Atomic Enema Gwoyeu Romatzyh

box for a product with the English name of Atomic Enema

I know what you’re thinking: “Man, look at the weird romanization in that address!” ;-)

Say what you will against the Gwoyeu Romatzyh romanization system for Mandarin (or “GR” for short) — its quirkiness, its unnecessary complications, its counter-intuitiveness for those who don’t know its rules (much more so than with Hanyu Pinyin). But at least in the few instances where it’s still seen in the wild, it’s usually spelled correctly.

That’s not the case here.

The address for the manufacturer, the Health Chemical Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd., is given as

No.12, Yeou-4th Rd., Ta-Chia Yowshy Ind. Dist.

  • yeou = Hanyu Pinyin yǒu — misspelled GR (should be “yow,” which is “yòu” in HP); this is all the more strange given that the company gets “yow” correct elsewhere in the same line
  • ta = HP dà — essentially correct Wade-Giles (not GR)
  • chia = HP jiǎ — essentially correct Wade-Giles (not GR)
  • yow = HP yòu — correct GR
  • shy = HP shī — misspelled GR (should be syh)

This is definitely misspelled Gwoyeu Romatzyh rather than a different system (such as MPS2, which is often seen in the boondocks of Taiwan).

And the city name is given as “Taichung,” which is bastardized Wade-Giles (for what would be spelled “Taizhong” in Hanyu Pinyin). But since that is the standard spelling in Taiwan, one can’t blame the company for this.

And at least the company didn’t get “4th” wrong, which is more than can be said for the Taichung City Government, as shown by a sign near the factory. (From Google Street View.)

The source of the other misspellings will likely remain enema-migmatic.

Street sign reading 'You 4rd Rd.'

Big Pinyin on Chengdu Storefronts

Fan Yiying and Gu Peng have posted a story at Sixth Tone that is both surprising and not surprising at all: State Media Criticizes Chengdu Shop Signs in Romanized Chinese.

The main points I’d like to make about this are:

  • Word-parsing matters.
  • Hundreds of millions of people in China use Hanyu Pinyin on a daily basis but still do not know how Pinyin is meant to work as an orthographic system.
  • The government of China, though it needs Pinyin, is in many ways hostile to it.
  • The fonts available for writing the Roman alphabet (and thus Pinyin) far exceed those for writing Chinese characters, so there is nothing in the least artistically limiting about Pinyin per se. (Whether Chinese characters are intrinsically more beautiful than the Roman alphabet is another matter.)

Here are some screenshots from the video mentioned in the article. Note: This isn’t the loveliest voice ever….

Sorry about the triangles on the photos, which make the shots look like videos. I wasn’t good at capturing screenshots without pausing the video, which made the triangles appear.

signs reading DIAN XIAN DIAN LAN, etc.

signs reading HONG DA TU WEN and MIAN DAO



ER LIANG WAN ZA MIAN sign in Chinese characters

Article on early Tongyong Pinyin on Taipei street signs

Reader Jens Finke recently came across a newspaper clipping from about twenty years ago, the dark ages of Taipei’s street signs. Back then most roads in the city were identified in bastardized Wade-Giles and wildly misspelled variations thereof. Two or even more spellings for one name at the same intersection was not uncommon. (Outside of Taipei, many signs were in MPS2, which is often mistaken — including in the article below — for the Yale system.) And so the foreign community of Taiwan by and large cried out for the use of Hanyu Pinyin. But that’s not what foreigners got. Instead, Taipei Mayor Chen Shui-bian decided to go with a half-baked local invention called Tongyong Pinyin.

Really, half-baked. Incredibly, not long after street signs started to go up in this system in 1998, its creator changed it. For example, the article mentions “Zhongsiao” (“Zhongxiao” in Hanyu Pinyin). Scarcely had the paint dried on the new street signs than the spelling in the supposedly same system was changed to “Jhongsiao.” This and other changes rendered most of the new signs obsolete.

But before many signs went up in the old new system or the new new system, Chen lost his December 1998 reelection bid. His successor, Ma Ying-jeou, didn’t pursue Tongyong Pinyin. Ma even took the surprising step of asking foreigners what they wanted and took action to implement the overwhelming choice of the foreign community (both then and now): Hanyu Pinyin, though unfortunately the road to this was not without monumentally foolish detours, bad ideas, and still-unfixed errors.

In 2000, Chen was elected president. He asked his minister of education, Ovid Tzeng, to decide on a romanization system for Taiwan. After Tzeng picked Hanyu Pinyin, he was given the boot. His successor saw the writing on the wall and quickly announced his support of Tongyong Pinyin. Meanwhile, Ma, who remained mayor of Taipei, said he had no plan to change to Tongyong Pinyin. This time marks the beginning of Taiwan’s romanization wars, which raged in the first decade of the century and have still not been completely resolved.

Some readers may suspect the reporter in the article below of pulling people’s legs (e.g., “Special thanks to janitorial assistant Shaw Toe-now of the Jyii Horng Bus Company in Tainan for faxing a copy of his employer’s self-designed romanization table”). But I assure you, it would be very difficult to outdo the craziness of Taiwan’s romanization situation back in those days.

Feel free to use the comments section below if you’d like to share any recollections of Taiwan’s signage mess of the 1990s and before.

In my transcription, I’ve fixed a few typos and omitted the article’s Cyrillic system for Mandarin.

photo of newspaper article on the enactment in Taipei of an early version of Tongyong Pinyin

Friday, May 8, 1998

It’s all Roman
By Ian Lamont

Throw out all of the new business cards, office stationery and checkbooks that you ordered a few months back to include Taipei’s new telephone numbers. Just three months after the phone company made all the city’s phone numbers eight digits long, the Taipei City Government has decided it wants to institute a new romanization system for street signs to make the city more accessible to international visitors.

Well, at least that’s the plan. Someone in the city government’s vast bureaucracy finally figured out that the screwed-up mix of Wade-Giles and Yale (the same guys who brought you “Peking”) was not really helping anything by having foreign nationals attempting to say “Jen-ai Road” or “Kien-kwo South Road” to bewildered taxi drivers.

Not that taxi drivers won’t be any less confused by the new linguistic concoctions that will result under the new system:

“I’d like to go to Her-ping West Road, please.”


“You know, Her-ping West Road. It’s on the way to Manka?”

In case you didn’t understand this little exchange, “Herping” (rhymes with “burping”) is the new Mandarin romanization for the current Hoping East/West Road, while “Manka” is the Taiwanese name for Taipei’s Wanhua neighborhood. According to the Taipei City Government, both of these names will be in common use once all the city’s street signs are replaced.

Professor Yu Boh-chuan, the Academia Sinica linguist who helped design the new system, says his way reflects the local culture while at the same time following international standards.

Currently, there is only one international standard — the hanyu pinyin system developed by China some forty years ago and now almost universally accepted as the official Mandarin romanization system by governments, universities, libraries and publishers around the world. While there are many similarities between hanyu pinyin and Taipei’s new system, there are also several glaring differences, most notably the puzzling use of the letter “r” at the end of some syllables, the omission of the palatal spirant “sh” sound in certain Mandarin words, and the inclusion of Taiwanese, Hakkanese and Aborigine place names.

Since Taipei will soon have at least three different romanization systems floating around, Weekend has decided to create a handy chart that will help readers (and potentially psychotic mail sorters) survive the sticky transition period.

As an added bonus, we’ve decided to include several other alternative spelling systems for non-Chinese speakers. Special thanks to janitorial assistant Shaw Toe-now of the Jyii Horng Bus Company in Tainan for faxing a copy of his employer’s self-designed romanization table, as well as Prof. Vladimir Torostov of the Sinitic Languages Department of Khabarovsk University in Russia for submitting a conversion table with the cyrillic spellings for Taipei street names. Dosvidanya!

Old Romanization New Romanization Mainland Jyii Horng Bus Co.
Chunghsiao Zhongsiao Zhongxiao Chunggshaw
Jenai Renai Renai Lenie
Hsinyi/Shinyi Sinyi Xinyi Shynyii
Hoping Herping Heping Huhpeeng
Keelung Kelang Jilong Cheerlurng
Pateh Bader Bade Patiih

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.



Today I’d like to talk about a sign at a stand that sells guabao, a quintessential Taiwanese snack.

I took my own photo, but it didn’t make the guabao look particularly appetizing, so I’m using a public-domain image instead so you can see what one looks like if you don’t already know. But when I buy one I have them leave off the cilantro/xiāngcài. I hate that stuff.

Here’s the sign.

guabao sign, as described below



(NT$50 is about US$1.50.)

The sign uses some Taiwanese, specifically “a刈包.” If the whole thing were in romanized Taiwanese, it would be

Su-pâng ê

To̍k-ka kháu-bī
50 îⁿ

But parts of that are unidiomatic, as Taiwanese expert Michael Cannings informs me. (Alas, my Taiwanese sucks.) So this is a sign in both Taiwanese and Mandarin, which isn’t particularly surprising given that guabao is a Taiwanese food but most people in northern Taiwan use Mandarin most of the time. (I’m using the spelling “guabao” rather than “koah-pau” in most of this post because this is a Pinyin site.)

Something about this sign did surprise me a lot. Can you guess?

  • It’s not the use of a Roman letter — I should probably say “English letter” in this case, since here the letter is meant to be pronounced much like the “A” in “ABC” — though regular readers know that’s certainly more than enough to get me interested.
  • It’s not that the sign has “刈包” rather than “割包” for guabao. In searches restricted to .tw domains, Google returns 181,000 results for “刈包” and just 41,900 results for “割包”, even though Taiwan’s Ministry of Education prefers the latter form. Even on government Web pages “刈包” beats “割包” by a ratio of more than two to one.
  • It’s not the style in which “刈包” is written by hand, though I kinda like that.
  • And it’s not even that “a” was used instead of a different Roman letter: “ê”.

What seems to me most distinctive about this sign is that the Roman letter appears in lowercase rather than as “A”.

A single letter being used to represent a Sinitic morpheme in a text otherwise in Chinese characters is almost always written in upper case, e.g., A菜, 宮保G丁, K書. (Oh, that reminds me: I really need to answer that e-mail message about K. Sorry, Steven.)

In other words, if a sign is going to have the Roman letter “a” stand in for the Taiwanese possessive particle (the equivalent of Mandarin’s de/的), I would expect in this particular case for the sign to have “私房A” rather than “私房a”. I’m pleased by the use of lowercase; capital letters should be mainly for proper nouns and the beginnings of sentences.

It’s probably a one-off. But just in case I’ll be on the lookout to see if there’s a trend toward greater use of lowercase.

The text also presents a challenge: How should this be written in Pinyin? The last part (獨家口味 / 50元) is easy, because it’s just straight modern standard Mandarin:

dújiā kǒuwèi
50 yuán

But what to do with this?


Probably this:

Sīfáng ê

Gwoyeu Romatzyh in the wild

Although Gwoyeu Romatzyh was technically the ROC’s official romanization system for most of the twentieth century (through 1986), it’s very seldom seen in Taiwan. The most common place for it to appear is on the side of coach buses. But here’s an example of Guoyeu Romatzyh on a shipping box for thousand-year-old eggs:



Guoyeu Romatzyh is often most easily identified by the doubled vowel in most (but not all) third-tone syllables. But this example doesn’t have any of those. The y indicates second tone (except when it doesn’t). And the doubled final n is a marker of fourth tone. (Have I ever mentioned that Gwoyeu Romatzyh often reminds me of “The Name Game“?)

In Hanyu Pinyin, songhua pyidann is sōnghuā pídàn.

Another technical point, this photo wasn’t taken in Taiwan proper but rather on Kinmen (金門), which provides an example of a romanization system older than Gwoyeu Romatzyh, older than Wade-Giles even. It’s postal romanization, which I regard as too mixed up to properly be called a system. In Hanyu Pinyin, Kinmen is Jinmen. The island is also known as Quemoy.

Shanghai considers deleting Pinyin from street signs

The Shanghai Road Administration Bureau is considering removing Hanyu Pinyin from street signs in the city.

Typically, the bureau’s division chief, Wang Weifeng, seems to be confused about the difference between Pinyin and English. He also justifies the move by claiming that larger Chinese characters would benefit Chinese citizens, ignoring the high number of people in China who are largely illiterate.

“Of course we will keep the English-Chinese traffic signs around some special areas, such as the tourism spots, CBD areas and some transport hubs,” Wang said.

A German newspaper article notes:

Ob sie die Umschrift wortwörtlich „aus dem Verkehr“ zieht, will Schanghai angeblich von einer „Umfrage“ unter „Anwohnern“ abhängig machen, ebenso vom Urteil nicht näher genannter „Experten“. Dies ist eine gängige Formulierung, wenn chinesische Regierungsstellen ihren einsamen Entscheidungen einen basisdemokratischen Anstrich geben wollen.

[Google Translate: Whether they literally “out of circulation” pulls the inscription, Shanghai will supposedly make a “survey” of “residents” depends, as of indeterminate sentence from “experts”. This is a common formulation, when Chinese authorities want to give their lonely decisions a grassroots paint.]

This is a situation all too common in Taiwan as well, such as in Taipei’s misguided move to apply nicknumbering to subway stops. “Experts” — ha!

Shanghai’s survey on Pinyin use and signage is of course in Mandarin only, with no English. The poll ends on August 30 (next week!), so add your views to that soon.

So far, public opinion seems to be largely against removing Hanyu Pinyin from signs. But that doesn’t mean this might not happen anyway. After all: Shanghai has its “experts” on the case. Heh.

If Shanghai really wanted to help the legibility of its signs, it should consider using word parsing even with text in Chinese characters. For example:

  • use 陕西 南路, not 陕西南路
  • use 斜土 路, not 斜土路
  • use 建国 西路, not 建国西路

That would also permit the use of superscript on the generic parts of names (e.g., “南路”) to save space. This could also be done with the Pinyin/English, with the Pinyin in large letters and the English “Rd” etc. in superscript.

Thanks to Michael Cannings for the tip.


Shit happens

Mandarin’s word for laboratory is shíyànshì (實驗室). The Hakka word, however, sounds different, of course.

When a school in Taiwan’s Xinzhu (Hsinchu) County, an area with many Hakka, put up some signs in romanization, some were quick to notice that the Hakka word contained what looked like the English word “shit.” That this was at an elementary school didn’t help matters. People there got a bit tired of explaining that this wasn’t obscene English but instead perfectly proper Hakka. The popular option now seems to be to spell the final syllable shid.

sign on a classroom wall reading '(?) ging ui sik / (?) gin vui shit'

Táiwān tuīdòng Kèjiā wénhuà, yě ràng Kèyǔ chéngwéi yuèláiyuè duōguānxīn jiāodiǎn, dàn yǒu mínzhòng dào Xīnzhú Dōngyuán Guó-xiǎo, fāxiànjiàoshì de Kèyǔ pīnyīn zěnme kànqilai guài guài de, shì zhègè zì yòng shì t, rúguǒ yòng Yīngwén niàn sìhū bù tài wényǎ, hòulái cái fāxiàn, yuánláiyòng Tōngyòng Pīnyīn, pīn qǐlái jiù shì shì t, suǒyǐ mínzhòng qiānwàn biéxiǎng wāi.

Láidào Xīnzhú Dōngyuán Guó-xiǎo, wàitou jǐngwèishì, yǒu Yīngwén pīnyīn hái yǒu Táiyǔ、 Kèyǔ pīnyīn, zhǐshì nín zhùyìdàole ma? Kèyǔ pīnyīn dezuìhòu yī gè zì shit, zhè bù shì màrén de huà ma? Shì bu shì pīncuò le a, zài dào xiàonèi kàn, bùguǎn jiàoshì háishi xiàoshǐ shì, shènzhì shìxiàozhǎng shì, zhǐyào shì shì jiéwěi de dōu shì zhèyàng pīn.

Měi cì yǒu rén wèn jiù yào jiěshì gè lǎobàntiān, yuánlái tānkāi Kèjiā yǔpīnyīn, xiàngshì jiàoshì de shì、 shìhé de shì、 zhīshi de shí, tōngtōngdōu pīn chéng shit, suǒyǐ méi wèntí de la, dàn yǒu xǔduō xiǎopéngyou kàndào, yī kāishǐ háishi juéde guài guài de, qíshí zhè shì cǎiyòng Tōngyòng Pīnyīn yǐjīng yòngle 10 nián, dàn xiànzài wèile bìmiǎn kùnrǎo, yào gǎichéng Táiwān Kèyǔ pīnyīn, shit jiù biànchéngle shid, huòxǔ jiù bù huì zài ràngrén wùhuì la.
每次有人問就要解釋個老半天,原來攤開客家語拼音,像是教室的室、適合的適、知識的識,通通都拼成shit,所以沒問題的啦,但有許多小朋友看到,一開始還是覺得怪怪的,其實這是採用通用拼音已經用了10年,但現在為了避免困擾,要改成台灣客語拼音,shit 就變成了 shid,或許就不會再讓人誤會啦。

source: Guó-xiǎo fānyì cǎi Kèyǔ pīnyīn jiāo「 shì」 biàn 「shit」 (國小翻譯採客語拼音 教「室」變 「shit」), Dongsen News, December 9, 2011 (Yes, the year is correct. I just didn’t get around to finishing the post back then.)