Thanks, Teacher Zhou

In 2011 I wrote a post about Zhou Youguang, the father of the Pinyin writing system. The post was titled “Imagine Learning Chinese Without Pinyin.”

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Here’s what I wrote about him:

For those of you who are studying or have studied Chinese (in China at least), were it not for this man, Zhouo Youguang, you would be learning  the language without the benefit of Pinyin. This is the guy who decided that the letter q would represent a ch sound, xan sh sound, and an i the semi-vowelled r sound.

For those of you unfamiliar with Pinyin, it is the standard Romanization system used in China to phonetically represent the sounds of Chinese characters. Chinese has tens of thousands of characters, but only about 400 ways to pronounce them. In other words, once we learn how to say these 400 ‘words’ we can actually say (not to be confused with speak) Chinese.

After studying linguistics in the US  (where he was a friend of Albert Einstein), he returned to China in the 1950’s and was given the task of coming up with a standard Romanization of Chinese. It was introduced in 1958.

Zhou Youguang passed away in China last week, at the age of 111. Here’s how NPR reported on the significance of his linguistic invention:

Since his system was introduced nearly six decades ago, few innovations have done more to boost literacy rates in China and bridge the divide between the country and the West.

Pinyin, which was adopted by China in 1958, gave readers unfamiliar with Chinese characters a crucial tool to understand how to pronounce them. These characters do not readily disclose information on how to say them aloud — but with such a system as Pinyin, those characters more easily and clearly yield their meaning when converted into languages like English and Spanish, which use the Roman alphabet.

While it was not the first system to Romanize Chinese, Pinyin has become the most widely accepted. For Chinese speakers, many of whom speak disparate dialects, its broad acceptance made education easier, giving instructors a single, relatively simple instrument to teach people how to read.

Beyond China’s borders, Pinyin allowed the standardization of Chinese names. For instance, it’s a big reason why the name Westerners commonly use for the Chinese capital shifted from “Peking” to “Beijing.” And it’s why many other such names changed dramatically along with it.

On behalf of Chinese language learners everywhere, let me say “Thanks, Zhou Youguang!”

Image source: Getty Images, via NPR

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Happy Birthday “Beijing”

No, today is not the birthday of the founding of Beijing. That happened too far back in history to be able to pinpoint a date. Recorded history goes back around 4000 years and Peking Man dates back more than 200,000 years.

Qing Tombs

So why wish “Beijing” a “Happy Birthday?”

Well, because it was 36 years ago that the Chinese government decreed that henceforth all Chinese words written in English should use the Pinyin Romanization system instead of the Wade-Giles or Yale systems.

Peking became Beijing.

Canton became Guangzhou.

Mao Tse-tung became Mao Ze-dong.

Chou En-lai became Zhou En-lai.

36 years ago today, the Wall Street Journal published an article announcing and explaining these changes to its confused readers. Here’s how journalist Barry Kramer reported it:

“Foreigners reading about China in their own language may soon be scratching their heads over references to Chinese personalities such as Mao Ze-dong and Jiang Qing, or places such as Zhongqing and Beijing. Beijing’s State Council has taken another step toward simplification of China’s cumbersome written language by ordering that all publications printed in China in English, French, German,  Spanish, and other Roman-alphabet languages use only a standard phonetic transliteration system, called Pinyin, to spell names and places.”

You can read the entire Wall Street Journal article on the Today in WSJ History page here.

I wrote about the difference between Peking and Beijing (spelling, of course) in post back in 2010, explaining that the characters didn’t change, only the approved romanization of the characters:

The more complicated (and accurate) response is that in Chinese it didn’t really change. Before the 1970’s the name of the city in characters was 北京, and those characters are still the name of the city today. What changed in the 1970’s was the official pronunciation of those two characters.

The character 北 means ‘north’ or ‘northern.’ The character 京 means capital, so the two characters together mean ‘northern capital.’ The problem lies in the pronunciation of those two characters. In the dialect of northern China (around Beijing) they are pronounced bei and jing. In Cantonese (the dialect of Guangdong Province and Hong Kong) they are pronounced pe and king. Since written Chinese is ideographic, two people who speak different dialects can look at one character and both will know what means, even though they would pronounce them differently. This is the case with Beijing.

So as I said at the beginning, Happy Birthday “Beijing!”

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What Does Ju Mean?

Another question that I am commonly asked by newcomers, especially after they have been around for awhile and have started to pick up some new words and phrases is “what does XX mean?”

If you are at all familiar with Chinese, you will understand the un-helpfulness of a question like this. The Chinese language has 50,000+ written characters, but only slightly more than 400 ways to pronounce those 50,000+ characters. So the first thing that pops into my head – that MUST pop into my head – when I hear this question is  “well, which XX are you referring to?” I rarely ask that directly because I’m 99% sure the person making the inquiry doesn’t know.  They are most likely just asking me about a sound or word they heard and for some reason they are curious as to the meaning.

In order to ascertain the meaning of the word in question, though, we have to know which character it is, since meaning in Chinese is carried by the way a word is written, not the way it sounds. And since there are only 400+ sounds (which can be represented using the phonetic Pinyin writing system), the word they are inquiring about could be any of a handful, dozen, or even a hundred different characters.

Take the word (sound) that is written in Pinyin as ju for example. My Wenlin Chinese software program includes 172 different characters that are pronounced ju. And to make it even more fun, many of those characters have multiple meanings.

Here is just a sampling:

And it gets better!

There are 158 characters pronounced shi.

There are 249 characters pronounced yu.

There are 107 characters pronounced xie.

There are 54 characters pronounced ni.

There is only 1 character pronounced gei. (go figure)

Pinyin is a wonderful tool for those of us whose brains are wired for alphabets to learn how to say the language. But this is a good reminder that it only goes so far (and not very far at that) in helping us understand meanings.

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Imagine Learning Chinese Without Pinyin

For those of you who are studying or have studied Chinese (in China at least), were it not for this man, Zhouo Youguang, you would be learning  the language without the benefit of Pinyin.This is the guy who decided that the letter q would represent a ch sound, x an sh sound, and an i the semi-vowelled r sound.

For those of you unfamiliar with Pinyin, it is the standard Romanization system used in China to phonetically represent the sounds of Chinese characters.  Chinese has tens of thousands of characters, but only about 400 ways to pronounce them.  In other words, once we learn how to say these 400 ‘words’ we can actually say (not to be confused with speak) Chinese.

 

After studying linguistics in the US  (where he was a friend of Albert Einstein), he returned to China in the 1950’s and was given the task of coming up with a standard Romanization of Chinese. It was introduced in 1958.

 

This past week Louisa Lim, Beijing correspondent for NPR did a fascinating story on this 105-year-old professor. She writes:

 

When Zhou was born in 1906, Chinese men still wore their hair in a long pigtail, the Qing dynasty still ruled China, and Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House. That someone from that era is alive — and blogging as the “Centenarian Scholar” — seems unbelievable….

 

It took Zhou and his colleagues three years to come up with the system now known as Pinyin, which was introduced in schools in 1958. Recently, Pinyin has become even more widely used to type Chinese characters into mobile phones and computers — a development that delights Zhou.

 

“In the era of mobile phones and globalization, we use Pinyin to communicate with the world. Pinyin is like a kind of ‘Open sesame,’ opening up the doors,” he says.

 

Today he has become an outspoken advocate for political reform in China. You can read/listen to Louisa’s full report here.

 

105 years old and still going strong!

 

(image source: mirrorbooks.com)