back to Tamsui

photo of sticker with 'Tamsui' placed over the old map's spelling of 'Danshui'It’s time for another installment of Government in Action.

What you see to the right is something the Taipei County Government (now the Xinbei City Government, a.k.a. the New Taipei City Government) set into action: the Hanyu Pinyin spelling of “Danshui” is being replaced on official signage, including in the MRT system, by the old Taiwanese spelling of “Tamsui.” I briefly touched upon the plans for “Tamsui” a few months ago. (See my additional notes in the comments there.)

I have mixed feelings about this move. On the one hand, I’m pleased to see a representation of a language other than Mandarin or English on Taiwan’s signage. “Tamsui” is the traditional spelling of the Taiwanese name for the city. And it hardly seems too much for at least one place in Taiwan to be represented by a Taiwanese name rather than a Mandarin one.

On the other hand, the current move unfortunately doesn’t really have anything to do with promoting or even particularly accepting the Taiwanese language. It’s not going to be labeled “Taiwanese,” just “English,” which is simply wrong. It’s just vaguely history-themed marketing aimed at foreigners and no one else. But which foreigners, exactly, is this supposed to appeal to? Perhaps Taiwan is going after those old enough to remember the “Tamsui” spelling, though I wonder just how large the demographic bracket is for centenarian tourists … and just how mobile most of them might be.

So it’s basically another example — retroactively applied! — of a spelling that breaks the standard of Hanyu Pinyin and substitutes something that foreigners aren’t going to know how to pronounce (and the government will probably not help with that either): i.e., it’s another “Keelung” (instead of using “Jilong”), “Kinmen” instead of “Jinmen,” and “Taitung” instead of “Taidong.”

A key point will be how “Tamsui” is pronounced on the MRT’s announcement system. (I haven’t heard any changes yet; but I haven’t taken the line all the way out to Danshui lately.) The only correct way to do this would be exactly the same as it is pronounced in Taiwanese. And if the government is really serious about renaming Danshui as Tamsui, the Taiwanese pronunciation will be the one given in the Mandarin and Hakka announcements as well as the English one. Moreover, public officials and announcers at TV and radio stations will be instructed to say T?m-súi rather than Dànshu?, even when speaking in Mandarin.

Fat chance.

But, as years of painful experience in this area have led me to expect, my guess would be that the announcements will not do that. Instead, it will be another SNAFU, with a mispronunciation (yes, it is almost certain to be mispronounced by officialdom and those in the media) being labeled as “English”.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong about saying “T?m-súi.” But it’s a pretty safe bet that isn’t going to happen: the name will likely be given a pronunciation that a random clueless English speaker might use as a first attempt; then that will be called English. This sort of patronizing attitude toward foreigners really makes my blood boil. So I’m going to leave it at that for the moment lest my blood pressure go up too much.

So, once again, the MRT system is taking something that was perfectly fine and changing it to something that will be less useful — and all the while continuing to ignore miswritten station names, stupidly chosen station names, mispronunciations, and Chinglish-filled promotional material.

Please keep your ears as well as eyes open for instances of “Tamsui” and let me know what you observe. The city, by the way, has already started using “Tamsui” instead of “Danshui” on lots of official road signs, as I started seeing several months ago and which I noticed in increasing use just last week when I passed through that way.

I probably should have taken a more active stance on this months ago; but I was too busy working against the bigger and even more ridiculous anti-Pinyin change of “Xinbei” to “New Taipei City.” Fat lot of good that did.

The where and why of missing second tones

image of 'zhong' written with 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th tone -- with the 2nd-tone one in light gray instead of black textMy previous post mentioned that not all tonal permutations exist in the real world. For example, modern standard Mandarin has zh?ng, zh?ng, and zhòng, but doesn’t have zhóng. I did not, however, get into any of the reasons for the absence of second-tone zhong.

Fortunately, my friend James E. Dew, who is much more qualified than I to discuss such fine points of linguistics, was kind enough to send in the explanation below. Jim used to teach the Chinese language and linguistics at the University of Michigan; and for many years he directed the Inter-University Program (a.k.a. the Stanford Center) in Taipei. He is also the author of 6000 Chinese Words: A Vocabulary Frequency Handbook and coauthor of Classical Chinese: A Functional Approach.

Most simply stated, Mandarin syllable shapes with unaspirated occlusive initials and nasal finals don’t occur in second tone. This can be restated a bit less opaquely for those who have not studied Chinese historical phonology, as follows:

Syllables that begin with unaspirated stops b, d, g, or affricates j, zh, z, and end in a nasal n or ng, as a rule don’t have second-tone forms. There are a few exceptions, such as béng ( / “needn’t”) and zán ( / “we”), which were new words formed by contraction — from búyòng and zámén, respectively — after the tone class split described below took place.

This came about because when Middle Chinese (of Sui-Tang times) píngshēng 平声/?? split into yīnpíng 阴平/?? (modern Mandarin “first tone”) and yángpíng 阳平/?? (M “second tone”), syllables with aspirated initials went into the new yángpíng class, while those with unaspirated initials all fell into the yīnpíng (M first tone) group, thus leaving no unaspirated syllables with nasal finals in the modern Mandarin second tone class.

An interesting corollary to this rule is that among Mandarin “open” syllables (those that end in a vowel) with the above-listed initials, almost all of the second-tone syllables derive from Middle Chinese rùshēng 入声/??, and their cognates have stop endings in the southern dialects that preserve rùshēng, as illustrated by the Cantonese examples given below.

For those who like to pronounce what they read, Cantonese rùshēng syllables have level tones, either high, mid or low. In the Yale romanization used here, high tone is marked with a macron (e.g., dāk), mid tone is unmarked, and low tone is signified by an h following the vowel. A double “aa” sounds like the “a” in “father,” while a single “a” is a mid central vowel. Thus baht sounds like English “but” and dāk sounds like English “duck.”
  Mandarin Cantonese
bái baahk
báo bohk
別/别 bié biht
敵/敌 dihk
閣/阁 gok
國/国 guó gwok
極/极 gihk
夾/夹 jiá gaap
結/结 jié git
節/节 jié jit
覺/觉 jué gok
決/决 jué kyut
雜/杂 jaahp
澤/泽 jaahk
閘/闸 zhá jaahp
zhái jaahk
zhé jit
執/执 zhí jāp
zhí jihk
zhú jūk
濁/浊 zhuó juhk

Pinyin’s never-used letter?

As most people reading this blog know, Mandarin has about 1,300 syllables (interjections and loan words complicate the count a little). If tones — a basic part of the language — are disregarded, the number of drops to 400 and something syllables.

Given 410 or so basic syllables and 4 tones — one of these days I need to write something more on the wrongful neglect of the so-called neutral tone — some people might expect there to be more like 1,640 syllables instead of about 1,300. The reason for the lower number is that not all syllables exist in all four tones. For example, quite clearly the official language of Zh?ngguó does not lack zh?ng … or zh?ng or zhòng. But zhóng is another matter.

So not all possible tonal variations of those 400-something syllables appear in modern standard Mandarin. But what about letters?

If you look at the official alphabet for Hanyu Pinyin, it’s exactly the same as that for English (other than in pronunciation, of course), which is a bit odd, especially considering that Pinyin doesn’t use the letter v (or at least isn’t supposed to for Mandarin words).

So in this case, I’m excluding v but otherwise being expansionist about the glyphs I’m calling letters. To be specific: I’m referring to a-z, minus v, but including ?, á, ?, à, ?, é, ?, è, ?, í, ?, ì, ?, ó, ?, ò, ?, ú, ?, ù, ü, ?, ?, ?, and ?. (Even though ?, Í, ?, Ì, ?, Ú, ?, Ù, Ü, ?, ?, ?, and ? never come at the beginning of a word, let’s not automatically eliminate them, because there is an occasional need for ALL CAPS.)

Are there any of those possible glyphs that don’t appear at all — at least as given in the large ABC Comprehensive Chinese-English Dictionary?

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is yes.

Which letter is it?

a. ? b. ? c. ? d. ?

Have you made your choice?

It doesn’t take much thought to eliminate C as the answer. “N?” (woman) is one of those first-couple-of-Mandarin-lessons vocabulary terms. And the word for green (l?sè) is hardly obscure either. It might be harder to think of a word with the letter ?; but there are some. Donkey (l?) is probably the most common. So the answer is A: ?.

It’s important to note that the lack of ? is in appearance only. The sound ? occurs in plenty of Mandarin words; it’s just that Pinyin’s simplified orthography calls for writing “u” instead where ? follows j, q, x, or y.

But even though I didn’t find an example of ?, I’d encourage font designers not to scratch it from their list of must-have glyphs for Pinyin faces, especially since teachers will no doubt want to continue giving tone-pattern drills based on four tones for all vowels, regardless. Also, someone with a searchable edition of the Hanyu Da Cidian or maybe the new Oxford online edition is probably about to use the comments to point me to some obscure entry there….

How to handle ‘de’ and interjections in Hanyu Pinyin

cover image for the bookToday’s selection from Yin Binyong’s X?nhuá P?nxi? Cídi?n (???????? / ????????) deals with how to write Mandarin’s various de‘s, mood particles, and interjections.

This reading is available in two versions:

  • simplified Chinese characters: ???? ????? (zhùcí, tàncí)
  • traditional Chinese characters: ???? ?????

I’ve already written about the principles in previous posts. For example, see

How to write numbers and measure words in Hanyu Pinyin

cover image for the bookToday’s selection from Yin Binyong’s X?nhuá P?nxi? Cídi?n (???????? / ????????) is about writing numbers and measure words.

This reading is available in two versions:

For more on this, see these posts and the PDFs linked to therein.

How to write verbs in Hanyu Pinyin (Mandarin text)

cover image for the book

Here’s the first of several selected readings from Yin Binyong’s X?nhuá P?nxi? Cídi?n (???????? / ????????). It covers the writing of verbs.

This reading is available in two versions:

  • simplified Chinese characters: ???? ??
  • traditional Chinese characters: ???? ??

For those who would like to read about this in English, see

important book on Pinyin to be excerpted on this site

cover image for the bookX?nhuá P?nxi? Cídi?n (???????? / ????????), is the second of Yin Binyong’s two books on Pinyin orthography. The first, Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and Orthography, is in English and Mandarin; much of it is already available here on Pinyin.Info.

Although Xinhua Pinxie Cidian is only in Mandarin, the large number of examples makes it easy to get the point even if you may not read Mandarin in Chinese characters very well.

This week I will begin posting some excerpts from this invaluable work. What’s more, I have made a version in traditional Chinese characters, which I hope that readers in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere will take advantage of. So those not used to reading simplified Chinese characters will have a choice (which is more than the government of Taiwan is providing these days).

I’m extremely happy to be able to bring you this information and wish to acknowledge the generosity of the Commercial Press. Stay tuned.