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Language, Literacy and Power: A Comparative Study of Taiwan and Vietnam

 Wi-vun T. Chiung
University of Texas at Arlington


In Han sphere, including Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and China, the Han characters and their classical Han writing format served as the high language in terms of diglossia and digraphia. Although several domestic scripts have been devised, they could hardly replace the orthodox status of Han writing which was maintained by the hierarchical elites in the sphere. However, great changes came with the advent of the 20th century, in which easy-learned scripts, such as Vietnamese Chu Quoc Ngu Vietnam, Korean Hangul, and Japanese Kana, were being substituted for the traditional Han writing.

Both Taiwan and Vietnam were introduced to romanized writing systems by Western missionaries in the 17th century. Generally speaking, roman script is considered an easy-learned orthography in contrast to the complicated Han characters. With this strength, it enabled roman script to be widely accepted by the common people outside the Han character-educated elites.  Although roman script is easy to learn to read and write, romanization in Taiwan and Vietnam came to two different outcomes in the 20th century. The romanized Vietnamese Chu Quoc Ngu was recognized as the only official writing system in 1945, while the use of romanization in Taiwan is still limited to church activities and the Taibun circle.

This paper examines the roles of elites and the factors affecting language and orthographic transitions in the case of romanization in Taiwan and Vietnam. Both internal and external factors have contributed to the different outcomes: internal factors include the general publicˇ¦s demands for literacy and anti-feudal hierarchy; external factors include the political relationships between these countries and the origin of Han characters (i.e. China).