Language Reform

Academic, Language, Politics, Race

Konrad Lawson, whom I’ve long known only as the person behind the Macintosh software company Fool’s Workshop, has an excellent blog, Muninn, which I will soon be adding to my blogroll. LanguageHat brought my attention to two posts in particular: One on the creation of the Qiang ethnic minority, and another on attempts at Chinese character reform in Taiwan!

I already posted in the comments to Konrad’s second post that the level of basic literacy in Taiwan was actually probably higher than that of Mainland China at the end of the war. Over 70% of the school aged population was attending school by the end of the War. Even though the numbers had been much, much, lower as recently as the 1920s the gains in basic education during the 30s were tremendous. In addition to primary schools there were also numerous programs to provide basic Japanese language skills to the adult population. But a much more important point is that, as my friend Ann Heylen has argued in her dissertation [“Language Reform Movements in Taiwan Under Japanese Colonial Rule (1914-1936).” Catholic University Louvain (K.U.Leuven), 2001.], language reform had been a major concern of Taiwanese intellectuals during the Japanese era. Here is what she has to say:

Focusing on Taiwan under Japanese colonial rule, I shall demonstrate that this period gave birth to the linguistic underpinnings of present day Taiwanese nationalism. It found its expression in the Taiwanese elitist attempts at Chinese language reform during the 1920s and 1930s. I shall further assert that this social phenomenon was intrinsically related to colonial educational policies. The important factor was not the vehement implementation of the Japanese language, but the institutionalization of instruction in Southern Min as the intermediary language for the study of Japanese. This resulted from the Japanese educational accommodation to the linguistic reality in Taiwan, which was necessitated by the linguistic make up of pre- 1895 Taiwan society. In this respect, Japanese colonial rule of Taiwan indirectly incorporated Southern Min as a social reality in its colonization process. (p. 30-31)

Anyone interested in these issues should definitely read Ann’s thesis. Japanese era language reform issues are also discussed in Hsiau, A-chin’s excellent book: Contemporary Taiwanese Cultural Nationalism (London: Routledge, 2000). A-chin’s account of Japanese era reform movements provides a brief introduction to the issues raised in Ann’s dissertation, but I believe Ann rightly criticizes this section of the book for giving short shift to the role played by Japanese language education policy upon the reform movement.

In 2000 Ann wrote an editorial in the Taipei Times placing contemporary language reforms in a historical perspective. Unfortunately, the space limitations of this format prevented her from presenting her argument in its full complexity.

UPDATE: It is worth reading how Konrad chose the name of his site.