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Content created: 2004-12-27
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Pet Peeve About Tone Marks

What's Romanization?

The term "Romanization" in the context of Chinese refers to the use of the Roman (Latin) alphabet to represent the sounds of spoken Chinese. Speakers of languages written with Latin letters have been representing the sounds of Chinese words ever since their first contact with China, and many systems have been devised to map the sounds of one or another variant of Chinese onto Roman letters. Some of the words, like Tao, ketchup, and kungfu, have become English words in their own right.

Romanized spellings vary by the kind of Chinese being represented, and by the way in which the person devising the spelling imagines Roman letters to be appropriately used. For example, the particular spellings devised by Portuguese sailors to represent names of south Chinese ports in the XVIIth century obviously do not reflect the same sense of how letters are used that we see in spellings devised by English missionaries for the inland dialects of Chinese they encountered in the XIXth century.

Besides Roman spellings, languages that use other alphabetical systems also have conventions for representing Chinese. Chinese can be represented in Arabic script, in Devanagari script, in Cyrillic script, in Hebrew script, and so on.

When it is merely a matter of representing a word or two in a non-Chinese language (the name of the city of Běijīng, for example), it makes little difference how it is spelled. However for more general purposes, it is desirable to have a SYSTEM of Romanization well enough thought out that spoken Chinese can be produced when the Latin-letter version is read out loud. The need for truly accurate Romanization is most obvious in dictionaries and textbooks, but also matters if ambiguity is to be avoided in many other contexts. Multiple spellings for the same city, for example, raise a question of whether they all refer to the same place.

How accurate is Romanization?

In principle, any alphabet can be modified or redefined to represent any spoken language, and Romanized Chinese is by definition perfectly clear to the extent that it includes the distinctive features of spoken Chinese.

The system that is in nearly universal use for Chinese today is called Hànyǔ Pīnyīn 汉语拼音, or simply Pīnyīn, and it represents a slight variant on the dialects of Běijīng city that has been established as a Chinese national spoken standard and given the name "common speech" or Pǔtōnghuà 普通话.

Unfortunately, some features of spoken Chinese are not found in Western languages, and the modifications to a Roman alphabet necessary to represent them are found unnecessary or confusing by Western writers and readers unfamiliar with Chinese. (That is true of nearly all languages using the Roman alphabet. Why would someone who doesn't know a language expect its accurate written representation to be intelligible without study?)

What's the big deal about tone?

The most frequent problem is "tone," the system of pitch contours that distinguish Chinese syllables from each other, much as consonants or vowels do. In Pinyin the four tones of official Pǔtōnghuà Mandarin are represented by diacritics (accent marks) over vowels.

Spoken language has enough redundancy that it can usually be understood even when badly pronounced, and Mandarin is no exception; like most languages, it is reasonably intelligible even when it is "mushy." (Indeed there is enough variation among Mandarin dialects that the majority of Mandarin speakers find the majority of other Mandarin speakers mushy-mouthed.)

Romanized Mandarin can often be reasonably intelligible even when some distinctions are obscured by the omission of the tone marks. This is because there is often sufficient redundancy in full sentences to offset the loss of information. For example, lǐmào 礼貌 means "manners," but límāo 狸猫 means "leopard." Leaving out the tone marks makes them identical ("limao"), but it is hard to imagine a context in which there would be confusion.

In other cases, tones are critical, and leaving them out makes it impossible to interpret the text with certainty. Some examples:

Even marking tones does not always create perfect clarity. While lǐmào means courtesy when it is written 礼貌, it refers to a formal hat when written 礼帽. Saying somebody has a lot of lǐmào is just plain ambiguous, even in perfect Romanization, just as it is in spoken language. Lièmǎ refers to a "spirited horse" when it is written 烈马, but to a "bad" horse (vicious or broken down) when written 劣马. To say that an animal is a lièmǎ is to leave room for misinterpretation.

Competent speakers provide adequate context to avoid confusion (or to create it if they are making puns). Incompetent Romanizers typically allow the confusion to prevail and ignore the problem.

What do publishers do?

It is conventional in English to leave out all indication of tone in Romanized Chinese. Since diacritical marks are not used in English, English editors, not used to including them, find them a nuisance. And English speakers, not used to observing tone distinctions in speech, find them confusing in Chinese words portmaneaued into English.

Unfortunately leaving out the tone marks tends to make all Chinese terms look more similar than they really are. ("All Chinese have the same name," exclaimed one Bengali student in despair.)

Example of Victimized Student. I once had a student submit a termpaper on the concept of "bao" in Chinese. He thought he was writing about the importance of bǎo (guarantees, keeping one's word) in traditional Chinese commerce, but he depended heavily on an article that talked about the importance of bào (retribution) as a fundamental idea in Chinese philosophy. The author of that article never revealed the tone or character he was talking about. The student assumed the two words were identical, and wrote a most curious term paper.

Finally, leaving tone marks out means that English speakers trying to learn Chinese are unable to transfer learning between their language courses and their courses on Chinese culture; in effect, it represents senior scholars trying to hold back junior scholars.

However there appear to be other issues involved.

Isn't it ethnocentric to distort Chinese on purpose?

Even among scholars of China, one finds what can only be interpreted as ethnocentric —even racist— attitudes expressed on the subject of the representation of Chinese in Roman letters. Here are some comments I have heard:

Many Chinese have probably picked up these attitudes toward their own language as a kind of secondary ethnocentrism. However in their case we also have a complementary and opposite sent of attitudes, this time about the inherent inferiority of Roman letters. Here are some statements I have heard from Chinese academics over the years:

The last sentiment is so powerful and pervasive that I know of one editor who removed all diacritics from a French reference in one of my articles lest the French text be misinterpreted as including tone marks and reflect negatively upon the publishing house.

Bottom Line

On this web site tone marks are provided for all Romanized Chinese.

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