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Title: Taishanese  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Taishanese people in Hong Kong, Yue Chinese, Siyi dialect, Cantonese, Chinese language
Collection: Cantonese Language, Languages of Hong Kong, Sze Yup, Taishan
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


台山话 / 台山話
Native to Southern China, Hong Kong, United States (mostly California and New York City), Canada
Region western and southern Guangdong; the Pearl River Delta; parts of Hainan
Native speakers
1–2 million (date missing)
Language codes
ISO 639-3
ISO 639-6 tisa
Glottolog tois1237[1]
Traditional Chinese 台山話
Simplified Chinese 台山话

Taishanese, or Toishanese (simplified Chinese: 台山话; traditional Chinese: 台山話; Taishanese: ), is a dialect of Yue Chinese. The dialect is closely related to Cantonese. Taishanese is spoken in the southern part of Guangdong Province in China, particularly in and around the city-level county of Taishan. In the mid to late 19th century, a significant number of Chinese emigrating to North America originated from this area, making Taishanese a dominant variety of the Chinese language spoken in North American Chinatowns. It was formerly the lingua franca of the overseas Chinese residing in the United States.[2] It is not currently recognized as having official status in any country.


  • Names 1
  • History 2
  • Relationship with Cantonese 3
  • Tones 4
  • Writing system 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


The earliest linguistic studies refer to the dialect of Llin-nen or Xinning (simplified Chinese: 新宁; traditional Chinese: 新寧).[3] Xinning was renamed Taishan in 1914, and linguistic literature has since generally referred to the local dialect as the Taishan dialect, a term based on the Mandarin pronunciation.[4][5][6][7][8][9] Alternative names have also been used. The term Toishan is a convention used by the United States Postal Service,[10] the Defense Language Institute[11] and the United States Census.[12] The terms Toishan, Toisan and Toisaan are all based on Cantonese pronunciation, and are also frequently found in linguistic and non-linguistic literature.[13][14][15][16] Hoisan is a term based on the local pronunciation, although it is generally not used in published literature.[17]

These terms have also been anglicized with the suffix -ese: Taishanese, Toishanese, and Toisanese. Of the previous three terms, Taishanese is most commonly used in academic literature, to about the same extent as the term Taishan dialect.[18][19] The term Hoisanese is rarely used in print literature, although it appears on the internet.[20][21]

Another term used is Siyi (also Seiyap, Szeyap or Szeyup, Chinese: 四邑; literally: "four counties"), which refers to a previous administrative division which comprised the four counties of Taishan, Kaiping, Enping and Xinhui. In 1983, a fifth county (Heshan) was added to the Jiangmen prefecture, and so the term Siyi has become an anachronism. The term Wuyi (Chinese: 五邑), literally "five counties", refers to the modern administrative region, but this term is not used to refer to Taishanese.


Taishanese originates from the Taishan region, where it is spoken. Taishanese can also be seen as a group of very closely related, mutually intelligible dialects spoken in the various towns and villages in and around Siyi (the four counties of Toisan, Yanping, Hoiping, Sanwui).

A vast number of Taishanese immigrants journeyed worldwide through the Taishan diaspora. The Taishan region was a major source of Chinese immigrants in the Americas from the mid-19th and late-20th centuries. Approximately 1.3 million people are estimated to have origins in Taishan.[22] Prior to the signing of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which allowed new waves of Chinese immigrants, Taishanese was the dominant dialect spoken in Chinatowns across North America.[23]

Taishanese is still spoken in many Chinatowns throughout North America, including those of San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, New York City, Boston, Vancouver, Toronto, Chicago and Montreal by older generations of Chinese immigrants and their children, but is today being supplanted by mainstream Cantonese and increasingly by Mandarin in both older and newer Chinese communities alike, across the country.

Relationship with Cantonese

Taishanese is a dialect of the Yue branch of Chinese, which also includes Cantonese. However, due to ambiguities in the meaning of "Cantonese" in the English language, as it can refer to both the greater Yue dialect group or its prestige standard (Standard Cantonese), "Taishanese" and "Cantonese" are commonly used in mutually exclusive contexts, i.e. Taishanese is treated separately from "Cantonese". The phonology of Taishanese bears a lot of resemblance to Cantonese, since both of them have common historical roots. Like other Cantonese dialects, such as the Goulou dialects, Taishanese pronunciation and vocabulary may sometimes differ greatly from Cantonese. Despite the fact that Taishan stands only 60 miles (97 km) from the city of Guangzhou, the dialect of Taishan is linguistically far removed from the Guangzhou dialect because of the numerous rivers that separate the two.[24] However, because Cantonese is one of the lingua francas of Guangdong, virtually all Taishanese-speakers also understand it. In fact, most Sze Yup people in Guangdong regard their own tongue as merely a differently-accented form of Cantonese.

Standard Cantonese functions as a lingua franca in Guangdong province, and speakers of other Chinese varieties (such as Chaozhou, Minnan, Hakka) living in Guangdong may also speak Cantonese. On the other hand, Mandarin is the standard language of the People's Republic of China and the only legally-allowed medium for teaching in schools throughout most of the country (except in minority areas), so residents of Taishan speak Mandarin as well. Although the Chinese government has been making great efforts to popularize Mandarin by administrative means, most Taishan residents do not speak Mandarin in their daily lives, but treat it as a second language, with Cantonese being the lingua franca of their region.

One distinction between Taishanese and Cantonese is the use of the voiceless lateral fricative (IPA ɬ),[25][26] e.g., 三 (meaning "three") is pronounced saam1 in Cantonese and lhaam2 in Taishanese. Voiceless lateral fricatives can also be found in many other western dialects of Cantonese, such as the Gaoyang and Guinan dialects.


Taishanese is tonal. There are five contrastive lexical tones: high, mid, low, mid falling, and low falling.[5] In at least one Taishanese dialect, the two falling tones have merged into a low falling tone.[27] There is no tone sandhi.[10]

Tone Tone contour[28] Example Changed tone Chao Number Cantonese tone number
high (yin shang) ˥ (55) hau˥ 口 (mouth) (none) - 1
mid (yin ping) ˧ (33) hau˧ 偷 (to steal) mid rising ˧˥ (35) 3
low (yang ping) ˨ or ˩ (22 or 11) hau˨ 頭 (head) low rising ˨˥ (25) 6 (qu)
mid falling ˧˩ (31) hau˧˩ 皓 (bright) mid dipping ˧˨˥ (325) -
low falling (yang shang) ˨˩ (21) hau˨˩ 厚 (thick) low dipping ˨˩˥ (215) 4

Taishanese has four changed tones: mid rising, low rising, mid dipping and low dipping. These tones are called changed tones because they are the product of morphological processes (e.g. pluralization of pronouns) on four of the lexical tones. These tones have been analyzed as the addition of a high floating tone to the end of the mid, low, mid falling and low falling tones.[8][27][29][30] The high endpoint of the changed tone often reaches an even higher pitch than the level high tone; this fact has led to the proposal of an expanded number of pitch levels for Taishanese tones.[5] The changed tone can change the meaning of a word, and this distinguishes the changed tones from tone sandhi, which does not change a word's meaning.[4] An example of a changed tone contrast is 刷 /tʃat˧/ (to brush) and 刷 /tʃat˨˩˥/ (a brush).

Writing system

Writing uses Chinese characters and Mandarin vocabulary and grammar, with many common words used in spoken Taishanese having no corresponding Chinese characters. No standard romanization system for Taishanese exists. The ones given on this page are merely traditional.

The sound represented by the IPA symbol ɬ (the voiceless alveolar lateral fricative) is particularly challenging, as it has no standard romanization. The digraph "lh" used above to represent this sound is used in Totonac, Chickasaw and Choctaw, which are among several written representations in the languages that include the sound. The alternative "hl" is used in Xhosa and Zulu, while "ll" is used in Welsh. Other written forms occur as well.

The following chart compares the personal pronouns among Taishanese, Cantonese, and Mandarin. In Taishanese, the plural forms of the pronouns are formed by changing the tone,[24] whereas in Cantonese and Mandarin, a plural marker (地/哋/等 dei6 and / men, respectively) is added.

Person Singular Plural
Taishanese Standard
Mandarin Taishanese Standard
transliteration IPA transliteration IPA
First ngoi (我) [ŋɔɪ˧] ngo5 (我) wǒ (我) ngoi (呆/我) [ŋɔɪ˨˩] ngo5 dei6 (我地/我哋/我等) wǒmen (我们/我們)
Second ni (你) [nɪ˧] nei5 (你) nǐ (你) niek (聶/偌) [nɪɛk˨˩] nei5 dei6 (你地/你哋/你等) nǐmen (你们/你們)
Third kui (佢) [kʰuɪ˧] keoi5 (佢) tā (他) kiek (劇/𠳞/佉) [kʰɪɛk˨˩] keoi5 dei6 (佢地/佢哋/佢等) tāmen (他们/他們)

See also


  • (Ph.D. Dissertation)
  • (Ph.D. Dissertation)
  1. ^
  2. ^ (Yang 1999)
  3. ^ (Don 1882)
  4. ^ a b (Chen 2000)
  5. ^ a b c (Cheng 1973)
  6. ^ Cantonese speakers have been shown to understand only about 30% of what they hear in Taishanese (Szeto 2000)
  7. ^ (Yiu 1946)
  8. ^ a b (Yu 2007)
  9. ^ (Anderson 1978)
  10. ^ a b (Lee 1987)
  11. ^ (Defense Language Institute 1964)
  12. ^
  13. ^ (Hom 1983)
  14. ^ (Light 1986)
  15. ^ (McCoy 1966)
  16. ^ (Hom 1987)
  17. ^ (Grimes 1996)
  18. ^ (Him 1980)
  19. ^ (Hsu 2000)
  20. ^ Taishan (Hoisanese Sanctuary) from
  21. ^ (Chung 2007)
  22. ^ Taishan International Web
  23. ^ Although the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed by the signing of the Magnuson Act in 1943, immigration from China was still limited to only 2% of the number of Chinese already living in the United States (Hsu 2000)
  24. ^ a b (Ramsey 1987)
  25. ^ (Ladefoged & Maddieson 1996)
  26. ^ (Pulleyblank 1984)
  27. ^ a b (Wong 1982)
  28. ^ Chao's tone numbers are generally used in the literature. Each tone has two numbers, the first denotes the pitch level at the beginning of the tone, and the second denotes the pitch level at the end of the tone. Cheng modified the numerical range from 1 (lowest) to 7 (highest): high tone as 66, mid tone as 44, and low tone as 22. In this article Chao's tone letters are used, as they've been adopted by the IPA.
  29. ^ (Bauer & Benedict 1997)
  30. ^ (Yip 2002)

External links

  • Includes short grammatical overview of Hoisanese.
  • Taishanese Resources Website
  • Taishanese Language Blog
  • Taishanese Language Blog
  • You can download the Defense Language Institute's 'Chinese-Cantonese (Toishan) Basic Course' audio and text material here
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