or 300 years ago, Southern Min gave English words such as tea, ketchup, bohea (teas grown in the Wuyi Mountains in China’s Fujian Province), pekoe (downy young tea leaves) and cumshaw (a small present or tip, from the Southern Min word for “thank you”).
Over the past century, English has absorbed a dozen or more Southern Min words from Southeast Asia, such as bihon (rice noodles), lumpia and popiah (both meaning unfried spring rolls), pancit and mee (both meaning wheat noodles), char kway teow (flat rice noodles), Ah Beng (ruffian), ang moh (“Westerner”; literally, “red hair”), ang pow (red envelope, traditionally used for gifts of money), kiasu (afraid of losing out) and kopitiam (coffee shop).
What about Taiwan’s variety of Southern Min? What contributions has it made to English? The only word it seems to have contributed so far is “nunchuck,” the two-sectioned “rice flail” weapon made famous by Bruce Lee (李小龍).
This word is a contraction of the Okinawan word nunchaku, but that in turn probably originated from the Taiwanese word neng tsat kun (兩截棍), which likewise means a two-sectioned stick or baton.
Considering the precedents set by Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, and the many things that the English-speaking world finds interesting about Taiwan, it will probably not be long before more Taiwanese words find their way into English.
Hugo Tseng is an associate professor and former chair of Soochow University’s English language and literature department.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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