The earliest linguistic studies refer to the dialect of Llin-nen or Xinning . 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 Standard Mandarin pronunciation. Alternative names have also been used. The term Toishan is a convention used by the United States Postal Service, the Defense Language Institute and the . The terms ''Toishan'', ''Toisan'' and ''Toisaan'' are all based on Standard Cantonese pronunciation, and are also frequently found in linguistic and non-linguistic literature. Lastly, Hoisan is a term based on the local pronunciation, although it is generally not used in published literature.
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''. The term Hoisanese is not used in print literature, although it appears on the internet.
Another term used is Siyi , which refers to a previous administrative division comprised of the four counties of Taishan, Kaiping, Enping and Xinhui. In 1983, a fifth county was added to the Jiangmen prefecture, and so the term Siyi, which literally means "four counties", has become an anachronism.
Taishanese originates from the Taishan region, where it is spoken. Often regarded as a single language, Taishanese can also be seen as a group of very closely related, mutually intelligible subdialects spoken in the various towns and villages in and around Siyi . It is said one can tell the speaker's village or town from his or her accent and vocabulary.
Taishanese is one of the major languages of the Chinese diaspora. The Taishan region was a major source of Chinese immigrants in the Americas in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Approximately 1.3 million people are estimated to have origins in Taishan. Prior to the signing of the , which allowed new waves of Chinese immigrants, Taishanese was the dominant dialect spoken in Chinatowns across North America. It is also spoken in Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City Cholon neighborhood.
Taishanese is still spoken in many Chinatowns, including those of and , by older generations of Chinese immigrants and their children, but is today being supplanted by Cantonese and increasingly by Mandarin in newer Chinese communities across the country.
Relationship between Cantonese and Taishanese
Taishanese is often regarded as similar to , although Cantonese speakers are generally unable to understand Taishanese. The phonology of Taishanese bears some resemblance to mainstream Cantonese, but pronunciation and vocabulary differ, sometimes greatly. Because Cantonese is one of the ''lingua francas'' of Guangdong, virtually all Taishanese-speakers also understand Cantonese, to the extent that some even regard their own tongue as merely differently accented mainstream Cantonese.
In Guangdong, Cantonese functions as a ''lingua franca'', and speakers of other languages/dialects more often than not also speak Cantonese. Today, since Mandarin Putonghua is the standardized language taught in schools throughout the People's Republic of China, residents of Taishan speak as well. As a result, in this region, Taishanese-speakers often freely in conversation, among Taishanese, Cantonese, and .
One distinction between Taishanese and Cantonese is the use of the voiceless lateral fricative , e.g., in the word meaning "three", pronounced ''saam1'' in Cantonese and ''lhaam2'' in Taishanese.
Taishanese is a . There are five contrastive lexical inherited from earlier stages of Chinese. The tones are high, mid, low, mid falling, and low falling; in at least one Taishanese dialect, the falling tones have merged into a low falling tone. There is no tone sandhi.
Taishanese has four changed tones: mid rising, low rising, mid dipping and low dipping. These tones are called changed tones because they are based 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. 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. 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. An example of a changed tone contrast is and .
No official standardized form of written Taishanese exists. Writing is done using Chinese characters and Mandarin vocabulary and grammar, but many common words used in spoken Taishanese have no corresponding Chinese characters. No standard romanization system for Taishanese exists either; the ones given on this page are ad hoc. The at the bottom of this page contains a standard Taishanese romanization, used in its dictionary.
The sound represented by the symbol 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 handful of languages that include the sound. The alternative "hl" is used in Xhosa and Zulu, while "ll" is used in .
The following chart compares the plural pronouns among Taishanese, mainstream Cantonese, and Mandarin.
Official and current status
Taishanese has no official status in any country. It was originally the secondary language of Ho Chi Minh City's Cholon, after Cantonese, but in recent years the number of Taishanese speakers in Vietnam has declined, giving way to Cantonese and .