Speaking the tricky language of elections in Taiwan

Thu Oct 20, 2011 3:32am EDT
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By Jialu Chen

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Most politicians don't need to learn a new language to get elected, but in Taiwan it's not just what you say, it's what you say it in that can be key to getting into power.

Campaigning by candidates for January's presidential poll has thrown the spotlight on the need to know not just the official Mandarin language but also Taiwanese, which is spoken by almost 80 percent of the population. The two are mutually unintelligible.

In Taiwan, language holds many pitfalls and is intimately linked with complex social, ethnic and political divisions between city and country, the richer industrial north and the poorer rural south as well as with the island's tricky relationship with China.

"Every word you utter has the connotation 'I am part of your group, I belong to you'," said Henning Kloeter, professor and acting head of Chinese language and literature at Germany's Ruhr-Universität Bochum.

"It is therefore crucial for any politician in Taiwan to consider the linguistic background of the people and to choose languages accordingly."

Mandarin is the language of the later arrivals from the mainland, those who retreated to Taiwan with the Nationalists after their defeat in 1949 by Mao Zedong's Communists. It is also the official language of mainland China.

It symbolizes Taiwan's bond with China, and is the language of officialdom, business, academia and the social elite and predominates in the island's north.

Taiwanese, variously called Hokkien, Hoklo or Minnan, is the language of those who left China's Fujian province and settled the island from the late 17th century onwards. It is also widely spoken by overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, including in Singapore.   Continued...