Hoklo Writing Systems

 (back to Home)
When addressing the issue of written Hoklo language, one question must be asked beforehand: how strong is the need for this written language?
There are many languages/dialects/subdialects in the world that are rarely written. A language is written down to allow extended communication both in space and in time. Political-economical factors necessarily dictate the fate of a written language.
A written language is a double-edged sword: it allows a certain group of people to communicate, but at the same time it alienates some other groups of people. Take for instance the case of Chinese characters: it allows reading comprehension to various degrees in many East Asia cultures, like China, Korea, Japan, and in the past: Vietnam. It also allows communication among all Chinese dialectal groups. However, in today's internet era, English clearly has a wider reach in the world. It is not uncommon for native Chinese speakers to communicate in written English, especially when they want to allow participation of speakers of other languages. Chinese characters clearly help communication to some extent in East Asia, but it can alienate the participation of many other peoples in the world. Vice-versa, an alphabetical writing system may be friendly towards some groups of the world population, but can be unfriendly in a character-based culture.
The same situation holds true for a Hoklo writing system. The existence of a Hoklo writing system necessarily alienates some groups of people. Let us take for instance the case of a Hoklo writing system based on Chinese characters: although it becomes visually friendlier to Chinese language/dialect speakers, phonetically it alienates people that want to be able to pronounce the words (including speakers of other Chinese dialects), and it would also alienate people that are more familiar with alphabetical writing systems in the rest of the world. Conversely, an alphabet-based Hoklo writing sytems is friendlier phonetically and internationally, but it alienates people that are more focus on visual understanding via Chinese characters. Let us consider a more concrete example: in modern Hoklo karaoke/MTV song videos, because both the meaning and the phonetics are important to the audience, one will often find the lyrics to be written out both ways: with characters and with alphabet letters.
Because of the political sensitivity or the disruptive nature of a Hoklo writing system within the family of Chinese sub-ethnic groups, and because of the lack of direct economical benefits (lack of "market force",) the Hoklo language has never developed a full-fledged writing system. It is fair to say that currently there is very little need for this language to be written. In fact, the majority of Hoklo speakers have never written down their own language in any serious way, instead preferring to use Mandarin, English or other languages when it comes to writing needs.
Political-economical issues aside, both the Chinese-character-based and the alphabet-based Hoklo writing systems have serious techincal challenges. It is fair to say that the lack of a Hoklo writing system is not solely due to political-economical issues, but also due to technical issues.
On the Chinese-based writing side, we have the heterophone issue. Among all the major Han Chinese ethnic groups, Hoklo is the single group that is the farthest away from the rest, linguistically. This is largely due to the mountainous nature of the Fujian area. While the rest of China co-evolved linguistically, Hoklo was often insulated from their co-evolution. As a result, Hoklo acquired a severe heterophone problem: a given Chinese character tends to have multiple pronunciations (sometimes up to 5 or 6) in the Hoklo speech, depending on context. Hoklo also has a rich and unique tonal-phrase structure not observed in other major Chinese dialects, which traditional Chinese character writing does not take into account. As a result, often there is confusion when parsing the text and meaning of a written Hoklo text. (For instance, the character 上 can be used either as a prefix or a suffix, 上好 = "the best", 海上 = "at sea". So when the characters are placed contiguously, like 海上好, it often becomes difficult to parse the text visually.) It is true that heterophone problems and parsing problems also exists in other Chinese dialects, but never to the same severity of the situation of Hoklo, where it truely impedes efficient reading of a colloquial text. Another obvious difficulty is that many of the colloquial terms lack proper Chinese character representation, and even if some rare characters or some new characters are used, most readers will not be able to recognize their meanings or pronunciation.
On the alphabet-based writing side, we have the homonym issue. That is, too many words are pronounced the same way, with different meanings, particularly when it comes to the literary (non-colloquial) layer of the language. Or equivalently, too many Chinese characters share the same pronunciation in Hoklo. So, a purely phonetic writing for Hoklo becomes very impractical to read, since the reader often has to struggle with deciphering the underlying meaning of the words.
That is to say, unless people really understand and work hard in addressing the fundamental technical challenges, a viable written Hoklo will not exist academically. Much less politically or economically. There are no quick fixes to any of these challenges.

Alphabet-based systems

  • The Missionary system: also known as Peh-Oe-Ji (POJ). See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pe̍h-ōe-jī and also http://zh-min-nan.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thâu-ia̍h. POJ is a purely phonetic system. Therefore, despite its appearance, it is far from being a usable script system. Its advantage is that it is very easy to write. Its disadvantage is it is very hard to read. Advocates of POJ often will cite the case of Vietnamese as a supporting evidence that phonetic writing can be successful. But if that were the case, then why do the most fervent POJ advocates themselves even recommend and personally use a mixture system, where Chinese characters are also used? The lack of morphemic elements is the root cause of the shortcomings of POJ. 

    Alphabetized writing in Vietnamese is more successful due to reasons that do not exist in the Hoklo language: (1) Vietnamese is Austroasiatic language, with a plethora of vowels, which makes it more mono-syllabic than Hoklo, (2) Vietnamese's core-vocabulary is colloquial Austroasiatic, with literary Chinese loan words being of secondary importance, whereas Hoklo is a Sinitic language, with most colloquial core-vocabulary terms from Chinese source, and hence its has a severe homophone problem due to historical linguistic reasons.

    Hoklo is a stereotonic language, meaning that each isolated syllable can be pronounced two ways: with two different tones. The Missionary system, as well as other purely-phonetic systems, are severely constrained by the desire to preserve consistency with their historical bindings. It is therefore ironic that none of the purely-phonetic systems achieves in writing out the tonal-phrase structure of this stereotonic language.

  • Modern Literary Taiwanese (MLT) / Taiwanese Modern Spelling System (TMSS) / Phofsit Daibuun: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modern_Literal_Taiwanese. Among its features, it uses tonal spelling instead of tonal diacritic marks. That is, tones are indicated by letters. This is an important improvement over POJ. However, there is a crucial shortcoming: for multi-syllable words, the tonal spelling is applied to the tonal values, not the tonal categories. As a result, this system mixes running tones with standing tones, which makes it impossible to cross Hoklo dialect/subdialect boundaries.