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台山话 / 臺山話
Native toChina, overseas communities particularly in United States and Canada
RegionSze Yup, the Pearl River Delta; historic Chinese communities in California and New York City, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver
Native speakers
(undated figure of 3+ million[citation needed])
Language codes
ISO 639-3
ISO 639-6tisa
Traditional Chinese臺山話
Simplified Chinese台山话

Taishanese (simplified Chinese: 台山话; traditional Chinese: 臺山話; pinyin: Táishān huà; Jyutping: toi4 saan1 waa2), alternatively romanized in Cantonese as Toishanese or Toisanese, in local dialect as Hoisanese or Hoisan-wa, is a variety of Yue Chinese native to Taishan, Guangdong. Although it is related to Cantonese, Taishanese has little mutual intelligibility with the latter. Taishanese is also spoken throughout Sze Yup (which includes Taishan), located on the western fringe of the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong China. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, most of the Chinese emigration to North America originated from Sze Yup (or Siyi in the pinyin romanization of Standard Mandarin Chinese), the area where this variety is natively spoken.[1] Thus, up to the mid-20th century, Taishanese was the dominant variety of the Chinese language spoken in Chinatowns in Canada and the United States. It was formerly the lingua franca of the overseas Chinese residing in the United States.[2]


The earliest linguistic studies refer to the dialect of Llin-nen or Xinning (traditional Chinese: 新寧; simplified Chinese: 新宁).[3] Xinning was renamed Taishan in 1914, and linguistic literature has since generally referred to the local dialect as the Taishan dialect, a term based on the pinyin romanization of Standard Mandarin Chinese pronunciation.[4][5][6][7][8][9] Alternative names have also been used. The term Toishan is a convention used by the United States Postal Service,[10] the Defense Language Institute[11] and the 2000 United States Census.[12] The terms Toishan, Toisan, and Toisaan are all based on Cantonese pronunciation and are also frequently found in linguistic and non-linguistic literature.[13][14][15][16] Hoisan is a term based on the local pronunciation, although it is not generally used in published literature.[17]

These terms have also been anglicized with the suffix -ese: Taishanese, Toishanese, and Toisanese. Of the previous three terms, Taishanese is most commonly used in academic literature, to about the same extent as the term Taishan dialect.[18][19] The terms Hoisanese and Hoisan-wa[20] do appear in print literature, although they are used more on the internet.[21][22]

Another term used is Sìyì (Sze Yup or Seiyap in Cantonese romanization; Chinese: 四邑; lit. 'four towns'). Sìyì or Sze Yup refers to a previous administrative division in the Pearl River Delta consisting of the four counties of Taishan, Kaiping, Enping and Xinhui. In 1983, a fifth county (Heshan) was added to the Jiangmen prefecture; so whereas the term Sìyì has become an anachronism, the older term Sze Yup remains in current use in overseas Chinese communities where it is their ancestral home. The term Wuyi (Chinese: 五邑), literally "five counties", refers to the modern administrative region, but this term is not used to refer to Taishanese.


Taishanese originates from the Taishan region, where it is spoken. Taishanese can also be seen as a group of very closely related, mutually intelligible dialects spoken in the various towns and villages in and around Siyi (the four counties of Toishan, Hoiping, Yanping, Sunwui, phonetized in Cantonese; while "Taishan, Kaiping, Enping and Xinhui" as above, is phonetizied in Mandarin).

A vast number of Taishanese immigrants journeyed worldwide through the Taishan diaspora. The Taishan region was a major source of Chinese immigrants through continental Americas from the late-19th to mid-20th centuries. Taishanese was the predominant dialect spoken by the 19th-century Chinese builders of railroads in North America.[23] Approximately 1.3 million people are estimated to have origins in Taishan.[24] Prior to the signing of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which allowed new waves of Chinese immigrants,[25] Taishanese was the dominant dialect spoken in Chinatowns across North America.[20]

Taishanese is still spoken in many Chinatowns throughout North America, including those of San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, New York City, Boston, Vancouver, Toronto, Chicago, and Montreal by older generations of Chinese immigrants and their children, but is today being supplanted by mainstream Cantonese and increasingly by Mandarin in both older and newer Chinese communities alike, across the continent.[26]

Relationship with Cantonese

Taishanese is a dialect of the Yue branch of Chinese, which also includes Cantonese. However, due to ambiguities in the meaning of "Cantonese" in the English language, as it can refer to both the greater Yue dialect group or its prestige standard (Standard Cantonese), "Taishanese" and "Cantonese" are commonly used in mutually exclusive contexts, i.e. Taishanese is treated separately from "Cantonese". Despite the closeness of the two, they are hardly mutually intelligible.[27][28][29]

The phonology of Taishanese bears a lot of resemblance to Cantonese, since both of them are part of the same Yue branch. Like other Yue dialects, such as the Goulou dialects, Taishanese pronunciation and vocabulary may sometimes differ greatly from Cantonese. Although Taishan stands only 60 miles (100 km) from the city of Guangzhou, they are separated by numerous rivers, and the dialect of Taishan is among the most linguistically distant Yue dialects from the Guangzhou dialect.[30]

Standard Cantonese functions as a lingua franca in Guangdong province, and speakers of other Chinese varieties (such as Chaozhou, Minnan, Hakka) living in Guangdong may also speak Cantonese. On the other hand, Standard Mandarin Chinese is the standard language of the People's Republic of China and the only legally allowed medium for teaching in schools throughout most of the country (except in minority areas), so residents of Taishan speak Mandarin as well. Although the Chinese government has been making great efforts to popularize Mandarin by administrative means, most Taishan residents do not speak Mandarin in their daily lives, but treat it as a second language, with Cantonese being the lingua franca of their region.[citation needed]


Initial consonants

There are 19 to 23 initials consonants (or onsets) in Taishanese, which is shown in the chart below in IPA:

Labial Dental/
Palatal Velar Glottal
plain sibilant plain
Nasal m1 n1 ŋ1
Stop prenasalized voiced ᵐb1 ⁿd1 ᵑɡ1
plain p t t͡s2 t͡ɕ2 k ʔ
aspirated t͡sʰ2 t͡ɕʰ2
Fricative voiceless f ɬ s2 ɕ2 h
voiced v ʒ3
Approximant l j3,4 w5
  1. The respective nasal onsets (/m/, /n/, and /ŋ/) are allophones of the pre-nasalized voiced stop onsets (/ᵐb/, /ⁿd/, and /ᵑɡ/). The velar nasal (ŋ) sound occurs in both syllable initial and syllable final positions. There is a tendency toward denasalization for initial ŋ as in 耳 /ŋi/ [ŋgi] ‘ear’, 飲/饮 /ŋim/ [ŋgim] ‘to drink’,魚 /ŋuy/ [ŋgui] ‘fish’ and 月 /ŋut/ [ŋgut] ‘moon’. In words like 牙 /ŋa/ ‘tooth’ and 我 /ŋoy/, denasalization does not seem to take place. In syllable final position following the rounded vowel [o], /ŋ/ is usually modified by a lip-rounding. Examples are: 東 uŋ ‘east’ and、紅Huŋ ‘red’.
  2. The palatal sibilants (/t͡ɕ/, /t͡ɕʰ/, and /ɕ/) are allophones of the respective alveolar sibilants (/t͡s/, /t͡sʰ/, and /s/) when the first vowel of the final consonant is high (/i/ and /u/).
  3. The palatal approximate (/j/) is an allophone of the voiced fricative sibilant initial (/ʒ/).
  4. The palatal approximate (/j/) can be a semivowel of the vowel /i/ when used as a glide.
  5. The labio-velar approximate (/w/) can be a semivowel of the vowel /u/ when used as a glide.


There are about seven different vowels in Taishanese:

  Front Central Back
Close /i/1 /u/2
Close-Mid /e/ /ə/3
Open-Mid /ɛ/ /ɔ/
Open /a/
  1. The closed front vowel (/i/) can be a palatal approximant (/j/) as a semivowel.
  2. The closed back vowel (/u/) can be a labiovelar approximant (/w/) as a semivowel.
  3. The rounding of the schwa /ə/ is variable.

Final consonants

The final consonant (or rime) occurs after the initial sound, which consists of a medial, a nucleus, and a coda. There are three medial (or glides) in Taishanese that occur after the initial sound: null or no medial, /i/, or /u/. There are five main vowels after the medial: /a/, /e/, /i/, /u/, and null or no vowel. There are nine main codas at the end of the final: null or no coda, /i/, /u/, /m/, /n/, /ŋ/, /p/, /t/, and /k/.

Nucleus -a- -e- -ɵ~ə- -i- -u- -∅-
Medial ∅- i- u- ∅- ∅- ∅- ∅-
Coda -∅ [a] [iɛ] [uɔ] [i] [u]
-i [ai] [uɔi] [ei] [ui]
-u [au] [iau] [eu] [iu]
-m [am] [iam] [em] [im] [m]
-n [an] [uɔn] [en] [in] [un]
[aŋ] [iaŋ] [ɔŋ] [ɵŋ] ~ [əŋ]
-p [ap] [iap] [ep] [ip]
-t [at] [uɔt] [et] [ɵt] ~ [ət] [it] [ut]
-k [ak] [iak] [ɔk] [ɵk] ~ [ək]


Taishanese is tonal. There are five contrastive lexical tones: high, mid, low, mid falling, and low falling.[5] In at least one Taishanese dialect, the two falling tones have merged into a low falling tone.[31] There is no tone sandhi.[10]

Tone Tone contour[32] Example Changed tone Chao Number Jyutping tone number[citation needed]
high (yin shang) ˥ (55) hau˥ 口 (mouth) (none) - 2
mid (yin ping) ˧ (33) hau˧ 偷 (to steal) mid rising ˧˥ (35) 1
low (yang ping) ˨ or ˩ (22 or 11) hau˨ 頭 (head) low rising ˨˥ (25) 4
mid falling ˧˩ (31) hau˧˩ 皓 (bright) mid dipping ˧˨˥ (325) 6
low falling (yang shang) ˨˩ (21) hau˨˩ 厚 (thick) low dipping ˨˩˥ (215) 5

Taishanese has four changed tones: mid rising, low rising, mid dipping and low dipping. These tones are called changed tones because they are the product of morphological processes (e.g. pluralization of pronouns) on four of the lexical tones. These tones have been analyzed as the addition of a high floating tone to the end of the mid, low, mid falling and low falling tones.[8][31][33][34] The high endpoint of the changed tone often reaches an even higher pitch than the level high tone; this fact has led to the proposal of an expanded number of pitch levels for Taishanese tones.[5] The changed tone can change the meaning of a word, and this distinguishes the changed tones from tone sandhi, which does not change a word's meaning.[4] An example of a changed tone contrast is 刷 /tʃat˧/ (to brush) and 刷 /tʃat˨˩˥/ (a brush).

Tone name Level
˧ (33) ˥ (55) ˧ (33) ˥ (5)
˧ (3)
˨ or ˩ (22 or 11) ˨˩ (21) ˧˨ or ˧˩ (32 or 31) ˧˨ or ˧˩ (32 or 31)
˨˩ (21)

Writing system

The writing system is Chinese. Historically, the common written language of Classical Literary Chinese united and facilitated cross-dialect exchange in dynastic China, as opposed to the spoken dialects which were too different to be mutually intelligible. In the 20th century, standard written Chinese, based on Mandarin, was codified as the new written standard. As Taishanese is primarily used in speech, characters needed specifically for writing Taishanese are not standardized and may vary. Commonly seen alternatives are shown below.

The sound represented by the IPA symbol ɬ (the voiceless alveolar lateral fricative) is particularly challenging, as it has no standard romanization. The digraph "lh" used above to represent this sound is used in Totonac, Chickasaw and Choctaw, which are among several written representations in the languages that include the sound. The alternative "hl" is used in Xhosa and Zulu, while "ll" is used in Welsh. Other written forms occur as well.

The following chart compares the personal pronouns among Taishanese, Cantonese, and Mandarin. In Taishanese, the plural forms of the pronouns are formed by changing the tone,[35] whereas in Cantonese and Mandarin, a plural marker (地/哋/等 dei6 and / men, respectively) is added.

Person Singular Plural
Taishanese Standard
Mandarin Taishanese Standard
transliteration IPA transliteration IPA
First ngöi () [ŋɔɪ˧] ngo5 () wǒ () ngo̖i (哦/偔/呆) [ŋɔɪ˨˩] ngo5 dei6 (我哋) wǒmen (我们/我們)
Second nï () [nɪ˧] nei5 () nǐ () nie̖k (偌/逽/聶) [nɪɛk˨˩] nei5 dei6 (你哋) nǐmen (你们/你們)
Third küi () [kʰuɪ˧] keoi5 () tā () kie̖k (𠳞/佉/劇) [kʰɪɛk˨˩] keoi5 dei6 (佢哋) tāmen (他们/他們)

See also


  • Anderson, Stephen R. (1978), "Tone features", in Fromkin, Victoria A. (ed.), Tone: A Linguistic Survey, New York, NY: Academic Press
  • Bauer, Robert S.; Benedict, Paul K. (1997), Modern Cantonese Phonology, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter
  • Chao, Yuen-Ren (1951), "Taishan Yuliao", Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Philology (Academia Sinica), 23: 25–76
  • Chen, Matthew Y. (2000), Tone Sandhi: Patterns Across Chinese Dialects, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
  • Cheng, Teresa M. (1973), "The Phonology of Taishan", Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 1 (2): 256–322
  • Chung, L. A. (2007), "Chung: Chinese 'peasant' dialect redeemed", San Jose Mercury News, San Jose, CA
  • Defense Language Institute (1964), Chinese-Cantonese (Toishan) Basic Course, Washington, DC: Defense Language Institute
  • Don, Alexander (1882), "The Lin-nen variation of Chinese", China Review: 236–247
  • Him, Kam Tak (1980), "Semantic-Tonal Processes in Cantonese, Taishanese, Bobai and Siamese", Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 8 (2): 205–240
  • Hom, Marlon Kau (1983), "Some Cantonese Folksongs on the American Experience", Western Folklore, Western Folklore, Vol. 42, No. 2, 42 (2): 126–139, doi:10.2307/1499969, JSTOR 1499969
  • Hom, Marlon Kau (1987), Songs of Gold Mountain: Cantonese Rhymes from San Francisco, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press
  • Hsu, Madeline Y. (2000), Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home: Transnationalism and Migration between the United States and China, 1882-1943, Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press
  • Ladefoged, Peter; Maddieson, Ian (1996), The Sounds of the World's Languages, Blackwell Publishing, p. 203, ISBN 0-631-19815-6
  • Lee, Gina (1987), "A Study of Toishan F0", Ohio State University Working Papers in Linguistics, 36: 16–30
  • Leung, Genevieve Yuek-Ling (2012), Hoisan-wa reclaimed: Chinese American language maintenance and language ideology in historical and contemporary sociolinguistic perspective, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, pp. 1–237 (Ph.D. Dissertation)
  • Light, Timothy (1986), "Toishan Affixal Aspects", in McCoy, John; Light, Timothy (eds.), Contributions to Sino-Tibetan Studies, Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, pp. 415–425
  • Ma, Laurence; Cartier, Carolyn L., eds. (2003), The Chinese Diaspora: Space, Place, Mobility, and Identity, Rowman & Littlefield, p. 57, ISBN 0-7425-1756-X
  • McCoy, John (1966), Szeyap Data for a First Approximation of Proto-Cantonese, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University (Ph.D. Dissertation)
  • Ramsey, S. Robert (1987), The Languages of China, Princeton University Press, pp. 23–104, ISBN 0-691-06694-9
  • Pulleyblank, Edwin (1984), Middle Chinese: A Study in Historical Phonology, UBC Press, p. 31, ISBN 0-7748-0192-1
  • Szeto, Cecilia (2000), "Testing intelligibility among Sinitic dialects" (PDF), Proceedings of ALS2K, the 2000 Conference of the Australian Linguistic Society, retrieved 2008-09-06
  • Wong, Maurice Kuen-shing (1982), Tone Change in Cantonese, Champaign, IL: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Yang, Fenggang (1999), Chinese Christians in America: Conversion, Assimilation, and Adhesive Identities, Penn State Press, p. 39
  • Yip, Moira (2002), Tone, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
  • Yiu, T'ung (1946), The T'ai-Shan Dialect, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University (Ph.D. Dissertation)
  • Yu, Alan (2007), "Understanding near mergers: The case of morphological tone in Cantonese", Phonology, 24 (1): 187–214, doi:10.1017/S0952675707001157, S2CID 18090490
  • Yue-Hashimoto 余, Anne O. 霭芹 (2005), The Dancun Dialect of Taishan 台山淡村方言研究, Language Information Sciences Research Centre, City University of Hong Kong, ISBN 962-442-279-6
  1. ^ Peter Kwong and Dusanka Miscevic (2005). Chinese America: the untold story of America's oldest new community. The New Press. ISBN 978-1-56584-962-4.
  2. ^ (Yang 1999)
  3. ^ (Don 1882)
  4. ^ a b (Chen 2000)
  5. ^ a b c (Cheng 1973)
  6. ^ Cantonese speakers have been shown to understand only about 31.3% of what they hear in Taishanese (Szeto 2000)
  7. ^ (Yiu 1946)
  8. ^ a b (Yu 2007)
  9. ^ (Anderson 1978)
  10. ^ a b (Lee 1987)
  11. ^ (Defense Language Institute 1964)
  12. ^ "Language code list" (PDF). United States Census, 2000. University of Michigan Library. Archived from the original (PDF) on June 2, 2008.
  13. ^ (Hom 1983)
  14. ^ (Light 1986)
  15. ^ (McCoy 1966)
  16. ^ (Hom 1987)
  17. ^ (Grimes 1996)
  18. ^ (Him 1980)
  19. ^ (Hsu 2000)
  20. ^ a b (Leung 2012)
  21. ^ Taishan (Hoisanese Sanctuary) Archived 2011-07-19 at the Wayback Machine from
  22. ^ (Chung 2007)
  23. ^ Chan, Josie (2008). "Who Built the Canadian Pacific Railway? Chinese Workers from Hoisan". S2CID 162063234. Retrieved 22 April 2022.
  24. ^ "Taishan International Web". Archived from the original on June 10, 2008.
  25. ^ Although the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed by the signing of the Magnuson Act in 1943, immigration from China was still limited to only 2% of the number of Chinese already living in the United States (Hsu 2000)
  26. ^
  27. ^ Szeto, Cecilia (2001), "Testing intelligibility among Sinitic dialects" (PDF), in Allan, Keith; Henderson, John (eds.), Proceedings of ALS2k, the 2000 Conference of the Australian Linguistic Society, retrieved 5 Jan 2014
  28. ^ Phonology of Cantonese - Page 192 Oi-kan Yue Hashimoto - 1972 "... affricates and aspirated stops into consonant clusters is for external comparative purposes, because the Cantonese aspirated stops correspond to /h/ and some of the Cantonese affricates correspond to stops in many Siyi (Seiyap) dialects."
  29. ^ Language in the USA - Page 217 Charles A. Ferguson, Shirley Brice Heath, David Hwang - 1981 "Even the kind of Cantonese which the Chinese Americans speak causes difficulties, because most of them have come from the rural Seiyap districts southwest of Canton and speak dialects of that region rather than the Standard Cantonese of the city"
  30. ^ Ramsey 1987, p. 23.
  31. ^ a b (Wong 1982)
  32. ^ Chao's tone numbers are generally used in the literature. Each tone has two numbers, the first denotes the pitch level at the beginning of the tone, and the second denotes the pitch level at the end of the tone. Cheng modified the numerical range from 1 (lowest) to 7 (highest): high tone as 66, mid tone as 44, and low tone as 22. In this article Chao's tone letters are used, as they've been adopted by the IPA.
  33. ^ (Bauer & Benedict 1997)
  34. ^ (Yip 2002)
  35. ^ Ramsey 1987, p. 104.