This page is a discussion of Chinese pinyin, the Roman alphabet system for spelling the sounds of Chinese words, which is used as an auxiliary script for Chinese, alongside the familiar Chinese characters.
There is no doubt about the usefulness of pinyin, and in fact it has made possible the integration of Chinese characters into the modern digital world.
Pinyin is by far the most used entry method for typing Chinese. There are alternatives: the 五笔 wubi system and the 五笔 cangjie system are both based on the shapes of the characters, and both still in use. But pinyin is the most used, and the easiest to learn.
Pinyin is used to look words up or to put them in alphabetical order. Again, there are alternatives in traditional Chinese literacy, for example the 康熙 kangxi dictionary scheme with its 214 radicals - but they are difficult to use and to learn.
Pinyin is used to spell the pronunciation of words. As with the cases above, there is a traditional method, based on specifying other words with the same pronunciation, or combining words with the same elements of pronunciation, as if we were to say that "cat" is pronounced with the first sound of "cow" and the final of "hat". More recently, there is a semisyllabic system - 注音 zhuyin or bopomofo - where these elements were given symbols. This works, as long as the pronunciations are from standard Chinese, not another Chinese language, another language of the PRC, or a foreign language.
Pinyin is used to teach Chinese, both to natives and to foreigners. Characters can be taught to people who already know the meaning and pronunciation of the words, but it is difficult to learn all three - meaning, pronunciation, and idiosyncratic written form - at the same time.
But all these advantages derive from the adoption of a sound-based spelling, not from the specific system. Even the Wade-Giles system of 1892 offered these benefits, and worked well for most of a century. But Wade-Giles was always intended as a system for specialists, and as China awoke from its Great Slumber, reformers became more ambitious: they wanted a true phonetic spelling system that would replace characters for the general population.
This dream was shared by many of the luminaries of this epoch - for example Sun Yatsen, Mao Zedong, Qu Qiubai and Lu Xun - and it was made a priority of both the Republic of China and the People's Republic of China. Two mostly autochthonous romanizations were developed in this period: Gwoyeu Romatzyh and Latinxua Sinwenz, both intended to replace characters. But in the end, the nationalist agenda promulgated by Chiang Kaishek won out, and the reform was limited to simplifying characters and using pinyin only in an auxiliary role. It's ironic that the Chinese Communist Party, Chiang's enemies, are so loyal to his agenda!
During the Second World War, American pilots were flying missions over China against the Japanese, and they sometimes found themselves in the middle of nowhere after being shot down, bailing out or crash-landing. In order to enable them to communicate with their Chinese allies on the ground, the US Army began to teach pilots some Chinese, using a system developed at Yale University: the Yale Romanization. This was the first ever practical romanization of Chinese.
But it was designed for Americans, and needed to be adapted for Chinese use. Thus was born hanyu pinyin, fathered by a non-linguist banker, Zhou Youguang, who had lived in New York and seen the Yale romanization. He and his team did a good job ...
... but, in my opinion, they made some mistakes. On this page, I will discuss the shortcomings of pinyin itself, as an alphabet. In several cases (marked ⚾), the Yale romanization was better.
There are a few other cases that we would like to fix, if we could add a few more letters to the alphabet:The is in zi ci si and the is in zhi chi shi ri don't sound at all like the normal i in yi bi pi mi di ti ni li j qi xi, and they shouldn't be spelled the same way. (They don't sound like each other, either, but they're close.) There's a good letter for that sound: the undotted ı of Turkish. So we'd spell them zı cı sı and zhı chı shı rı. For the ng final, there is a lovely letter: the eng ŋ. When this ng final is made diminutive with the addition of r, we can spell the resulting nasalized vowel as -∼r it definitely doesn't sound like it's spelled in pinyin: -ngr. The initial r is not an r at all: it's the voiced equivalent of sh, written zh in some transcription schemes. The IPA has a nice letter for it: ʒ. The medial y in yu yue yuan yun is not really a y (and the u's are really ü's, too): it is the semivowel written ɥ in IPA, the semivowel equivalent of ü.
But now my "hidden agenda" is obvious: almost all of the problems listed above arise because the Latin alphabet doesn't have enough letters - and the right letters - for Chinese. But the Musa alphabet does!
In addition, Musa writes Chinese in Character gait, so that syllables hang together as a unit. The elements within a character are arranged differently for different tones, so different words are easier to recognize. But the written form still indicates the pronunciation, not the meaning!
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