Zhou Youguang on politics

The New York Times has just published a profile of Zhou Youguang, who is often called “the father of Pinyin” (though he modestly prefers to stress that others worked with him): A Chinese Voice of Dissent That Took Its Time.

This profile focuses not only on Zhou’s role in the creation of Hanyu Pinyin but also on his political views, which he has become increasingly public with.

About Mao, he said in an interview: “I deny he did any good.” About the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre: “I am sure one day justice will be done.” About popular support for the Communist Party: “The people have no freedom to express themselves, so we cannot know.”

As for fostering creativity in the Communist system, Mr. Zhou had this to say, in a 2010 book of essays: “Inventions are flowers that grow out of the soil of freedom. Innovation and invention don’t grow out of the government’s orders.”

No sooner had the first batch of copies been printed than the book was banned in China.

Although the reporter’s assertion, following the PRC’s official figures, that “China all but stamp[ed] out illiteracy” is well wide of the mark, there is no denying Pinyin’s crucial role in this area. I recommend reading the whole article.

Zhou Youguang

Pinyin Dongwuyuan: an illustrated Pinyin alphabet

Here’s a new book I made for fun: P?ny?n Dòngwùyuán (4.3 MB PDF).

It goes through the letters of the alphabet: A is for ?nchun, B is for b?nm?, C is for chángj?nglù, etc., all the way through Z, which is for zh?ngyú.

But X is not for xióngm?o. I’m sick of pandas. Let’s let some other animals have some time in the spotlight.

Although technically speaking the Pinyin alphabet is the same as that for English, I prefer to go with A–Z, minus V but plus Ü.

O and R were the tricky ones to find animals for.

Perhaps some teachers will print this out and hang it up in their classrooms. Or kids could use it as a coloring book. You have my permission to do just about anything you like with this — other than add Chinese characters. (The world already has plenty of material in Hanzi, but not nearly enough in Pinyin.)

I made sure to include multiples of some common morphemes (e.g., b?nm?, h?im?, and m?; è and zh?ng; h?im? and h?i’?u; niú, w?niú, and x?niú), which I hope will be useful.

For fonts, I used the Linux Libertine family.

This took me far longer to make than I thought it would, so I hope some people enjoy it or at least find it interesting.

Botanical descriptions: English at last

Camellia Japonica. Rose Camellia.As of the beginning of this year, the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature no longer compels botanists to write descriptions of new species in Latin. Instead, they can opt for English, though the names of the species themselves will still be given in Latin.

As James S. Miller, dean and vice president for science at the New York Botanical Garden, noted in the New York Times earlier this week:

No longer will botanists have to write sentences like: “Arbor usque ad 6 m alta. Folia decidua; lamina oblanceolata vel elliptica-oblongata, 2-7 cm longa,” as I did in 2009, describing a new species from Mexico. Instead, I could simply write that Bourreria motaguensis was a six-meter-tall tree with deciduous leaves that were 2 to 7 centimeters long.

The change “will help to speed up the race to catalog the world’s plant life,” he added.

Elsewhere, plant biologist Jerrold Davis of Cornell University was quoted as saying that he did not think the permitted switch to English would speed things up. Nevertheless, he called the move an “overdue modernization.”

Mark Watson, of Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden and secretary of the International Botanical Congress’ special committee on electronic publication, expressed the same sentiment, saying of the move away from Latin, “About time too,” adding that translation into Latin is not necessarily an easy task for researchers in countries such as China.

Davis noted, “The removal of the Latin requirement is an acceptance that English has become the language of science, and Latin has become an encumbrance rather than a facilitator of communication” [emphasis added].

Even if it does not accelerate the publishing process, the end of the Latin requirement may allow for greater inclusion of scientists from countries where education rarely includes instruction in classical languages. According to Sandra Knapp, a botanist with the Natural History Museum in London: “In places like Ethiopia, for example, people are finding it very difficult to write in Latin. But in reality everybody’s bad at it.” [emphasis added]

cover of the book _Latin, or, The Empire of a Sign_, by Francoise WaquetIn case you’re wondering why I’m writing about Latin and English on a blog that focuses mainly on Pinyin and Sinitic languages, I’m struck by the parallels between the position of Latin in the West (see Françoise Waquet’s terrific Latin, or, The Empire of a Sign: From the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries) and (1) notions of Literary Sinitic (a.k.a. “classical Chinese”) in the Sinosphere and (2) beliefs in the efficacy of Chinese characters despite extensive problems with their near-exclusive use as a script for Mandarin. I’m pleased that scientists no longer are forced to follow a tradition that many found cumbersome and outdated.

Another noteworthy modernization in the world of scientific botany is that the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature now also recognizes publication in online academic journals as valid; print publication is no longer required.

Sources and further reading:

Editions of Latin, or, The empire of a sign, by Françoise Waquet:

Just a random sampling of Latin from Linnaeus -- this has nothing in particular to do with the flower above

just another random example of Latin in the field of botany

Now on Pinyin.info: Weishenme Zhongwen zheme TM nan?

Earlier this year a Mandarin translation of David Moser’s classic essay Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard appeared on the Web. And then it disappeared. With the permission of both the translator and the original author, I’m placing this work back online.

It’s available here in two versions:


Maybe I’ll make a Pinyin version too one of these years.

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 with to acknowledge the generosity of the Commercial Press. Stay tuned.

Spreading the good news

Behold, I bring you good tidings.

As I keep having to note, most of the things that are supposedly in Pinyin are terrible. This is not because Pinyin itself is inherently poor or difficult. It’s because most people who produce such things have a fundamental lack of understanding of Pinyin as a system. (And, yes, that includes most users in China.) So it is with amazement that I report today on a journal that not only offers dozens of pages in Hanyu Pinyin — good Hanyu Pinyin — but does so twice every month. It’s also well worth noting that the journal is aimed primarily at adult native speakers of Mandarin, not foreigners trying to pick up the language, though certainly it could also be read by people in the latter group.

From what I’ve seen so far, this journal gets right the things most commonly written incorrectly elsewhere, including:

And it doesn’t use the atrocious ? that some people mistakenly believe is required either.

Unfortunately, punctuation and alphanumerics are not included in the Pinyin. But other than that there’s very little that doesn’t follow standard Pinyin orthography, the main exception being the indication of the tone sandhi related to the special cases of y? and , (e.g., the journal gives “bú shì” and “búdà” instead of the standard “bù shì” and “bùdà,” and “yìhuíshì” and “yí wèi” instead of the standard “y?huíshì” and “y? wèi“). That said, though, tone changes related to yi and bu can be something of a pain. So although this isn’t standard, I can see why it was done and am not entirely unsympathetic to this approach.

Here are a few sample lines (click to enlarge):
screenshot of some text in the journal, showing text in simplified Chinese characters with word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin above the Hanzi. Note: Yifusuoshu/???? = Ephesians

It would be nice if this were in Unicode, to help aid searches and cutting and pasting. The text, however, appears to have been made in a system devised years ago by the people at the journal. Regardless, I’m happy to see the Pinyin.

Overall, despite the lamentable absence of punctuation and Arabic numerals in the Pinyin, this is quality work, which is perhaps all the more remarkable in that the Pinyin and simplified Hanzi edition of this journal is not truly free to circulate in the land of its target audience. That’s because its publishers are Jehovah’s Witnesses, a group suppressed by the PRC (though it appears that at least at the moment their sites are not blocked by the great firewall). The journal, Sh?uwàngtái, may be more familiar to you by its English name: Watchtower. Whatever you might think of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I hope you’ll recognize the considerable accomplishment of those who put together this publication.

Getting to the Jehovah’s Witnesses Web pages that link to Sh?uwàngtái can be tricky. (Go to the magazines page, select “Chinese (Simplified)” for the language; then choose the month and file with Pinyin.) So I’m providing direct links to some documents below:

I haven’t found any Pinyin editions other than those. Perhaps old ones are taken offline.

Rénrén D?u X?yào Zh?dao De H?o Xi?oxi (I'd prefer 'de' instead of 'De' -- but that's no big deal) ???????????

With thanks to Victor Mair.