Chinese Phonetic Alphabets

What is Romanization?

The practice of transliterating Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet is called "Romanization." For example, the words for "Chinese" in Chinese are 中文, which are rendered as Zhongwén in the system of Romanization used within The Peoples Republic of China. Unlike the letters in Western alphabets, Chinese characters do not convey phonemes (that is, the sounds of the spoken language). For that reason, Romanization is a convenient means of recording phonetically the way written Chinese words are spoken, mainly for the teaching of Chinese words to non-native students of the language. It has also been useful for writing Chinese words in situations (like that of the typewriter or computer keyboard) in which only Latin letters are available for input of the character set. Romanization permits alphabetization, thus facilitating the compilation of indices in Chinese.

History of Romanization Efforts

Historically, many different approaches to Romanization have appeared, starting with the arrival of the first Westerners in China, in the 15th century. During the 20th century, three systems emerged as those used by linguists and scholars: Hanyu Pinyin, Wade-Giles, and Yale Romanization. The Peoples Republic of China adopted Hanyu Pinyin in 1979 and it became the international standard for Romanization in 1982. It is most often referred to informally as just "Pinyin." The Romanized words above have been transliterated using Hanyu Pinyin.

In the year 67 (CE), missionaries from India introduced Buddhism into China. They developed a system of transliterating Chinese into Sanskrit writing, in which each character was described by its initial sound, its final sound, and its tone. The "Fanqie" or "reverse cutting" system was devised a couple of centuries later, probably based on the work of the Sanskrit grammarians. It broke apart the sounds of characters into more basic elements, themselves represented by simplified characters. The system was useful for analyzing literary texts, but did not resolve the problem of recording the actual sounds of colloquial speech.

Later, in the 14th century, Christian missionaries arrived in China and confronted the need to render Latin texts into Chinese and vice-versa. The Western names of great Chinese teachers (like "Confucius and Mencius") come from this era. Then, in the 16th century, Portuguese explorers arrived in the Orient, bringing more missionaries. In 1583 two of these Jesuit missionaries, Matteo Ricci and Michele Ruggieri, compiled a Portuguese-Chinese dictionary. Their work was lost for centuries in a Jesuit library in Rome until it was rediscovered in 1934. The companion Chinese-Portuguese Dictionary (1598) was lost as well, and so far, not relocated. The Chinese in this effort was a form of transliterated Latin characters, using diacritical marks to distinguish the tones.

Distinguishing the tones is really the most challenging part of any system of Romanization. Though Western ears are unaccustomed to distinguishing them, tones are essential to convey meaning. The word "fa," for example can mean many diverse things, according to its tone -- like "flag" and "wife," to cite just two examples. If instructed to hang your "fa" out the window, an error in tone could lead to tragic results!

Tones became part of all Romanization in use in the 19th Century. Protestant missionaries arrived in China, employing a new method of Romanization called "Legge Romanization" (named after linguist James Legge). Tones were represented by different spellings: ma, mha, maa and mah. That system was something of a pioneer for more complex approaches, like the "Wade," "Wade-Giles" and "Postal" systems of the 20th century. (The "Postal" system was a form of French transliteration and used exclusively for place names.)

The Wade-Giles method gained pre-eminence because it was regarded as the one with the most precise rendition of the sounds of Chinese. Wade-Giles Romanization used superscripts to indicate one of four tones for a word, such as ma1 and ma4 as well as diacritical marks and apostrophes. The problem was all these extra marks were a lot of work for the casual writer and the typesetter, so they were often simply omitted. If the Chinese character itself did not appear alongside the stripped version of the Romanized text, no one could tell which of the various possibilities the transliteration was supposed to convey. As a result, all meaning was lost.

During World War II, Yale Romanization was developed to assist English-speakers in communicating with their allies in Asia against the Japanese. It used a regular system of spelling the phonemes of spoken Mandarin, and was the approach taken in phrase books given to the military. The earlier systems focused on rendering the written characters, and trying to fit them into a Western grammatical structure. The Yale approach was to make oral communication easier by rendering the spoken phonemes in the Latin alphabet without much concern for "rationalizing" the language in terms of Latin syntax. The Yale system was also seen by academics as not "taking sides" in the post-war conflict between the Communist Party and the Kuomintang, as other methods were associated with one or the other (Pinyin with the Communists in "Mainland China" and Gwoyeu Romatzyh with the forces of Chiang Kai-shek on Taiwan.). Gwoyeu Romatzyh, the Romanization system preferred by the Kuomintang, used spellings to denote the tones, as was done before the Wade-Giles system was introduced. It had been devised in the 1920's with the idea of eventually replacing the character system altogether, but it never caught on.

Currently, the Wade-Giles and the Yale methods of Romanization have given way to the Pinyin system, preferred by the government of China, and the one in widest modern use. The earlier methods are most often seen nowadays only in older works or in passages from those works that are quoted in a more modern text.

Pinyin uses diacritics for the tones: ma, má, ma, and mà . For consonants, letters and letter combinations are employed to convey their sounds. They don not necessarily imitate the sounds of such letters in English, but are internally consistent. To understand the possible range of sound captured by Pinyin, consider the name of the Chinese capital. The two characters mean "Northern Capital" and in Pinyin are "Bei-jing." In prior systems, the name was rendered as "Peiking" and earlier, "Peiping."

Phonetic Alphabets in Chinese

Phonetic "alphabets" have appeared in China from time to time since the 19th century, often for the purpose of creating a written form of a language formerly only spoken, thus preserving it. In 1912 a "Commission on the Unification of Pronunciation" was formed, comprised of scholars who had developed different alphabets for Chinese language. Together they devised a phonetic alphabet that came to be called Zhuyin Fuhao -- 注音符號 -- which became "official" in 1918. It is most often called "bo-po-mo-fo" after its first four letters. The letters are called "ruby characters," and can be reproduced at the side of any Chinese character. This phonetic representation, along side written text, is used mainly to teach school children how the written language is pronounced.

Another Romanization system, called Latinxua Sinwenz, was developed in the late 1920's in Moscow, to encourage literacy - and hence education - among the Chinese-speaking population in the far-eastern regions of the Soviet Union. It was designed to replace the written characters. The writing system used Latin letters - rather than Cyrillic. No attempt was made to capture tonality, and it was not an approach specific to Mandarin only. This rendition of Chinese grew to be popular in Northern China. By 1949 the railroad adopted it for its telecommunications. Many publications were printed in Latinxua Sinwenz. It did in fact accomplish its purpose of spreading literacy. However, the Chinese Communists did not approve of it, and under the pretense that there were not enough teachers of Latinxua Sinwenz, they prohibited the use of the writing system in areas under their control.

In addition to the foregoing writing methods, two other systems are in use. Palladius defines how Chinese should be rendered in the Cyrillic alphabet and Xiao'erjing is used to transcribe Chinese into the Arabic alphabet.

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