Mandarin: As easy as ABC

united-kingdomLast month, the world of linguistics lost one of its greats, Zhōu Yǒuguāng (周有光). Zhōu was born Zhōu Yàopíng (周耀平) on the 13th of January 1906, the son of a Qing dynasty official in Chángzhōu, Jiāngsū province in mainland China. He was an economist, having studied at St. John’s University in Shànghǎi, where he majored in economics but took supplementary coursework in linguistics. He later worked as a banker in New York. Now, to be perfectly honest with you, I don’t know the first thing about economics or banking, and frankly, I’m not even the slightest bit interested. So let’s skip ahead in his story to 1955, when many reforms were taking place in the Chinese language (which is to say, Mandarin, which was in the process of being adopted as the national language). Premier Zhōu Ēnlái (周恩来) selected Zhōu to be part of a commitee working with the Ministry of Education to develop a new system for the romanisation of Chinese, as a way of combating the high levels of illiteracy in the country at the time.

Now, to me, this is a stroke of genius (get it? Stroke? Mandarin? Chinese calligraphy? Oh, never mind.) People had tried to romanise written Chinese before, the first recorded attempt being way back in 1605, with varying levels of success. The most successful attempt had been the Wade-Giles system, developed first in 1859 by British diplomat Thomas Wade, and further refined in 1892 by Herbert Giles in his A Chinese-English Dictionary. The Wade-Giles system was still used in English-language textbooks up until 1979 and is still sometimes used in Taiwan, but in mainland China it has been completely replaced by Zhōu’s system: Hànyǔ Pīnyīn, or Pīnyīn for short.

Hànyǔ (汉语) literally refers to the spoken language of the Han people, and Pīnyīn (拼音) literally means ‘spelled sounds’. It is a system of accepted spelling rules for Chinese characters, withchinese-tones a macron (ˉ) is used to donate the first, an acute accent (´) denotes the second, a caron or háček (ˇ) is used for the third and a grave accent (`) is for the fourth. The fifth (or neutral) tone is written with just a plain vowel, without a diacritc mark. And if you look carefully, the marks actually resemble the nature of the tones themselves, making them even easier to remember (though, speaking from personal experience, no easier to actually perform.)

You can’t even imagine how difficult a process this must have been, and I want to stress that it was not entirely down to Zhōu Yǒuguāng, he was one of a committee. But that doesn’t make it any less impressive. Chinese characters have long been regarded as impenetrable for foreigners, and sometimes even for native speakers – as the characters themselves contain no information as to how the word is pronounced, they are entirely logographic. So in order to learn Chinese, one would have to have access to a speaker who could both speak and write the language, and need to remember the sound each character represents without any external prompts or help. I don’t need to tell you, that with thousands upon thousands of different characters, this was quite a task in and of itself, even for native speakers. Take into account that Chinese is not just one language, but a whole family of languages, each of which with its own sounds corresponding to the same characters. The advent of Pīnyīn opened the door to the mystical world of Chinese characters, making it much easier for those outside of China to access a wealth of Chinese literature and culture that had previously been inaccessible. It even makes it easier to type using Chinese characters on a computer keyboard, something which Zhōu and his committee could not possibly have foreseen.

It’s at this point that I should add, Pīnyīn is not used for all of the Chinese languages. It is used for Mandarin and (from 2009) Taiwanese, but Cantonese has its own system of romanisation, known as JyutPing – Cantonese has more tones than Mandarin, which renders Pīnyīn unusable – JyutPing gets around this problem by adding numbers (instead of Pīnyīn’s diacritical marks) to the end of each syllable, to aid in pronunciation. However, the system is less widely used in Cantonese-speaking areas than Pīnyīn is in mainland China, and even with the advent of computers and the prevalence of Latin keyboards, other input systems are preferred.

0013729e4a9d0b350cf637So why did I write this? Well, the long and short of it is, I just think it’s neat. Reading Zhōu Yǒuguāng’s obituary led me to research the subject in more detail, and that in turn sparked my interest in the Chinese languages… I don’t think I’m ready to learn just yet, but the thought is constantly bubbling at the back of my mind. Who knows? Maybe one day you’ll be able to come back to this blog and see posts in Mandarin. Just… give me a few years, yeah? As always, thanks for reading. See you next time.

– J.

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