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Learn to Read & Write Hokkien

in 10 Minutes

This page may take a while to download.

Best viewed with Google Chrome.

There are two ways to write Hokkien.

1. Chinese characters

2. Roman characters

Like all other vernacular Chinese languages such as Mandarin or Cantonese, written Hokkien was inconsistent, due to a lack of official recognition. This is because only Classical Chinese was recognised by the imperial courts. With the exception of Mandarin, which replaced Classical Chinese as the national language of China on 12 January 1920 during May Fourth Movement, all other written Chinese languages remain unstandardised.

 

It is important to note that the standardisation of written Mandarin was due to an increase in the adoption of the language by textbook publishers. [1] It was only in 2009 that the Taiwanese government sorted and published 700 recommended characters for the Hokkien language.

The oldest surviving book written in Hokkien, Le-keng-ki (Tale of the Lychee Mirror), was reprinted in 1566. It is estimated that the first publication of this book was dated even earlier [2].

Watch this film to learn the history of written vernacular languages in East Asia.

Samuel Dyer travelled from England and settled in Penang in 1827. He learned Hokkien and published the first ever Penang Tsiang-tsiu Hokkien dictionary at Anglo-Chinese College, Melaka. 

 

From 1835 onwards, Samuel Dyer collaborated with the editors and readers of the Chinese Repository to devise a spelling system for all Chinese languages and this attempt laid the foundation for the spelling system. 

 

Samuel Dyer and his friend, John Stronach, employed the spelling system to translate Aesop's Fables into Hokkien and Teochew. The book was published in Singapore in 1843. [3] 

 

The system continued to evolve and later became known as Peh-oe-ji. The Taiwanese government improvised and standardised it in 2006 to cover major accental differences and renamed it as Tâi-lô.

Consonants

Visit this page with a computer browser to access all contents and listen to audio tracks.

Vowels

The spelling system is similar to Malay with 5 differences:

1. ts- is similar to the z- and j- of Mandarin's Pinyin;tsh- is similar to the c- and q- of Mandarin's Pinyin

2. -o- as in 'brother' ko (哥);-oo- (widen your mouth bigger) as in "father's sister" koo (姑)

3. -e- as in 'short' e (矮);-ee- (widen your mouth bigger) as in 'fake' kee (假)

4. -nn is to mark nasal sounds e.g. inn 'round' (圓), kann 'daring' (敢), sann 'three' (三)

5. -h is a glottal stop;-k is a velar stop

Can you tell the difference between 

-h and -k?

Listen carefully to the recordings:

Eight people (peh-lâng)

Forcing people (pek-lâng)

Hitting people (phah-lâng)

Drying clothes (pha̍k-sann)

Meat dumpling (bah-tsàng)

Eye (ba̍k-tsiu)

Strolling around (se̍h-se̍h)

Ripe (se̍k-se̍k)

Narrow road (lōo-e̍h)

Bathing (tsâng-ek)

Visit this page with a computer browser to access all contents and listen to audio tracks.

Tones

This memorisation technique is derived from the traditional rhyme dictionaries such as Lui-im Miau-ngoo (A Good Guide to the Sound of Words) of Tsuan-tsiu, Lui-tsip Nga-siok-thong Sip-ngoo-im (Compilation of the Fifteen Elegant and Vulgar Sounds) of Tsiang-tsiu etc. The schools taught Hokkien tones with this method before Mandarin became the medium of instruction.

 

Some dialects of Hokkien, such as those spoken in Tsuan-tsiu 泉州 in Fujian, the old Lok-kang 鹿港 accent in Taiwan and Teochew in Guangdong, have eight distinctive tone classes.

 

In the prestigious Taiwanese Hokkien accent, there is no difference between the second and sixth tone classes leaving it with seven distinctive tones. Whereas in Penang Hokkien, there is no difference between the second and sixth, and the third and seventh tones classes, leaving it with only six tones. [4]

Tsuan-tsiu Hokkien

Teochew

​Taiwanese Hokkien

Penang Hokkien

Tone Sandhi Rules

A syllable in the spoken language generally changes its tone if it precedes another syllable. They are transposed according to the following rules:

  5 7 3 2 1 7  

⚠️ Some people change directly from 3 to 1.

  4  8  

Can you tell the difference between words pronounced in their 'original tones' and 'sandhied tones'?

Listen carefully to the recordings:

Bicycle (kha-ta̍h-tshia)

Department store (pah-huè kong-si)

Beef Kue-tiau Soup (gû-bah kué-tiâu thng)

in original tone

in sandhied tones

⚠️ Syllables shall be marked in their original tones in writing.

Visit this page with a computer browser to access all contents and listen to audio tracks.

Audio voiced by Sim Tze Wei.

How to type Hokkien with a computer?

Steps:

1. Install FHL language input.

2. Select 'Taigi-Hakka IME'.

3. Select 'Edit Tâi-gí User Phrases'.

4. Download Northern Malaysia vocabulary. 

5. Copy vocabulary here and click 'Save'.

Tips:

1. Customise your output in Preferences.

2. Press SPACEBAR to choose words.

3. Press SHIFT + Numbers to type characters in brackets.

Steps:

1. Install FHL language input.

2. Select  'Taigi - FHL Taigi-Hakka IME'.

3. Click on 'Settings'.

4. Select 'Edit Tâi-gí User Phrases'.

5. Download Northern Malaysia vocabulary.

6. Copy vocabulary here and click 'File' > 'Save'.

Tips:

1. Customise your output in Settings.

2. Press SPACEBAR to choose words.

3. Press SHIFT + Numbers to output characters in brackets.

Please download and print this document for easy reference.

You may also download the guideline published by Taiwan Ministry of Education.

References:

[1] Culp, R. 2008. Teaching Baihua: Textbook Publishing and the Production of Vernacular Language and a New Literary Canon in Early Twentieth-Century China. In Twentieth-Century China 34(1). Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 18-31.

[2] Klöter, H. 2005. Written Taiwanese. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, pp. 60.

[3] DeFrancis, J. 1972. Nationalism and Language Reform in China. New York: Octagon Books, pp. 20.

[4] Chuang, C., Chang, Y., & Hsieh, F. 2013. Complete and not-so-complete tonal neutralization in Penang Hokkien. In Proceedings of the International Conference on Phonetics of the Languages in China, pp. 54-57.