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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