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Saturday, March 05, 2011

Why hanyu pinyin sucks and why Romanization in Taiwan is good

In this post I will talk about why I believe that hanyu pinyin sucks and why (despite many claims of the contrary) the Romanization in Taiwan is good. Those of you who are big fans of Taiwan, and know a little something about the history and the current situation of the country may find this post interesting. I will try to explain the complexity of all these issues in simple terms, so that those who are not familiar with these linguistic matters can get a good idea of what I'm talking about. This is my reply to those Westerners, who worship hanyu pinyin, and want to see Han characters abolished. I would appreciate your additional comments at the end of the post.

1. What is Romanization and what is hanyu pinyin?

Romanization is using Roman written letters, or the Latin alphabet for languages[1] that use a different writing system, and they can look like this: 漢字, ひらがな, 한글, อักษรไทย or αλφάβητο etc. Hanyu pinyin is a Romanization system developed and officially used in People's Republic of China since 1958[2], and is used for Standard Chinese also known as Putonghua (普通话), which is based on the Beijing Mandarin dialect (北京话). An example of that would be the greeting "你好!" written as "Nǐhǎo!" (meaning "Hello"). And since most Western countries (almost all of Europe and the Americas) use Roman written letters, and most Asian countries (such as China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Thailand, India and the Middle East) use their own writing systems[3], Romanization is a good way for us in the West to understand these cultures better, even if only superficially. We use Romanized names on our maps, in our books, and in the media. In the Eastern countries Romanization is useful for international marketing, branding, and business, which is still dominated by the West and by the English language, the current international lingua franca of science, education, popular culture, cinema, art, and business.


2. What types of Romanizations are there + examples in Taiwan

There are possibly hundreds of different Romanizations in use, some simple and popular, some complicated and highly scientific usually developed by linguists. They usually depend on what method you apply, and which language you target. To highlight these complicated matters I have decided to write an overview of various types and grades of Romanization. This overview will serve as an important base for my latter arguments (and for my proposals in regards to Romanization in Taiwan). I will also show that there are many good examples of excellent Romanization throughout Taiwan that don't base on a flawed politically charged system, but rather take into account various factors, such as Taiwan's history, the variety of languages, and general usability.

I distinguish between these types and grades of Romanization:

TYPE 1: ROMANIZATION AS TRANSCRIPTION

  1. PERFECTLY ACCURATE PHONETIC TRANSCRIPTION: Here the Romanized version tries to reflect the pronunciation of the spoken source word as accurately as possible. For example the Southern Chinese city "福州" would be Romanized as "Fúzhōu" in hanyu pinyin and as "Fǔt͡ʂóʊ̯" with the International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA. This is of course very academic and scientific. It acquires advanced knowledge of all the symbols and sounds, if you want to read and pronounce these terms properly. It's not very useful in public places, or for tourist, it's intended for those who learn and research languages.
  2. -----------------------------------------------
  3. APPROXIMATION OF THE SPOKEN SOURCE WORD: Here the pronunciation is altered to fit the orthography of a certain language. It's best, if I highlight that in few examples: "福州" can be Romanized in Slovenian as "Fučov", German as "Futschou", and in English as "Foochow". In the latter case, it has been Anglicized. This is useful for certain areas such as media, tourism, maps, but can be limited to only a certain language, and tends to be used locally, not internationally. Anglicized orthography was widely used in the past as the official international Romanization (it begun with the expansion of the British Empire). As the empire declined many countries started to change these names. That was usually politically or ideologically motivated. Older English literature is full of these Anglicized names, and I think many of them still hold a certain historic value, and could be used today, especially in marketing and tourism (for Taiwan this would make perfect sense). But this phenomenon is not only common for the English language. Most European countries will have their own Romanizations related to the characteristic of their own language. In case of my native language Slovenian, we call the process Slovenjenje (lit. "Slovenization"). It's part of our official spelling, hanyu pinyin is not allowed in Slovenian (although some sloppy media tends to use it anyway). For me personally Slovenization is very useful when it comes to Chinese language and Taiwan, and I fully support it (I have explained that on my Slovenian blog). The Slovenian grammar is very complicated, a lot of endings are constantly changing. Below are some examples of this Romanization method.

    • Example on the Chinese script 台北:

    Taibei (Latvian Romanization)
    Tajpej (Slovenian, Hungarian and Polish Romanization)
    Tchaj-pej (Czech and Slovakian Romanization)
    Taipéi (Spanish Romanization)
    Taipé (Portuguese Romanization)
    Taipeh (German Romanization, also used in Austria, Switzerland)

    I have to add that the boundaries between these two grades can be fluid. A version between the 1. and 2. grade would be the simple hanyu pinyin Romanization without tone marks written as "Fuzhou".
TYPE 2: ROMANIZATION AS TRANSLATION

  1. LITERAL TRANSLATION OF THE WHOLE SOURCE WORD: Sometimes it's easier, smarter, and simpler to just translate the source word. For example: The famous lake in Taiwan "日月潭" is commonly Romanized as "Sun Moon Lake" and not "Riyuetan" which would be the simple hanyu pinyin version (the version without tone marks). Same goes for the "Eternal Spring Shrine", which is written in Chinese as "長春祠", and in hanyu pinyin "Changchunci". This type of Romanization is very pragmatic, and therefore popular in Taiwan. It's a great way to promote certain tourist destinations, important buildings, and institutions. It can be a great marketing tool as well. Of course here the English language dominates when it comes to international use (which I think it makes great sense), but a lot of other languages follow suit, and also just literally translate these names into their own native languages. The Sun Moon Lake is in German "Sonne-Mond-See", and in Spanish "Lago de Sol y Luna". This way of Romanizing is also commonly applied on landmark buildings, hotels, museums, and monuments.

    • Examples in Taiwan:

    National Taiwan University 國立臺灣大學 (hanyu pinyin: Guoli Taiwan Taida)
    New Taiwan Dollar 新臺幣 (hanyu pinyin: Xintaibi)
    Lotus Lake 蓮池潭 (hanyu pinyin: Lianchi Tan)
    Dragon and Tiger Pagodas 龍虎塔 (hanyu pinyin: Longhu Ta)
    Spring and Autumn Pavilions 春秋閣 (hanyu pinyin: Chunqiu Ge)
    National Taiwan Museum 國立台灣博物館 (hanyu pinyin: Guoli Taiwan Bowugan)
    228 Peace Memorial Park 二二八和平紀念公園 (hp: Ererba Heping Jinian Gongyuan)
  2. -----------------------------------------------
  3. PARTIAL TRANSLITERATION, PARTIAL TRANSLATION: This is very commonly used for names of places and administrative division. For example: The famous square in Beijing "天安门广场" is Romanized as "Tiananmen Square", the first part "天安门" is transliterated as "Tiananmen", the second part "广场" is translated as "Square" (the transliteration of the latter would be "Guangchang"). This is a kind of a middle way, combining two methods. It can be a good or a bad way to Romanize, it depends from case to case. When it comes to Taiwan, this method is very common and I think also very useful.

    • Examples in Taiwan sorted by language:

    A. Standard Chinese transliteration + English translation

    Control Yuan 監察院 (hanyu pinyin: Jiancha Yuan)
    Fujian Province 福建省 (hanyu pinyin: Fujian Sheng)
    Hsinchu County 新竹縣 (hanyu pinyin: Xinzhu Xian)
    Taipei City 台北市 (hanyu pinyin: Taibei Shi)
    Danshui District 淡水區 (hanyu pinyin: Danshui Qu)
    Dalin Township 大林鎮 (hanyu pinyin: Dalin Zhen)
    Shilin Night Market 士林夜市 (hanyu pinyin: Shilin Yeshi)
    Tainan Train Station 臺南車站 (hanyu pinyin: Tainan Chezhan)
    Taiwan Confucian Temple 台灣孔廟 (hp: Taiwan Kongmiao)

    B. Cantonese language transliteration + English translation

    Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall 國立中正紀念堂 (hp: Guoli Zhongzheng Jiniantang)
    Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall 國立國父紀念館 (hp: Guoli Guofu Jinianfan)

    C. Aboriginal or Taiwanese language transcription + English translation

    Taroko National Park 太魯閣國家公園 (hp: Tailuge Guojia Gongyuan)
    Lekuleku River 樂樂溪 (hanyu pinyin: Lele Xi)
    Chikhan Tower 赤崁樓 (hanyu pinyin: Chikanlou)

    D. Japanese language + English translation

    Kagi Shrine 嘉義神社 (hanyu pinyin: Jiayi Shenshe)
    Takao Shrine 高雄神社 (hanyu pinyin: Gaoxiong Shenshe, non-existent today)

TYPE 3: NOT A TRANSLATION, NOT A TRANSLITERATION

  1. ROMANIZED VERSION PRECEDES THE CHINESE VERSION: There are few instances in Taiwan where the Romanized version is older than the Chinese script. When Portuguese and Dutch came to Taiwan in the 16. and early 17. century there was no Han population on the island. Some of today's historic sites were established and named by Western settlers. For example: "Fort Santo Domingo" in Tamsui originates from Spanish "Fuerte Santo Domingo", while in Chinese the structure is called "紅毛城", which literally means "Fort of the red-haired people", and could be transliterated as "Hongmaocheng" in the hanyu pinyin version without tone marks. This is the case where both, the translation and the phonetic transliteration, don't match.

    • Examples in Taiwan:

    Formosa 福爾摩沙 (hanyu pinyin: Fuermosha)
    Cape San Diego 三貂角 (hanyu pinyin: Sandiaojiao)
    Fort Provincia 赤崁樓 (hanyu pinyin: Chikanlou)
    Fort Zeelandia 熱蘭遮城 (hanyu pinyin: Relanzhecheng)
  2. -----------------------------------------------
  3. ROMANIZED VERSION VAGUELY RELATED TO SOURCE WORD: Here there is very little or no correlation in meaning, or in the phonetic transliteration between the Romanized version and the source word. Some of these Romanizations are new, and are used for marketing purposes. For Example: A big skyscraper consisting of 5 towers in Banqiao is Romanized as "Taipei Sky Dome" (see it here). The official Chinese name is "巨蛋東京花園廣場", which can be transliterated as "Judan Dongjing Huayuan Guangchang" in simple hanyu pinyin, but if you translate the Chinese original it becomes "Tokyo Garden Square Dome". In this case the English version is shorter and catchier, which is very smartly done. However, some of these Romanizations can be old, too. They try to reflect the core idea of the source word, but don't try to translate the exact meaning. Sometimes they also simplify the source word by omitting a part.

    • Examples in Taiwan:

    Grass Mountain Chateau 草山行館 (hp: Caoshan xingguan; "行館" is an old graceful word for "house")
    The Grand Hotel 圓山大飯店 (hp: Yuenshan Dafandian; "Yuenshan" omitted in English)
    Far Eastern Plaza 遠企中心 (hp: Yuenqi zhongxin; lit. "Far Eastern Business Center")
    Gate of Taipei 台北雙子星大樓 (hp: Taibei Shuangzi Xingdalu; lit. "Taipei Twin Skyscrapers")
    Asian-Pacific Financial Plaza 宏總亞太財經廣場 (hp: Hongzong Ya-Tai Caijing Guangchang)
    President Intl. Tower 統一國際大樓 (hp: Tongyi Guoji Dalou; lit. "Unification Intl. Tower")
    Kaohsiung Twin Tower 夢萊茵 (hanyu pinyin: Menglaiyin: lit. "Dream Rhine", the river in Germany)

3. Romanization in Taiwan, what's going on?

Taiwan's Romanization is sometimes inconsistent, and you don't need to be a linguist to see that. There are many kinds of academic, and less academic systems used throughout the country at the same time, some are remains from decades or even centuries ago, some are implemented recently. This is unusual, but it doesn't pose any serious problems anyone, because very rarely foreigners would have difficulties finding places in Taiwan based on the diversity of Romanization, be it on- or offline. I have to say there is something else that worries me more: The Westerners that get upset about it. And I mean seriously upset. Like this:


It's something I just don't understand. In my world this kind of behavior is very odd. First of all I have nothing against us foreigners being engaged in the matters concerning Taiwan. I think that's great, because I'm interested and engaged, too. But I have some issues with obsessive people and those, who ridicule certain groups of Taiwanese who don't want hanyu pinyin implemented. These foreigners have a sense of superiority, and they believe they know better what is best for the people, and the country they migrated to. Try googling "Romanization in Taiwan", and read forums and blogs written by some Westerners, and you'll come across some uncompromising and intolerant hanyu pinyin advocates who are looking down on everybody that doesn't share their views. What bugs me the most is that they make Taiwan look bad abroad: "Oh, Taiwan is such a mess... Foreigners get lost, nobody understands anything..." and similar nonsense. If you have read all my examples from above you can see that the Romanization in Taiwan is very diverse, and for the most part makes sense. That's due to the complicated history, and influences of many cultures and languages. Isn't that the best thing about Taiwan? I mean, sure there could be improvements, but why replace everything with hanyu pinyin, a politically charged system with so many flaws (which I will highlight below) that does not care about Taiwan's diversity at all, and is very frustrating to the reader? This has become an "issue" just because a small group of people have blown it out of proportion. The majority of us is definitely not like them, and I want to make that clear by writing this article.

Let me reaffirm: Don't be afraid to travel to Taiwan, you won't get lost, because of the diverse Romanization, but probably because Taiwan is so awesome.

A fraction within this hanyu pinyin pseudo-intelligentsia is even proposing to abolish traditional Chinese characters and replace them with hanyu pinyin! Āré thěy oüt òf theír mǐnds? I would usually not write about fringe groups, if they wouldn't be using such offensive language in their comments about Taiwan, Taiwanese people, and on everybody who doesn't think hanyu pinyin is a good Romanization system. I generally don't like this type of Westerners, because they cast a bad light on the rest of us who are not like them. Can't there be a non-condescending way of discussing issues of the country you have moved to?

4. Why I don't support hanyu pinyin in Taiwan

Hanyu pinyin was developed in PR China and implemented as the official Romanization for Standard Chinese in 1958. In 1982 it became international standard and countries with Chinese population such as Malaysia and Singapore have gradually adopted it, but with many inconsistencies. Taiwan adopted hanyu pinyin in 2009 as official romanization on government level, but hasn't enforced it. Today most of it can be found in Taipei, but if you go south to smaller towns things are still like they used to be, old Romanization systems are still in use. I do agree that something could (and not must) be done to improve the situation, and I will share my own proposals at the bottom of this post. But I still think this is up to the Taiwanese people to decide, not Westerners. It should be decided on local level by each municipality or county, not imposed centrally by the government, because some extremists are lobbying for it. I've asked my girlfriend what she thought about those foreigners who are getting upset over Romanization in Taiwan, and the use of traditional Chinese characters. She felt they were condescending, and had a superiority complex. She said: "We also don't go to Europe or USA and tell people how they should write their language." I couldn't agree more. Again, it's not about if you engage, it's about how you do it. And for me the biggest joke is the idea that hanyu pinyin is superior to other Romanization systems, because it's so perfect. The truth is - it's not. It's full of flaws, more than many other systems. Fact is: There is no perfect Romanization system for Standard Chinese.

Let me point out the issues I have with hanyu pinyin in Taiwan and in general:

1. MAJOR ISSUE: Hanyu pinyin doesn't relate to Taiwan's unique situation. By that I mean the complex history as well as the population mix and the numerous languages, that are spoken on the various islands under governance of the Republic of China. It's one thing, if schools or students use hanyu pinyin for teaching and learning Chinese, even though I think BoPoMoFo (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ or Zhuyin) is a much better method for that. It's up to every individual teacher or student to use whatever way they want to learn Chinese. Hanyu pinyin is merely a tool, a bridge (although a very shaky one) to come to the other side and master the spoken Chinese language. However, it's a whole different dimension, if you use a certain politically charged and flawed Romanization in a country like Taiwan and don't improve the ease of reading, nor fix the flaws of the previous Romanization, but just replace it. That way you just waste money and upset people. Why not for once make it right and include other languages spoken in Taiwan? Wouldn't that be something Taiwan could pride itself on abroad?

2. MAJOR ISSUE: Hanyu pinyin doesn't guarantee a correct pronunciation. A common myth by hanyu pinyin advocates is the notion, that if we use hanyu pinyin everywhere, people will pronounce all the words properly. For instance, China's capital "Beijing" (also written as "Běijīng"), how many times have you heard foreigners pronounce the word right, after they've read the hanyu pinyin version? Foreign, especially English speaking reporters, usually pronounce the "j" as the "s" in Asia. Others may say "Peking". Fact is: Hanyu pinyin is good for the writer and bad the reader. Those who understand all these complicated rules are the only advocates of it and they are few. The rest of us have to try to make some sense of it. Usually we fail. It's funny to see people who don't really know how to read hanyu pinyin right advocating it. It has almost become like a religious movement for some Westerners.

3. MAJOR ISSUE: Hanyu pinyin is complicated and inconsistent. Hanyu pinyin fanatics like to point out how their cherished system is nearly flawless in comparison with others. And of course they hijacked Wikipedia, where they don't mention any "practicality issues", like they do in the article about Tongyong Pinyin (通用拼音), a Romanization system developed in Taiwan, that tried to fix some flaws of hanyu pinyin and was used between 2002 and 2009. (Compare the articles: hanyu pinyin <-> Tongyong Pinyin). I'm not saying Tongyong Pinyin doesn't have any flaws, but hanyu pinyin is in no way superior to that system. Both would need significant improvements, if they want to make sense and be useful to the reader. Hint: If you are trying to learn Chinese, don't start with hanyu pinyin! Begin with BoPoMoFo (a.k.a. Zhuyin), your pronunciation of Standard Chinese will be way better that way (Read these articles, where users share their views on Zhuyin: Pinyin or Zhuyin?, Taiwan - ㄅㄆㄇㄈ呢? Any bopomofo users out there? If you need a useful Romanization for learning, use Yale for Mandarin). Back to that funny system. Let's look at some specific problems hanyu pinyin poses to the user and reader.

Here are some common inconsistency problems with hanyu pinyin:

  1. LANGUAGE INTERFERENCE: Many Latin letters are pronounced differently than they are in the native languages of those foreigners, who will have to read the Romanized orthography in Taiwan. The "x" is pronounced closer to a "sh" -> like [ɕ], the "q" is pronounced closer to "ch" -> like [tɕʰ], the "r" is pronounced closer to "z", -> like [ʐ]. This only misleads the reader. It requires a lot of academic knowledge of all the complicated and contradictory pronunciation rules and of course makes hanyu pinyin nearly useless in real life, on street signs and signboards. Fact is: Almost all learners of Standard Chinese struggle with the pronunciation and have a hard time understanding all the funny dìǎcrītìcāl màrks. And then you add all these letters, that mislead you and you have created a monster, that only serves the ego of those, who dedicated their career to hanyu pinyin. They are the ones, that fiercely advocate this flawed system the most. I don't blame any official in Taiwan for being pro-hanyu pinyin. My guess is they're probably misled by those loud Westerners, who cry over every small signage inconsistency and propagate hanyu pinyin as the savior of Taiwan's Romanization problem, but never mention its flaws, inconsistencies and user-unfriendliness.

  2. LETTER REDUNDANCY: The letters "j", "q", "ch" and "zh" and letters "c" and "z" all sound too similar to a Westerner. Someone, who hasn't extensively studied Standard Chinese phonetics, won't be able to pronounce these sounds properly. Why not just simplify them for the reader and make "j, q, ch, zh" -> "ch" and "c, z" -> "ts"?

  3. INCONSISTENT PRONUNCIATION RULES: Things that always intrigue me with hanyu pinyin are those totally random pronunciation rules, that make no sense at all. You want examples? No problem. I just want to know the reason for the following odd rules:

    1. THE o/uo ISSUE: Why are syllables "buo", "puo", "muo", "fuo" in hanyu pinyin written as "bo", "po", "mo", "fo"? Is it so hard to squeeze that "u" in there?

    2. THE i/ə ISSUE: Why is "i" used for two different sounds [i] and [ə] (like in 西 "xi" -> pronounced similar to "see" and 四 "si" -> pronounced similar to "sir")?

    3. THE e/o ISSUE: Why is "e" sometimes used for two different sounds [ə] and [ʊ] (like in 汾 "fen" -> pronounced like "fən" and 風 "feng" -> pronounced like "fong")?

    4. THE a/e ISSUE: Why is "a" sometimes used for two different sounds [ɛ] and [ɑ] (like in 眼 "yan" -> pronounced like "yen" and 羊 "yang" -> pronounced like "yang"?

    5. THE -iu/-iou ISSUE: Words written in hanyu pinyin as "liu", "jiu", "qiu" and "xiu" should be written as "liou", "jiou", "qiou" and "xiou" for a more accurate transliteration of Standard Chinese.

    6. THE -ui/-uei ISSUE: Words written in hanyu pinyin as "dui", "gui", "shui", "rui" (and few more) should be written as "duei", "guei", "shuei" and "ruei" for a more accurate transliteration of Standard Chinese.

    There are few more of these inconsistencies, but I don't want to waste my time only on this part here, the list would get too long. All in all we're back to the 2nd major issue: Hanyu pinyin is not reader friendly and many times makes no sense.

  4. CONFUSING RULES OF THE UMLAUT Ü: The sound [y], which is similar to the German "ü", can be written as "u", "ü", sometimes even as "v". That again is confusing to the reader. Why can't this sound be represented with only one letter? The rule about when to use trema (¨) above the "u" is so complicated, I think it's useless to share it here with you. You would probably not understand it (especially the nue/nüe blunder that has a "simple explanation" here), unless you have great advanced knowledge of hanyu pinyin and the spoken Standard Chinese language. I give you some examples: "yuan" is actually pronounced as "üen", not "yoo-ahn", the way most Westerners would probably pronounce it. Same goes for "yun". It's not "yoon", the way common sense tells you, it's "ün". The more I'm researching hanyu pinyin, the more I feel it was designed to be totally anti-common sense.

Let's be frank: Those who speak and read Chinese, they would rely on Han characters anyway. Those Westerners, who live in Taiwan for a longer time, they should learn to read them as well, not rely on the Romanization permanently. Those Westerners, who visit Taiwan merely for few days or weeks and only for holidays, they don't need a complicated and inconsistent academic Romanization, they need one they can read and memorize quickly in order to read maps and find places easier. Why are some people so anti-pragmatism, when it comes to Romanization in Taiwan? Well, whatever happens, it's comforting to know that at least Taipei won't be changed to the bastardized version "Taibei". If pragmatism can prevail in Taipei's case, why can't it prevail nationwide?

4. MAJOR ISSUE: Tōnè mǎrks or no1 tone2 marks3, what's the real hanyu pinyin? I'm still not sure what's the real hanyu pinyin. Is it the one with tone marks and ümlaut, that tries to be accurate in transliterating Standard Mandarin in the Roman script (and fails) or is it the one that uses numbers for tones or is it the one, that uses no diacritic signs where you basically have to assume the tone? The first doesn't make sense in public places. The second one is too confusing and was always useless to me. The third one is full of flaws as well. It's like a bad approximation and too complicated, we can do much better than that in Taiwan. This holy trinity doesn't work for me. ♪ So won't the real hanyu pinyin please2 stand3 up1, pleāsě stànd ǚp, please stand up!

I love Taiwan and I want it to be unique, inventive, diverse, contradictory, powerful, challenging, bold. Why should we replace all that with uniformity from the past, that doesn't improve anything and only costs money? Since I have so much to criticize it's only fair, if I tell you how I would make it better. And that's exactly what I did here:

5. About this article

For a long time I've been meaning to write about the challenges of Romanization, the problems with hanyu pinyin and a combination of these two issues in relation to Taiwan. Finally I have written an exceptional academic piece, that completely debunks all the propaganda driven by some groups of Westerners in Taiwan (I think I know who's paying them) and I will continue to be their harshest critic. I will also continue to fight for a reader friendlier Romanization in Taiwan, but completely respect the decisions made by officials here. I have no problem, that Taipei implemented hanyu pinyin (at least they were pragmatic to keep Taipei and New Taipei reader friendly) and if the rest of Taiwan follows suit, I will respect that. After all, I do have a life (unlike some other people) and worrying about Romanization in Taiwan is not my priority (I rather promote Taiwan's beautiful spots), however I felt compelled to share my 2 cents on the issue. I reserve the right to update or modify this post in the future, if I find some new information. I apologize for possible grammatical or spelling mistakes and hope my points were understandable, because English is not my native language. If you have anything to add in regards to the issues I have touched on, feel free to submit them below. I will only reply to selected comments.

6. Related reads

32 COMMENTS:

Couldn't agree more, as far as the pinyin is concerned. It already thwarted my first attempt to learn mandarin, even though assisted by a teacher in state language school (to whom seemingly anything but the most simple rules of pinyin were unknown).

I started again recently, firmly determined to master the pronunciation rules before heading farther, and couldn't believe something "designed" by perhaps self-proclaimed linguist could be so ill conceived.

But alas, I think you dou miss the point when proclaiming any romanization should be targeted to english speakers. English pronunciation and its rules (if such a thing could be actually affirmed to exist) are next to unmanageable but to native speakers and perhaps germans and scandinavians. And the latter would undoubtfully find more natural the worldwide convention according to which 'a' sounds 'a' and not 'ei', just to put a mild example.

With kind regards

@Johannes: Thank you for your comment.

I think you missed the point of my proclamation of romanization being targeted at English speakers. I would only like to see that applied to the romanized names of Taiwan's official signage, namely the names of cities, towns, villages, mountains, lakes, rivers etc. I do not want that for a pinyin, which is used for learning Chinese and wants to be systematic.

I would like to be pragmatic and do not expect that every tourist is a student of Chinese, when they come to Taiwan. I would like to see tourists find their way around Taiwan easier, that's all.

I hope that's clear.

Yale system, Mirror Series: easiest for Americans and quite like pinyin, sans the Qs, the Cs, the Xs, the Zhs, etc. Manchu dynasty:

pinyin = Qing
Yale = Ching

The former Chinese premier of renown:

pinyin = Zhou
Yale = Jou

Why this one wasn't made the standard is mysterious, unless it was because Dr. Edward Hume (re: Yale-in-China) did so many bad things to the Chinese at Hsiang-Ya (pinyin: Xiang Ya; Yale: Syang Ya).

P.S. He didn't, of course!

@Anonymous: Thanks for sharing. It were different times, I think they wanted to have their own system, different from the Western imperialists. And then they created this mess called hanyu pinyin.

I don't think that there is a linguistically solid argument against Hanyu Pinyin here. Your rational against the unified usage of a unified pinyin in Taiwan is entirely political. So why do you spend so much time exploring the linguistic working of Hanyu Pinyin? The usage of a foreign system in Taiwan should be directed at the usability of those who don't understand Chinese. Romanization ought to help those who it is written for.

I am all for Taiwan keeping its traditional way of writing Chinese. For that is the language of many Taiwanese people. I wouldn't expect them to change their own language for the ease of the foreign world. However, if they are going to make an attempt at Romanization they ought to make it as comprehensible as possible. Trying to parse tone marks through numbers and variation in letters is absurd. Furthermore, the devoicing of initial consonants by the more traditional Taiwanese romanization is anyone an unintuitive to speakers of most languages that use the roman alphabet.

Pinyin gets a bad reputation on this island and many of the arguments against it try to use linguistics to justify their political grievances with Pinyin and its relationship to the PRC. It is by far the most uniform and parse-able system for anyone familiar with the Roman script.

@Kyle Vass: I don't think that there is a linguistically solid argument against Hanyu Pinyin here.

I don't care what you think, you have to deliver some arguments to support your claim. I listed so many good arguments for my case, that even a year after I published this post, nobody was able to find an intelligent counter-argument. So what is the point of your comment other than a personal attack on me? According to my comment policy, I have the right to not publish such comments.

@Kyle Vass

Challenge - ask a foreigner with no knowledge of mandarin to read a piece of Chinese text in HP, and then in Yale, and see how many native mandarin speakers understand the test. Yale will win every time.

Pinyin was designed originally as a replacement for written Chinese characters because back in those day there was a idea floating about that the complexity of written Chinese was holding back literacy. Or course it wasn't and hasn't been ever - for proof, look at how literacy rates improved in HK and TW - no forced romanization or character simplification needed.

As a way to romanize place names and streets, pinyin is a terrible system.

TAIWAN IS TINY ISLAND WITH 22-MILLION

TAIWAN

HONG KONG

ONLY TWO PLACES ON EARTH USES BARBARIC HANZI...

TIME TO DIG DIG DIB BIG BIG HOLE/BURY HANZI, HANZI IS OBSOLETE IN INTERNET/WEB/MOBILE PHONE AGE...

TIME TO ABOLISH HANZI...

@Galileo: How about you switch off those barbaric caps? Thanks!

http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2008/09/18/2003423528

@Anonymous: Nothing much happened in this regard. Actually they changed the wrong Danshui to correct Tamsui a year ago. All Taipei Mainstation signage to is Tamsui now.

I'm an ABC that grew up in America, however I am fluent in both speaking, reading and writing in Mandarin Chinese. When I learned Chinese, I learned traditional Chinese and via the bopomofo system. Just came across this article by chance but I think the whole hatred towards hanyu pinyin simply stems from the fact that it was created and pushed by PRC.

Personally, being that I am proficient in both systems, if I read texts in both systems I always read them correctly.

I think for most people, yes X, C, Z are awkward... (Why Cai is pronounced like Tsai) but only because we are adhering English standards towards the words. Obviously Chinese being a complicated language would need it's own system of romanization to be correct.

As for the gui argument. I also agree that the correct romanization should be guei. However, I think "e" was eliminated just to save space as well as the fact that gui wouldn't be confused with other romanization.

Nevertheless, everyone is entitled to their opinion. While I personally think hanyu pinyin is wonderful (I type Chinese super fast because of it, if I had to "find" the bopomofo on the keyboard, it will take me ages) I'm not here to change your opinion. Frankly put, Taiwan can use any romanization they see fit because I only read the Chinese characters when I'm there anyway. :p

@Anonymous: Thanks for your interesting comment. Well, hanyu pinyin has not improved, that's my main issue. It has flaws, which I highlighted, but there's nothing anyone is willing to do about it. And the other thing is the unique situation of Taiwan. It's not about whether someone believes Taiwan is a province or a country, its unique history and population mix can't be disputed. The current Romanization mix is the consequence of that and I like this to stay. Why now unify it to Jilong or Taibei, if Keelung and Taipei are already world-know under these names? Doesn't make sense to me... I'm glad they were smart in Lukang and Tamsui and changed it back to the original Romanization.

You don't seem to understand the purpose of Pinyin. Pinyin doesn't exist just for foreigners; the Chinese themselves, and particularly the younger generation, use it extensively, and especially on computers/phones where it's far more convenient to use Latin characters than Chinese characters.

As it exists now, Pinyin with apostrophes to disambiguate syllable boundaries is a completely one to one mapping from the Latin alphabet to Standard Mandarin syllables. Since in Chinese, the character-syllable-morpheme '子' is what most people consider the basic unit of language, having an unambiguous representation of each syllable is far more useful.

Your own romanization system merges together sounds that are distinct in Standard Mandarin, creating ambiguities where there were none. 'c' and 'z' in Pinyin represent distinct sounds and phonemes, but you would render them both as 'ts'. Why, if you were designing a romanization system specifically for Mandarin, would you create ambiguities when you could avoid them? You complain about how Westerners want to use Pinyin, but your own romanization is less useful for the Chinese to use among themselves.

@Anonymous: You obviously didn't get the point of my own pinyin version, it is not academic, nor intended to represent all the complex sounds, the focus is on the reader's convenience and it's only meant for Taiwan's signage. Please refer to this paragraph:

It is intended to be used as the official Romanization in the Republic of China (commonly known as Taiwan) and specially designed for Romanization of Taiwan's names of places (villages, towns, cities etc.), landscape features (mountains, peaks, valleys, lakes, rivers etc), street and road names, names of monuments, buildings and other various structures. It could be used on signage, in maps, tourist brochures, books, internet and in printed media.

Unlike in China a.k.a. PRC, in Taiwan a.k.a. ROC hanyu pinyin (or any pinyin for that matter) is only intended for foreign tourists. Taiwanese use Zhuyin input system and traditionally Chinese language is also taught with the help of Zhuyin, not hanyu pinyin.

You don't seem to understand the purpose of Pinyin. Pinyin doesn't exist just for foreigners; the Chinese themselves, and particularly the younger generation, use it extensively, and especially on computers/phones where it's far more convenient to use Latin characters than Chinese characters.

Am I right in the assessment, that you don't know much about Taiwan, nor that you have really read or/nor understood my post?

So then, the only purpose of your romanization is for foreigners. The Taiwanese would never use it, because it can't represent their own language precisely. And then you complain that Westerners want to use the more familiar Pinyin?

Like you said, you cannot simply render a language into the Latin alphabet without first choosing a language which already uses that alphabet to base your sounds on. Since different languages assign different sound values to the same letter, there is no universally agreed upon way to pronounce the Latin alphabet. When there is generally a universal agreement on a letter, such as 's', Pinyin follows. Where there isn't, Pinyin assigns its own values to the characters, just like any other language. The advantage here is that the romanization is uniform no matter what your native language is. A speaker of French would write 北京 as Běijīng. A speaker of English would write 北京 as Běijīng. What you're asking for is like asking the French to write 'Paris' as 'Paree' in English texts.

What you're asking for is like asking the French to write 'Paris' as 'Paree' in English texts.

This is not true at all! You're comparing apples and oranges. Unlike Chinese, French is already a Romanized (and even a Roman) language since it was first written. The first Chinese Romanizations were made by non-Chinese (Europeans), one of the first Romanized Chinese words was Confucius (now Kongfuzi). It's a completely different historic context we're talking about.

When there is generally a universal agreement on a letter, such as 's', Pinyin follows.

I'm not aware of any general universal agreements on letters, but I know Spanish pronounce 's' different as Croatians, while Swedes pronounce the letter 's" infront of 'r' as 'sh' - example Larsson is actually pronounced as Larshon.

Besides, I have no idea what are you trying to argue here. I provided a lot of proof that hanyu pinyin is full of flaws and I have also shown, that the Romanization in Taiwan is better than some advocate and that a general use of hanyu pinyin in Taiwan is against common sense. This is my posts topic, I would hope you don't go too far from that, because I will hardly find motivation for further replies.

And then you complain that Westerners want to use the more familiar Pinyin?

Pinyin is familiar, because it was pushed by the communists, but that doesn't mean the system is good. Taiwan is too small to have a global impact on promoting Zhuyin, which is by far a much better system to learn Chinese language, even if it's not based on Roman letters. And for the Romanization of street signage a new system (more friendly to the reader and based on English phonetics) could be established. I am also fine with Wade-Giles or youzhengshi pinyin, but please no hanyu pinyin...

But I'm saying that a general use of Pinyin is perfectly sensible! It's already the international standard for romanizing Mandarin, and with the growth of the mainland's influence, it's only becoming more familiar compared to other romanization systems. Aside from a few consonants, it's readily pronouncable for English speakers (and no one can ever pronounce foreign vowels anyways). Because it's also a perfect representation of Chinese phonology, it's usable among the Chinese, and by learning it one knows exactly how to say a syllable given the Pinyin for it, facilitating communication with Chinese speakers. Asking for a separate romanization system specifically for foreigners is just bizarre to me, since it only adds complexity and more things to learn.

As for your specific complaints about Pinyin's inconsistency:

1. The language interference claim contradicts what we've already agreed upon. Lotsa different languages use different values for letters. Pinyin can't be in agreement with all of them.

2. The letters aren't redundant because they represent different sounds to Chinese speakers! You can't merge minimal pairs and call something a full transliteration.

3. The different pronunciations were used to reduce redundancy, since the context of the initial consonant precludes certain vowels, a consonant+vowel combination unambiguously represents a syllable. Why did you want to remove "redundant" consonants but not truly redundant vowels?

4. The umlaut u issue is just an extension of point 3, since the ü sound can follow only l,n,y,j, and q. With y, j, and q, there is no u sound, and only l and n need the umlaut to resolve the ambiguity.

To sum up, Pinyin is already the standard for Mandarin Chinese everywhere it is spoken (including Taiwan). Pinyin is easily usable by Chinese speakers, and with minimal instruction, is usable by everyone. Pinyin, unlike Zhuyin, uses the Latin alphabet, an enormous advantage given the technological situation in the world today. The only reason not to use it is political.

@Anonymous: To sum up: You keep dodging my arguments and keep saying the same thing - advocating the dangerous pinyinization in Taiwan and around the world. I will not reply to you beyond this point, let's leave it at that. Thanks for taking your time to reply, but I wholeheartedly disagree with what you're saying.

Taiwan is the only country that follows this system, and with traditional Hanzi becoming more and more less important and on the verge of death in the future, I don't think that learning Zhuyin is beneficial. It's not about worshiping Hanyu Pinyin, It's about learning what's more important.

@Faraz Masood: Have you ever been in Taiwan? Traditional Chinese is very important here and also in Hong Kong and Macau, people don't believe there are any benefits to switch to simplified versions. Nobody is using handwritten Chinese here anyway, Taiwan is highly digitalized (it's after all an IT superpower). Do you know Zhuyin?

Yes MKL, I love Taiwan, and I've been to China ( Mainlands ), Hongkong and Macao. I can use Zhuyin as well as Hanyu. I'm working as a teacher in Guang Zhou right now. And, I personally love Traditional Hanzi more than Simplified Hanzi. And, I also prefer Taiwanese Mandarin over Mainland Mandarin because of Traditional Hanzi. And, I also agree with you regarding Zhuyin being better in-terms of pronouncing words than Hanyu Pinyin. But, the major problem is that a lot of countries only follow Hanyu Pinyin. As far as Hongkong or Macao are concern, they use Traditional Hanzi because of Cantonese, not because of Mandarin. Hongkongese are native speakers of Cantonese. Cantonese can only be written in Traditional or Classical Hanzi. That's why, a lot of Southern-Chinese specially, Cantonese speakers in Guangdong and Guangxi province can use Traditional Hanzi too. I personally love Taiwanese Mandarin, and I'm learning both Mainland as well as Taiwanese Mandarin. But, the reason why I prefer Hanyu Pinyin is because of it's importance. As far as Pinyin is concern, Hongkong and Macao also follow the Mainlands. Singapore also switched to Simplified Hanzi because of Mainlands. And, Hongkong, Tibet and Macao being the republics of China will be forced to follow the same path. So, It would be difficult for Taiwan to follow it independently. But, I do love Traditional Hanzi very much not just because of Cantonese, but because of Taiwanese Mandarin too. And, feel free to contact me on Skype or Facebook. My Skype ID is Faraz_Chelsea. If you somehow could teach me more Taiwanese Mandarin, I would be happy to learn. I just believe that there is no reason to kill Traditional Hanzi, if they want Simplified Hanzi, they still could use both. Personally for me, Mainland China has killed the beauty of the language with the introduction of Simplified Hanzi, and many are following the same steps. Many foreigners do worship Simplified characters, because they're easy to learn. But, I believe that the real beauty of Chinese language lies in Traditional characters. And, many Southern-Chinese agreed to this fact as well. Peace my friend :)

With words like shuǐ, guǐ, dūn, and jiàn instead of jièn, Hanyu Pinyin is clearly not close to being a true phonetic system. It should be more phonetic because one of its primary roles is teaching people how to pronounce Chinese words. It should be easy to alter since it's not like every town is already writing newspapers with Hanyu Pinyin. I don't see how there can be any resistance to improving a basic teaching tool.

But it never changes!

I did see that some people in Taiwan protested against the use of X in Hanyu Pinyin. So even that cannot be changed? Everything is chiseled in stone.

Perhaps the problem is everything was originally decided by a communist party in Dà Lù whose main goal was and still is self-preservation and not the betterment of society. Well then, get used to it. This is the best you can get from a country and government like this. This is the influence of communism! 它們永遠不理你。沒有辦法。

Unfortunately, China is big and has influence. This is what everything ultimately comes down to.

Hi MKL! Interesting article and I have to give it one more read because i was slightly losing attention towards the end. For me as a starting learner hanyu pinyin is fine (I think that call it politically charged is a bit overboard but anyway) but I always do respect local traditions. I always write Taipei, Keelung, Kaohsiung, Taitung, Taichung...anybody who bitches about Kenting not being transcribed as Kending is a moron (although i can understand that people who just visit Taiwan for a short while might be confused).

The problem is that romanization in Taiwan IS messy and it seems to me that sometimes it is completely made up (bus companies seem to be good at it). When I was starting to explore Taipei by bus, it was at time slightly frustrating to see different romanizations of the same place and not knowing it is the same place. It is okay now though :)

p.s.: I really dislike Czech romanization...

@Michal Thim: Thanks for reading. Yeah, it's been over 2 years since I wrote this piece. Maybe I should improve it a bit :) I read it again, and also got lost towards the end, haha. I still feel hanyu pinyin should't be a holy cow, they could make some improvements. In context of Taiwan I still find it politically charged, but that's of course open to interpretations. Personally I've soften on pinyin in generally, but I still wouldn't want to have it all over Taiwan. If it must be, then at least with tons of exceptions to reflect Taiwan's unique situation.

Speaking of Czech romanization, do you know that we use yours? In early 19th century we used to write č, š, and ž as ch, sh and zh, and then one linguist thought the Czech cow horn versions are much lovelier. I have to agree with that :)

Let's say that you are beginning to learn Chinese and you hear the sound ㄒ (x in Pinyin). To us, westerners, it sounds kind of like a s or sh. Now, Zhuyin is not gonna help us pronounce it better, we'll just replace it with something that sounds close to a sound in our own native language (so either s or sh). Three words: 'through', 'though' and 'tough' - should we recommend all people to stop learning the English alphabet just because it's not entirely accurate? No, you just learn to deal with the exceptions and that's it. This is not a fault of Pinyin, it's the fault of westerners not being diligent enough. Mainland Chinese people seem to do just fine.

@Maximilian Anchidin: You pick out one example, and use that as your key argument? Pretty weak. You have to look at the whole picture. People who start with zhuyin will have a much better learning curve than those who use pinyin. It's been proven.

This is not a fault of Pinyin, it's the fault of westerners not being diligent enough.

This really made me chuckle. Even after I deliver so many examples of pinyin's inconsistencies and flaws, you still believe that? How does it feel to live in a bubble?

Interesting.

I am leaning. Have spent much time in Taiwan but my teacher in Canada is Chinese.

Yes there are differences between mainland and Taiwanese but they are manageable.

My observations are simple:

Something like pinyin can only work for one language. It is manageable to span uk and AmeRican English.

In terms of pinyin for English speakers: it sucks! They should read up about of the great vowel shift hundreds of years ago. Using i as an e is an example.

I think they is space for a new version of pinyin but only for those fluent in English.

Not being linguistically racist can do same for other languages but do not try to do one pinyin for all european languages.

@Taiwan Explorer We're proud, aren't we? Yes, I understand that Zhuyin is more accurate and doesn't have Pinyin's inconsistencies, but a lot of European languages use the Latin alphabet in inconsistent ways but they do just fine. If foreigners learn these languages but pronounce them like their native languages, that's not the fault of the language, it's their *own* fault for not being diligent enough, as i said. It's the same thing with Pinyin, you are just ignoring my arguments. Do you have any proof that foreigners who learn Zhuyin first will have better pronunciation in the end? I don't buy that. Even if it were true, I, personally, haven't had any problems with Chinese pronunciation, it's just a matter of practice. :)

I understand Zhuyin looks cool and you feel proud and all that, but that's not enough a reason for me to learn it. I might learn it for fun in the future, but I find it quite useless for now and I'd rather learn Wubi because Hanzi are more important. I can type Traditional Chinese with Pinyin just fine.

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