Since I currently reside in Shanghai, this bit of linguistic news was of great interest to me.
While China and Taiwan share the same original language of Mandarin, 60 years of going their own ways – both politically and linguistically – have caused the languages to evolve in different ways. While a native Chinese person will have little difficulty conversing fluently with a native from Taiwan, the devil is in the details, so they say. From the article on BBC News:
A Taiwanese visitor to mainland China was shocked to see sliced “tu dou” on a menu. The word means peanut in Taiwan – but potato in mainland China.
A Taiwanese professor ordering coffee at a Beijing cafe was asked if he wanted a “coffee companion” – China’s way of saying cream.
The stunned academic thought they wanted him to hire a hostess to keep him company. He told the waitress: “I didn’t bring enough money.”
To help bridge the linguistic gaps between Chinese and Taiwanese Mandarin, the “Great Chinese Dictionary” project was born in 2008. While it is yet to be finished, the final product (a preliminary version of which will be available at the end of this year for free online) will hope to sort out the confusions that arise between speakers. Many confusions arise from seemingly simple words and phrases, for example “ai ren” (literally “love person”) in China refers to your husband or wife, but in Taiwan would refer to a lover, implying a more illicit kind of partner.
The most notable difference between the two versions of Mandarin is not spoken, however – since the 1950s China has used the so-called Simplified Chinese script, which was adopted in an effort to increase literacy rates. Compared with Traditional Chinese – which Taiwan has rigidly stuck to in the hope of preserving Chinese culture – Simplified Chinese has fewer strokes and is easier to decipher.
The Great Chinese Dictionary will be available by the end of the year, with a more comprehensive version available by 2015.