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”.

Metathe-what?

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?

打狗。
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.

“Already” / “Liao” as aspect marker in Singlish

This is an essay I wrote for LING-UA 36 Indo-European Syntax at New York University.

Despite the name, Indo-European Syntax at NYU is much more of a historical linguistics class than a syntax class, reflecting the expertise of Professor John Costello.

Even though Singlish appears to have nothing to do with Proto-Indo-European syntax, this oddball topic was accepted as an essay for this class, because it studies a change in syntax resulting from language contact (another one of Professor Costello's research interests), in which one of the languages in contact is Indo-European.

This essay is not a research essay, but rather an outline of ideas. As a result, it does not meet the burden of proof required of a proper research paper; temper your expectations accordingly.

To the best of my knowledge, the syntax of this aspect marker has never been described in this way, although if that is not the case, please let me know.


Singlish is an English-based creole language spoken in Singapore, influenced by various Chinese dialects, particularly Hokkien, Teochew and Mandarin, Malay, and to a lesser degree, languages from the Indian subcontinent. It is often thought of as "English with Chinese syntax", although as we will see in this essay, this is not strictly true. In this essay, I will analyze the function of the word "already", as well as the closely related “liao”, as it is used in Singlish.

“Liao” is the Hokkien cognate of Mandarin Chinese 了 (lè), which has two primary functions in Mandarin Chinese: it can mark completion, thus functioning as a perfective aspect marker, or it can indicate a change of state, functioning as an inceptive or inchoative aspect marker (Ross and Sheng Ma 62, 226, 236). “Liao” in Singlish has these two functions as well. In Singlish, “already” is used in the same way as “liao”; “liao” can always be replaced with “already” except in one case, and the reverse substitution of “liao” for “already” is not always valid, as we will see in this essay.

A common and unambiguous use of Singlish "already" or “liao” can be seen in the following sentence: "Eat already or not?" / “Eat liao or not?” This question, meaning "Have you eaten?", corresponds exactly, in terms of syntax, to the Mandarin Chinese equivalent "吃了没有?” (chī lè méi yǒu):

Eat already or not?
没有?
verb perfective marker negation

In this sentence, “already” / “liao” corresponds to Chinese 了. In the Mandarin sentence, 了 marks completion and is thus a perfective aspect marker. “Already” / “liao” similarly functions as a perfective aspect marker in this sentence.

An ambiguous use of “already” / “liao”, however, can be seen here:

I eat already
pronoun verb marker

In both the Singlish and Chinese sentences, “already” / “liao” / 了 might mark completion, or might mark change of state. If “already” / “liao” / 了 are being used to mark completion, the sentences mean “I ate”; if they are being used to mark a change of state, then the sentences mean “I am about to eat” and “already” / “liao” / 了 therefore instead mark the inchoative aspect.

In Singlish, there are ways to disambiguate the meaning of the sentence, such as through the use of mood particles or interjections. It should be noted that in these situations, the primary function of these mood particles or interjections is not to disambiguate “already”, but rather that because they add additional context, they have the side effect of disambiguating “already” / “liao”. For example:

Eh I eat already can?
interjection pronoun verb marker question particle

(It is possible to contrive a scenario in which the above sentence means “I ate”, but it is a sufficiently marginal case that I will not consider it in this essay.)

In this example, the addition of the interjection “eh”, used to catch the attention of the listener, and the question particle “can?”, used in this case to ask for permission, provide sufficient context to determine that the speaker is asking for permission to begin eating, and therefore “already” / “liao” in this sentence serves as an inchoative aspect marker. A similar (but not syntactically identical) sentence in Mandarin Chinese, with the same meaning, would look like this:

可以 吗?
I can eat (marker) (question particle)
pronoun modal verb verb marker question particle

In the example above, 了 serves as an inchoative aspect marker as well.

Yeah I eat already
interjection pronoun verb marker

In the above sentence, the addition of the affirmative “yeah” suggests that the speaker is answering a question, possibly the question “Eat already or not?” or “Have you eaten?” and “already” here can only be a perfective aspect marker.

Another way to disambiguate the meaning of the sentence “I eat already” is to move “already” from sentence-final position to pre-verb position and to add “liao” in sentence-final position:

I already eat liao
已经
pronoun adverb verb marker

He already go home (liao)
已经
pronoun adverb verb object/adverb marker

(In the first example, “liao” is not optional, whereas in the second, “liao” is optional; in both Mandarin sentences, 了 is required. At the moment, I do not have an explanation for why “liao” is optional in some cases and required in others.)

In these examples, the syntactical correspondence with the Chinese sentence suggests that pre-verb “already” is not an aspect marker but is instead an adverb, corresponding to Mandarin 已经 (yǐ jīng). In this situation, the presence of adverbial “already” indicates that the action occurred in the past, and “liao” is therefore a perfective aspect marker. We can safely conclude that in Singlish, whenever “already” appears in pre-verb position, it is parsed as an adverb rather than as an aspect marker and the perfective aspect is implied, regardless of whether the verb is conjugated in the past tense, and if sentence-final “liao” is also present, it marks the perfective rather than inchoative aspect. Because pre-verb “already” corresponds to Mandarin 已经 rather than Mandarin 了, the Hokkien “liao” can never appear in pre-verb position. Additionally, “I already eat already” is understood but generally not accepted, due to the repetition of “already”. This is the only scenario in which “liao” cannot be replaced by “already”: when “already” appears elsewhere in the clause as an adverb.

Other verbs or adverbs can be used to disambiguate the function of “already” / “liao”. For example, “start” implies that “already” / “liao” marks the inchoative aspect:

I start eating already
开始
pronoun auxiliary verb non-finite verb form marker

Conversely, “finish” implies that “already” / “liao” marks the perfective aspect:

I finish eating already
pronoun auxiliary verb non-finite verb form marker

The above sentence has no syntactic equivalent in Mandarin. However, curiously, in Singlish, “finish” can be used as an adverb, analogous to Mandarin 完 (wán):

I eat finish already
pronoun verb adverb marker

Throughout this essay I have emphasized the correspondence of “already” / “liao” and Mandarin 了. However, there is one important difference between “already” / “liao” and 了: Mandarin allows the use of 了 in post-verb position, as in the following example:

已经
He already eat (marker) rice
pronoun adverb verb marker object
He has already eaten.

Singlish, however, never admits “already” / “liao” in post-verb position (unless that also happens to be the sentence-final position). Given that English does not admit “already” in post-verb position except after “be”, “have” (when used as an auxiliary verb) and modal verbs, I believe this is likely to be due to the influence of English syntax.

An additional note is necessary: in his thesis, Lim Heng Liang found there is no statistically significant difference between Chinese and Malay speakers in terms of which positions of “already” were acceptable for a given aspect, except for perfective sentence-initial “already”, which Malay speakers were more likely to accept than Chinese speakers. I would like to note that “already” is in fact acceptable in sentence-initial position in English, but it seems to me that any sentence beginning with “already” is likely to be parsed by a Singlish speaker as English rather than as Singlish, and its validity as a sentence will be analyzed as such. Furthermore, Malay does admit “sudah” (already) in sentence-initial position, but a deeper analysis of such a construction is beyond the scope of this essay.

To sum up, Singlish “already” / “liao” generally functions as either a perfective or inchoative aspect marker, indicating the completion of an action or a change of state, much like 了 in Mandarin. The ambiguous aspect can be clarified by the use of verbs or adverbs, such as “start”, “finish” or even “already” itself, that imply one of these two aspects. Unlike Mandarin 了, “already” / “liao” is acceptable only in sentence-final position, not in post-verb position, possibly as a result of English not accepting “already” in the post-verb position. Additionally, “already” is also acceptable in pre-verb position in Singlish, where it is parsed as an adverb, as it would be in English, rather than as an aspect marker. As such, the syntax of word “already” is a salient example of the multiple linguistic influences present in Singlish.


Works Cited

  • Lim Heng Liang. “Creole Homogeneity in Multiple Substrate Situations: Findings from Singapore English kena, already and until.” Undergraduate thesis, National University of Singapore, 2012. Print.
  • Ross, Claudia; Sheng Ma, Jing-heng. Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.