How Kaohsiung Got Its Name

I went on a family holiday to Taiwan recently, and we visited Taiwan’s two largest metro areas, Taipei and Kaohsiung. Many of Taiwan’s major cities have names with relatively transparent etymologies. Taipei 臺北 táiběi, for example, means simply “Northern Taiwan”, and if I tell you that zhōng/chung 中 means “centre", nán 南 means “south” and dōng/tung 東 means “east”, then you can easily figure out that Taichung 臺中 táizhōng is in Central Taiwan, Tainan 臺南 táinán is in Southern Taiwan and Taitung 臺東 táidōng is on the eastern coast of Taiwan. The municipality surrounding Taipei proper is called Xinbei 新北 xīnběi, and if I tell you that xīn 新 means “new”, you will not be surprised to discover that its name in English is “New Taipei City”. Taoyuan 桃園 táoyuán, part of the Taipei metro area and the city that hosts northern Taiwan’s main airport, means “peach garden”. It’s pretty obvious how all of these cities got their names.

And then there’s Kaohsiung 高雄 gāoxióng, a name that means “tall and mighty”.

Naturally, I had to find out how the city of Kaohsiung got its name — and it turns out that the history of Kaohsiung’s name is a linguistic playground. Let’s go.

Beating the dog

The city known today as Kaohsiung enters the historical record sometime in the 16th century, when Hoklo immigrants from Fujian in southern China settled in the area. These immigrants referred to the area as “Takao”, a name of uncertain origin. One hypothesis is that the name comes from Siraya, the language spoken by the aboriginal Siraya people who inhabited the greater region around modern-day Kaohsiung. In this hypothesis, the name “Takao” means “bamboo forest”.

An alternate theory is that the name “Takao” comes from the name of the Makatao tribe, who were concentrated around the area of Takao itself (as opposed to the Siraya, who mostly inhabited the neighbouring regions to the east). Under this hypothesis, the name “Takao” comes from a metathesis of the word “Makatao”.


In linguistics, metathesis refers to the switching of two sounds within a word. As a kid, I pronounced “cavalry” as “calvary” a lot. In Singapore, one also often hears “film” and “phelgm” pronounced as /flɪm/ and /flɛm/ (correction: it's "phlegm", of course, and /flɛm/ is indeed how it's pronounced!). The often-mocked pronunciation “nucular” /nukjulɚ/ is a metathetic form of “nuclear” /nukliɚ/.

Although metathesis is often considered a speech error, it is a linguistic phenomenon that sometimes become a canonical part of languages. Spanish, for example, displays long-distance metathesis in many words involving /l/ and /ɾ/:

  • Latin parabola, Spanish palabra, “word”
  • Latin miraculum, Spanish milagro, “miracle”
  • Arabic al-Jazā’ir, Spanish Argelia, “Algeria”

Whatever the origin of the name “Takao”, what we know for sure is that the Hoklo immigrants wrote it in the Chinese writing system as 打狗, pronounced /tɑ̃gaʊ/ in Hokkien (tone indications not given — I’m at the limit of my personal expertise here. If you know, though, drop me a comment below!)

In Hokkien and Mandarin, 打狗 happens to mean “beating the dog”.

The Chinese Writing System

Think about the Latin alphabet for a second. The individual letters generally suggest a pronunciation. In English, we expect <k> to be pronounced /k/, <n> to be pronounced /n/ or /ŋ/, and <a> to be pronounced /a/, /æ/, or /e/. The letters by themselves, however, do not necessarily mean anything. The letters “c”, “o” and “w” do not mean anything in isolation. Only when we put them into the word “cow” do we get something meaningful, and not because the letters "cow" are inherently meaningful, but because they signify a set of sounds that in turn signifies the idea of the animal. Individual characters in the Latin writing system may carry a phonetic or phonological value, but not a semantic value.

The Chinese writing system works differently. Each written character carries both a pronunciation or a phonetic value (sometimes more than one), as well as a meaning or a semantic value. It just so happens that the two characters used to convey the pronunciation of /tɑ̃gaʊ/ also convey the meaning of “beating the dog”.

寶貝, 你在哪里?
Baby, where are you?

Beating the dog.

The Japanese Arrive

In 1895, the Chinese were forced to cede the island of Taiwan to Japan after the First Sino-Japanese War, and so began 50 years of Japanese rule in Taiwan.

The Japanese have three main writing systems: kanji, katakana and hiragana. We don’t have to go into the details of katakana and hiragana here; the system we’re interested in here is kanji. Kanji, 漢字, literally means “Han words”, which reflects its origin: the Japanese adopted the Chinese writing system to write the Japanese in.

Remember that I mentioned that Chinese characters carry both a phonetic and a semantic value? When Japanese speakers use kanji to write Japanese, they can use kanji for its phonetic value or for its semantic value.

For example, the character 高 gāo is pronounced /kaʊ/ in modern Mandarin, meaning “high” or “tall”. In Japanese, it can be pronounced /ko/, which is a borrowing based on sound, or it can be pronounced /taka/, which is a borrowing based on meaning. If it helps, imagine the Japanese thinking, “We have this word ‘taka’, which means ‘tall’ or ‘high’, but we don’t have any way to write it down. I know, let’s write it 高, like the Chinese do!”

Because of the way kanji works, many (most?) kanji in Japanese have multiple pronunciations, only one of which might resemble the corresponding Mandarin (or, in this case, Hokkien) pronunciation. In this case, the Japanese took the Hokkien pronunciation of the name 打狗 /tɑ̃gaʊ/, and noted its resemblance to a scenic area near Kyoto, which is also called “Takao” and pronounced /takao̞/. As a result, the Japanese kept the name Takao, but wrote it the Japanese way: 高雄.

Taiwan is returned to Chinese sovereignty

After World War II, Japan was made to give up its imperial possessions, and the island of Taiwan was returned to the Republic of China. This time, the Chinese kept the written form of the city’s name, 高雄, but instead pronounced it the Mandarin way /kauɕjʊŋ/, gāoxióng in Pinyin romanisation or Kaohsiung in Wade-Giles romanisation.

Today, the city’s official name is Kaohsiung 高雄, but signs and company names with Takao and 打狗 can still be seen around the city — sometimes simply as historical remnants (see: The British Consulate at Takow, Takao Railway Museum), and sometimes as markers of civic pride.

Photo credit: polanyi on flickr, CC-BY-NC 2.0 (click through for original picture on flickr)

Photo credit: polanyi on flickr, CC-BY-NC 2.0 (click through for original picture on flickr)

Photo credit: billy1125 on flickr, CC-BY 2.0 (click through for original picture on flickr)

Photo credit: billy1125 on flickr, CC-BY 2.0 (click through for original picture on flickr)

One of the most amazing things that language and writing let us do is connect to the past, and the history of Kaohsiung’s name is a particularly salient example of this.

Linguistics — it’s amazing, yo. That's the message we're trying to spread at Language Rush. Hope you enjoyed this read. Leave me any comments or questions you have!

tl;dr, if you're too lazy to read the whole thing.

tl;dr, if you're too lazy to read the whole thing.

"Want" as Future Auxiliary in Singlish

Here's a little something I noticed a while ago. Singlish allows you to do something interesting with the verb "want", but only under certain circumstances.

For those who are familiar with German or with the history of the English language, you will notice that what I am about to outline in Singlish is a parallel phenomenon to what happened in English. German "will" means English "want" (verb). Formerly, in English, "will" did use to mean "want", and you can see this sense of the word in "last will and testament", or "I willed it into existence", or "where there's a will, there's a way." Now, of course, we primarily use "will" in English as a future auxiliary, to indicate that an action will be happening in the future.

This particular semantic drift most likely occurred because if you want something, it is in the future, not in the present. (As for why something similar didn't happen in German: language change is explainable but not predictable.)

I confess, the first time I was given this explanation, part of me refused to accept it. Of course my brain understood why it was likely, but the fact that "will" is already grammaticalised as a future auxiliary blinded me to the process - I could not conceive of making that leap from "will" as in "want" to "will" as in future tense. I took the explanation at face value but didn't like it.

So imagine how intrigued I was when, while working on a documentary, this gem of a Singlish sentence showed up in the Singaporean musical I was following:

"I eat until I want to bao zha (explode) already!"

Any Singlish speaker will recognise this as a valid construction. "Want" here, however, does not indicate volition. You cannot substitute "would like" in the sentence: "I would like to explode." Neither can you substitute "will": "I eat until I will explode." The only acceptable substitution is the "going to" future: "I eat until I [am] going to explode already."

The first explanation is that Singlish acquired this construction from Chinese, and you can see it in a direct translation:

"I eat until I want to explode already!"

The question, then, is whether Chinese uses this construction to mark the future. The answer is: it does. Sort of.

As with many things in Chinese, the exact meaning is context-dependent, but take me at my word for now:

Lit: I want to go to school already.
Meaning: I'm going to go to school now.

Lit: We want to eat already.
Meaning: We are going to eat now.

Lit: They want to go already.
Meaning: They are going to go now.

Other meanings are possible, but I don't want to get too much into the complexities here. The important thing is, in all three cases, a Singlish speaker can hear the literal translation and accept the dynamic translation as meaning the same thing.

Without actually conducting full-scale research on this, my guess is that it is the "already" inchoative aspect marker that does the trick - when used together with "already", "want" is focused from a generalised volition down to a specific, immediate-future time frame. Take away the "already" or the 了, and suddenly volition becomes the preferred interpretation in almost any context:

Lit: I want to go to school.
Meaning: I want to go to school.

Lit: We want to eat.
Meaning: We want to eat.

Lit: They want to go.
Meaning: They want to go.

Curiously, not all verbs can be used in all meanings with this construction. Not to be deliberately crude or morbid, but I think Singlish speakers will recognise these:

"I work until I want to die already."
"I want to vomit blood already."

The volition interpretation is not possible in the above sentences, in the same way it is not possible to willingly want or choose to explode.

The thing is, of course, when the verb has a neutral or positive connotation it is much easier to assume that volition is intended. For example, you would have no issues with the usual English definition of "want" in these sentences:

"I want to sleep already."
"I tired until I want to sleep already."

In fact, in the second sentence above, it is not possible to substitute "want" with the "going to" future. Volition is pretty much the only interpretation that makes sense.

The answer to untangling this construction lies somewhere in Chinese grammar. That's as far as I've worked it out in my head.