中文 Chinese Pinyin

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.

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.


  1. The three syllables -iu -ui -un should be spelled -iou -uei -uen, as they are pronounced. The abbreviated versions are not ambiguous - there no other syllables spelled -iu -ui -un - but there is no need to save a letter every once in a while, especially when that letter is the one that should bear the tone. ⚾

  2. The letter ü is not in the English alphabet, and it's not on most keyboards. Why not use the unused letter v to represent this vowel (as many people already do)? That also makes it easier to write the tone mark above it.

  3. The letters j q x represent palatal sounds, while the digraphs zh ch sh represent the sibling retroflex sounds. But they never occur in the same context! We could use the single letters to spell the retroflex sounds, too. Yes, they sound different, but so do many other pinyin letters, like i a e. The letters j q x should always be followed by a y: jy qy xy that replaces the i of pinyin and turns the ordinary u into a ü.
    Interesting side note: As recently as 1892, when the Wade-Giles romanization was developed, the palatal sounds j q x were pronounced like the velar sounds g k h in Beijing dialect, which is why they romanized the name of the city as Peking - that's how it was pronounced then! But in Chinese, those velar sounds have become palatal, as has happened in many other languages. For example, in Latin civitas, the c was pronounced as a k. Over time, it became a ky before i and e, then a ch, and finally, we pronounce the word city with an s! The ci in words like suspicion is pronounced as a sh - that's the same phenomenon. So we can predict, with some confidence, that in the not-too-distant future, the Chinese j q x will be pronounced just like the zh ch sh are now pronounced, and all that will be left is the odd spelling: pinyin users will have to remember to spell zh ch sh as j q x before i and ü as a spelling rule.

  4. In pinyin, the medials y and w are spelled i and u. But those are vowel letters, and the medials are not vowels, as we can see when there's no initial: they're spelled as in yan and wan, for example. Using y and w not only unites wei with dui - they rhyme! - but it also helps identify which letter is the vowel: xi'an might be confused with xian, but it wouldn't be confused with xyan. ⚾

  5. The apostrophe in Xi'an is not a punctuation symbol that we write to separate the a from the i; it's a letter! It spells the sound written in IPA as ɰ, the semivowel glide that corresponds to the vowel ɯ, or it may be pronounced as a glottal stop ʔ. It can be omitted after a space.

  6. Most of the rhotacized finals that result from erhua can simply append an -r to the normal final. However, pinyin doesn't write the changes this triggers, and it should. Final i and n are lost before -r, and final ng becomes a nasalization sign, written . The result is closer to the pronunciation, but some finals become ambiguous (as they are in speech).

  7. The letter o should be reserved for mid vowels: the finals -ao -iao should be spelled -au -iau. The finals -ong and -iong and their naked versions weng and yong can stay as they are, since they follow the pronunciation. ⚾

  8. Why leave out the w in bwo pwo mwo fwo? To save a letter? If we always spell it -wo when it's pronounced as a rounded o, then we can respell the -e final as -o when it's pronounced as a back ɤ, as it often is. To spell the interjection that pinyin spells ê, just use e - it rhymes with the -ie finals. ⚾

    There are a few other cases that we would like to fix, if we could add a few more letters to the alphabet:

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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!

  1. In Musa, we don't need to leave letters out to save space. In Character gait, medials combine with initials to form ligatures.

  2. Musa has a letter for ü.

  3. Musa has single letters for zh ch sh.

  4. The medials are spelled with semivowels, not vowels.

  5. Musa has a letter for the "null medial" ɰ, to be used if the initial is missing, even after a space.

  6. Erhua finals are spelled as they're pronounced. Musa has a ∼, a nasal suffix to nasalize the vowels in -ngr finals.

  7. The coda -o is spelled with a w in Musa; the coda -i is spelled with a y. Both are consonants, like the other codas -n, -ng, and -r.

  8. The medial is spelled out unless it matches the vowel, and Musa uses twelve different vowel letters for all the allophones.

  9. Musa has a letter for the missing sound, and single letters for zh ch sh.

  10. Musa has a letter for the -ng sound.

  11. Musa has a letter for the r- sound.

  12. Musa has a letter for the y sound before ü.

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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