Tonally Orthographic Pinyin

Tonally Orthographic Pinyin (TOP) is a modification of Hanyu Pinyin that uses capitalization practices to distinguish between the various tones of Mandarin.

This can mess with the capitalization found at the beginnings of sentences and proper nouns, so I have mixed feelings about it. But many find TOP useful as a learning tool and in writing text messages.

Here’s how TOP’s creator, Terry Thatcher Waltz, describes the system:


seconD toneS arE writteN witH thE lasT letteR capitalizeD. that’S becausE youR voicE haS tO risE.

third tones are written all lower case. that’s because the voice is low. (let’s keep discussions on the true nature of third and half-third tones somewhere else — this system is just to help us poor foreigners internalize tones!)

Fourth Tone Has The First Letter Of Each Word Capitalized, Because Your Voice Starts High And Then Falls Downward.

Thus, the phrase “wǒ měitiān liànxí Hànyǔ” would be written “wo meiTIAN LianxI Hanyu” in TOP.

See the first link below for details.

further reading:

7 thoughts on “Tonally Orthographic Pinyin

  1. Braille doesn’t have enough cells to use separate cells for capital Latin letters. Instead, in American English braille, an extra cell (with just one braille dot at the lower right) is placed before a lower case letter to indicate that it is intended as a single capital letter and two of these cells are placed before a word to indicate that the entire word is capitalized. However, until recently, UK English braille did not bother with these capitalization indicators. When the UK braille authorities decided to switch to the American system, there were almost riots and many erudite articles on the unimportance of capitals for understanding began to appear. (IIRC, the older system did require proper names to be capitalized the first time they were used.)

    The TOP’s system seems so clever to me (admittedly someone who knows no Chinese) that I think one might wish to consider the braille experience. The experience of UK braille readers says capitals aren’t as important as we tend to think. The experience of readers of other braille systems (American English, French, etc.) for languages that use Latin letters says that it is just as useful to use a special mark to indicate proper nouns and the beginnings of sentences as to use separate characters for that purpose.

  2. I’m so used to the “standard” tonal markings that I don’t think this would help me, although people who are very visually oriented might like it. However, I can tell you what it would do to my eyes, which is make them go all buggy.

    (Also, to me, logically, the all caps should be fourth tone, because it’s more forceful, and usually that’s what all caps indicates.)

  3. TOP is not intended for reading running texts. It is intended for use as a teaching tool. Used to Romanize words and phrases, it doesn’t “make your eyes go all buggy”. Surveys of students have shown that students “hang on to” different aspects of Romanization when there are redundant tone markings used — some of them remember the color, some the capitalization pattern, and others the usual Hanyu Pinyin diacritical marks. The intent is simply to provide more “hooks” for students to have correct knowledge of what the tone should be for words they are learning in a class or on their own.

  4. Good. Having in mind that the Mandarin Chinese has four tones and what the tone patterns are, can we simply use letters to mark the tones? I use T,F,V,L to mark the four tones respectively and the letters coordinate with the Pinyin tone diacritics and Zhao Yuanren’s pitch scale tone values. So, “wo meiTIAN LianxI Hanyu” could be written totally orthographically as “Wov meivtiant lianlxif Hanlyuv”. What do you think? Welcome discussion here and cc Thanks.

  5. The reason TOP uses caps and small letters / tone marks / colors to mark tones is because adding silent letters changes the way we perceive the relationship between syllables that are the same except for different tones. Also, TOP is very successful with early learners of Mandarin who can easily transition to or from standard Pinyin with no loss of instructional time. In the public school system, that is a big bonus, because time is at such a premium.
    Remember, this is designed to be an instructional aid, not for general use as a Romanization system. Pinyin does perfectly well for that already. This is just a scheme to triple-mark those tones to make them more memorable for learners.

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