Zhou Youguang's 112th birthday

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Google Doodle today:

Zhōu Yǒuguāng 周有光 (January 12, 1906-January 13, 2017) died last year on this day.  He would have been 112 years old today.

We have often honored Zhou Youguang as the chief deviser of Hànyǔ Pīnyīn 汉语拼音 / 漢語拼音 ("Sinitic Spelling / Alphabet / Phoneticization"):

"Zhou Youguang, Father of Pinyin" (1/14/14)

"Zhou Youguang, 109 and going strong" (1/13/15)

"Zhou Youguang 1906-2017" (1/14/17)

New reports today:

"Zhou Youguang: Why Google honours him today" (Al Jazeera, 1/13/18)

"Zhou Youguang: Meet the man who developed phonetic Chinese translations:  He was an economics major who was tapped by the Chinese government during a crucial moment of growth" (Independent, 1/13/18)

"Who was Zhou Youguang? Google celebrates linguist who developed Chinese phonetic translation:  Known as ‘the Father of Pinyin,’ Youguang spent three years developing the system of ‘spelled sounds’ that is now the international standard for Romanised Chinese" (Mirror, 1/13/18)

In the last two headlines, calling Hanyu Pinyin "phonetic Chinese translations" or "Chinese phonetic translation" is misguided.  I don't even know what those expressions mean.  It is also very common to refer to Hanyu Pinyin as the "transliteration" of Chinese characters, but I think that is also mistaken; since Chinese characters are not letters, you cannot transliterate them into Roman / Latin letters.  Properly speaking, Hanyu Pinyin is a system for transcribing the sounds of Chinese characters in the Roman / Latin alphabet.  That is to say, it is a type of "transcription" for recording the sounds of Chinese characters with a special version of the Roman / Latin alphabet.

For those who are curious about the Chinese character transcription of "Google", it is 谷歌, which literally means "valley song".  It is transcribed in Hanyu Pinyin as "Gǔgē".  For me, it is a highly evocative expression, especially with regard to Zhou Youguang, because it makes me think of the phrase kōnggǔ zúyīn 空谷足音" ("the sound of footsteps in a deserted valley"), someone you unexpectedly meet who is walking the same path with you.  In simpler terms, Zhou Youguang was my zhīyīn 知音 (lit., "[someone who" knows / understands / appreciates the sound [of my heart]"


  1. Colin McLarty said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 9:33 am

    Good to put person's name on the finest phonetic spelling system ever for a specific language. Of course he drew on a lot of others, including Yuen Ren Chao. Do you have ideas for how to get media to use the diacritics?

  2. jhholland said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 11:37 am

    I follow your critique of "transliteration." Why not use "romanization"?

  3. Victor Mair said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 12:32 pm

    The early drafts of the Google Doodle at the bottom of this page are interesting:


  4. cliff arroyo said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 12:55 pm

    I think pinyin is a lot more than 'transcription' it, at least in the full form, seems very close to an orthography. Pinyin (as far as I can tell) seems to represent a generalized ideal version of Mandarin and not a specific dialect thereof (like Beijingese) or pronunciation tied to a specific place.

  5. Ellen Kozisek said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 2:10 pm

    I don't think romanization is the right word. Though it is a romanization, what we are talking about his more general. It's putting it into a writing system that is much more directly and straightforwardly phonetic than Chinese characters.

  6. Linda said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 4:37 pm

    Here in the UK we have a different doodle, the African Nations Championship. Given that neither has a UK connection I wonder how google decided which one we'd get.

  7. Thomas Rees said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 6:43 pm

    Apparently the African Nations Championship doodle only appears in Kenya, Morocco, Britain, Ireland, and Iceland. (!!!?)

  8. Tim Leonard said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 8:53 pm

    Wouldn't it be better to say that Pinyin is for transcribing the sounds of Mandarin (or several Chinese languages), rather than the sounds of Chinese characters, to avoid conflating the traditional writing system with the language(s)?

  9. Filter Fodder said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 1:27 am

    > finest phonetic spelling

    Slightly tangential, but does anyone know where I can find the whole story about why (if I understand correctly) Pinyin is not quite phonemic in some cases? Why does jiu rhyme with you, wen rhyme with dun, bo rhyme with shuo etc? I understand that Pinyin was based on other romanizations, so I imagine that certain compromises had to be made, but is that the whole story?

  10. Andreas Johansson said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 4:20 am

    @Filter Fodder

    My impression is that what "should" be **jiou, **duen, **buo are shortened to jiu, dun, bo simply because it saves letters and doesn't create ambiguity. But I too would be interested in a deeper explanation, if there is one.

  11. B.Ma said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 6:24 am

    @Colin McLarty, English media barely use the correct diacritics even in closely related languages like German, and it could be argued that removing diacritics is correct English or just a style guide choice.

    @Tim Leonard, I would use "pinyin" as the generic term for transcribing / spelling the sounds of any language; after all the full name is Hanyu Pinyin. If describing a transcription for a Chinese language other than Mandarin, I would prefer to use the transcription of 拼音 in that language/transcription system rather than "Pinyin".

    I find that many English-speaking learners of Mandarin have the misconception that Pinyin was devised to "make Chinese easier for foreigners to learn". This leads to complaints that the sounds do not match up with English sounds. I wonder if (for example) Germans learning Mandarin ever complain that Pinyin does not match German sounds? I am also interested to know whether Japanese learners of Mandarin use Pinyin as an aid, or just use katakana.

  12. ~flow said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 8:10 am

    @Filter Fodder – one answer is that there is not a single true phonemic analysis for a given language; Chao Yuen Ren wrote about this in his 1934 piece, On the Non-uniqueness of Phonemic Solutions. For example, in Mandarin 'wang' patterns with 'tang' and 'guang', but since 'wen' patterns with both 'gen' and 'gun', and 'gun' can be understood as being both/either CVC (like 'gan') and/or CGVC (like 'guan'), it is likewise not clear whether 'wen' belongs into the CVC ('gan'), the GVC ('wan'), or the VC ('an', 'en') pattern group (NB 'G' signifies a glide here, and the choice of representing '-n' as a consonant is questionable but convenient).

    My favorite solution to this is to say that 'wen' is structurally underspecified and belongs to more than one group at the same time. But regardless whether you embrace unique or non-unique solutions, and regardless whether you use one, two, or three symbols to represent the labio-velar [u…w] in its different roles, you always end up with strings of letters that reveal some relationships and obscure others.

    In pinyin, we write 'an', 'gan', and 'wan' to highlight that zero, 'g-' and 'w-' are in syllable-initial positions, and we write 'guan' to highlight that the labio-velar vowel/glide is in medial position. But by doing that, we also downplay that what comes after the initial in 'guan' is, as far as patterns go, exactly the same as 'wan'. Now this could be remedied by writing *'gwan' for 'guan' (and this is often done in Korean romaizations), but then what do you do with 'gun'? *'gwen' would be one solution, but *'gwen' hides the connection to 'gu' (since 'gun' = 'gu' + 'en', if you will). So then we should write *'gwuen', perhaps. Which is not only a jumble of letters, but *'gwuen', in turn, obscures the observation that 'gun' also acts very much like 'gan' and 'gen' (i.e. syllables of low complexities, with few ingredients).

    Turns out you can't both have your orthographic cake and eat it, you're bound to make some choices. Given that an orthography has to serve many purposes, going after short and memorable strings of letters is probably not the worst choice.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 9:35 am


    "I am also interested to know whether Japanese learners of Mandarin use Pinyin as an aid, or just use katakana."

    When I was living in Japan about twenty years ago, I bought many Mandarin instructional materials, for both beginning and advanced levels, that used Hanyu Pinyin to indicate pronunciation. I still have whole shelves full of these books in my office today.

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