Beijing once again

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What with the Olympics being in 北京, reporters are pronouncing it in various ways and the question of how to pronounce it is in the news again. Our local paper has an AP article by David Bauder which, Google reveals, is being carried all over the place. Here's one version.

The article is right about the correct pronounciation: [beʤɪŋ] (using the voiced symbols for what are, strictly speaking, voiceless unaspirated consonants); bayjing would be a pretty good English folk spelling. It also gives the correct explanation for the common mispronounciation [bejʒɪŋ], where the <j> is pronounced like the <s> of measure, namely that the sound [ʒ] is somewhat exotic in English, which I explained here four years ago. The article mistakenly asserts that the sound [ʒ] does not occur in English. It is indeed found in English, not only in measure but in such words as azure, pleasure, leisure, and treasure. What is true is that all of the words in which it occurs are loans from French, so the sound apparently has an exotic flavor even though it has existed in English for centuries.

The AP article also addresses the related question of why Beijing used to be called Peking. Although I explained this in some detail in this post, the AP article doesn't get this quite right. It explains that:

It officially changed in 1949, when the new Communist government adopted the pinyin transliteration method for proper names…

This oversimplifies the matter and falsely suggests that Peking and Beijing are different renderings of the same Chinese form in different systems of transliteration, which is not the case: they are different renderings of different Chinese forms. Moreover, the chronology is wrong. pinyin was first promulgated within China in 1958; it became an international standard (ISO-7098:1991) in 1979.



47 Comments

  1. Bruce Rusk said,

    August 16, 2008 @ 4:34 pm

    I'm confused about your last point ("different renderings of different Chinese forms"). I have always considered Peking and Beijing to be different Romanizations of the same Chinese term (北京) though the city's name did change when it became the PRC capital. Your 2004 post seems to get this right.

  2. doviende said,

    August 16, 2008 @ 4:47 pm

    I found it curious that the article would say things like "mispronunciation is misinformation" but they make no mention of the tones of the chinese language. There's a fairly common word 背景 (bei4jing3) meaning "background", while 北京 is pronounced bei3jing1. When listening to english news, i hear them say something like "bei1jing4" a lot, which is neither of these words. luckily this last one doesn't match any word that i can find. Nor is there such a word as "bei2jing4" since it seems that there is no common character with pronunciation "bei2".

    Anyway, my point is that tones are such an important part of chinese pronunciation, so if these people are going to put so much importance on pronouncing the word like they do in china then they should be discussing tones as well. Otherwise, whatever mangled way the english-speakers come up with is probably "close enough" and we shouldn't worry.

  3. Robert Morris said,

    August 16, 2008 @ 5:00 pm

    Could the [beʤɪŋ] -> [bejʒɪŋ] phenomenon be explained by the sound pattern of English? The latter, though incorrect, seems much easier for me to say, perhaps because it seems awkward to have an affricate start an accented, non-word-initial syllable. (There could, of course, be something larger going on here, but this seems like a good first guess.)

    For example, English "major" would be perfectly pronounceable with accent on the second syllable (ma-JOR), but it doesn't seem quite like English. Not that switching the pronunciation of "j" to the predominantly French [ʒ] makes it seem more "English," but it sure is a lot easier to pronounce, or at least seems to fit in better with typical English sound patterns. Then again, English "mature" is also accented on the second syllable, so maybe it's something about whether the afficate's stop consonant is voiced or not.

    Or maybe I'm just totally wrong. :)

  4. Patrick King said,

    August 16, 2008 @ 5:00 pm

    I prefer Peking. Radio Canada still uses Pékin.

    P.King

  5. Bill Poser said,

    August 16, 2008 @ 5:48 pm

    @Bruce,

    I struggled a bit with how to put this briefly and didn't entirely succeed. What I mean is this. Beijing and Peking are both representations in Roman letters of the city name normally written 北京. If we use the term "transliteration" in its broadest sense, we can say that both are transliterations of the same Chinese spelling. However, they are not transliterations of the same form if we use form to refer to a particular phonological form in a particular language: Beijing is the pinyin transliteration of the current pronunciation of the usual Mandarin name for the city, while Peking is the Chinese Postal romanization, which is based on the name of the city in a different variety of Chinese, probably Cantonese, though possibly an early form of Mandarin.

    What I want to get at is that the difference between Peking and Beijing is not simply a difference in the rules used to transcribe Chinese pronunciation in Roman letters but involves also different starting points. Contrast this with the two romanizations of 毛澤東 (simplified: 毛泽东). The usual romanization is Mao Tse Tung, which is the Wade-Giles romanization without diacritics. The current official romanization is Máo Zédōng, which is the pinyin romanization (in this case, with tones) of the same form. The difference between the two spellings of Chairman Mao's name is purely a matter of choice of transliteration system, whereas the difference between the two spellings of Beijing involves both a difference in transliteration system and a difference in the phonological form transliterated.

  6. Bill Poser said,

    August 16, 2008 @ 5:52 pm

    @Doviende,

    Your point is well taken. I think that the neglect of tone is due to the fact that for speakers of English it is just terribly foreign and that learning to perceive and produce the tonal distinctions of Chinese would take a considerable investment of time and energy, which for broadcasters is just not worth the effort.

    Notice that the point at issue here is the choice between pronunciations both of which are easily produced by monolingual English speakers: broadcasters need not learn any foreign sounds at all in order to produce an affricate rather than a fricative in Beijing.

  7. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    August 16, 2008 @ 6:06 pm

    > What is true is that all of the words in which it occurs are loans from French, so the sound apparently has an exotic flavor even though it has existed in English for centuries.

    "All" might be too strong a word. The OED gives "fusion", "aspersion", and various others as coming directly from Latin. (Perhaps the <sion>-[ʒən] correspondence in these is by analogy with the ones that do come from French — I don't know — but that's not quite the same claim.)

    Further, I don't think the sound has an exotic flavor in these words, or even in words like the more obvious French loanword "beige"; I think it has an exotic flavor in contexts where English doesn't generally have it, such as in the onsets of stressed syllables. (Compare the exotic-sounding African names that start with syllabic [m], [n], and [ŋ]. English has these sounds, and [n] is even syllabic for many speakers in words like "bitten", but in English they're never syllabic at the start of a word.)

    Lastly, I'm surprised by the unequivocal claim that [bejʒɪŋ] is a mispronunciation. In my part of Ohio I think it's the more common pronunciation, and [beʤɪŋ] sounds a bit pedantic to my ear. I definitely consider [bejʒɪŋ] standard, and am not sure whether [beʤɪŋ] is as well. (Is etymology destiny?)

  8. DonBoy said,

    August 16, 2008 @ 6:07 pm

    Here's an odd parallel: the fictional planet Bajor, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, is also pronounced in both ways. (Wikipedia gives it with both IPA forms here.) I can hardly argue that that's an influential instance, but it suggests some form of systematic connection between the forms (or the Beijing confusion affected Bajor, I guess).

  9. Bill Poser said,

    August 16, 2008 @ 6:25 pm

    @Rani Ari-Gur,

    As you say, what is correct and what is error depend on the standard. [bejʒɪŋ] is a mispronunciation in the sense that it deviates more from the native pronunciation and in the sense that it deviates from the normative pronunciation of the official transliteration. However, linguistic communities are certainly free to develop standards that differ from the native ones, as, for example, with the French decision to retain Pékin, or, for that matter, the English retention of Hong Kong, in place of the pinyin romanization of the official Mandarin name, Xiāng Gǎng. I think that the point about the broadcasters is that they seem to think that they are pronouncing the name more accurately, that is, more like the way it is pronounced in Chinese, when they say [bejʒɪŋ], and in that they are mistaken.

  10. Bill Poser said,

    August 16, 2008 @ 6:30 pm

    @Rani Ari-Gur,
    It is possible that some of the English words with [ʒ] do not come from French, though I would not be surprised to find that, even if words like aspersion are attested in English prior to the advent of much influence from French, their pronunciation comes from French.

  11. Bill Poser said,

    August 16, 2008 @ 6:39 pm

    @Robert Morris and Ran Ari-Gur,
    You may be right that [ʒ] is only exotic, or more exotic,at the beginning of stressed syllables. My own intuition is that it sounds odder in that position, and it seems to be true that English doesn't have examples in that position. My own intuitions about [ʒ] are probably contaminated by childhood exposure to French.

    As far as I know (and I haven't searched the literature seriously, so I could easily be wrong), nobody has done experiments on English-speaker's reaction to [ʒ] and what English speakers do with made-up words containing these sounds.

  12. Boris Blagojević said,

    August 16, 2008 @ 6:40 pm

    @Doviende:
    And why should English reporters be able to reproduce Chinese tones? If you expect that from them, then they should also be able to pronounce correctly, say, Vietnamese tones. Or nasalised vowels, or velar fricatives or 'vibrant' r, or whatever.
    Now, if they were reporting in Chinese and mistoning Beijing, I'd consider that inexcusable, but since they are reporting in English, only phonemes I expect from them are the English ones. I don't need them to try to get the tone right, even if they can do it perfectly, all want is a simple English word that sounds as close to bei3jing1 as possible.

  13. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    August 16, 2008 @ 7:11 pm

    @Bill Poser,

    > […] I would not be surprised to find that, even if words like aspersion are attested in English prior to the advent of much influence from French, their pronunciation comes from French.

    That could be — though at least in Modern French as I know it, <sion> is pronounced with a [zj], not a [ʒ]. [ʒ] is common in French, and I think English-speakers do understandably associate it with French, but I can't think of many words where French actually has a [ʒ] and English actually borrowed it ("beige", arguably "lingerie", what else?). And <sion> having [ʒ] in English does fit in with other patterns; for example, <ss> is frequently unvoiced [s] where <s> alone is voiced [z], so I think it makes sense that <ssion>:[ʃən]::<sion>:[ʒən].

    I guess this is veering off-topic, though, since "Beijing" doesn't seem to fit into these patterns.

  14. Beijing or Beijing? « Word Lily said,

    August 16, 2008 @ 7:14 pm

    [...] came across the answer in my feed reader today. Thank you, Language Log. Along with the answer to my query, the post is quite interesting. Have a [...]

  15. Bryn LaFollette said,

    August 16, 2008 @ 7:34 pm

    @Ran Ari-Gur,

    I think the point to take notice of here is that the choice of [ʒ] over [ʤ] in words considered to be of non-English origin is common in American English (and perhaps other varieties). This isn't an issue of what the typical pronunciation is for Americans but how that came to be the popularly accepted pronunciation. The phoneme of English /ʤ/ is closer to the pronunciation of the source language, yet this was re-interpreted as /ʒ/ though both are equally available phonemes in English. Another example of the same shift can be seen in the typical pronunciation for another foreign place name: Azerbaijan. This too has an orthographic "j" which is most commonly pronounced by American English speakers with the fricative [ʒ], though the source language's pronunciation is again closer to the English affricate [ʤ]. The usual explanation for this change from [ʤ] to [ʒ] is "Exoticization", since this shift is well attested in words of apparent foreign origin but much less so in others. Personally, I would consider this to be a sort of hypercorrection since the reason for it, I believe, is the sense on the part of the English speaker that given an approximately palato-alveolar obstruent, [ʒ] is going to be a more likely pronunciation in a non-English word than [ʤ]. Whether this is then actually a measure of "exoticness" or of perceived frequency in a particular lexical stratum is just a question of labelling.

    I would consider the shift in choice between /i/ and /ej/ to be another example of this tendency, and is also commonly a source of hypercorrection. Like in the (perhaps older) English pronunciation of "sake", a word-final vowel closer to English /ej/ will be changed to [i], though both sounds are available in English. Since at least some speakers are aware of this process of collapsing pronunciations like /ej/ and /i/ to [i] in borrowed words, [ej] is apparently perceived as the more "exotic" seeming ending even though there are plenty of English words that end in [ej]. I would argue one can see this in the not-uncommon tendency of customers at Starbucks to pronounce the "foreign" cup size word "venti" as [vɛntej].

  16. doviende said,

    August 16, 2008 @ 7:45 pm

    @Boris:
    I was calling into question the "need" to be authentic in the pronunciation. Why not accept the newscaster pronunciation as an alternate english pronunciation of the city's name? Some people are claiming that we shouldn't do that and we should teach them the "right" pronunciation of the letter "j" in this transliteration of the word. If they're going to ignore an essential part of the chinese pronunciation (tone), then why insist that it's correct? It just seems a bit weird to be too insistent on correctness when ignoring half the story.

    Instead, i view this as a matter of linguistic curiousity about why english speakers will choose this alternate sound for the "j" when such a sound is so uncommon. It's a fascinating choice, and interesting to discuss, even if one doesn't worry about which pronunciation is more correct. As you say, Boris, they're not reporting in chinese. ;)

  17. Boris Blagojević said,

    August 16, 2008 @ 8:16 pm

    Doviende said:
    "It just seems a bit weird to be too insistent on correctness when ignoring half the story."

    My point was that the one "half of the story" – the tone – can in no way be reproduced in English, while the other (the affricate pronunciation of j) can. And as I said, English word is what I expect.
    Of course, question can be asked whether it's truly necessary to have reporters call Beijing with as-good-as-it-gets English word, or is bejʒɪŋ good enough. But I don't think that tone has much to do with it.

  18. Mr. Shiny & New said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 12:56 am

    One problem with asking reporters to use the tones in English is that tones convey meaning in English differently than in Chinese. So you can't easily mix and match tones from the two languages. Consider the sentence "You are going to Beijing" vs "You are going to Beijing?" You can't render that second sentence in English if you also insist on using the right tones for Beijing. In Chinese, the second sentence is created by adding a word (ma) which turns a statement into a question. However I am personally of the opinion that foreign names should be pronounced as accurately as possible in the local language, so I was happy to hear reporters saying [beʤɪŋ]; the other way always bothered me even though I feel it's the more natural way to pronounc the letters "beijing" if it is read as an English word. Funnily enough I think if every pinyin syllable was spelled as a separate word we wouldn't have had this problem.

  19. Gordon P. Hemsley said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 2:51 am

    Thank you for addressing this. I've been wondering about this the past couple of days, and I was actually going to ask the Language Log about it.

    And, just to clarify, Brian Williams' pronunciation is correct? It's Bay-Jing, not Bay-Zhing?

  20. Andy J said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 3:33 am

    Like Boris Blagojević in his first comment, I can't see why people feel that TV commentators should be pronouncing Beijing as a chinese speaker would. We don't expect them ( TV commentators) to say Paree instead of Paris, Bearleen instead of Burr'lin or Roma instead of Rome. I'm not going to include Moskva here because of the different rendering of that transliteration in BrE and AmE, but the point is the same. To try and approximate the native pronunciation in the case of Beijing just sounds affected if not downright pedantic.

  21. Andy J said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 3:39 am

    Oh and a follow-up to my last comment. Should British TV reporters etc be saying Noo York, on the premiss that that's how the native speaker would pronounce it?

  22. John Atkinson said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 6:46 am

    Ran said: "(Compare the exotic-sounding African names that start with syllabic [m], [n], and [ŋ]. English has these sounds, and [n] is even syllabic for many speakers in words like "bitten", but in English they're never syllabic at the start of a word.)"

    Never say never — word-initial syllabic nasals aren't phonemic in English, but they do occur — they're certainly not impossible [m.pA.sIb.l.]

    BTW, in the many of those African names, the initial nasal isn't syllabic in the original languages, but rather it's a prenasalized stop (not syllabic), or, in some languages, an initial consonant cluster of the form NC (nasal followed by obstruent).

    For example, Swahili "ndugu" (brother) has a prenasalised stop, while "mtu" (person) has a syllabic nasal. Both are bisyllabic, with the stress on the first syllable.

    Since there are no prenasalised stop phonemes in English, and no word-initial NC clusters, your point holds in any case.

  23. Rawley Grau said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 10:02 am

    Obviously, native speakers of English have not traditionally pronounced (or often spell) foreign toponyms the way local residents do. We do not say, for instance, [mask'va] when speaking of the Russian capital, but ['mɔskaʊ]. The tendency to try to pronounce foreign place names properly, i.e. as closely as possible to the local pronunciation, perhaps out of respect (or "political correctness"), is only about two decades old, it seems to me. And there is a real question as to how far we can take this, given the constraints of English phonology and the desire to be understood by our listeners (counterweighted by the desire to appear to be in possession of specialized knowledge). It would be a good thing if professional English speakers (broadcasters in particular) could agree on the pronunciation, not only of Beijing, but especially of less familiar names, like Tskhangvili, currently also in the news (I'd suggest [zæŋ'vili], or if one must show off, [tsæŋ'vili], though both are distinct from the Ossetian and Georgian – or should we say Kartuli? – pronunciations).

    What disturbs me more about Mr. Poser's post is his non-standard spelling "pronounciation." Perhaps he would explain this?

  24. Beijing Sounds said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 10:12 am

    Our poor misunderstood Doviende has it right. Of COURSE you wouldn't expect English speakers to get the tone right. That's tongue-in-cheek. And even if you get them to say Bay-Jing, they won't get the J right either (try listening to the Jing of the NPR announcer that I recorded if you don't believe me — it won't be mistaken for a native speaker's any day). Saying that the J in Beijing is exactly like the J in juice is simply wishful thinking. Sure, it's a bit closer than [ʒ], but as Andy J points out, are you going to submit "Noo York" to the BBC Pronunciation Unit?

    The point is: Beizzhing doesn't cause any offense to Beijingers and seems to work fine for most English speakers. I'm a disinterested observer, but it seems to be here to stay. Relax. As Grant Hutchison says, enough is enough.

  25. Boris Blagojević said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 10:25 am

    @Andy J:
    I think that the names like Paris, Rome or Moscow are a different category, since they already are English words with well known and established pronunciation. Beijing, however, doesn't seem to be so. And if the capital of China isn't well known enough to haw it's pronunciation fixed, than it can be treated like any other unknown city name. If, for example, English reporters started talking about a hitherto unknown French town of *Laris, I'd consider /'lærɪs/ bad, [la'ʁi] pretentious, unnecessary and distracting, but /lə'ri:/ would be just fine.

  26. Andy J said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 11:27 am

    @Boris Blagojević. I fear that the differentiation you propose is a slippery slope. For how long does the name of a foreign capital city or indeed any other town, village or hamlet, need to be in the language to be "established"? Arguably Peking was in the English language long enough to be "established" and as Bill Poser has shown in his post Beijing, Peking, Peiping and all that, it is not the Chinese name for the city which has changed in recent times but rather it is the way we choose to transliterate it. On that basis we might change our pronunciation of Paris if the French government decided to make an international issue out of it. cf Burma/Myanmar. Should I pronounce Brasilia with a soft 's' or a 'z' sound? I don't know which side of the established/non-established line it falls.

  27. Aaron Davies said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 11:55 am

    People pronounce "venti" as [vɛntej]? How bizarre. Wouldn't that be the rendering for *"vente"?

  28. Aaron Davies said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 12:06 pm

    I suppose you keep on doing what you're used to doing, as long as no one cares and/or you don't care who cares. E.g., someone seems keenly interested in making us all write "Hawai'i", but I haven't noticed most people paying any serious attention. I expect that if, say, the Germans decided it was really important to them that we all say "München", we would be, at least in a decade or two (c.f. "Mumbai", "Chennai", "Kolkata", et al.).

  29. Rawley Grau said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 2:30 pm

    @Aaron Davies. You make a good point: whether we use an approximation of the local name/pronunciation or a traditionally "English" name/pronunciation is often a political matter. Or to be more precise, it's a political matter that is interpreted as an ethical matter. The transition in English to using names like Mumbai and Beijing rather than Bombay and Peking is usually accompanied by a sense of post-colonial guilt, despite the fact that the traditional names were in many cases not imposed by colonial powers but only (mis-)transliterated by them. Still, they convey a sense of colonial hubris and ineptitude, so well-meaning sorts now want to get it right. And this feeling has spread even to names about which we have no colonial guilt, so that with increasing frequency we use Lyon instead of Lyons and Thessaloniki instead of Salonika. It follows then that one day in the not-too-distant future we might start writing München and Moskva and Warszawa, and we will undoubtedly mangle their pronunciations as well.

  30. marie-lucie said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 3:48 pm

    This is not about a toponym or ethnonym, but what about the word feng shui? I don't know Chinese and have never heard the word spoken by a Chinese person, but [feng shway] (as I have heard from monolingual English speakers) does not seem right.

  31. Bryn LaFollette said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 9:16 pm

    @Aaron Davies – People pronounce "venti" as [vɛntej]? How bizarre. Wouldn't that be the rendering for *"vente"?

    I'd say I hear "venti" pronounced [vɛntej] when I'm in Starbucks by about 30% of the patrons, and my impression is, like I said, that this is hypercorrection. If it were the pronounciation of a "foreign"/nonce word *vente, then I probably wouldn't have noticed anything unusual or hypercorrectiony sounding.

    @Marie-Lucie – I think this is getting a little off topic, but that pronunciation of feng shui isn't actually too far off. A close English approximation of the original is [fəŋ ʃwej], which is a pretty common pronunciation in the US (or at least in California).

  32. Neil Dolinger said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 9:17 pm

    I am hoping that someone could explain to me why it is better for speakers of one language to adhere to their traditional pronunciation of a word in another language, even when informed of the pronunciation of that place by native speakers. I have read several posts here and elsewhere on LL that seem to be making that claim, almost to the point of making a virtue of it. Some seem to say that if one cannot pronounce the word exactly as a native speaker would, they should not even attempt it, even if they are in a position to move their pronunciation closer to the correct way. More than one person used the word "pedantic" to describe non-native speakers attempts to approximate native pronunciation more closely.

    Andy J said: "Should British TV reporters etc be saying Noo York, on the premiss that that's how the native speaker would pronounce it?" My feeling on the matter is that if the BBC reporters were made aware of the native pronunciation, they'd get points in my book for trying to get it right, even if they didn't quite get there.

  33. marie-lucie said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 11:23 pm

    @Bryn,

    If that is the case, why is the diphthong transliterated as -ui not -uei or -wei? Is this another case of Mandarin vs. Cantonese? or is it like venti /ventej ?

  34. KCinDC said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 2:23 am

    Neil, I can't believe you're serious about "Noo York". Should we be attempting to copy the rhoticity or nonrhoticity of the dialect of the surrounding area when pronouncing city names from English-speaking countries? Do you pronounce English placenames with an English accent, Australian placenames with an Australian accent, and so on? If I have two friends named Mark, one from New York and one from London, should I pronounce their names differently because they do?

  35. Rawley Grau said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 11:51 am

    @Neil, the simple answer is that toponyms are just words, names of places, and as words are part of the language. When I speak German, I say "München" but I also say ['vaʃiŋtɔn] for "Washington". When I speak Russian, I call Moscow [mask'va] not ['mɔskaʊ], but I also refer to the midwestern US metropolis in the Russian manner as [tʃi'kaga], not [ʃǝ'kagoʊ]. The "correct" pronunciation of a toponym depends on the language you are speaking, not on the pronunciation of people who live in the place the word refers to.

  36. Bill Poser said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 1:24 pm

    @Gordon Helmsley,

    Yes, the pronunciation that more closely approximates the Chinese is 'bay-jing', so Brian Williams is correct.

  37. Bill Poser said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 1:28 pm

    On the question of whether it is "wrong" for English speakers to use a pronounciation that deviates from that of native speakers, my answer is, of course not. That is inevitable in some cases, since languages' sound systems differ, and there is no particular reason why a word in one language, even a name for something in another country, should be the same as in another. No one expects newscasters to say Deutschland rather than Germany. However, it seems clear that broadcasters have been trying to use a "correct" pronounciation, that is, one that approximates the native pronounciation. That is the context in which one can reasonably use words like "correct" and "incorrect".

  38. Bill Poser said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 1:40 pm

    @Marie-Lucie,
    As Bryn LaFollette says, the usual English pronounciation of feng shui is actually a pretty accurate rendering of the standard Chinese pronounciation. (The word 'water' varies considerably from dialect to dialect. In Cantonese it is [suj] (IPA spelling). In Tianjin, where the local dialect is a variant of Mandarin, it is [swr].) As for the reason for the spelling with -ui rather than -uei or -wei, that has to do with the analysis of the Chinese vowel system, which is not a topic capable of explanation in a comment. In a nutshell, Mandarin has a rather bizarre set of surface 'vowels', including diphthongs and triphthongs, with a bunch of systematic gaps, resulting in a complicated relationship between underlying representation and surface realization.

  39. Bryn LaFollette said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 3:39 pm

    @Marie-Lucie,

    Yup, just what Bill said! :) The spelling to sound conventions for Pinyin are very regular even if they don't always conform to the "standard" mappings of sounds to letters or combinations of letters. I think it's got something in common with French spelling conventions, actually, where the connection between spelling and sound is rather abstract, but overall very regular.

  40. marie-lucie said,

    August 19, 2008 @ 4:22 pm

    Thank you, Bill and Bryn! I won't feel awkward anymore about having to say feng shwey if I need to.

  41. Neil Dolinger said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 12:45 am

    @KC. For the past few days I have been trying to decide how to respond to a post that begins “I can’t believe you’re serious about ….” We don’t know each other, so I won’t assume that you intended to be rude, and can only guess this is a rhetorical way of saying you did not understand the point I was trying to make. I assume that most of the people who post here have done so after careful thought, and if they don’t intend to be serious, they will add an emoticon or some such to let the rest of us in on the joke.

    I am not one to insist that people take responsibility for knowing how to pronounce names and other words in a particular way. However, if you are aware of the correct pronunciation, have the ability to produce it, and choose to exercise that ability, by all means have at it! Congratulations for giving it a shot, even if you are not perfect. I don’t think I am particularly good at producing any British or Australian accents, but since I am aware that the name of the capital of Victoria is pronounced with little to no rhoticity and that Cholmondeley sounds like the walrus pal of the cartoon character Tennessee Tuxedo, I feel I ought to try to pronounce these names in a way that approaches the way their citizens do.

    Like many, I have been watching the Olympics over the past two weeks. Though I still hear mistakes in the pronunciation of the names of Chinese places and athletes by the NBC announcers, I am heartened by how well many are doing. It seems as if NBC made a concerted effort to teach its announcers how to read Pinyin and produce the sounds of Mandarin. Tim Daggett has done particular well in this regard.

    What I do not understand is the seeming attitude of some people that there is virtue in not trying, even when one has the knowledge and some ability to pronounce foreign names. I understand that the primary function of language is communication, and that there is risk of miscommunication if one person pronounces something in a way that another does not recognize. However, it is easy enough to explain to your listener what you are doing, so the risk is not so great.

    @Rawley, you made the points that “toponyms are just words, names of places, and as words are part of the language”, and that “(t)he ‘correct’ pronunciation of a toponym depends on the language you are speaking, not on the pronunciation of people who live in the place the word refers to.” In another post you considered the choice of using the native name “a political matter that is interpreted as an ethical matter”, and ascribed that choice to “post-colonial guilt”. I suspect that guilt may be the reason for some people, but there is also the argument, independent of any history of subjugation, that the name of a place belongs to the people who live there. The argument that “we say Moscow, they say Moskva, and that’s just the way it is” strikes me as just as insular as the argument that while most of the world uses the metric system, it’s fine for us in the US to stick to our feet and lbs. and gallons. We’re comfortable with these units, but we are much better world citizens when we become comfortable dealing in meters, kgs., and liters.

  42. Tyler P said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 3:06 am

    I'm surprised the discussion of the distribution of /ʒ/ in English has so far overlooked a pair of words where that sound occurs, which are so closely connected to Beijing — "Asia" [ejʒə] and "Asian" [ejʒn].

  43. Batelian said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 4:50 pm

    The French still say Pekin instead of Beijing. Even the CBC, French channel, say Pekin – CBC English channels say Beijing. Pekin Duck is supposedly now called Beijing Duck. Why don't the French say Beijing?
    Just curious. B.

  44. Kevin said,

    October 4, 2008 @ 3:16 am

    @ Mr. Shiny & New

    …Consider the sentence "You are going to Beijing" vs "You are going to Beijing?" You can't render that second sentence in English if you also insist on using the right tones for Beijing. In Chinese, the second sentence is created by adding a word (ma) which turns a statement into a question.

    Adding a sentence final particle ma makes "Are you going to Beijing?" Besides tones on syllables (声调), Chinese has sentence-level intonation (句调). In mandarin, rising intonation (or lack thereof) helps make the question/statement distinction when there are no markers such as 'ma' to do so.

    I think it's easier to render the second sentence in English than the first if you say Běijīng rather than Beijing, but both are quite possible.

  45. Jim Milstein said,

    August 4, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

    A long-time friend of mine comes from a Tamil speaking family. Her name is Saroja and is pronounced as I and any right-thinking person would guess — with the hard j. Almost everyone who meets her and hears her pronounce her name, responds by repeating it with the zh instead of the j pronunciation. They persist in this no matter how many times they hear it with the j pronunciation.

    I like the "all foreign languages are French" explanation.

  46. Paul said,

    August 5, 2012 @ 1:47 am

    Funny too that the 3 letter airport code for Beijing is still PEK and for Guanzhou it is still CAN

  47. quelcrime said,

    August 6, 2012 @ 4:00 am

    Bill Poser said,
    August 16, 2008 @ 5:48 pm
    Peking is the Chinese Postal romanization, which is based on the name of the city in a different variety of Chinese, probably Cantonese, though possibly an early form of Mandarin.

    I'm not sure that's right, though I admit I don't know the full history of the Postal Romanization. It seems to me more likely that the 'k' is simply a questionable choice of letter to represent the sound shown as 'ch' in Wade-Giles and 'j' in Pinyin. Compare for example the use of 'q' and 'x' in Pinyin – they might seem equally odd to a newcomer, though I would argue they're probably more justifiable choices than the 'k'.

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