Old Book on the Shelf: Elementary Lessons in the Swatow Dialect with a Vocabulary referring to Dr Douglas' Dictionary of the Amoy Vernacular

This book is a rare find, and a very useful one too.

Elementary Lessons in the Swatow Dialect [i.e. Teochew] is an unpublished reprint of Herbert Allen Giles’ Handbook of the Swatow Dialect, done by “J.C.G.” for private use in Swatow in 1881.

The book mainly teaches English speakers how to speak essential Teochew simple phrases and sentences.

It contains 14 lessons relating to the following topics:

  1. Domestic
  2. General
  3. General
  4. General
  5. General
  6. Relationships
  7. Opposites
  8. Monetary
  9. Commercial
  10. Commercial
  11. Medical
  12. Ecclesiastical
  13. Nautical
  14. Judicial

 The contents are largely the same with Giles’ book except for a change in the system of spelling and marking of tones (i.e. peng-im), which markedly improved the original work. This can be seen from the transliterations of the two examples below:

  • “Who is he?”: “E se simmy nahng” (Giles) vs. “I sĩ sĩ-mih-nâng” (J.C.G.)
  • “he isn’t coming”: “ee m li” (Giles) vs. “i m̃-lâi” (J.C.G.)

Elementary Lessons also inherited a short grammar section as well as a long and useful vocabulary.  J.C.G.  added to each vocabulary term, references to corresponding pages in Scottish missionary Carstairs Douglas' Dictionary of the Amoy Vernacular (i.e. Hokkien, or Taiwanese).

Spoken Teochew and Hokkien are mutually intelligible and J.C.G. affirmed this relationship with his observation that "over six-tenths of the words of the Swatow dialect remain unaltered in spelling and tone-mark as written in the Amoy Dictionary, while many of the remainder are easily recognised under more or less altered forms”.

J.C.G. was almost certainly John Campbell Gibson of the English Presbyterian Mission in China, who started his missionary work in Swatow in 1874. A year later, Gibson and his co-worker William Duffus devised the first complete orthographic system for expressing the Teochew language using the Roman alphabet. This innovation was based on another work of Presbyterian origin devised for the Amoy vernacular and it opened the door for many Teochews who were illiterate in Chinese to read in their own language for the first time.

Most language guides teach words or expressions. However, to start conversing in a language, we need to be able to speak in phrases and short sentences. Happily, the peng-im system adopted by Gibson is both clear and precise. For these reasons, we highly recommend this book as a resource for beginner learners of the Teochew language, even though it was compiled nearly one and a half centuries ago.


Elementary Lessons in the Swatow Dialect can be downloaded for free in PDF format from The Teochew Store online store.

Douglas’ dictionary can be downloaded from this link.


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