Language-related Myths: We are Taiwaner, not Taiwanese!

No, you are lacking a wider horizon.

Every once in a while there is a small wave of media reports and e-mails explaining that the people of Taiwan should call themselves “Taiwaner” in English instead of “Taiwanese” because (Sit down, fasten your seat belt and take a Valium.) “the British used the ‘-ese’ suffix only on nations they look down upon, and we don’t want other people to look down on us”.

Please do not buy into this crap. Think. India had been a British colony. Where are the “Indianese”? Japan had never been a British colony, but the people there are called “Japanese” – and strangely refuse to complain about it. There appear to be quirks in the “-ese” system these claims are based upon, so maybe we should try to find out where the “-ese” really comes from…

It does not worry me much to be confronted with these claims. Somebody makes a weird statement almost every day here in Taiwan on TV or in the papers. What worries me, is that this claim is supported even by language-related people. They should know better. Unfortunately, quite a few only learned (or memorised) their one or two foreign languages and do not care much for anything beyond that. But it would help here.

Taiwan has a nickname – Formosa. The full nickname is actually “La ilha de Formosa”, and most Taiwanese know that this comes from the Portuguese language. Why? Because the Portuguese were the first Westerners to sail by the island, in 1544. This means that other countries learned from the Portuguese about their discoveries.

Where the Portuguese were the first to discover a place, they did of course also give the place and the people a name. And now let us have a look at the Portuguese language. Do you know what “English” becomes in Portuguese? “Inglês.” And their own language? Português.

You may notice the similarity between the Portuguese word for Portuguese and the English word for it. Guess why: The Portuguese told the British what their language is called and the British adjusted that word for their language, so “português” became “Portuguese”. But why did “inglês” not become “Englese” then? Simple: The British were probably smart enough to already know what language they were speaking…

But let us get back to some Portuguese: chinês, japonês. Can you guess the meaning? Yes, indeed, it is Chinese and Japanese! Do you notice a pattern? Good…

So next time someone tries to convince you to use “Taiwaner” instead of “Taiwanese” to show that you do not let those British snobs look down on you, tell those people to direct their anger at the Portuguese, not the British. But then, hey, they are Portuguese! They surely feel inferior to the British, so maybe they want to join the club and become… hmm… Portugs? Portugus? Ports?

All this would not happen if some people would care to expand their horizon a bit. But whom should we laugh about then? And so I wait for the next person demanding that I should call him “Taiwaner” instead of “Taiwanese”…