PINYIN ALONE.

Victor Mair has a post at the Log about the use of pinyin in China without either translation or characters; he begins:

I just passed through security at the Xi’an airport (in northwest China) and was surprised to have my belongings searched by a young woman on whose snazzy black uniform, instead of an ID number as a regular worker would have, there was a label that said only SHIXI (“in training; practice”), with no trace of the corresponding characters 实习 anywhere about her. When I read out the pinyin with correct pronunciation and indicated that I knew immediately and exactly what it meant, the young woman and her co-workers were obviously pleased that I could do so.
Even more thought provoking is the fact that many Chinese police cars and uniforms have written on them GONGAN (“public security”) rather than “police”, and sometimes not even 公安.

It’s an interesting phenomenon with a number of possible explanations, currently being hashed out in the comment thread. I am, of course, interested in your thoughts.

Comments

  1. slawkenbergius says:

    Could it be a way of catering to Taiwanese or Westerners who may not be familiar with simplified characters? Seems like a stretch, but it could be part of it.

  2. But you loose tone, which must make it hard to interpret two-syllable words, even in context, doesn’t it?

  3. Bob Violence says:

    Could it be a way of catering to Taiwanese or Westerners who may not be familiar with simplified characters? Seems like a stretch, but it could be part of it.
    If it’s catering to Westerners — and I’m not convinced it is, for various reasons discussed in the LL thread — it’s more likely catering to those who know few or no characters at all, who are far more numerous than those who know traditional forms but not simplified. As for Taiwanese, virtually none of them know pinyin or any other Mandarin romanization (except maybe isolated words like their own name, “Taiwan,” their hometown, the street they live on, etc.). Zhuyin is used to transcribe Mandarin sounds in Taiwan. And while shixi is quite different in the simplified and traditional scripts (实习/實習), gong’an is 公安 in both.

  4. michael farris says:

    I welcome any and all public signage in pinyin.
    As for catering to westerners. If there was a real supply of reading material beyond beginning textbooks in pinyin I might be tempted to learn some Mandarin. But I have almost no interest in learning thousands of characters (let alone learning them in both traditional and simplified forms).
    I think characters are beautiful and interesting and worthy of study (by other people) and absolutely not for me.

  5. 可怜!

  6. I am intrigued by the hypothesis mentioned in the LL post that the use of pinyin clearly stamps the word as being Mandarin (and not any other variety). Anyone got any thoughts on that?

  7. Well, it’s certainly true. Whether it has any bearing on the use of such forms is beyond my competence.

  8. Bob Violence says:

    I am intrigued by the hypothesis mentioned in the LL post that the use of pinyin clearly stamps the word as being Mandarin (and not any other variety).
    It’s not a hypothesis any more than saying written Spanish clearly stamps the word as Spanish. To take one example: In Mandarin, 实习 is shixi; in Cantonese it’s satjaap. There’s no way a Cantonese speaker, even one familiar with pinyin, could arrive at satjaap from shixi — there’s no one-to-one mapping between Mandarin and Cantonese syllables (for example, 石 “stone” is a homophone of 实 in Mandarin, but in Cantonese it’s pronounced sek). Shixi and satjaap are cognates, sure, but the pinyin word “shixi” no more represents the Cantonese word than the written French nom represents the English name.

  9. the hypothesis mentioned in the LL post that the use of pinyin clearly stamps the word as being Mandarin
    Yes, I think these issues all belong together.
    *The move to simplify, then abolish characters and replace them with pinyin (this never got to the final stage).
    *The move to instate Mandarin (or rather, putonghua) as the standard national language. The idea is to create a strong modern nation by (i) replacing the old literary language with a modern vernacular, and (ii) replacing regional dialects with a common nationwide language.
    That means that romanised dialects are highly unlikely to be recognised or promoted for official use. Romanisation is automatically going to mean the romanisation of the national language.

  10. Pinyin = Putonghua, without tones = stamping out other dialects, which came into being way before Mandarin, which is actually a reduction of sounds of dialects with Middle Chinese pronunciations. I say stamp out Putonghua and use the dialects anyway the people want to use it, like they did when there was still a monarchy in China. Only use Mandarin / Guanhua when its on documents. Should ONLY use characters, with NO pinyin, this beautiful language will be lost. Use Pinyin only as a guide to pronunciation to the characters, not as a language in itself, rather like an alphabet where there’s no meaning, Actually none of the letters I’ve used has any meaning except for the letters A & I in English.

  11. I should correct one thing I wrote above:
    “replacing regional dialects with a common nationwide language”.
    The intention was not to stamp out dialects, but to create a nationwide standard of communication. The dialects were fine, but a medium was needed for all Chinese communicate together.

  12. Bathrobe: I think, though, that promoting Mandarin has meant persuading people to reject the other varieties of Chinese, in the same way that promoting Standard English has historically meant deprecating other varieties of English. It certainly doesn’t have to be so: different varieties could be treated as appropriate in different circumstances, as is done in some countries.
    Gpa: With the exception of Min, all the current Chinese varieties are the descendants of Middle Chinese, and as such equally old. It’s true that Mandarin has undergone reductions in things like final consonants, but Cantonese has undergone reductions too, as in the loss of glides before the central vowel. As for the characters, Chinese would not be lost if its writing system were changed, any more than Turkish was.

  13. I agree with John Cowan on both counts.

  14. J.W. Brewer says:

    I’m not convinced that Turkish wasn’t lost (or, rather, that it’s not misleading to use the same name to describe the pre-Ataturk and post-Ataturk languages spoken in the same geographical region). See the excellently-subtitled book “The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success.”

  15. A far simpler possibility: some higher-up at Xi’an airport wanted his employees to look more professional. To associate his employees with English, education, and westerners, he used the Latin alphabet. but he didn’t have a translator–not many translators are around for mid-level Chinese functionaries–so he pulled something off the internet that he recognized as clearly related to his employees’ different positions. He did not think about what it would look like to English-speaking eyes.
    Just a thought.

  16. michael farris says:

    “I’m not convinced that Turkish wasn’t lost (or, rather, that it’s not misleading to use the same name to describe the pre-Ataturk and post-Ataturk languages spoken in the same geographical region).”
    Well with Turkish there are two diffeent issues. One was the switch to a romanized alphabet which was far more suited to the language than the Arabic alphabet (Cyrillic would have been as good but wasn’t chosen) along with the elimination of Persian-style constructions which were not natural to most speakers. I think both of those were unambiguously positive and helped increase literacy.
    The second issue was the purity movement(s?) which saw the creation of truckloads of Turkish neologisms meant to replace Arabo-Persian vocabulary including words there were perfectly natural for almost all speakers. This was more negative than positive and the effects are still felt today. Recently a young Turkish speaker (highly educated) told me that publications a few decades old can be very difficult to read because of the unstable vocabulary.
    I don’t think expanded ranges of use of pinyin would destabilize Chinese vocabulary.

  17. J.W. Brewer says:

    Well, of course the present government of mainland China already changed the writing system with the introduction of “simplified” characters. I don’t have a good feel for exactly how hard it is for someone who was educated under that system to read a text in traditional characters, but to the extent the Communists created a “literate” population who could not readily read texts printed pre-1949 (or post-1949 in non-Communist parts of the Sinosphere) I tend to assume that was considered a feature rather than a bug. Similarly, the inability of the Ataturkicized population to read Ottoman-era texts was not necessarily viewed as a great loss by the reformers.
    I tend to think that bopomofo should be promoted more than pinyin, on account of being a script that was designed to fit Mandarin phonology perfectly (and could presumably be learned without undue challenge by outsiders). But it may be too late to change course.

  18. The Turkish switch from one alphabet to another is not at all like what the abandonment of characters would mean for the Chinese. Much more information is contained in a set of characters than in pinyin. Each character has a fairly unambiguous meaning. Each syllable does not. While this is unproblematic in normal language, in poetry, word play, literature, and academic writing it could create issues. Chinese has a more limited set of sound combinations than many languages, so compound words are used in everyday writing to clarify meaning, but if archaic or uncommon words are used, they may not have such established forms.
    If reform is absolutely necessary, it would be much better to adapt a system like the Japanese, which works aesthetically with characters and allows their use when vocabulary is being flaunted. Pinyin interspersed with hanzi is possibly the only script more tedious and jarring than pinyin alone. And reading pinyin just doesn’t feel like reading characters.

  19. I agree that Turkish did change radically. Indeed, Atatürk’s famous 1927 five-day speech was so Ottoman that it has had to be translated into Turkish three separate times, in 1963, 1986, and 1995, in order to make it intelligible to Turks of every era. I also agree about The Turkish Language Reform: an excellent book from which I drew the above remark.
    And it’s also true that pinyinization would make it impossible to read the bits of wényán (Classical Chinese) embedded in Mandarin text: as the register increases, the amount of wényán does too. But it would, I think, be possible to use a non-phonemic romanization such as Yuen Ren Chao’s General Chinese or David Prager Banner’s Neutral Transcription (PDF, pp. 17-24) to represent embedded wényán with reasonable clarity, though not perfectly. (Caveat: DPB doubts this would be practical, but I think he underestimates the strength of his own system.)

  20. As I’ve said before, mobile phones are going to make it/are already making it trivially easy to read Chinese characters, be they classical, traditional or simplified.

  21. michael farris says:

    But if the great majority of people are using pinyin to input the characters (and most indications are that that is the case) then most Chinese who use computers/mobile phones are systematically training themselves to read and write pinyin. I’m not sure of any other example of people of using one writing system in order to see another.
    The eventual results might be different from what anyone expects…

  22. I’m not sure of any other example of people of using one writing system in order to see another
    There is, of course, Japanese, which has developed some new romanisation conventions since people started using computers to input its writing.
    Quite different, of course, but thanks to the lack of Cyrillic handsets, young people in Mongolia exclusively use Roman letters to send text messages. And the problem there is that there is not standardisation.

  23. John Emerson says:

    My understanding is that written Ottoman was so Persianized and stylized that it was much like the formal written language of pre-1911 China — meant to be unintelligible not just for the mass but for ordinary literate people. It’s not a question of writing system, dialect, or archaism, but of a highly artificial elite writing system.
    The officialese or mandarin language, or literati language language wasn’t just the classical Chinese of Confucius and Mencius and Chu Xi. That can mostly be read straightforwardly (except for, e.g., alchemy books, some Buddhist and Daoist works, etc.) The Mandarin language assumed familiarity with the classical language and drew words and phrases from it to use as a kind of code, independent of the surface meaning of the words used and intelligible only in the context of the classic from which it was drawn. It was almost like Cockney rhyming slang, or Navajo code-talking, or Norse kennings. But it wasn’t used in literature for effect, but within an elite as a top register of formality.
    It’s a little as if the law courts used “damned spot” as a technical term for guilt.

  24. John Emerson says:

    To clarify, when I wrote “the Mandarin language” I did not mean any form of ordinary spoken northern Mandarin, but the specialized mostly-written language of the literati officials (mandarins) — which was based on an archaic form of Beijing Mandarin, but far from the spoken language.
    For my purposes, “Mandarin” is a very poor name for standard northern spoken Chinese, though most people are unaffected.

  25. It’s not like there’s a better Chinese name for the language, though; everything else is ambiguous or politically charged or both. Běihuà, anybody?

  26. Again, if I remember rightly, Mandarin was not necessarily (or originally) based on Beijing. I’ll try and dig out some sources.

  27. michael farris says:

    “Japanese, which has developed some new romanisation conventions since people started using computers to input its writing”
    I was under the impression that Japanese used a kana input system (the way Taiwanese use bopomofo). AFAIK while Japanese education includes romanization, there’s no one method comparable to pinyin. One person told me she was taught a mishmash of different systems.
    “thanks to the lack of Cyrillic handsets, young people in Mongolia exclusively use Roman letters to send text messages. And the problem there is that there is not standardisation.”
    That’s more like an unofficial unstandardized alternate alphabet for a specific purpose (I’ve seen the same for Bulgarian) not an input method for Cyrillic. And it’s restricted to one medium.
    I was under he impression (correct me if I’m wrong) that most Chinese use pinyin in all electronic media. One question is how long the pinyin lingers on the screen. I use telex to input Vietnamese but never actually see the weird typing sequences like “anh aays laf ngwowif vieetj” for “Anh ấy là người Việt” the transformation is instantaneous.

  28. Bob Violence says:

    I was under the impression that Japanese used a kana input system (the way Taiwanese use bopomofo).
    Kana was historically used for PC input, but these days romanization prevails. The various romanizations used for this purpose are collectively dubbed wāpuro rōmaji. Kana input is more common for cell phones.
    I was under he impression (correct me if I’m wrong) that most Chinese use pinyin in all electronic media. One question is how long the pinyin lingers on the screen.
    A lot of people handwrite characters on iPhones and such, although even in those cases many stick with pinyin. As for how long it “lingers,” every PC pinyin input method editor I’ve used only displays the pinyin in a pop-up box — it doesn’t show up in whatever document you’re typing. The box (and the pinyin along with it) goes away after a corresponding character or character string is selected.

  29. Bathrobe: I wasn’t referring to Beijing (which means “Northern capital”, for those following along at home) specifically, just to the idea of using Beihua in the sense of “Northern language”. Of course, that could equally well mean Mandarin in all its facets, not just the standard varieties.

  30. I’m pretty I know what’s going on here. I’m pretty sure this is due to computers and the internet.
    With the rise of Pinyin based keyboard systems over stroke number/bopomofo systems most young people are extremely literate in Pinyin, much more so than the older generation. Thus, as the new generation grows up, they will be able to substitute pinyin and contextualize it to the full character. Of course, this sounds extremely stupid thing to do for two character phrases like 公安, as without the tone information confusion is bound to happen.
    For instance, when young Chinese speaking people play online games that only allow alphanumeric messages, they become nearly fluent with sentences of just pinyin based on the context. I’ve watched kids play Diablo and Warcraft in internet cafes using only pinyin to communicate. (how else could they be 1337?)

  31. I’m clearly less knowledgeable about this subject than the rest of you all, but based on my brief time living in China 25 years ago, one clear advantage of pinyin is the ease of using a dictionary. Even allowing for my cultural predisposition, looking up something in a Chinese character dictionary is an amazing process. As a puzzle solver I enjoyed it, but I can’t imagine it would ever be as easy whatever one’s background.

  32. John Emerson says:

    A lot of Chinese-character dictionaries are indexed in pinyin. Many Chinese-character dictionaries have more than one index; I believe I’ve seen three.

  33. @John Emerson: Very nice write-up! Indeed, it’s precisely for those reasons why Ottoman is unintelligible for a literate Turkish that an ordinary Qing-era letter is more difficult to read, to a literate Chinese, than what Mencius said in his eponymous treatise.
    The elaborate written language of post-Qin, though, is grammatically just good old Old Chinese, not Old Mandarin or something of that sort.

  34. John Emerson says:

    I might add that some kinds of Persian prose have the sam problems with flowery stylization to the point of unreadability, to the point that one historian (Wassaf)has been translated into Persian in a form leaving out the stylization. Rashid-ad-din, who wrote about the same time, wrote fairly straightforwardly for his Mongol patrons.

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