Why Do These Hokkien Words Sound So Similar to Japanese?

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By Cindy Liew

I was fascinated when I first got to know how certain Hokkien words sound so similar to Japanese or even Korean.

If you don’t believe it, try reading out the following words in Hokkien:

世界 (world), 新闻 (news), 未来 (future), 简单 (simple)

It sounds identical whether you vocalise these words in Hokkien or Japanese. Well, it is not coincidental. The similarity in their pronunciation has its roots in ancient China. Like the Japanese language, Hokkien was greatly affected by the Chinese language spoken in Tang Dynasty or even earlier.

The Origin of Hokkien Language and Culture

Do you know that the origin of Hokkien language can be traced back to the language spoken more than 1,600 years ago?

“Hokkien originated from Old Chinese (上古汉语), around 300 AD [during the] Jin () Dynasty,” says Michael Jow, a Hokkien language activist and founder of Hokkien Language Meetup in Singapore.

Hoping to revive the language in Singapore, Michael teaches Hokkien and promotes its culture through different online channels, including a Wikipedia page on Singaporean Hokkien.

“Technically, the whole history of Chinese language development can be divided into three periods. Old Chinese period is sometime around 400 AD.”

The other two periods are the Middle Chinese (中古汉语) from about sixth century AD to 12th century AD, and Modern Chinese varieties from about 13th century AD to the present.

“After the Three Kingdoms Period, northern nomads invaded China, and [during the Jin Dynasty], the Han Chinese people started to migrate to the South. That means that the Han Chinese from the Central Plain (中原) of China wanted to escape the war. They escaped with the government, [or] the court, to the South,” says Michael.

It was actually the first time that the northern Han Chinese migrated to the south in history. They went all the way from the Central Plain to the Jiangnan (江南) region, and some went even further to Fujian (福建) and Guangdong (广东).

“They brought the old Chinese spoken around 300 AD in the Central Plain to Fujian. So that was the beginning. They especially settled in around the region of Quanzhou (泉州) in Fujian Province,” shares Michael.

“Quanzhou was the birth place of Minnan (闽南) culture, especially the language. That was the birthplace.”

Tang Influences on the Hokkien Language

Three hundred years later, during the Tang Dynasty, the language spoken at the Central Plain evolved into what linguists call Middle Chinese (中古汉语).

One general, Chen Zheng (陈政), was sent to set up a regional administration in Fujian Province by the third emperor of Tang Dynasty, Li Zhi (李治). Also joining him was his son, Chen Yuan Guang (陈元光) or better known as Tan Goan-kong in Hokkien, who was considered to be one of the most important historical figures contributing to the establishment and development of Zhangzhou (漳州) in Fujian Province.

“At that time [people in] Minnan region were speaking some kind of Old Chinese. [Tan Goan-Kong and his soldiers] brought the Middle Chinese to Zhangzhou. [Gradually] Old Chinese [pronunciation] and Middle Chinese [pronunciation] started to mix around, and the language started to evolve,” says Michael.

Some of those living in Fujian at that time, however, decided to preserve the old tones, which is what we now call Bai Du (白读), or vernacular pronunciation. The pronunciation derived from Middle Chinese spoken at the Central Plain during the Tang Dynasty is what we now call Wen Du (文读), or literary pronunciation.

“If you start to read in literary pronunciation, it sounds very much like Tang poetry, rhymes very well,” says Michael.

But the Tang influence did not stop there. During the late Tang period, Wang Chao (王潮) and Wang Shen Zhi (王审知), two generals who were originally from Henan (河南) province, joined a military expedition to the Fujian region. After the collapse of the Tang Dynasty, Wang Shen Zhi even founded a kingdom called Min Guo (闽国) in that region.

“They (Wang Chao and Wang Shen Zhi) brought the Middle Chinese spoken at eight century AD [to the Fujian region], so this was the third wave of development of the language.”

“So you can say Hokkien originated from Old Chinese, but was influenced by Middle Chinese. They mixed and evolved into what is known as today’s Hokkien language. There were also some native languages (in the Fujian region) introduced into the mix.”

Singaporean Hokkien and Taiwanese Hokkien

Michael Jow singapore hokkien language
Michael Jow, a Hokkien language activist and founder of Hokkien Language Meetup in Singapore

Nowadays, Hokkien spoken at different regions can sound quite different due to the influences of other local languages. Singaporean Hokkien, for example, contains a lot of Malay loan words.

hokkien language

Interestingly, Taiwanese Hokkien also contains many loan words, and some of them were borrowed from Japanese.

For example, steering wheel is “hantooluh” in Taiwanese Hokkien, similar to the Japanese word “handoru”, and motorbike is “otofbae”, similar to “ootobai” in Japanese.

The status of the Hokkien language in Taiwan is also quite different from that in Singapore.

Here in Singapore, Hokkien is more colloquial, and is regarded as a dialect. Other than homes, its usage is usually limited to certain places like hawker centres or neighbourhood coffee shops. Conversely, in Taiwan, Hokkien is a native language to many Taiwanese.

“Taiwanese Hokkien is a very strong language that is capable of writing literature or poetry,” says Michael.

“In Taiwan, the direction of development is towards literary development. They have a mature grammatical system and a mature romanisation system.”

Since the localisation movements in the 1990s, Taiwan’s Ministry of Education has done much to promote local languages such as Taiwanese Hokkien in the island. Starting in 2001, children have had to attend one weekly hour of mandatory local language education—referred to as ‘mother tongue education’.

In 2007, Taiwan’s Ministry of Education formulated and released a standard character set for writing Taiwanese Hokkien, which is now taught in schools in Taiwan. A Chinese character online dictionary (http://twblg.dict. edu.tw/holodict_new/download_5.jsp) for Hokkien was released in 2008 by Taiwan’s Ministry of Education.

The development of Hokkien in Taiwan raises the long-debated question — should dialects be reintroduced into Singapore? How can we encourage young people to become interested in learning dialects?

At least for Hokkien, Michael suggests that to let young people become interested, “You have to trace the history [of the language], [and make them] understand the culture roots. [They’ll] learn to appreciate the beauty of it. That’s when [they] can learn more and get the fun of it.”

“One way a lot of people tried to introduce [the language] is through pop culture, for e.g. Hokkien music, especially from Taiwan. Other than that, [Hokkien] drama series [may also help]. That is the way [to use] popular culture, entertainment culture, [to] try to spread [the language].”

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