The Phoneticization of Chinese

2212月07

Chinese and Japanese are pretty much the only languages I know in which students first learn new words by writing them down in some sort of romanization, and then later “graduate” to the proper script. In a Japanese class, you can, at some point, stop using romanization altogether because new, unknown words, for which you do not know the Chinese characters can be written out in Hiragana. Not so with Chinese. And as a learner of the Chinese language, this greatly bothers me, because the only thing I can switch to is Pinyin. Now, you might ask – whatever is so wrong with Pinyin? And I would tell you “Nothing, but…”, and this is about the shallow, aesthetic – perhaps even superficial – aspect of human nature rather than the pragmatic sort. Now, as far as the pragmatic aspect is concerned, yánjiūshēng and 研究生 (graduate student) are one and the same. And I agree wholeheartedly – at the only level at which it really matters, which is getting the meaning across to the reader – that both of them perform the same feat. However, what draws me to choose 研究生 over yánjiūshēng is only the fact that the former looks more aesthetically pleasing and more “Chinese” to me than the latter.

Now as a slight digression, I have to say that this isn’t just something I discovered after learning Chinese – no, the characters were actually one of the reasons I wished to learn East Asian languages – it was because I hadn’t the slightest idea how on earth they worked that I so wanted to learn about them. This is precisely why Vietnamese never even entered my sphere of interest when I was picking which language to study – it used a romanization, I could see how it worked and you know, that just took away all the curiosity. Now, Japanese, Chinese and Korean were the languages I was choosing from. And, in the end, I chose Chinese because, well, first of all, you can find Chinese people by the bucket load in the United States if you’re looking for people to talk to, and, secondly, the language was tonal, which was again something that I hadn’t the slightest idea about.

Now back we come to the point that most polysyllabic Chinese words written out in Pinyin are unambiguous representations of the corresponding characters and the bottom line is that they’re both the same word in Chinese whether you like it or not. No, you get zilch more if you write out the characters for “graduate student” in terms of meaning. What you do get is something you can quickly glance at and say, “Well, that’s Chinese or I’m a duck-billed platypus”. And that is, what I feel, what the Chinese don’t want to lose by switching to romanization. If I may exaggerate a bit, Chinese culture revolves around characters – they simply love ’em! There are various arts derived from it, they come up in movies (Hero, anyone?), they even have dictionary lookup competitions in school – as impractical of a script as it is, let’s just admit the fact that they like the way it looks. And you know what? I do too.

OK, so romanization would look too alien and non-Chinese as a primary, or even secondary, script for Chinese people to adopt, so what can they do? Well, there’s Zhùyīn Fúhào (otherwise known as Bopomofo – ㄅㄆㄇㄈ). Taiwan is the main user of this script and it is taught to school children there as an aid to learning Chinese characters (what is known as a ruby). There are quite a few fine aspects of Bopomofo. Firstly, just like Hiragana in Japanese, it is derived from Chinese characters with similar sounds which have been simplified down; this allows a person who has preexisting knowledge of Chinese characters to learn this script in a relatively short period of time. The second salient feature of the script is that it divides all Chinese sounds into their Initial Consonants, Combined Vowels and Final Consonants, such that the simpler sounds in Chinese like ‘ba’ for example are written with two Bopomofo characters, one for the ‘b’ and the other for the ‘a’, and the more complicated sounds such as ‘zhuang’ would be three characters – ‘zh’ ‘ua’ and ‘ng’. So, yes, definitely a lot more atomic than Chinese characters, more atomic than Hiragana or Katakana in Japanese which do Initial + Vowel, but not as atomic as, say Pinyin, which, instead of combining the vowel sound into a single character, splits ‘ua’, say, into ‘u’ and ‘a’. Still, the level of atomicity in Bopomofo seems reasonable. What my big gripe about it is this – whither the tones?

Sometimes, I just fail to understand it. Chinese is a tonal language, we’ve all got that. Then why does nearly every phoneticization system ever made for it completely overlook the tones as an integral component? Here’s a sample word in Bopomofo – “ㄓㄨˋ ㄧㄣ ㄈㄨˊ ㄏㄠˋ”. Wouldn’t it look so much nicer if it were “ㄓㄨㄧㄣ ㄈㄨㄏㄠ”? But that would be ignoring tones in the same way Arabic ignores all its short vowels, and, unfortunately, that can’t be done in Chinese because wěn means to kiss and wèn means to ask a question and you do not want to get those mixed up with your Chinese teacher. Trust me. Even in Pinyin, tones seem to have suffered much oversight. Here’s a good rule – if the writing system breaks down during instant messaging, it’s probably not a good one. And Pinyin tends to lose tones fast. Which is why, when you read “Ta shi zuotian wen wo de”, you don’t know if ‘wen’ means ‘ask’, ‘smell’ or ‘kiss’ – a relatively vexing problem. The only system that bothered to have tones as an integral part of the romanization was Gwoyeu Romatzyh (Guóyǔ Luómǎzì – 国语罗马字) and, guess what, we’re not using that one anymore for some reason.

The bottom line, then, is that no one really wants to use a romanization as a primary or secondary standard because it doesn’t really look Chinese enough, looks out-of-place when put alongside Chinese characters and adds tones as an afterthought. Meanwhile, Bopomofo, the native solution, which might be acceptable to a lot of Chinese people with some degree of coaxing, is plagued by the fact that it, even worse than Pinyin, has the ugliest way of “incorporating” tones ever visualized. What’s to be done then? Well, first of all, there is a “realization” to be made that’s very important and that concerns how Chinese characters work in the first place. And it is that the Chinese script, in the end, is a phonetic one. If it weren’t, then any kind of transliteration, for example, would be impossible. Yet we have 麦当劳 (Màidāngláo; McDonald’s) and 西雅图 (Xīyǎtú; Seattle). It is a script that is, as I put it, trying to be completely phonetic. Type ‘ke’ into your Chinese Input Method Editor (IME) of choice, for example, and see what you get. Amongst the ones I get, three out of the first ten have the component 果 in them and another three have 亥 in them, which means that when you find yourself guessing the sound of a Chinese character, you would guess a character that had 果 in it to be pronounced ‘ke’ with some tone. Now, there are three issues involved here: first, not all the characters in which you see 果 will be pronounced ‘ke’; second, not all the characters pronounced ‘ke’ will have 果 in them; and third, there is no indication of tone. However, the important point is that there is the intent in the Chinese script of being a phonetic one. Like, if you gave it another couple of thousand years to evolve, it might just become one.

Unfortunately, a couple of thousand years is a period that most people are not willing to wait and pretty much everyone who is willing to wait is incapable of actually doing so. So, my suggestion is to slightly expedite the process – make Chinese phonetic, completely phonetic, and make it thus here and now! Here are the requirements placed for the script: first, that it must look and feel “Chinese” so that there is a chance of it being actually adopted; in this vein, it would be good if it were based off preexisting Chinese characters in the first place because people already know a bunch of those and it would be easier to switch; second, that it convey the sound of every syllable (tone and all) completely and precisely. And do I personally have a solution in mind? As it happens, I do. I call it Xīn Yán Shuǐ Mù or 心言水木.

心言水木 is quite simple. For each complete sound in Chinese (such as ‘zhuāng’ or ‘mǐn’), you set aside a character component that corresponds to the toneless version of the sound, say, 壯 for ‘zhuang’ and 民 for ‘min’. Now, you pick a “radical” that corresponds to each of the four primary tones. For this, I have picked 心, 言, 水 and 木 for the first, second, third and fourth tones respectively as the characters themselves have the same tone, which makes it easy to remember. The neutral tone is depicted by not adding any tone component to the character and just writing out the right-hand side component alone. So, this makes 敏感 in present-day Chinese equivalent to 泯汗 in this new system, where 干 is the component for ‘gan’. Similarly, 变化 becomes 楄杹. Do note that the emphasis in this script is not on having the least number of strokes in the character. In my opinion, the simplification of characters was a futile effort because, although it reduced the number of strokes for a lot of characters, for one, it did not change the basic problem of the Chinese character system being an inconsistent mess, and, for another, any Chinese scholar would now have to learn two character sets (mercifully overlapping) in order to have the assurance of being able to read any Chinese text anywhere in the world. So, although the corresponding characters might have more strokes, what you are assured of is being able to read everything you see and being able to write anything you hear. There could be made a few exceptions to, say, numbers from 1-10 which would retain their characters, as well as the characters for time words such as year, month and day. In all, a person would have to learn about 435 characters to be able to read and write even the rarest of Chinese sounds and words.

Click here to see a more detailed description of 心言水木 as well as the list of all the sounds and their corresponding 心言水木 phonetic components.

UPDATE [2007-12-25]: If you read this article and thought, “Well, what about ambiguity with words that sound the same and mean different things?”, then you need to read this follow-up article, The Myth  of Ambiguity.

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One Response to “The Phoneticization of Chinese”


  1. 1 The Myth of Ambiguity « 閔士睿之日记

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