Chinese Spelling Conventions
This page describes the reasons for the distinctive spellings of Chinese words which viewers will encounter on this web site, and in our published works. It also serves as a preface to our detailed recommendations.
Over the years, there have been many systems for transcribing the sounds of Chinese words. None has been wholly satisfactory. For instance, the gimmicky GR system labored to indicate tones without the use of diacritics; it was promoted by the Y R Chao Mandarin Primer (and the "Gwoyeu Tsyrdean" dictionary), and was officially adopted by the London School for a time, but the rules of tonal spelling were burdensome to students and unobvious to the general public, and GR later faded away. The two systems most commonly used at present (the old Wade-Giles system and the Chinese Government Pinyin system) have their difficulties also.
It is more or less given that experts can recognize a Chinese form they know in almost any romanization, including the EFEO system used by Chavannes and other early French Sinologists, or the idiosyncratic system used in the translations of Legge. The problem is rather with the inexpert public, to whom the experts (if they are wise) will wish to be intelligible rather than inscrutable. The Project uses and recommends a system intended to be maximally intelligible, and minimally misleading, to the general public. There have been various earlier efforts in this direction, such as the proposals of Gardner, the usage of Dubs, or the practical Yale Romanization in whose creation George Kennedy had a certain role. All these suggestions more or less correctly envisioned the problem, and contributed toward a solution.
The Common Alphabetic Solution
But the best indicator of a solution has been a Japanese convention: the Hepburn romanization. This has never caused problems either for scholars or for the general public, and it is absorbed without difficulty by students in first-year Asian History courses. There is nothing mysterious about its success: Hepburn uses the letters of the alphabet in a way compatible with that of educated English speakers. We have attempted to follow that precedent by taking as a basis the standard educated American's mnemonic "consonants as in English, vowels as in Italian." From the fact that our system uses widely accepted values for the letters of the alphabet, we call it the Common Alphabetic (CA) system. In addition to its advantages for international users, there are also advantages for use within China. Everything so far discussed concerns Peking Mandarin, but there are many other members of the Chinese language family. If another form of Chinese, such as Cantonese, Minnan, or Hakka, is transcribed, the Pinyin conventions will not work. For that purpose, CA can be used without reassigning letter values, so that what is learned for one kind of Chinese will carry over to other kinds. Or, in theory, to the reconstructed sounds of Chinese at earlier periods in its history.
For more information about the system, the alternative systems most commonly encountered, and the pronunciation of Chinese as such, see further
The feature of CA that is least guessable by most newcomers is the use of the vowel "v" for the sound "uh." Unfortunately, as elementary school teachers are only too well aware, English has no letter that unambiguously represents "uh" (following Continental precedent, the letter "u" needs to stand for the sound "oo"). It may help that "v" is next to "u" in the alphabet, and also that linguists use and inverted "v" to represent the sount of "uh" in scientific notation. Once past this slight sticking point, all else is simple.
One of the advantages of CA is that, unlike Wade-Giles, it does not use apostrophes to distinguish the sounds "t" and "d" (as "t" with and without a following apostrophe). Apostrophes do not work consistently for the beginner; they tend to be simply ignored, so that all words tend to be pronounced the same, and even if they are pronounced correctly, all book titles have the same acronym. Another advantage is that CA, unlike Pinyin, is not a "phonemic" system. A phonemic system is one in which, for instance, "q" stands for the sound "ch" because "q" happens to be an otherwise unused letter on the typewriter keyboard. These substitutions are fun for the expert, but misleading for the novice, and the social fact is that there are many more novices than experts in the world.
The political fact is that some of the novices are President of the United States, a position of potentially great destabilizing power in our none too stable world. For a hint of the difficulties that lie in this direction, if the needs of the novice continue to be neglected, see our old Op-Ed Piece. Events since it was written have only confirmed the existence of a problem, and the absence of a solution at that level.
When the founder of the Han Dynasty, a peasant in origin, was having ceremonies devised for his coronation as Emperor, he cautioned the ritual experts, "Now, keep it simple, so I can do it." Those who devise spellings to be seen and used by the emperors of the present age should heed that very sensible advice.
29 May 2004 / Contact The Project / Exit to Reference Page