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

Simplified Chinese characters being purged from Taiwan government sites

Taiwan’s government Web sites have begun removing versions of their content in simplified Chinese characters at the instruction of President Ma Ying-jeou (M? Y?ngji?).

This isn’t just a matter of, say, writing “??” (Taiwan) instead of “??” (which, yes, the government here is encouraging). This is much bigger. Entire pages, entire Web sites even, written in simplified Chinese characters are being eliminated.

The Tourism Bureau, for example, removed the version of its site in simplified Chinese characters from the Web on Wednesday. This comes at a time that the government’s further lifting of restrictions against individual Chinese tourists is aimed at bringing in more travelers from China.

The Presidential Office’s spokesman quoted Ma as saying “To maintain our role as the pioneer in Chinese culture, all government bodies should use traditional Chinese in official documents and on their Web sites, so that people around the world can learn about the beauty of traditional characters.” (Is that what pioneers do? I’ll try to find the original Mandarin-language quote later if I get a chance.)

It’s one thing to urge businesses not to remove traditional Chinese characters and replace them with simplified Chinese characters (as the government did on Tuesday). It’s quite another to remove alternate versions in another script — one that a very sizable target audience would have an easier time with.

During the administration of President Chen Shui-bian the government began adding versions in simplified Chinese characters of the Mandarin texts of official Web sites. The Office of the President was one such site. Now the simplified version is gone. That’s happening across government sites.

Here, for example, are some screen shots I took.

This was the language/script selection at the National Palace Museum‘s Web site as of Thursday morning. (Click to see an image of the entire front page.)
click to see image of entire front page
“????” (ji?nt? Zh?ngwén) is brighter because I had my mouse over it to highlight that text.

And here the language/script selection at the National Palace Museum’s Web site as of Thursday evening:
click to see image of entire front page
As you can see, the choice of viewing the site in simplified Chinese characters has been removed.

Here at Pinyin.Info I often have material in Hanyu Pinyin. So I’m certainly not unsympathetic to the idea that sometimes the medium really is a major part of the message. But I doubt that President Ma’s tough-love approach in this area will accomplish anything useful for Taiwan or the survival of traditional Chinese characters; indeed, I believe it will be counter-productive.

To be more blunt about this, this seems like a really, really bad idea.

some sources:

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.

China and U.S. study abroad programs

China remained the fifth most popular destination for U.S. students studying abroad during the 2008/09 school year, and it continued to account for 5 percent of U.S. study abroad.

In the previous academic year, growth for the PRC as a destination increased 19.0 percent, while study abroad as a whole increased 8.5 percent. But for 2008/09 growth for China was a much smaller 3.9 percent, while the total worldwide figure declined -0.8 percent. Figures for the top four destinations also dropped.

The order of the top 10 remained the same as in the previous year, except Mexico and Germany switched places.

Top 10 destinations for study abroad by U.S. students in the 2006-07, 2007-08, and 2008-09 school years
China shown as the fifth most popular destination for study abroad. The top destination is the U.K., followed by Italy, Spain, and France. See the link to my source material for the actual numbers.

Some other figures of possible interest:

  • Japan was in 11th place with 5,784 students, a 1.3 percent increase over the previous year.
  • Taiwan’s total grew 3.3 percent to 597.
  • Hong Kong grew 5.7 percent to 1,155.
  • South Korea grew a dramatic 29.1 percent to 2,062.
  • Singapore grew 7.7 percent to 612.

Study in Asia increased slightly.

Percent of study abroad performed in Asia
chart showing percentage of study abroad in Asia flat at about 6% from 1996-2000, with growth increasing since 2003 to the present 11.1% for the 2008-09 school year

source: Open Doors data portal

Previous posts on this subject: