Reasons Gwoyeu Romatzyh never caught on, part 39

sign with a color photograph of a woman, with 'Eel Chyi 爾旗時尚' written beneath her

Eel Chyi

Here’s a sign spotted in Banqiao, Taiwan, for what would be written “Ěrqí” in Hanyu Pinyin.

“Ěrqí shíshàng” means “Erqi Fashion” (爾旗時尚), with the first word pronounced roughly like the English name “Archie.”

The doubled vowel (“ee”) is a marker of the Gwoyeu Romatzyh romanization system (or “GR” for short), in which doubled vowels indicate the third tone. Thus, “ee” in Gwoyeu Romatzyh equals “ě” in Hanyu Pinyin. As for the -l, that’s GR’s way of indicating -r. For those of you wondering why GR didn’t just use -r for -r, that’s because GR uses -r to indicate second tone … except when it uses other letters to do the same thing. It’s kinda complicated. For example:

  1. ēr = el
  2. ér = erl
  3. ěr = eel
  4. èr = ell


  1. qī = chi
  2. qí = chyi
  3. qǐ = chii
  4. qì = chih

Of course, Hanyu Pinyin’s q isn’t intuitive for most people used to reading in an alphabetic script but must be learned. Once learned, though, q is entirely consistent. And it must be noted that as quirky as Gwoyeu Romatyzh can be, its oddities are nothing compared to those of Chinese characters.

Taipei to spend NT$300 million making MRT signage worse

Taipei MRT station
Commonwealth Magazine (Tiānxià zázhì) recently interviewed me for a Mandarin-language piece related to the signage on Taipei’s MRT system.

As anyone who has looked at Pinyin News more than a couple of times over the years should be able to guess, I had a lot to say about that — most of which understandably didn’t make it into the article. For example, I recall making liberal use of the word “bèn” (“stupid”) to describe the situation and the city’s approach. But the reporter — Yen Pei-hua (Yán Pèihuá / 嚴珮華), who is perhaps Taiwan’s top business journalist — diplomatically omitted that.

Since the article discusses the nicknumbering system Taipei is determined to implement “for the foreigners,” even though most foreigners are at best indifferent to this, but doesn’t include my remarks on it, I’ll refer you to my post on this from last year: Taipei MRT moves to adopt nicknumbering system. Back then, though, I didn’t know the staggering amount of money the city is going to spend on screwing up the MRT system’s signs: NT$300 million (about US$10 million)! The main reason given for this is the sports event Taipei will host next summer. That’s supposed to last for about ten days, which would put the cost for the signs alone at about US$1 million per day.

On the other hand, the city does not plan to fix the real problems with the Taipei MRT’s station names, specifically the lack of apostrophes in what should be written Qili’an (not Qilian), Da’an (not Daan) (twice!), Jing’an (not Jingan), and Yong’an (not Yongan) — in Chinese characters: 唭哩岸, 大安, 景安, and 永安, respectively. And then there’s the problem of wordy English names.

Well, take a look and comment — here, or better still, on the Facebook page. (Links below.) I’m grateful to Ms. Yen and Commonwealth for discussing the issue.

References: in the Wall Street Journal

Victor Mair’s terrific essay “Danger + Opportunity ≠ Crisis: How a misunderstanding about Chinese characters has led many astray,” which was written for this site, is featured this week in the Wall Street Journal‘s Notable & Quotable section.

Mair has done more than anyone else to help drive a stake through the heart of this myth. I’m glad the WSJ is helping spread the word.

source: “Notable & Quotable: Lost in Mistranslation“, Wall Street Journal, February 25, 2016

Dissolving Pinyin

Late last week, Victor Mair — with some assistance from Matt Anderson, David Moser, me, and others — wrote in “Lobsters”: a perplexing stop motion film about a short 1959 film from China that gives some Pinyin. In some cases, the Pinyin is presented for a second and then is quickly dissolved into Chinese characters. Since Victor’s post supplies only the text, I thought that I’d supplement that here with images from the film.

See the original post for translations and discussion.

The film often shows a newspaper. The headline (at 7:57) reads (or rather should read, since the first word is misspelled):



But since the image above doesn’t show the name of the paper, I’m also offering this rotated and cropped photo, that allows us to see that this is the “JIN YUAN DIGUO RI-BAO”

Elsewhere, there are again some g’s for q’s. For the first example of text dissolving from Pinyin to Chinese characters (at 2:11), I’m offering screenshots of the text in Pinyin, the text during the dissolve, and the text in Chinese characters. Later I’ll give just the Pinyin and Chinese characters.

Hongdang Louwang
Yipi hongdang zai daogi [sic] jiudian jihui buxing guanbu [sic] louwang




Soon thereafter (at 2:44), we get a handwritten note.


At 3:39 we’re shown the printed notice in the newspaper of the above text.


A brief glance at the newspaper at 3:23 gives us FA CHOU, which is probably referring to the stink the bad lobsters are giving off.

Here a man is carrying a copy of Zibenlun (Das Kapital), by Makesi (Marx).

Actually, it’s not really Das Kapital, just the cover of the book; inside is a stack of decadent Western material. “MEI NE” is probably supposed to be “MEINÜ” (beautiful women).

I imagine that, in the PRC of 1959, the artists for this film must have inwardly rejoiced at the chance to draw something like that for a change, and that is also why there’s a nude on the wall in one scene.

Emoji, language, and translation

A couple of days ago the New York Times ran a small piece, “How Emojis Find Their Way to Phones.” It contains the sort of nonsense about Chinese characters and language that often sets me off.

Fortunately, Victor Mair quickly posted something on this. J. Marshall Unger (Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth of Disembodied Meaning, The Fifth Generation Fallacy, and Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan) and S. Robert Ramsey (The Languages of China) quickly followed. But since those are in the comments to a Language Log post and thus may not be seen as much as they should be, I thought I’d link to them here.

The Language Log post itself is on Emoji Dick, which is billed as a translation of Moby Dick into emoji. As long as I’m writing, I might as well offer up a sample for you. See if you can determine the original English.


Did you try “Call me Ishmael”? Sorry. That’s not it. But if you guessed that I would choose the passage from Moby Dick that mentions Taiwan, give yourself bonus points.

Here’s what the above emoji supposedly translate:

Hereby the casks are sought to be kept damply tight; while by the changed character of the withdrawn water, the mariners readily detect any serious leakage in the precious cargo.

Now, from the South and West the Pequod was drawing nigh to Formosa and the Bashee Isles, between which lies one of the tropical outlets from the China waters into the Pacific.

Ah, of course. It’s all so clear now.

The next time you hear someone use “pictorial language,” “ideographs,” or the like in all seriousness, perhaps ask them for their own English translation of the above string of images.

Actually, Emoji Dick screwed this up some, as part belongs to the main text and part to a footnote.


Xin Tang 9

The ninth issue of Xin Tang is now available here on The journal, which was published in the 1980s, is in and about romanization. By this point in its publication most everything in it was written in Hanyu Pinyin (as opposed to Gwoyeu Romatzyh or another system). Xin Tang is interesting not just as a forum in which one can read original content in Pinyin. It’s also important for the history of Pinyin itself. Over the course of its nearly decade-long run, one can see its authors (including many top people in romanization) working out Pinyin as a real script.

Xin Tang no. 9 (December 1988)

xin tang 9

Here’s an English version of the table of contents. Note that the articles themselves are, for the most part, in Mandarin.

  • Articles
    • Wang Jun: Perfecting Hanyu Pinyin and Broadening Its Use
    • Wang Naican: “Established at Age Thirty,but the Task is Heavy and the Way is Long”
    • Apollo Wu: China Needs an Alphabetical Script
    • Zhang Liqing: Must Written Chinese Have Tones Indicated?
    • Qian Yuzhi, Li Shuo: Research on Alphabetical Spelling of Tones
    • Victor H. Mair: A Letter Concerning the Compilation of an Alphabetically Ordered Dictionary
  • Pinyin and Computers
    • Guo Xiao, Chen Zhiqiang: Welcoming the Era of the Popularization of Word Processors- An Interview with Professor Zhou Youguang
    • Yin Binyong: Pinyin Computers Force People to Change Their Writing Styles
    • Wu Yue: Using a Computerized Chinese Typewriter to Help in Creative Writing
    • Jin Huishu: Few Special Spellings Are Required for “Automatic Conversion from Pinyin to Chinese Characters”
    • It Is Not Difficult to Master Pinyin Computers (report from Henan)
    • International Computer Conference Held in Toronto in 1988 (report from Canada)
  • Children’s Corner: Literature
    • Little Xie’s Long Trunk,
    • The Adventures of Chunmei and Mimi (illustrated serial by Rui Luobin),
    • Encounter beneath the Lighthouse,
    • The Oriole and the Eagle (Liqing),
    • The Fig Tree (Xu Hongxin)
  • Classical Chinese Selection
    • A Passage from the Zhuangzi
  • Learning Mandarin
    • Lesson 1: in Peking
  • Letters from Readers
  • News
    • Commemoration of the Thirtieth Anniversary of the Promulgation of the Scheme for Hanyu Pinyin Official
    • Promulgation of the Basic Orthographical Rules for Hanyu Pinyin
    • The Bilingual Pedagogical Experiment of Zhang Zhigong
    • Hangzhou Experiments with a New Pedagogy Using Pinyin
    • Announcement of a New Book: “Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and Orthography”

Pinyin sort order

The standard for alphabetically sorting Hanyu Pinyin is given in the ABC dictionary series edited by John DeFrancis and issued by the University of Hawaii Press.

Here’s the basic idea:

The ordering is primarily simply alphabetical. Diacritical marks, punctuation, juncture and capitalization are only taken into account when the strings being compared are otherwise identical. For example, píng’ān sorts before pīnyīn, because pingan sorts before pinyin, because g precedes y alphabetically.

Only when two strings are alphabetically identical is non-alphabetical information taken into account.

The series’ Reader’s Guide presents the specifics of the sort order. Since I don’t have to worry about how much space this takes up on my site, I have reformatted the information slightly to give the examples as numbered lists.

Head entry transcriptions with the same sequence of letters are ordered first strictly by letter sequence regardless of tones, then by initial syllable tone in the sequence 0 1 2 3 4. For entries with the same initial tone, arrangement is by the tone of the second syllable, again in the order 0 1 2 3 4. For example:

  • shīshi
  • shīshī
  • shīshí
  • shīshǐ
  • shīshì
  • shíshī
  • shíshì
  • shǐshī
  • shìshī
  • Irrespective of tones, entries with the vowel u precede those with ü.
    For example:

    Entries without apostrophe precede those with apostrophe. For example:

    1. biànargue
    2. bǐ’ànthe other shore

    Lower-case entries precede upper-case entries. For example:

    1. hòujìnaftereffect
    2. Hòu JìnLater Jin dynasty

    For entries with identical spelling, including tones, arrangement is by order of frequency….

    For most users, the most important thing to note is that the neutral tone is regarded as 0, not as 5. Thus, the order is notā á ǎ à a,” but “a ā á ǎ à.” And, because lowercase comes before uppercase, notA a Ā ā Á á Ǎ ǎ À à” but “a A ā Ā á Á ǎ Ǎ à À.”

    One can see this in action in the A entries for the ABC English-Chinese, Chinese-English Dictionary. And here are some sample pages from an earlier ABC dictionary.

    The ABC series follows the example of the Hanyu Pinyin Cihui (汉语拼音词汇 / 漢語拼音詞彙 / Hànyǔ Pīnyīn Cíhuì) (example), with only one minor difference, as noted by Tom Bishop:

    HPC [Hanyu Pinyin Cihui] gave hyphens and spaces the same priority as apostrophes, so that lìgōng sorted before lǐ-gōng, in spite of the tones. Usage of hyphens and spaces in pinyin is still far from being fully standardized. (The same is true in English orthography.) Consequently, for collation it makes sense to give less weight to hyphens and spaces, and more weight to tones, thus sorting lǐ-gōng before lìgōng. In ABC, hyphens and spaces don’t affect the sort order unless they change the pronunciation in the same way that apostrophe would; for example, ¹míng-àn 明暗 and ²míng’àn 冥暗 are treated as homophones, and they sort after mǐngǎn 敏感.

    Remembering Y.R. Chao: 1892-1982

    Y.R. Chao

    Y.R. Chao
    November 3, 1892 – February 25, 1982

    Today, the thirtieth anniversary of the death of the brilliant linguist and all-around interesting guy Y.R. Chao (Zhao Yuanren / Zhào Yuánrèn / 趙元任 / 赵元任), I’m remembering him by rereading some of his work. (Chao died twenty years and one day after his good friend Hu Shih.)

    Here are some readings here on by or about Y.R. Chao that you may wish to review: