Ovid Tzeng reiterates backing for Hanyu Pinyin

Earlier this week Ovid Tzeng, a former minister of education and current minister without portfolio, reaffirmed his support for Taiwan adoping Hanyu Pinyin and said that this is an important issue the government will need to deal with sooner or later.

Zēng Zhìlǎng Jiàoyùbù zhǎng rènnèi, jiānchí cǎiyòng Hànyǔ Pīnyīn, shì tā bèi huàn xiàlái de zhǔyīn zhīyī. Tā zuótiān réng bù gǎi qí zhì, qiángdiào guówài bùguǎn Zhōngwén jiàoxué huò xuéshù qīkān, hěn duō yǐjing gǎiyòng Hànyǔ Pīnyīn, Táiwān bùnéng shìruòwúdǔ, zhè suī fēi xīn zhèngfǔ zuì yōuxiān shīzhèng xiàngmù, dànshì yě lièwéi wèilái zhòngdà jiǎntǎo shìxiàng.

Most of the source article for this discusses poet and academic Zheng Chouyu’s backing for Hanyu Pinyin. He stresses his view that this is a practical matter, not a political one.

source: Zhèng Chóuyǔ jiànyì: Zhōngwén yìyīn kěyǐ cǎi Hànyǔ Pīnyīn (鄭愁予建議:中文譯音 可採漢語拼音), United Daily News, June 9, 2009

further reading: Hanyu Pinyin backer to return to Taiwan’s Cabinet, Pinyin News, April 29, 2008

9 thoughts on “Ovid Tzeng reiterates backing for Hanyu Pinyin

  1. Interesting article, but I have to say that the article itself is a prime example of the shortfalls of pinyin in expressing Chinese and its resulting abortion of the language’s essence. First of all, I had a heard time telling what “zh?y?n zh?y?” was…I can only guess that it is ????…which was only after ruling out a few other possibilities. Furthermore, if pinyin is used to write Chinese on a large scale, chengyu’s like shìruòwúd? will be robbed of a great deal of meaning as (though you may know now) the meaning of the individual characters will be lost over time, and along with it the deeper meaning they encapsulate.

    That said, as an AID to language learning, I feel that hanyu pinyin is far superior to tongyong pinyin, but in the same vein, that may only be because I grew up using it.

  2. I really don’t understand.

    If the text were read aloud, would a native speaker understand? Or is spoken Mandarin itself an “abortion of the language’s essence”?

  3. “if the text were read aloud”

    michael farris hit on what matters. No one argues that pinyin is good for writing classical Chinese, but that’s more a code than a language anyway.

    Mandarin’s “essence” — in fact, any language’s essence — is spoken, because every language is spoken before it’s written, if it’s written at all. To assert otherwise is to ignore the millions who, to this day, continue to speak Mandarin — creatively, poignantly, wisely — despite being (at least functionally) illiterate.

    If pinyin is used on a wide scale, anyone with the interest and time would still be able to learn the characters and read the classics. In the meantime, children will spend six months rather than six years becoming fully literate, and adults who have never learned, or have forgotten the characters they did learn, will quite functionally be able to write down what they can so easily speak. Oh, and as a side effect, Mandarin study abroad would go ballistic, gazillions of foreigners realizing that Mandarin + pinyin is actually a helluva lot easier to learn than English and its backasswards spelling and bizarre sentence order rules and so on, with the consequence that Mandarin could quite possibly become a world language on par with English.

    Slight exaggeration? Possibly, but that’s the direction of it anyway.

  4. “if the text were read aloud”

    Beijing Sounds had the right conclusion (If you can understand it by listening to the sounds of spoken language, then you can understand it written in a script representing those sounds.), but did not answer Michael’s question.

    I haven’t done any specific research on this, but I found that many of my interpreting students have huge problems understanding spoken language (Mandarin) 100% if it is a speech or something similar. Almost all of them will ask to get parts repeated, differently phrased, or even shown to them in writing.

    It should be less of a problem in daily smalltalk, but it’s always entertaining to see native speakers not understanding their supposedly native language. So, in cases like these, using a sound-based writing system could indeed negatively influence understanding.

    But this raises another question: If people can not possibly understand parts of their native language through plain acoustic reception, shouldn’t then perhaps those parts be reformed/eliminated/whatever?

  5. @dl7und: Very interesting idea, that spoken Mandarin in some registers might be exceedingly hard to understand.

    Is it the use of (notoriously elliptical) classic Chinese references that makes such speeches hard to understand? It would be a fascinating case of how a script influences spoken language. A distant parallel in English might be a pun that relies on a spelling difference but isn’t really comprehensible without spelling it out, literally or figuratively.

    If you come across an example or have one already, could you post it? (or send it my direction, so as not to take these comments too far afield — my email is bjshengr at gmail plus the dot com).

    Can we treat your last question as rhetorical? To editorialize on it, if my hypothesis is right the “reform” would only need to take place among those trained in classical Chinese in the first place. The spoken language of anyone else, I’d venture to guess, would be quite comprehensible no matter what the range of their talk: small through philosophical.

  6. I think that the relationship between spoken and written language is far more complex than has been acknowledged in comments here. In the case of Chinese, these complexities seriously muddy the argument for replacing Chinese characters with pinyin in the orthography of written Chinese.

    It is sort of a truism in linguistics that spoken language is primary and written language is secondary. This is obviously true, in the sense that spoken language precedes written language, that most of the world’s spoken languages have never had a written form, and that large numbers of people are illiterate speakers of their native languages, while few are writers/readers of languages they don’t speak.

    But it is a fallacy to conclude from this that written language and spoken language are identical, and that therefore switching to an alphabet would be a panacea for Chinese learners.

    First, spoken language and written language are simply not identical. By its very nature written language is amenable to, and encouraging of, different patterns of expression from spoken language. Written English is different from spoken English; written Japanese is different from spoken Japanese; written Farsi is different from spoken Farsi. Generally speaking, written languages use longer sentences than spoken languages, tend to have more formal registers, and have distinct lexicons. They also often make greater use of elements from earlier periods in the written tradition that may be obsolete in spoken language. And in certain specific contexts (such as on signs, in newspaper headlines, etc.) written forms can be elliptical or highly abbreviated in ways that spoken language can not be. (It’s perfectly normal to put “NO ENTRY” on a sign, and quite weird for someone to say “No entry!” as a complete utterance.)

    There are very few (if any!) written languages whose orthographies are completely regular, by which I mean that they have a one-to-one correspondence between orthographic symbols (such as letters) and elements of the spoken language (such as phonemes, or basic sound units). The fact that distinct but homophonous morphemes are written differently in languages makes it possible to write things quite clearly that might be ambiguous or confusing when spoken. This is true of English and French as much as it is true of Chinese. (Think of all those “silent letters” in French, which actually help make written word shapes more distinctive and recognizable.)

    As just one example, newspaper headlines — which by necessity must be short — can be very hard to understand if read aloud. This is the reason that in South Korea, one of the few remaining common usages of Chinese characters is in newspaper headlines, where they very efficiently permit short headlines to be written in a less ambiguous way by specifying which of several homophonous morphemes are intended.

    It is also the case that spoken language includes a lot of linguistic information that is not found in written language. All kinds of cues that assist in the parsing of spoken sentences — pauses, intonation patterns, and the like — are absent from written language (punctuation is a poor and imperfect substitute). This means that a perfectly understandable spoken sentence might be difficult to understand if reduced in writing to a string of phonemes.

    There are a lot more factors affecting writing than we might imagine. Japanese orthography is unbelievably complex. But for native speakers, the mixing in of Chinese characters with kana syllabary in writing actually helps them to read more quickly and accurately, by visually separating verb and noun roots from inflectional endings and grammatical particles.

    I present all of this simply to refute the idea that if we can understand spoken Mandarin, we should be able to read written Chinese in pinyin.

    If Chinese orthography really were to do away with characters and adopt an alphabetic writing system, there would be significant trade-offs. All of these need to be evaluated in terms of the needs of native speakers, not the needs of foreign learners.

    First, written Chinese style would have to change dramatically and/or the spelling would have to be de-regulized to some degree. It would be very helpful if certain common homophones were spelled differently, along the lines of English “write” / “right” and “to” / “too” / “two”. Current writing practice that leads to unacceptable ambiguities when represented alphabetically would have to be curtailed.

    Second, there would be a radical break with literature and other writing of the pre-alphabetic era. Much literature would become inaccessible to those without special training. Even those early works transcribed into the alphabet would have confusing and difficult passages because of increased ambiguity.

    Third, there would be a long and awkward transition period in which members of different generations could not communicate easily with each other in writing.

    Fourth, the difficulties for dialectal speakers must not be under-estimated. Currently, a Cantonese speaker needs to learn the vocabulary and grammar of standard written Mandarin in order to write Chinese. But she needn’t learn Mandarin pronunciation — she can read the characters aloud with their Cantonese readings. If Chinese writing were to switch to pinyin, then dialect speakers would be required to learn an entirely new phonology as well. Their schooling time to become literate could go up, not down.

    Fifth, I am not convinced that the gains in literacy would be significant. Japan and Taiwan have very high literacy rates. True, students spend more time learning characters in China, but they do not overall require more schooling to become educated citizens than do Europeans or Americans. And no way could students become literate in “six months”. Literacy does not involve just spelling — it requires learning all the conventions of the standard written language, including complexities of vocabulary and grammar that are not found in the spoken language.

    A final comment: Classical Chinese is not a “code”, any more than Classical Greek, Sanskrit, or Latin are codes. These are dead written languages, with full lexicons, morphologies, phonologies, and syntaxes. Classical Chinese is different only in that it is dressed in the phonology from the modern Chinese dialect of its reader.

    In conclusion, I do not mean to advocate for or against replacing characters with pinyin, I’m just pointing out that the question is much more complicated than it has been presented here.

    I wanted to keep this post short(er), so I didn’t include lots of examples and elaborations to the points made above. I hope the result isn’t so telegraphic as to be confusing. I’m happy to clarify if there are questions.

    (And I hope I don’t seem to come across as critical of “Beijing Sounds” — I respect you and love your blog! — or anyone else who has posted.)

  7. Nobody is going to declare by fiat that overnight China will adopt pinyin as its main, official orthography (it is already recognized as the PRC’s official romanization). On the other hand, no amount of scholarly, semi-scholarly, and lay discussion will do much to advance the cause of pinyin. One might say that is so much ZHI3SHANG4TAN2BING1 (“armchair strategizing”). The way that pinyin will become a functioning orthography is through actual use. That is why Zhang Liqing and I published __Xin Tang__ for so long, and it is why I respect Mark Swofford for putting extensive samples of pinyin writing up on the web.

    In my view, not only will pinyin evolve as a complementary member of a healthy digraphia in China, it is already emerging in that role through — among others — the following applications: ZI4MU3CI2 (“alphabetic words”), braille, semaphore, trademarks, advertisements, signs,labels, directions, computer and short text messaging entry methods, acronyms, mixed in with English (which is increasingly ubiquitous), in indices, for sorting and ordering, in DUI4ZHAO4 formats, for educational purposes (both for Chinese and for foreigners), and so forth. While we are discussing the pros and the cons of pinyin as an orthography, it is gradually coming into being before our very eyes.

  8. Zev Handel,
    I hope you are still reading this thread. I meant to get back to this a couple of months ago but kind of lost track…

    Much of what you said regarding the complexity of written versus spoken language I find myself in perfect agreement with. Especially in Mandarin, the spoken and written diverge quite dramatically at times. So, yes, to the extent that Chinese is still written in a style that cannot be understood when spoken, it is quite right, as you say, “to refute the idea that if we can understand spoken Mandarin, we should be able to read written Chinese in pinyin.” It’s tautological.

    But of course if pinyin were used, people could simply write more or less as they speak and it would all be perfectly comprehensible. That said, I’m not trying to gloss over the very significant social problems that you rightly point out: 1) writing style would have to change, and 2) there would be a big break with the past. Agreed on both counts and, to be quite honest, I still have not come to an informed conclusion about whether I personally think the abandonment of characters would be a good thing. Anyway, as Victor Mair said, it doesn’t really matter what the armchair strategists think.

    On the subject of characters making it easier for dialect speakers, count me as dubious. I’ll stick with what DeFrancis has argued: that it’s a whale of a lot easier for your Cantonese speaker to learn how to write their fangyan in an alphabetic system, and then learn how to write Mandarin in an alphabetic system, than it is to learn the characters for the task.

    And on the subject of classical Chinese as “code,” first let me acknowledge that this particular term, like some of my more apoplectic statements expressing a desire to dump characters, borders on the histrionic. It’s a bloviating bit of hyperbole attempting to be slightly facetious. Of course classical Chinese is a language that people can read and get wonderful meaning out of.

    The grain of truth in calling it a “code” is this: how closely does classical Chinese resemble any language that was actually spoken? DeFrancis questions it himself, calling it “perhaps never spoken.” He also discusses at length the analysis showing that classical Chinese often used “written monosyllabic abbreviation of earlier disyllabic terms.”

    The hap stud of class Chin might thus be forgive for ref to it as code rath than simp “high ellip.”*

    Thanks, by the way, for the undeservedly kind words about Beijing Sounds.


    * Interpretation: “The hapless student of classical Chinese might thus be forgiven for referring to it as code rather than simply ‘highly elliptical.'”

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