Pinyin.Info has a new reading: Responses to objections to romanization, written by the brilliant linguist Y.R. Chao in 1916, when he was a young man of 24.
It’s an unfortunate irony that another writing associated with Chao, the famous “stone lions” (a.k.a. shi, shi, shi) piece, is often mistakenly cited as evidence that the author opposed romanization. In fact, Chao favored using romanization for Mandarin, as his essay reveals.
It’s written in the form of 16 “objections,” each followed by Chao’s reply. For example:
Obj. 8 Alphabetized Chinese loses its etymology.
Rep. 8 This argument is like that often urged against simplified English spelling and is to be met similarly. In actual usage, how much attention do we give to etymology in words like 學, 暴, 發, 旋, 之, through, draught, etiquette, row, disaster? Of how many of these very common words do you know the original meaning? It is not to be denied, of course, that it is useful to know the etymology of words by looking them up, and our future dictionaries of alphabetized polysyllabic words should no doubt give their derivations.
The etymology of disaster (which is pretty cool) is certainly easy enough for an educated person to guess, if you stop to think about it. But I must admit I never had.
I have added notes following the text.
Great stuff!! Did he write this in English? If not, do you have a link to the original Chinese?
Yup, this is the original. As far as I know, he never translated it into Mandarin. But if he did, I’d love to put it online as well!
Very informative, thanks! Though, going through the objections, it seems not much has changed in the last 90 or so years. They sound pretty familiar, not like 1916…
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I bought a book containing Y. R. Chao’s articles compiled and edited in Chinese. The book contains Chao’s rebuttals in Chinese. In the same book, I read Chao’s prototype scheme of Gwoyeu Romatzyh, and its work-in-progress elaboration with much interests.
As a student of maths and logic, Chao was merely looking at the efficiency of the alphabetic writing system in terms of number of characters one has to learn. From this perspective, the English spelling seemed indeed uneconomical.
The irony, however, is that most of his later years, Chao was working on the somewhat etymological General Chinese Romanization which should cover many Chinese dialects (much like the way mutually unintelligible Roman languages share similar spellings). Chao’s tonal spelling is another example of his perception that a “purely” phonetic orthography is not always “superior”, as it were.