I just heard a radio news announcer say “In Beijing… uh, Beizhing…” My wife gets nervous when I swear at the radio, so I’ll say it here: there is no /zh/ sound in Mandarin Chinese! Why on earth do people insist on looking at a pinyin j, which is pronounced pretty much exactly like an English j, and reading it as if it were French? Stop it, all of you, just stop it!
This has been a public service announcement, brought to you by Hatters for Better Language Use.


  1. For English-speakers, French and Spanish are the prototypical ‘Foreignese’.

  2. And I noticed the French don’t pronounce the last s in Paris. Oh no! 😉

  3. Maybe it’s also got to do something with the spelling switch from Peking to Beijing. People might realize that apparently they were doing something wrong when pronouncing is ‘Peking’, even so badly that the Chinese came up with a completely different spelling. So they hypercorrect and switch to foreignese. Just my theory (which is mine).

  4. Apparently any attempt at a serious comment is flagged by the over-zealous spam filter. I give up.

  5. I’ve heard /Zh/apan from the NPR announcers as well.
    A) there’s no /zh/ sound in japanese, either
    B) “Japan” isn’t even a Japanese word!
    So, keep fighting the good fight. 🙂

  6. Worse, there IS a “zh” romanization, and it’s to be distinguished than “j”. But it’s an allophone, so maybe that’s where the confusion comes from — defective mastery of pinyin.

  7. This phenomenon is discussed in Richard Janda et al.’s “Systematic Hyperforeignisms as Maximally External Evidence for Linguistic Rules” (In: The Reality of Linguistic Rules, Susan D. Lima et al., eds. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1994). American English speakers often approximate foreign terms on a hyper-French model with lots of /ʒ/:
    “Thus, e.g., a common American English pronunciation of “Beijing” is hyper-French/pseudo-Mandarin [beɪʒɪŋ], where real Mandarin has a voiceless unaspirated affricate which usually strikes English ears as closer to English /j/ than English /ʒ/.” (p. 80)

  8. Paul: Sorry about the spam filter; if you need the word “spec1alist,” just write it with a 1 as I did.

  9. Ah, spec1alist does indeed contain the banned word. I thought filtering technology had moved on since Scunthorpe was a dirty word, but apparently not at Six Apart.
    Here’s my attempted comment from earlier:
    This is why we should have stuck to calling it Peking – it may have been different to what the locals call it, but at least everyone knew how to pronounce it. Using Beijing just shows the folly of trying to impose vocabulary from the top down: no matter how hard you try, people will always pronounce furrin words however they like, and it won’t be the way you wanted them to.
    Although Beijing‘s pronunciation is straightforward compared to some of the more off-the-wall pinyin orthographic conventions, I think that the j/zh distinction complicates matters for the non-spec1alist: if Shenzhen is shen jen, then it’s reasonable to assume that j must be pronounced differently. And, indeed, j and zh are different, but not in a way that’s readily apparent to average non-Chinese-speakers, who pull another alternative pronunciation of j out of their hats.
    I’m just glad that I haven’t heard anyone call it Beihing … yet.

  10. Heh. And you have a point about the zh/j confusion; that hadn’t even occurred to me, steeped as I am in pinyin (though I wish I weren’t). But I’m pretty sure General Foreign is the main culprit.
    Congratulations on navigating the shoals of spam deterrent!

  11. See, even Peking would invite the “Pee-king” vs. “Pay-king” debate (the former being more common for native English speakers but the latter a closer approximation of the original pronunciation, which, I believe, comes from one of the Wu dialects. I think we should chuck it all and just go with “Khanbaliq.”

  12. Yeah, I have frequently heard the “j/zh confusion” theory, but I really doubt that’s the culprit. It’s almost certainly the “forreignese” phenomenon.

  13. Yes, it was definitely Frenchification by default. Once TV news got hold of that pronunciation (at least by the 1989 Tiananmen coverage and probably much earlier) it became the standard. It’s always a grating reminder of how they have been talking to each other rather then to Chinese.
    The best American representation of Mandarin’s retroflex zh, ch, sh would be jr, chr, shr. I believe Yale romanization uses these at least when not followed by a vowel. I think Mandarin j, q, x are also (less noticeably) different from English j, ch, sh in that the tongue contacts the palate a little farther back; but unlike Mandarin zh, ch, sh, the front of the tongue is flat against the palate.
    Another irritating default is Spanish or Italian-style stress on the penultimate syllable. This often makes hash of Japanese words that are stressed differently, especially when English speakers stress an i or u that is devoiced in Japanese.

  14. I, too, actually find the systematic hyperforeignism hypothesis more credible than my own. Do Janda et al. discuss stress patterns? As caffeind noted, they seem to exhibit a similar pattern.
    Although one could start a debate on ‘pee king’ versus ‘pay king’ in English, there really wasn’t any question: the former pronunciation was well-established in English, just as a sibilant Paris is. I suspect that in a decade or two, we won’t be having this discussion, either: the pronunciation of Beijing will have stabilised – as, I fear, the ‘French’ pronunciation. Perhaps ironically, that’s nowhere to be found in France: they still call it Pékin.

  15. > See, even Peking would invite the “Pee-king” vs. “Pay-king”
    > debate (the former being more common for native English
    > speakers but the latter a closer approximation of the original
    > pronunciation, which, I believe, comes from one of the Wu
    > dialects. I think we should chuck it all and just go with
    > “Khanbaliq.”
    Actually, Peking comes from the Cantonese name “Bak [mandarin ‘bei’] Ging [mandarin ‘jing’]” and the B in cantonese is unvoiced, making it sound like a P. So they say “Pah-king” quickly, which then morphs into the English Peking. The chinese didn’t change the spelling because Americans couldn’t pronounce it—they did it so that it would be the mandarin pronunciation, China’s official dialect.

  16. By the way, the choice of j in the Wade-Giles romanization (corresponding to Pinyin r) is based on French j. Comparing French “je” with Mandarin “re”, the difference is more tongue-curling in the latter.

  17. Not much of a mystery. Beijing is an English-language word. Just why shouldn’t we pronounce the midword, inter-vowel j the same way we pronounce every other midword, inter-vowel j in the English language? Swearing – swearing! – at the normal English pronunciation in favor of a pinyin pronunciation would shade closer to hyperforeignism in my mind (akin to the newscasters’ over-enunciated “Nee-kar-agggh-wa” for Nicaragua).
    In fact, on a hunch, I googled and found the above phonetic spelling in the 10/20/02 Languagehat entry, “You say Himaahlya, I say Himalaya.”
    Is there a qualitative difference that I’m missing? We’re just talking pet peeve here, right?

  18. Mark, the point is that the j Beijing is being pronounced [ʒ] as in French, not as [dʒ] like almost every other inter-vowel j in English (Cajun, Fiji, major, Trojan, ajar, cajole, eject, hijack, rejoice etc.).
    While we’re talking pet peeves, however, I’d like to nominate one of mine: harry-carry for hara-kiri.

  19. I discussed this in some detail here,
    with follow-up on the various names for Beijing here.

  20. The zh/j distiction is more or less found in the vowel that follows (although there are very few syllables in Mandarin where the same vowel follows zh and j – zhi/ji, zhao/jiao, zhu/ju, jiong/zhong, zhun/jun are the only ones I can think of). When the i follows, the zhi sounds like “ger” in German, where as ji sounds like “gee” but with the lips pursed far apart. The only other big difference is zhu/ju, where zhu sounds like English “Jew” and the u in ju has the vowel sound of the umlaut u (like Wo quguo beijing – I went to Beijing).
    The jing is Beijing, because of the pursed lips, sounds more like “jeeng” than “jing”, although, as noted, it sounds nothing the French /zh/.

  21. Actually, Peking comes from the Cantonese name “Bak [mandarin ‘bei’] Ging [mandarin ‘jing’]”
    Actually, I don’t think it does. I’d dearly love to find a truly authoritative source for the detailed etymology of Chinese place names (“a southern dialect,” say, isn’t very satisfying), but the Wikipedia article for Beijing says:
    “An older Western name for Beijing is Peking. The term originated with French missionaries four hundred years ago, and corresponds to an older, now obsolete pronunciation predating a subsequent sound change in Mandarin from [kʲ] to [tɕ]. ([tɕ] is represented in pinyin as j, as in Beijing.)”
    Unless you have reason to believe that isn’t true, it sounds pretty plausible to me. I don’t find a putative representation of Bak- as Pe- very convincing.

  22. You guys mean Peiping, right?
    I’m no specia1ist but I’ve always assumed this pronunciation came from either the (hoped-for) similarity to a well-known word (beige) or the relative ease for a mundfaul speaker to glide through a zh than to fully stop for a dj. If it’s Bayjing versus Beigeing Beigeing will win, for most Jankees, on both counts, ease and familiarity. Perhaps if we could just go with Baidging everyone would be happy.

  23. Ian Myles Slater says

    There were a couple of relevant pieces on Language Log in March 2004, including a history of the names of the city, and their competing Romanized spellings, with Chinese characters and etymologies.
    It suggests that the standardization of “Peking” in English is due to nineteenth-century (British) Post Office usage, and reflects the Cantonese heard in Hong Kong in the nineteenth century. The discussion allows that an existing older representation of archaic Mandarin may have contributed to its acceptance.
    It should be noted that other nineteenth century systems, such as those used by James Legge at various times, included distinctions between roman and italic ‘k’ (and ‘kh’) in some situations, a practice which tended to get lost in quotations; another source of confusion.

  24. I think the historical root of this problem is that contemporary romanizations of Chinese are the latest iterations of a tradition that began with the Portuguese Jesuits and was perpetuated by the French. In my opinion, the sound systems they were dealing with are different enough that these original romanizers (understandably) didn’t do a terribly good initial job of a) hearing distinct Chinese phonemes correctly and b) consistently transcribing them. Then English speakers started reading these romanizations — which were produced using the Latin alphabet in the context of French, Portuguese, and Latin — with an “English” accent, and things really got messy.
    The mystique/fallacy of Chinese as an “inscrutable” language that is somehow much more foreign than other languages hasn’t helped things either. “Beijing” is very easy for a native speaker of English to pronounce correctly, tones and all. But it makes people so very anxious to try.

  25. Would you call it “hyperforeignization” if they mispronounced the “ei” – say, like it’s pronounced in “height” or in “weird”?
    In English, an intervocalic j/dzh sound is usually spelled “dj” (as in “adjunct”) or “dg” (as in “fudgy”); so it’s really not surprising that English-speakers wouldn’t know how to pronounce “eiji” in a supposed English transliteration. (Granted, intervocalic zh is usually spelled “s” or “g”, not “j”, but not-being-certain-it’s-zh doesn’t equate to being-certain-it’s-dzh.)
    (Incidentally, it makes sense that English-speakers would fall back on Western European languages for pronouncing foreign names, since our translation schemes are based as much on those languages as on English; why do we write “kanji”, for example, instead of “konjee” or “kawnjea” or “conjie”?)

  26. Cryptic Ned says

    Ran’s comment makes a lot of sense. Maybe Beijing shouldn’t be spelled the same in every European language; it should be “Baydjing” in English, and “Beedsching” in German, and “Beidjing” in French, and so on.
    I’m just glad that I haven’t heard anyone call it Beihing … yet.
    Not yet. For some reason every American soccer fan I know pronounces “Juventus” as “Huventus”. Now, I have no idea how to pronounce “Juventus”, but I’m pretty sure that’s not right.

  27. For some reason every American soccer fan I know pronounces “Juventus” as “Huventus”. Now, I have no idea how to pronounce “Juventus”, but I’m pretty sure that’s not right.
    It’s an Italian club, and the name is from Latin; based on that you can probably work it out.
    I also (continuing on a vaguely related topic) find it slightly strange that FC Bayern München is known in English as Bayern Munich, which seems to be neither one thing nor the other. Admittedly, Bavaria Munich would sound particularly ungainly, but I’m not quite sure why they don’t just leave it in the original form. Actually, forget that: I shudder to think what English football fans would make of München.

  28. When they changed the spelling, do you suppose that they were aware of the Glaswegian expression “By Jings” which expresses astonishment?

  29. It’s not surprising that more geographically and linguistically challenged English speakers can’t guess the value of the letter j in other alphabets. In Portuguese, Turkish and Romanian, it is [ʒ] as in French. In Central and Eastern Europe, it’s [j] as in German. In many African, Asian and Pacific, and Native American languages with English-based romanizations, it’s [dʒ] as in English. And in Maya etc. it’s [x] as in Spanish.
    I’m not complaining they don’t guess it right the first time, and don’t think it’s harder for Chinese (pinyin) than for other languages. The history of romanizations of Chinese is no worse than the history of other languages’ Roman alphabets. But I do think the failure to correct the pronunciation of Beijing for decades says something.
    As for pronouncing “ei” as /aj/, that would be hyperGermanization, and I’ve heard it more than once. (not for “Beijing”)

  30. What, no one’s mentioned Taj Mahal?

  31. The /ʒ/ thing often happens to Arabic words with “j” too, like hajj(i), jihad, mujahidin, etc. One wonders if the hadj(i) spelling was intended to keep people from using /ʒ/.

  32. Seems more likely that the “dj” spelling comes from French. Isn’t it often accompanied by “ou” for /u/ or /w/?

  33. Haha. If English speakers were to pronounce “Beijing” with the first tone on “bei” with a “j” it would sound like ?? ?”sorrowful capital” ) or ?? (“inferior capital”).
    Btw, why is Augusto Pinochet’s name pronounced as “Pinoshey”?

  34. dj comes from French, Dutch, or maybe even Croatian, and may be retained in English for the same purpose of distinguishing dʒ from ʒ. Actually, Arabic dialects vary in their treatment of ج, with the French-colonized areas more likely to realized it as ʒ. Most other areas pronounce it dʒ, except for Egypt/Sudan and parts of Yemen.

  35. What’s particularly frustrating about this “hyperforeignization” is that the English name for the city is not Beizhing, but Peking. We changed to Beijing at the request of the Chinese government, and were taught that we were cultural imperialists if we hung on to the old pronunciation. The new pronunciation is more correct dammit!
    Well, it’s only more correct if you pronounce it right.

  36. Oops, forgot about the link stripping. I was of course linking to

  37. Strangely enough, I sometimes hear my Chinese friends–who pronounce the word properly when speaking Chinese–use the ‘Frenchified’ pronunciation of Beijing when speaking English. Either that or my brain is playing tricks on me.
    Also, someone mentioned Shenzhen. Here in Guangdong, I often here that one pronounced by local speakers as Shenzen. I live on the outskirts of Guangzhou, which is often pronounced Guangzou. And let’s not even get into the way they pronounce ‘sh’ here. Scandalous.

  38. In Taiwan they couldn’t pronounce sh and zh either — I quickly got used to hearing “Semma suo?” and “Zeli.”

  39. IndigoJones says

    Why on earth do people insist on looking at a pinyin j, which is pronounced pretty much exactly like an English j, and reading it as if it were French?
    Ignorance, sir, pure ignorance.

  40. “Why on earth do people insist on looking at a pinyin j, which is pronounced pretty much exactly like an English j, and reading it as if it were French?”
    Exactly. Which 80s teenybopper ever had a problem with the pronunciation of “Kajagoogoo”?

  41. J. Reinhardt says

    Phonaesthetically, /zh/ is exotic and foreign-sounding (e.g. ‘azure’, ‘pleasure’, ‘Taj Mahal’, ‘Hajj’)–sounds like orientalism to me. What’s more annoying than twisted renderings of foreign place names (personal peeve: “My woman from To-kay-o”) are those pretentious polyglots who insist on ‘properly’ pronouncing foreign words by trilling their uvulas, curling their tongues, coughing up hairballs, or pursing their lips ever so pompously (e.g. ‘Van Gogh’ or ‘Jean-Paul Sartre’). Just say it, for god’s sake, and quit showing off.

  42. You’ll be wanting to read Grant Hutchinson’s rant on the subject, linked here.

  43. Beijing replaced Peking (Peiching) which replaced Peiping (pron. “peeping” in English) which replaced Yenching which replaced …. …. …. which replaced Chungtu. The Chinese change the names of their major cities, especially their capital cities, all the time — sometimes with a regime change, sometimes just to get better luck.

  44. Oh, I’ve spent loads of time educating people on this one, all to no avail.
    Incidentally, re “(although there are very few syllables in Mandarin where the same vowel follows zh and j – zhi/ji, zhao/jiao, zhu/ju, jiong/zhong, zhun/jun are the only ones I can think of)” — t
    — they’re different vowels; the /u/ following a j, x, q, or y is actually an ü, while in “zhun,” etc. it’s promounced more like English ‘wu.’
    I must confess to having a soft spot for the Yale romanization system, if only because it does a somewhat better job of explaining the sound indicated in Pinyin as /x/.

  45. “Exactly. Which 80s teenybopper ever had a problem with the pronunciation of “Kajagoogoo”?”
    ¿ Kayahoohoo?

  46. Huh… I’m not sure what the /zh/ sounds like, but for the dicussion, I’m presuming here it goes like “pleasure” and “Taj”. Here in Brazil, that J sound is not only very common but is also one of the most important parts of the pronunciation. Imagine really common proper names João, Joana, José, Joaquim (among many others) and real daily words like “joelho” (knee), “jantar” (dinner), “cujo” (which – in a certain sense), “hoje” (today), “jato” (jet), “sujo” (dirty), “feijão” (beans)…
    To make things worse, the G also sound the exact same when in front of E and I. Imagine how common it is in usage… “Viagem” (trip), “Rogério” (proper name, like Roger), “ginástica” (gymnastics/exercising), “fingir” (to fake), “agir” (to act), “agenda” (notebook)…
    Try googling any of these.
    And also guess the confusion the two letters make, mostly when we consider the X and CH may have a similar sound too, the “sh” (like lixo, caixa, baixo, xarope, puxa; chamar, chuveiro, cachimbo, acho, cheio, fecho, chicletes…).
    Uneducated people mix all those all the time, and many educated ones too.
    I came to this page looking for the right pronunciation of “Beijing” and wanted to leave this contribution. Thanks!

  47. So, the question is: should we pronounce the English word “Beijing” like “Beizhing”, if the J sound is more familiar to us?
    The name in Portuguese is still Pequim, following the old name.
    And I find it really weird that English misses this /zh/ sound and that all Js sound like DJ… So why not write “ajective”? 😉

  48. Re” Peiking (“Northern Capital”) More often throughout history the city has been called “Peiking” (maybe “Peiping”). Beijing is the “political correctness” form used by the present occupiers. It is a revival of a form of the name that was used briefly during the Ming priod in the 1500’s.
    If I had to choose an exotic name for the city however I would prefer to call it “Kanbalu” the old Mongol name for it and the one also used by Marco Polo.

  49. LL Wandell says

    To Hatters for Better Language Use:
    Re: Beijing…Finally! Someone pointed out what I, too, have been saying at (rather than to)newscasters all these years…it’s “jing” as in “jingle,” not “j” as in the French or other European “j’s.”
    Now, can someone get them to correctly pronounce Iraq and Iran? There must be a way to educate newscasters (and politicans).
    ringing at the ears…March 2, 2006

  50. “Peking” is the centuries old English name for the capital of China. Calling Peking “Beijing” because that is the way the Chinese pronounce the name of their capital city is as pretentious as pronouncing “Paris” “paree'” or “Spain” “espanya.” The change from “Peking” to “Beijing” began as one of those absurd affectations intellectuals fall for. Now it’s just standard. I suppose there is no point in fighting it.

  51. I quite agree with you, but what can the two of us do against a world of people eager to follow the latest fashion?

Speak Your Mind