Y.R. Chao’s responses to arguments against romanization

Y.R. Chao. Also, FWIW, Wikipedia took this image from Pinyin.Info, not the other way around.Pinyin.Info has a new reading: Responses to objections to romanization, written by the brilliant linguist Y.R. Chao in 1916, when he was a young man of 24.

It’s an unfortunate irony that another writing associated with Chao, the famous “stone lions” (a.k.a. shi, shi, shi) piece, is often mistakenly cited as evidence that the author opposed romanization. In fact, Chao favored using romanization for Mandarin, as his essay reveals.

It’s written in the form of 16 “objections,” each followed by Chao’s reply. For example:

Obj. 8 Alphabetized Chinese loses its etymology.

Rep. 8 This argument is like that often urged against simplified English spelling and is to be met similarly. In actual usage, how much attention do we give to etymology in words like ?, ?, ?, ?, ?, through, draught, etiquette, row, disaster? Of how many of these very common words do you know the original meaning? It is not to be denied, of course, that it is useful to know the etymology of words by looking them up, and our future dictionaries of alphabetized polysyllabic words should no doubt give their derivations.

The etymology of disaster (which is pretty cool) is certainly easy enough for an educated person to guess, if you stop to think about it. But I must admit I never had.

I have added notes following the text.

Writing Taiwanese: 1999 study

This seems as good an announcement as any to end my hiatus from posting. Sino-Platonic Papers has just rereleased a popular issue of likely interest to many readers of Pinyin News: Writing Taiwanese: The Development of Modern Written Taiwanese (2.2 MB PDF), by Alvin Lin.

The table of contents gives a pretty good picture of what’s inside:

The Status Quo: Characters and Taiwanese writing

  1. The Roots of Writing in Taiwanese: Wenyan, baihua and academic Taiwanese
  2. The Missing 15 Percent: Developing a written vernacular
  3. One Attempt at Finding the Missing 15 Percent: Yang Qingchu’s Mandarin-Taiwanese Dictionary

Writing Romanized Taiwanese

  1. The Roots of Romanized Taiwanese: Church Romanization
  2. Church Romanization Today: The Taigu listserver
  3. An Indigenous System: Liim Keahioong and Modern Literal Taiwanese

Linguistic and Social Considerations

  1. Some Linguistic Classifications
  2. Dealing with Homonyms: Morphophonemic spelling
  3. Tones in Taiwanese: Surface vs. Lexical tones
  4. Representing Dialects: Picking a standard written form or representing all dialects
  5. Summary of Linguistic Concerns: Deciding the degree of coding
  6. Writing, Reading, Printing, Computing, Indexing and other Practical Concerns
  7. Social Concerns: Tradition and Political Meaning
  8. Conclusion: Future Orthography Policy on Taiwan


  • Email Survey
  • Pronunciation guide to church romanization

List of Tables and Illustrations:

  • Table 1: Suggested Characters for Taiwanese Morphemes from Three Sources
  • Figure 1: Yang Qingchu’s Taiwanese-Mandarin Dictionary
  • Figure 2: Church romanization
  • Figure 3: Modern Literal Taiwanese
  • Figure 4: Sample e-mail from Taigu listserver

This was first published in 1999 as issue number 89 of Sino-Platonic Papers.

writing four-syllable idioms in Pinyin

cover of Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and OrthographyThe latest excerpt from Yin Binyong’s book on Pinyin orthography covers how to write four-syllable idioms in Hanyu Pinyin (929 KB PDF). Here’s a key passage:

almost all four-character idioms can be broken in two halves, called y?jié ?? (language segments), on the basis of phonetic structure. The simple expedient of connecting the two y?jié with a hyphen then provides idioms with their own distinctive written form, and assures ease of writing and reading. It is also a simple rule for students of HP to master.

But not all four-syllable idioms follow this rule, as the reading shows.

This is a worthwhile reading for Mandarin learners, even if you’re not particularly interested in Pinyin. There are many examples of idioms here, all given in Hanzi, Pinyin, and English.

gov’t unveils online Taiwanese dictionary

Taiwan’s Ministry of Education has put online its new Taiwanese (Hoklo) dictionary, the Táiw?n M?nnány? chángyòngcí cídi?n (giving the Mandarin name) (??????????). The preliminary version, which is to be amended in six months, contains 16,000 entries.

I especially welcome the section on Taiwan place-names.

further reading: MOE launches first Hoklo-language online dictionary, Taipei Times, October 20, 2008 [Note: The headline's use of "first" is almost certainly incorrect.]

John DeFrancis video

John DeFrancisTen years ago John DeFrancis was awarded the Chinese Language Teachers Association’s first lifetime achievement award. Since he could not be present at the association’s annual conference to receive the award, he sent a videotape of a 12-minute acceptance speech. The video was recently edited down to 6:27 and uploaded to YouTube: John DeFrancis remarks.

Here’s my summary of the main points:

0:00 — While working on what he intended to be a largely political study of Chinese nationalism, DeFrancis encountered references to people who wanted China to adopt an alphabetic writing system, an idea which he initially dismissed. But discovering Lu Xun’s interest in romanization led him to investigate the matter further. [I'm frustrated by the cut away from this discussion. Perhaps a fuller version of the video will be posted later.]
1:30 — Emphasizes he’s not in favor of completely abandoning Chinese characters. Rather, he favors digraphia.
2:30 — “I’d like to mention three aspects of the Chinese field which have interested me.”

  1. pedagogy (2:50) — lots of advancements
  2. linguistic aspect (3:20) — that’s also progressing well
  3. socio-linguistics (3:52) — the field isn’t doing as well as it should be

5:00 — computers and Chinese characters. DeFrancis tears into the Chinese government for its emphasis on shape-based character-input methods rather than Pinyin.

letters with diacritics: a roughly alphabetical chart


For those who don’t know an ogonek from a retroflex hook — and sometimes for those who do — finding a needed letter with a diacritical mark can be a time-consuming process. (I look forward to the days when combining marks are much better supported.)

So I made a chart with lots of — but certainly not all — diacritics, sorted alphabetically by appearance as well as name and sound. That means, for example, that a thorn (þ) can be found under p as well as under t (as in th), even though — I know, I know — p and þ are unrelated.

Perhaps some people will find it quicker to use than going through the various Unicode charts or searching through various other charts in which the letters are grouped by sound rather than appearance. Someone has probably already made one of these, and done a better job. But I didn’t have any luck finding it before hacking out my own.

Here it is, for what it’s worth: letters with diacritical marks, grouped alphabetically.

I hope some people find it useful.

Ma administration still undecided on how to teach Taiwanese

Under the new administration of President Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s Ministry of Education has worked out its plan for teaching pretty much everything … except for Hoklo (the language better known in these parts as “Taiwanese”). There have been a lot of arguments. How early to start teaching the language? How much should be taught? Use romanization? Use zhuyin? May teachers use any kind of soap or only special kinds when washing out the mouths of students speaking the language? (OK, they don’t do that last one anymore.)

So the ministry has decided to appoint a new committee to review such questions. Decisions on these issues are expected in six months or so.

My guess would be that the ministry is going to pack the new committee with conservatives who will see to it that romanization is avoided or at least belittled, that little of the language will actually be taught, and that students will not be tested seriously on the subject. But I’ll be happy if I’m wrong.


Kyrgyzstan won’t switch to Roman alphabet yet: report

High-ranking Kyrgyz officials are now reportedly saying that having Kyrgyzstan switch from the Cyrillic to the Roman alphabet would cost more money than the country can afford for the project at present. A later switch has not been ruled out.