? vs. a

image of the rounded 'a' and the normal 'a' with the example given of the word 'Hanyu' (with tone marks)About a year ago (which is roughly how overdue this post is), a commenter noted that some Chinese publishers “are convinced that Pinyin must be printed with ? (single-story „Latin alpha“, as opposed to double-story a), and with ? (single story; not double story g).”

But does Hanyu Pinyin in fact call for this longstanding Chinese habit of bad typography? This was one of the first questions I asked of Zhou Youguang, the father of Hanyu Pinyin, when I met with him: Are those who insist upon the ?-style letter correct?

“Oh, no,” Zhou replied. “That ‘?’ is just for babies!” And he laughed that wonderful laugh of his that no doubt has contributed to his remarkable longevity.

Zhou was referring to the facts that the “?” style of letter is usually found specifically in books for infants … and that this style generally does not belong elsewhere. In fact, ? and ? (written thusly) are often referred to as infant characters. A variant of the letter y is sometimes included in this set.

Letters in that style are also found in the West — but almost always in books for toddlers, and often not even in those. Furthermore, even in those cases the use of such letters appears to have no positive effect on children’s reading.

The correct-style letters for Pinyin are the same as those for English, Zhou stated.

I hope that anyone who has been using “?” will both officially and in practice switch to “a”. It’s long past time that the supposed rule calling for “?” was treated as a dead letter.

Long live good typography!

13 thoughts on “? vs. a

  1. Why would anyone think a certain style of letter must be used? Pinyin is written using the Latin alphabet just the same as any other language that uses the alphabet, so as such it can be written in whatever typeface the publisher chooses. It has to be said, though, poor typography is not limited to China or pinyin. Comic Sans anyone?

  2. I completely agree that it’s ridiculous when publishers replace the double-story ‘a’ unnecessarily with the “baby a”, but I have to stick up a little bit for ‘?’. Sure, it’s sometimes found in books for toddlers, but it also appears in some of the world’s great roman-letter typefaces, like Futura. My point being only that there are times when it’s appropriate to use “baby a” in publications for adults – it certainly shouldn’t be used for Pinyin set in a Times Roman-type typeface, as I’ve sometimes seen!

  3. Why does anything aesthetic matter? Why hang paintings on the wall? Why plant flowers in public places? Why pay a top architect to design a building? Good typography contributes to the built environment in the same way.

    On a more practical level, using the wrong-style “a” could cause some people – particularly reading a sign from a distance, or with slightly substandard vision – to misread it as an “o”. Obviously that’s not an issue with “Hanyu”, but with other words it could be misleading.

  4. You’re right Jonathan, you’re a superior human being for caring why one version of the letter “a” is better than another. Congratulations.

  5. I wouldn’t necessarily say one form of the lower-case “a” is better than the other, just that it’s better to use the version that matches the font in question. This article is to debunk the myth that a certain style of “a” should be used, and I’m in agreement with that.

    This blog is for discussing the merits of systems used to transliterate Chinese, something that many people would say doesn’t really matter. The whole internet is full of sites discussing all sorts of quirky issues that don’t really matter, but people enjoy having a good discussion about. Perhaps rather than coming here to insult people who happen to be interested in the topics under discussion – particularly when they have taken the time to answer your question – you should go and find something to do that you actually care about.

  6. I am very well aware of the purpose of this website and I’ve been coming back here because I personally care about proper Chinese romanization.

    I simply politely asked if someone could share why this matters because it doesn’t seem to make sense that someone would switch fonts just to use a different “a”. If a certain style of “a” goes with the certain font the person is using, I don’t see anything wrong with that.

    However, your first four sentences is what’s insulting. So please don’t dish out insults and pretend to be a victim.

  7. I’m sorry if you misinterpreted those sentences as an insult. They were meant as examples of how a lot of thought goes into making the world around us pleasant, but most people will only notice them subconsciously.

    I agree that any style of lettering can be used if it’s what the font calls for. The problem highlighted in the linked comment from last year is that few fonts have that alternate style of “a”, which limits the choice of font to ones not everyone finds comfortable to read if the publisher thinks the single-story “a” is compulsory (I don’t know if the publishers really believe that, but that’s what the previous contributor claimed).

  8. The two different a’s should be regarded as equal variants and it doesn’t matter which one is used as long as there is consistency within a given text. The same goes for the different g’s.

  9. I find it amusing to call “?” single-story and “a” double-story. Could it be more than a matter of typographic taste? In IPA, please correct me if I am wrong, the single-story “?” and the double-story “a” refer to different sounds. So I guess this may be one reason one would think (presumably over-scrupulously) that single-story is better than double-story.
    By the way, talking about fonts for toddlers’ reading books, Sesame Street made very careful decisions to choose the fonts to be used – I believe it was Futura – and they had to change the I with the horizontal strokes (as serifs) for hoping children would be able to tell the difference between the number 1 and the capital letter I. (Whether it is successful or useful is not my point here.) But definitely it has influenced how I write my a, I and g….

    (This comment is brought to you by the letter W.)

  10. In IPA, the two glyphs are different characters. This is an exception. In almost all other contexts (save, perhaps, math and such), they are variants of the same character.

    It’s not that the single-story form is inferior, and it certainly isn’t “for babies”. It’s a variant that has historically been used in handwriting and also in italic types (you can easily understand how these two forms are related, and how they are related to capital A, if you look at the intermediary Uncial form). You can confirm the use in italics by typing a sentence in your word editor and italicizing it; most fonts will change double-story to single-story (if this sentence is italic in your browser, chances are it’ll work here, too).

    I’ve read somewhere, but I forgot the source, that the origin of the habit of using single-story for p?ny?n was merely computer technical limitations. Early fonts at the time lacked a glyph for things like ? (hell, a lot of fonts today lack that glyph), so when you typed a-with-diacritics it became ?-with-diacritics. This is a minor typographic sin, as most fonts are designed with the “a” for roman and “?” for italics, and the roman “?” often threw balance and spacing all wrong. Unfortunately people got used to seeing single-story in a p?ny?n context, and assumed it was some kind of typographical rule. It’s not.

  11. Single-story ‘?’ is not a letter for babies. It’s just another form to write the letter ‘a’. In fact it’s the way 99% of people write the letter in handwriting and I find it better than the double-story ‘a’. I’m Spanish and I don’t know anybody that writes a double-story ‘a’ while handwriting. The same goes for calligraphy in most european countries, maybe in America and Asia is different… I’d like to read opinions from different people in other countries.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>