Taiwan fetes foreigners with simplified writing system

A woman sits beside her stall at the Shilin night market in Taipei July 15, 2008. REUTERS/Nicky Loh

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan has adopted a common Roman alphabet system to spell Chinese-language names, ending decades of confusion among non-native readers, and will change signs around the island next year, an official said on Thursday.

The cabinet picked the widely used “hanyu pinyin” to spell proper nouns that locals read as Chinese characters, dumping a jumble of less common Romanized styles that stumped people faced with signs, brochures and other translated material.

“This brings us in line with international standards,” said Chen Hsueh-yu, executive secretary of the Taiwan education ministry’s National Language Centre. “Foreigners reading signs won’t say ‘I don’t understand’ anymore.”

Taiwan’s alphabet shift squares with new President Ma Ying-jeou’s effort to internationalize the island for commerce and travel following complaints from business groups.

International organizations, foreign libraries and just about all of China use “hanyu pinyin”. Ma’s predecessor resisted the writing system to snub China, which claims sovereignty over the self-ruled island, critics say.

Signs currently use different spellings for the same roads and towns. Taipei highway signs, for example, say “Minquan Road” as well as “Minchuan Road” and “Binjiang Street” as well as “Pin Chiang Street” to refer to the same street.

“The government has adopted several (spelling) systems and that has made it difficult for foreigners to read,” said European Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman Su Chueh-yu. The chamber has lobbied for the change since 2004. “So it’s about time,” Su said.

From the beginning of 2009, after the government publishes a “hanyu pinyin” spelling guide and calculates the cost of switching over, signs throughout Taiwan must change, Chen said.

Reporting by Ralph Jennings; Editing by Valerie Lee