- The Problem
- A Recent Political Example (Op-Ed Letter)
- Conversion Tables
The problem of Chinese spellings continues to plague the general public. The romanization systems presently used (Pinyin, Wade-Giles) are not intelligible to newcomers, and lead to mispronunciations. The Hepburn spelling for Japanese is simple and unproblematic for readers with international alphabetic reflexes, because it uses the common alphabetic conventions (which, for English speakers, are summed up in the mnemonic "consonants as in English, vowels as in Italian"). A less "phonemic" version of the Yale Romanization, or of Pinyin, would give an equally unproblematic result, at least for consonants.
A less problematic result would be welcome in the political realm as well as in education. For these reasons, we favor a Common Alphabetic system for Chinese.
The difficulty in creating such a system is that there are places where existing conventions, based on the Latin or Italian values of a, e, i, o, u don't provide for Chinese vowels.1. Chinese, like English, has a central vowel "uh" (as in "dun, supper, hug") along with a back vowel "oo" (as in "dune, super, huge." Latin didn't have the "uh" sound, and the roman alphabet has no letter for "uh." Both are spelled in English as U. International practice is to use letter U for the back vowel "oo." So we need a new symbol for the other one, the central vowel "uh." Where are we going to get it? We notice that in Roman inscriptions, U is often written V, thus SENATVS POPVLVSQVE ROMANVS, "the Roman senate and the Roman people." With that hint, we may use "v" as a second version of "u," namely, the vowel sound "uh." Linguists already use an inverted V for this sound. But the inverted V is not in most fonts. We propose to use the V, without inverting it.2. Chinese, like German, has an "umlaut U" (ü) sound. We need to leave the tops of letters free for tone marks in Chinese, so we can't use the two dots of the umlaut. But we can suggest those two dots by writing U itself two times (UU), and then collapsing it as "double U" or W.
The rest (see our page on Chinese Pronunciation) is easy. The Chinese vowel that sounds like the vowel of English "fur" we can write as -r. The one that sounds like the "z" of "adz" we write as -z. The vowel of "cat" is already written in some school primers as ae (digraph æ). The new vowel conventions are then:
- ae (digraph æ) for the vowel of "cat," as in school primers and in linguistic usage
- r for the vowel of "fur" (compare "grr")
- z for the last sound in "adz," but used as a vowel (compare "zzz")
- v for the vowel of "up," next to U in the alphabet, reminiscent of Roman and linguistic usage
- yw (after l and n, simply w) for "umlaut U" sound, reminiscent of the two dots of the umlaut
Everything else already has an obvious best equivalent in common alphabetic usage. For conversion tables between CA and the other two common systems (Pinyin or PY and Wade-Giles or WG), see:
19 Feb 2004 / Contact The Project / Exit to Reference Page