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Transliteration of Chinese Names
Posted: 13 December 2012 09:59 PM   [ Ignore ]
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I received an email today from a Chinese gentleman whose surname is “Qin.” Seeing a Q without a U caught my eye and I went through a quick loop-de-loop in my mind about “Chinese spelling.” As soon as the idea of “Chinese spelling” occurred to me, I realized that it isn’t Chinese at all. So I started thinking, “why the Q?” My guess would be that the name is pronounced something like “kin” and if the Q is that kind of hard sound, why not just use a k?

The spelling of English words can be baffling at times, but the reasons usually have to do with history. However, spelling Chinese names with Latin letters has to be a relatively recent invention and one would think the “rules” would be closer to English.... unless, of course, if the person or people most influential in Chinese transliteration have a native language with Q’s blissfully free from tag-alongs.

So, enough idle speculation, I know there are people here who are educated about these things. I seek enlightenment.

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Posted: 14 December 2012 01:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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No expert I but I think Qin would have been Chin in the old Wade-Giles system of transliteration. That’s the one I was familiar with but that became outmoded years ago, happydog. (About the time Peking became Beijing).  Wikipedia has a useful article on the Romanization of Chinese and all the various systems that have come and gone.

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Posted: 14 December 2012 06:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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aldi is correct, except that Qin would have been Ch’in in Wade-Giles (W-G “Chin” is pinyin “Jin").  Have you really never seen pinyin before?  It’s been in standard use in the press for decades now; of the current group of rulers, for example, the General Secretary of the CPC is Xi Jinping (not Hsi Chin-p’ing), the Vice-Premier is Wang Qishan (not Wang Ch’i-shan), and the Secretary of the CPC Secretariat is Liu Qibao (not Liu Ch’i-pao).

spelling Chinese names with Latin letters has to be a relatively recent invention and one would think the “rules” would be closer to English

I would remind you that English is only one of many, many languages that use the Latin alphabet.

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Posted: 14 December 2012 07:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Have you really never seen pinyin before?

What does seeing pinyin have to do with knowing how to pronounce it? I don’t watch television news and while I know who the Chinese leaders are from reading, CNN.com doesn’t come with a pronunciation guide.

It’s been in standard use in the press for decades now... Your newspaper comes with a pronunciation guide to Chinese names? Mine doesn’t.

I would remind you that English is only one of many, many languages that use the Latin alphabet

I don’t need your reminder. My post made it clear that I understand that.

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Posted: 14 December 2012 10:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I would go a step further and note that one can see Pinyin without knowing that that is what one is seeing.  Indeed, as the characters themselves, AFAIK, are perfectly standard Latin characters, it is profoundly easy to see Pinyin text without having any idea that that is what one saw.

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Posted: 14 December 2012 04:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Happydog, I’ve noticed that though you’ve received a number of “replies”, you’ve received no actual answers to your question as to why “q” instead of the more obvious “k”.

May I, a complete ignoramus on the subject, who furthermore has not mitigated his know-nothingness with even the tiniest bit of research, offer top-of-the-head pure speculation?

Maybe it’s to immediately let the reader know that it’s a Chinese person he’s dealing with (distinguishing the Chinese from either other Asians, or at least from non-Asian foreigners with strange names that could be confused with Chinese by the uninformed or hasty).

By the way, happydog, I congratulate you on your choice of photo.  By God, that does appear to be a helluva happy dog!!!!

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Posted: 14 December 2012 09:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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The general answer to the question is that pinyin was developed to help differentiate between sounds that are similar in many languages that use Roman letters, but are important phonetic differences in Chinese. 

Langenscheidt’s Mandarin dictionary pronunciation guide provides specific help with this:
“q = like ch in cheap, pronounced with the lips spread as in a smile”

In contrast,
“ch = like ch in church, pronounced with the tip of the tongue curled back”

Or as another example, “xie xie” (谢谢 thank you) sounds like “shay shay” but it is different than “sh” in pinyin.  (and if said correctly, you feel this.  i.e., xie xie - feels almost like you are slightly whistling while saying it.  sh in Chinese doesn’t have this sound). 

Pinyin is one of the things that makes learning Chinese difficult.  I still struggle with some sounds.  For example, “i” can sound like the “i” in bird.  (it’s hard to say the “i” without an “r” sound).  “e” is like the “e” in her, again without the “r” (both examples from Langenscheidt).  chi = to eat 吃, che = car 车 (both have the same tone, so the phonetics ARE important).  You can copy these characters into google translate have it say them to illustrate the difference.

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Posted: 15 December 2012 06:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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What does seeing pinyin have to do with knowing how to pronounce it? I don’t watch television news and while I know who the Chinese leaders are from reading, CNN.com doesn’t come with a pronunciation guide.

Sorry, your initial post had an air of “Here’s a new, strange phenomenon I hadn’t been acquainted with,” so I leaped to the wrong conclusion.  My apologies.  But it’s really not that hard to figure out how to pronounce things in this internet age; if you google “chinese q” the first hit is this page, which gives good instructions on how to say it.  (In brief, it’s similar to English “ch” but with the tip of the tongue behind the lower front teeth.) As for why q is used, the Wikipedia page on pinyin says “Pinyin q is akin to its value in Albanian; both Pinyin and Albanian pronunciations may sound similar to the ch to the untrained ear.” I hope that helps.

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Posted: 18 December 2012 08:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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The general answer to the question is that pinyin was developed to help differentiate between sounds that are similar in many languages that use Roman letters, but are important phonetic differences in Chinese.

Thank you for a wonderfully succinct and insightful answer. That’s exactly what I was groping for. This, together with aldi’s very helpful link fills in all the pieces for me.

I had some vague notion that a scheme for transliteration would have developed out of the need for trade and since the Brits were the ones to open trade with China, I figured the system would be English-centric.  However, Mr. Qin’s name clearly demonstrated to me that my vague notion was wrong and I wanted to understand why. I’m sure I could have puzzled it out through research, but I thought someone here could laser target the answer for me and so you have. I wasn’t interested in the Chinese pronunciation of the Q so much as I was in why Q would be used at all without it’s accompanying friend. It’s the phonetic differences and the tonal nature of Chinese that make English pronunciation unsuitable as a template for transliterating Chinese names and this wasn’t something clear to me in the casual research I did before posting.

Thanks!

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Posted: 18 December 2012 12:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I once met a Burmese guy who spelt and pronounced his given name Oo. The third secretary-general of the UN is remembered as U Thant and I had assumed that was pronounced Yu till I met Oo. I reckon we should go for the closest possible in English transliteration eg fung shway not feng shui though the Chinese promoted Deng Xiaoping over Dung for obvious reasons cf. Mao Tse Tung was later changed to Mao Zedong (not dung) by the Chinese in about 1980 if I recall. We don’t have Ziaoping, though, and Xerxes is OK. I also knew a Taiwanese who spelt his name Tser which could be the same as the X in Xiaoping ie a sound we don’t have in English like Ng, also a Chinese given name and a common initial consonant in Thai.

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Posted: 18 December 2012 01:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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"and I had assumed that was pronounced Yu”

U Thant do that on television!

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Posted: 26 December 2012 08:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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"I had some vague notion that a scheme for transliteration would have developed out of the need for trade and since the Brits were the ones to open trade with China, I figured the system would be English-centric.”

Pinyin is helpful for foreigners, but it is also used in China for teaching.  Chinese kids spend the first 2 years of school learning pinyin before they begin learning characters. 

In addition, Pinyin is a common input method for typing in Chinese.  You type the pinyin and this gives a list of the associated characters.  This makes it sound easy.  However, “qin” gives 115 different characters.  Windows gives 10 characters/page and you have to click them to find the right character. 

This is why pinyin is not an effective form of written communication, except on roadsigns for foreigners.  A given pinyin can represent too many different words to be effective in writing.  Simple things like thank you xie xie or ni hao will be understood, but beyond that it’s somewhat akin to writing in phonetic English to an English speaker (i.e., it’s good for showing pronunciation of a word in a dictionary, but not for sentences).

Happydog - thanks for your comments.

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Posted: 27 December 2012 04:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Practically every European language, or dialect, assigns its own peculiar phonetic values to the letters of the Latin alphabet. Sounds that exist in one language may not exist in others. Listen to a native French or Spanish speaker pronouncing the monosyllable “that”. Or, for that matter, listen to an average native English speaker pronouncing French, or Spanish. My English father, who spoke Spanish for sixty years, could never get his mouth around a Spanish diphthong (the word bueno, for him, had three syllables), though he took English diphthongs in his stride without even recognizing them as such.
The Latin alphabet isn’t European property, and it seems to me natural that the Chinese, when using it to write one of their languages, should assign values of their own to the letters.

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Posted: 27 December 2012 06:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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This is why pinyin is not an effective form of written communication, except on roadsigns for foreigners.  A given pinyin can represent too many different words to be effective in writing.

I keep running across this sentiment, and I keep saying the same thing (and wondering why this obvious point doesn’t occur to the sentimentalists): pinyin represents the syllables of speech.  If you can understand the speech, why wouldn’t you understand it when it was written down?  Of course you have to get used to the writing system, but that’s a different issue and a moot point—I think knowledge of pinyin is extremely widespread in China.  The fact that “a given pinyin” can represent many different syllables (not “words”!) is irrelevant, since context makes it clear which is meant.

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Posted: 27 December 2012 09:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Languagehat - I agree that theoretically pinyin could be used in writing (and at one point, I believe Mao pushed for this), but the writing would likely need to be verbose to avoid misunderstanding.  When a language is spoken, there are many opportunities for clarification, whereas the writing needs to be understood the 1st time.  Chinese & Japanese have lots & lots of homophones, so writing needs an extra level of clarity.

These numbers might help illustrate the issue with Chinese:  According to one author, Chinese has only 405 syllables* and when distinguished by tone, there are only ~1200 of them (not all syllables have all 4 tones).  Also, most Chinese words are just 1 or 2 syllables, so there are comparatively limited combinations for words.  Also, the sounds of the syllables don’t blend together – they sound exactly like they do as separate words.  Hence, there is relatively few ways to distinguish words, even with tones.

On top of this, it’s common for a given syllable to represent 20, 50 or 100s of different words (the simple ni hao - Windows offers 95 different characters for ni and 63 for hao, >400 for yi.  Each of these are distinct words, as are the >100 characters for Qin).  Even though each character represents a distinct word, that word may have many meanings (kai 开).  So even with context, comprehension can be difficult. 

*Each syllable is also a word.

Japanese is somewhat similar, i.e., although Japanese has 2 phonetic alphabets that are used in writing, Chinese characters are still used to ensure clarity and are considered essential.  (In contrast to Chinese, Japanese has many words with >2 syllables).

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Posted: 28 December 2012 02:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Simple things like thank you xie xie or ni hao will be understood, but beyond that it’s somewhat akin to writing in phonetic English to an English speaker (i.e., it’s good for showing pronunciation of a word in a dictionary, but not for sentences).

I would think that it would be _better_ in sentences, because there is greater context and hence less chance of ambiguity.

Moreover, I would not foresee any problems in using what you have called phonetic English. I’d be happy as Larry if IPA became standard for all forms of communication.

(the simple ni hao - Windows offers 95 different characters for ni and 63 for hao

In Pinyin, the spelling is nǐ hǎo. The use of the tonal marks reduces the field considerably.

I note that Vietnamese, which is another monosyllabic tonal language, was written in Chinese characters (with some modifications), but is perfectly well represented by its current Latin-based alphabet.

On the other hand, one issue with representing Mandarin in pinyin (or bopomofo or any other system based on an alphabet) is that it means it is definitely Mandarin. A Teochew speaker can currently read the Gōngrén Rìbào (Worker’s Daily) just about as well as a Mandarin speaker can.

EDIT: added a few words to the last paragraph. In the original wording, my sentence could be taken to mean that pinyin and bopomofo are alphabets.

[ Edited: 29 December 2012 06:50 AM by OP Tipping ]
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