I’ve been posting a bit on a great new Taiwan podcasting blog, Wan An Taipei. First off, let me say it’s got the potential to be a great blog, and that JT’s English pronunciation is good enough that I couldn’t tell he was Taiwanese through the first half of his podcast that I listened too. One thing that struck me as odd though, was the way he said 晚安 and then “Taipei” right together. I’ve seen the handouts at the airports saying to pronounce it “tie-bay”. I know tons of foreigners ignore those. Still, it sounded weird to hear a Chinese guy to pronounce a Chinese name in the middle of a Chinese sentence based on a messed up romanization of said Chinese word. To me it was kind of like and English speaker pronouncing “tennis” as “tennie” the way a French person would, but doing so in the middle of an English sentence. Maybe it would be like this: “Let’s play tennie if it doesn’t rain tomorrow.” JT asked for feedback on his site, so I told him it sounded weird to me. Today, he posted a great question:

Recently there’s a question that really intrigues me. Why is Taipei not “Taibei”? It’s actually the first time that came across my mind.

I spent a while writing what is possibly the longest comment I’ve ever written on someone else’s blog. Then, I decided that if I’m interested enough in the topic to write so much, it might as well go on my blog. Here’s my comment in its entirety:

The reason is this: in the past, Taiwan used a method of romanization called Wade-Giles. Wade-Giles uses apostrophes to denote whether or not a sound is voiced. For example, “p” in pinyin is “p`” in Wade-Giles, while “b” is “p”. In a similar way, “k” in pinyin is “k`” in Wade-Giles, and “g” in pinyin is “k” in Wade-Giles.

Unfortunately, the Taiwanese government decided to use Wade-Giles WITHOUT the apostrophes. As a result, it became impossible to distinguish between voiced and unvoiced sounds. All p’s and b’s, were written as p’s; all k’s and g’s became k’s; and all t’s and d’s became t’s. Thus, all words that would be “taipei”, “taibei”, “daipei”, OR “daibei” in standard pinyin became “taipei” according to the ROC.

When I first moved to 臺北 (tái bĕi), all of the MRT stations used this horrible system. For example, 古亭 was written as “kuting”. From this, it was impossible for me to tell if those characters should be pronounced as “kuting”, “kuding”, “guting”, or “guding”. It turns out the third choice was the correct one (gŭ tíng).

I cannot even begin to explain how many difficulties I had asking people how to get to places back when I didn’t know many characters. Fortunately for everybody, the mayor of 臺北 (tái bĕi) actually listened when a lot of foreigners complained about this problem 3 years ago. Unlike most politicians who felt that romanization should be based on political agendas, he actually considered the needs of the people romanization was originally made for (non-Chinese speakers who can’t read hanzi).

Now, nearly all of the street signs (in Taibei) and MRT signs have been corrected and now use standard pinyin. The one biggest exception is the word “Taipei”. Since it has been a well known name for a long time, it is much harder to change its written form to match the way it is pronounced. Just think how long it took people to start writing “Beijing” instead of “Peking”. It may be just as long before “Taibei” starts appearing on street signs.

If any of you are interested in how to write words in Wade-Giles, there is conversion chart on Wikipedia.