the Zhuzihu spelling blues

road and trail signs giving different spellings for the same placeLess than 10 years ago the romanization on Taipei’s street signs was a complete mess. The “standard,” such as it was, was the inherently bad bastardized Wade-Giles; but misspellings were abundant, so much so that even some individual intersections had signs with several different spellings. It was the sort of thing foreigners in Taiwan loved to point out. Since almost all of those signs are now gone — and good riddance! — I offer up this lesser sample, taken about ten days ago when my wife and I went walking on Yangming Shan to see the sakura and calla lilies.

The sign on the top, reading “ZhuZiHu Rd.”, is in a mix of Hanyu Pinyin and English (Rd.), though, like other Hanyu Pinyin signs in Taipei, it uses InTerCaPiTaLiZaTion for individual syllables, which is wrong, wrong, wrong. (It should be Zhuzihu or Zhuzi Hu, not ZhuZiHu.) The trail marker at the bottom marked “Jhuzihu” is in misspelled Tongyong Pinyin; in Tongyong it should be written “Jhuzihhu”.

misspelled and poorly made Tongyong road signs in TaipeiThe reason for the different spellings here is almost certainly that the road, being within Taipei, is labeled in Hanyu Pinyin, whereas the trail marker, for a trail within Yangming Shan National Park, was put up by the central government and is thus in Tongyong Pinyin — well, almost. The misspelled Tongyong in the sign isn’t just a one-off, either. All of the Tongyong-ish signs I saw in the area are misspelled in the same way. See, for example, the sign at right. (The arrows, by the way, are both correct: The road is a loop.)

Note, also, how the “i” in the second example below is printed incorrectly, with the top of the dot lining up with the tops of the other lowercase letters. I’ve been seeing increasing instances of this particular typographical monstrosity, which puzzles me because it seems like the sort of error that someone has to go out of their way to make.

Those familiar with Taipei may have noticed something odd about the name Zhuzihu: It is not bisyllabic. Indeed, it is the only road name of Sinitic origin within Taipei to have more than two syllables. (The only other two such names are loans from English (Roosevelt) and a language of one of Taiwan’s tribes (Ketagelan). See Taipei street names and the monosyllabic myth.)

calla liliesCloser examination, however, reveals that Zhuzihu is based upon a bisyllabic name after all. Zhuzi Hu means “Bamboo Lake” (Zhúzi Hú / 竹子湖). The only particular reason for writing it solid (Zhuzihu) rather than as “Zhuzi Hu” is that there’s no actual hu (lake) there anymore. (It was more like a marsh, anyway.) Come to think of it, I don’t remember seeing any bamboo there, either. A case could be made for writing it either way: Zhuzi Hu or Zhuzihu

By the way, I wrote the Taipei City Government to have it correct its Web site on the calla lilies. The problem was that the Tongyong Pinyin spelling, Jhuzihhu, was used rather than the Hanyu Pinyin spelling, Zhuzihu. More than a week passed without any changes. Today, however, I noticed that some (but not all or even most) of the spellings had been changed — to another wrong spelling! Now some of the time the Web site gives the Tongyong Pinyin version, Jhuzihhu, and some of the time it gives Zhuzihhu, that latter having one h too many for correct Hanyu Pinyin. No one has yet responded to my message.

6 thoughts on “the Zhuzihu spelling blues

  1. I’m in Taiwan too, looking at diffrent kind of romanisation styles day by day. I stick to the chinese characters now, even if I don’t speak english. I think the pinyin is more confusing than helping (even if correct). And on maps you just have to find the characters who look right :-)

    What I wanted to say earlier is… the whole pinyin stuff is overrated and they will NEVER get it right, since they don’t activly use it in real life. Foreigners like us should be happy enough.. with the mess.

  2. “The whole pinyin stuff is overrated”? Of course you know I’m not going to agree with that. As for Pinyin being “more confusing that helping” — that’s not something I can agree with either. But I recognize it’s a not uncommon feeling in some groups. The sources of this belief are in three areas:

    • People spend years and years learning how to read Chinese characters and so are familiar with them (even if they often don’t remember how to read or esp. write them). Contrast this situation with that of romanization, which is little used and even less taught. If romanization were used (correctly, of course) as frequently as Chinese characters, I have no doubt that Pinyin’s benefits would be more clearly recognized.
    • The sloppiness with which the authorities have implemented signage with romanization has led many to associate sloppiness with romanization itself rather than the true cause: ignorant officials.
    • Students in Taiwan and China, including foreign ones, are taught myths about how wonderful Chinese characters are and misinformation about romanization. It’s no wonder many people are prejudiced against Pinyin and don’t see it for what it is: a simple but efficient script much better suited to modern standard Mandarin than Chinese characters.

    As for people never getting Pinyin right, the whole population of Taiwan is not involved in the making of Pinyin signage. The sources of official signage are few. All it takes is a standardized list and someone to check the results. That’s not a lot to ask.

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