Troublesome characters

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The People's Daily microblog account posted this list over the recent National Day holidays:

"Yī dú jiù cuò de 50 gè dìmíng 一读就错的50个地名" ("Fifty place names you're sure to misread")

It's a mix of relatively obscure characters and strange alternate readings for common ones. The list starts off:

Lishui in Zhejiang province; the 丽 is normally read lì

Bozhou in Anhui province; the 亳 is unique to this place

Xinzhuang in the Shanghai metropolitan area; this one is really tricky — 莘 with this pronunciation (xīn) also refers to the root of Chinese wild ginger (Asarum sieboldi), the character has the additional pronunciation shēn which is used with reference to a county in Shandong and for a surname

Taizhou in Zhejiang province; the 台 is normally read tái, as in the name Taiwan, but neither in the name Taizhou nor in the name Taiwan does it mean "terrace; platform", which is its usual meaning.

Xun district in Henan province; the 浚 is normally read jùn

Yanshan in Jiangxi province; the 铅 is normally read qiān

⑦新疆巴音郭楞 (léng)
Bayinguoleng / Bayingol(in) in the Xinjiang region; the 楞 is rare and used mainly in this place name and in the Chinese title of the Śūraṅgama sūtra.

Bāyànnào'ěr / Bayannuur in the Inner Mongolian region; the 淖 is used here in the Chinese transcription of the Mongolian word for "lake" (nüür); pronounced chuò it is part of a disyllabic term meaning "charming; graceful"; read zhuō it signifies a surname

Yu district in Hebei province; the 蔚 is normally read wèi

The other 41 entries are in image format.  This sample should be enough to give you an idea of what the others are like.

These are merely 50 proper nouns (out of innumerable instances that might be cited) written with characters that are given peculiar readings or with rare characters reserved for particular names alone.  When I leaf through character dictionaries, I'm always amazed at how many characters are like this — having unusual pronunciations for proper nouns or being rare and restricted only or mainly for particular names.

Then we have those characters that are actually fairly common in place names, but which folks can't seem to agree how to pronounce, such as 堡 ("burg; settlement; fort[ress], castle").  Sometimes this character at the end of place names is pronounced bǎo, sometimes bǔ, and sometimes pù.

As to why proper nouns are prone to this type of idiosyncratic pronunciation and orthography, I suppose that it is the result of personal preference and local traditions.  Even after national standardization, it is difficult to get people to change the way they say and write the names with which they most closely identify.

[Thanks to Joel Martinsen]


  1. John Coleman said,

    October 14, 2014 @ 1:36 am

    The bǎo ~ bǔ variation is reminiscent of the hu:s > haus development in English "house" (an instance of the Great Vowel Shift), which persists as dialect variation, i.e. Scottish "hoose". Is this Chinese example also due to a historical sound change, does anyone know?

  2. Bob Ladd said,

    October 14, 2014 @ 2:33 am

    Both conservatism and fanciful innovation with personal and place names are widespread, and are not restricted to Chinese characters. A couple of 20th century spelling reforms in the Netherlands left quite a few place names untouched, like Roosendaal (which under the current orthography should be Rozendaal). When the letter â was proscribed in Romania in the 1950's and replaced by î, a number of family names were eventually allowed to retain the old spelling, as were România and all its derivatives. Etc. And as for personal names, think Catherine, Catharine, Katherine, Katharine, Kathryn and probably others I haven't thought of.

    Somehow, names are special.

  3. Keith said,

    October 14, 2014 @ 2:43 am

    Another comparison in English might be "mouth" which is pronounced maʊθ when used as a stand-alone noun but pronounced as məθ when used as part of a town name (e.g. Portsmouth).

    Another very similar example might be "ham", pronounced either hæm or həm (e.g. Nottingham), although the etymology is different in this case.


  4. David C said,

    October 14, 2014 @ 3:05 am

    I can give an example in Swiss German. A village near us is named Horw, but the name is pronounced "Horb." I've never heard an explanation for this, and everyone agrees that it is odd, but that's just the way its always been. "W" as a terminal consonant is not common in German, but this is the only example I've ever run across with this shift in pronunciation.

  5. Bathrobe said,

    October 14, 2014 @ 4:08 am

    Where I work we have occasion to talk about 巴彦淖尔 fairly frequently, but it's never pronounced with nào. Ignorance, maybe. But if you know Mongolian there doesn't seem to be much reason to pronounce it nàor.

  6. leoboiko said,

    October 14, 2014 @ 4:34 am

    A good candidate for the champion must be Fetherstonhaugh /ˈfænʃɔː/ i

  7. flow said,

    October 14, 2014 @ 7:23 am

    @leoboiko this is precisely the reference i was about to give. more precisely, sth along the lines of this: which i find quite impressive because there are so very many difficult names in such a small area.

    (btw email forthcoming)

  8. Simon M said,

    October 14, 2014 @ 7:47 am

    In a perverse way, I find this article heartening. I am often struck by just how maddening many english place names must be to non-native english speakers (even non-native dialect speakers). Knowing that the Chinese have to struggle with local traditions with place names brings a sense of unity with those people.

  9. Mr Punch said,

    October 14, 2014 @ 8:26 am

    "Even after national standardization, it is difficult to get people to change the way they say and write the names with which they most closely identify." In other words, the *real* name is not necessarily defined by the standard orthography. In light of ongoing discussions on this board, I think it's interesting that the People's Daily seems to accept this.

  10. cameron said,

    October 14, 2014 @ 10:20 am

    Well, yeah, place names, and proper nouns in general, tend to be very conservative. There's a reason people who look for traces of unattested ancient languages (pictish, for example) tend to focus on things like hydronyms.

  11. Lazar said,

    October 14, 2014 @ 11:50 am

    @leoboiko, flow: Also the lists here and here. Some good examples in England are Alverdiscott ("Alscot"), Aslackby ("Azelby"), Cholmondeley ("Chumly"), Cholmondeston ("Chumston"), Godmanchester ("Gumster"), Trottiscliffe ("Trosley") and Woolfardisworthy ("Woolsery"). There doesn't seem to be any country in continental Europe so heavily dotted with counterintuitive placenames, unless we count diglossic situations where a place has one name in a regional variety and another name in the standard variety.

  12. Christian Weisgerber said,

    October 14, 2014 @ 3:19 pm

    Place names and family names are tricky even in languages with more regular sound-letter correspondences than English. I can think of a number of German place names with surprising spelling/pronunciation (for starters: Duisburg, Soest, Grevenbroich, Mecklenburg). France also has its share of tricky names and the letter ÿ (y with diaeresis) only appears in names. There are Hungarian names spelled with "cz", a digraph that doesn't exist in the modern Hungarian orthography. Etc.

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 14, 2014 @ 3:33 pm

    If English was spelled with the Sinitic characters, perhaps there would be a high degree of variation in the pronunciation of 堡 in placename compounds analogous to the variation in American toponyms among -burgh, -burg, -borough, and -boro. (And also -bury, although that seems no longer to be morphologically productive but is confined to compounds originally stuck together some centuries ago.)

  14. BasJ said,

    October 14, 2014 @ 4:18 pm

    @Bob Ladd: you're right of course about Roosendaal although I don't think anyone who speaks Dutch would have trouble pronouncing it. The only place name I can think of in the Netherlands with a pronunciation that is impossible to guess is Gorinchem, which in modern orthography would be Gorkum.
    And there is actually a Rozendaal elsewhere in the country, so with one using an outdated spelling, it's easy do distinguish the two (at least when written).

  15. BobW said,

    October 14, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

    Kay-ro (Cairo, Illinois) and Rulla-ferd (Rutherford, Tennessee).

  16. Kellen Parker said,

    October 14, 2014 @ 7:37 pm

    We've had a number of occasions on Phonemica where people have contacted us to point out mistakes of this sort in our map data. The data is right out of OpenStreetMap, which unfortunately had places like 闵行 Minhang in Shanghai as "minxing", the result of well meaning non-local contributors using Google Translate to generate pinyin.


    Southern Illinois is full of pronunciations that would easily throw off a non-local. In addition to Cairo there's Anna, Inna, Vienna etc. The tv weather report was always a learning experience for me when I was in the area.

  17. Rodger C said,

    October 15, 2014 @ 6:54 am

    In the 17th century Stonehenge and Avebury were spelled "Stonage" and "Abury" and were presumably pronounced that way locally.

  18. Rodger C said,

    October 15, 2014 @ 6:55 am

    And re Dutch: I've been puzzled about the two names of the famous Calvinist synod. Is "Dordrecht" actually pronounced "Dort"?

  19. flow said,

    October 15, 2014 @ 9:12 am

    @Rodger C had the Germans been as eager to preserve more historical spellings, maybe we'd today write "Colonia" or even "Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium" and read that as, simply, [kʰœln]. one might suspect that for those indigenous who know enough to recognize their town's name in English but not enough to read it out in that language, "Cologne" is just another way to transport [ˈkœɫə].

    this reminds me of what must be the most glaring misspelling / misnomer in today's international world: it's when you see กรุงเทพมหานคร and understand that that means "Krung Thep" (conveniently ignoring the part after the 'Thep') resp. "Bangkok" (an unrelated toponym from the same area). this is, like, everyone except the locals reading "New York" as "Nieuw Amsterdam".

    i remember that in the late 1980s, the KMT's grip on Taiwan's press was still firm enough to allow them prohibiting the use of 北京 and instead proscribe the use of 北平 (you'd often see newspaper articles where the 京s got hot-swapped for the correct 平s, the latter often ending up visibly different / off-the-line / slanted, which served as a graphical reminder of the censorship). being a beginner in Chinese, i had to learn to, basically, *read* 北平 as "beijing", although "jing" is not a regular reading of 平.

  20. Lugubert said,

    October 15, 2014 @ 9:22 am

    @David C: Another w/b (etc…) from the
    Alemannische Wiki: Calp (amtlich Calw, vo de alde Calwer ausgsprocha; IPA: [kʰalb]
    German Wiki:Calw (ursprünglich [kalp], heute wegen der Schreibung meist [kalf] gesprochen)

  21. Movenon said,

    October 15, 2014 @ 10:25 am

    I talk with lots of southern Zhejiang people very often, and I hear Lishui with the fourth tone li4 all the time, I think people generally just don't bother, even if they are aware that some say it should be li2. I am aware personally that it is prescriptively li2, but I always say li4 anyway just to maximize clarity (since not everyone would know it's officially li2).

    I'm not 100% positive, but I don't think this tonal distinction is important in Southern Wu topolects of Lishui (and there are many varieties there). I will need to check on more of those. In the local Southern Wu topolects, there is also some degree of uncertainty as to what tone should be used for 處 in 處州 Chuzhou, the old prefecture name for what is now all called Lishui.

    In general, place names often present problems even for natives, such as the river Thames being pronounced in different ways by Americans (depending on their familiarity with the RP pronunciation).

  22. Lazar said,

    October 15, 2014 @ 8:21 pm

    There's a Thames River in Connecticut – with a New London on it, no less – that's pronounced /θeɪmz/. I can't bring myself to say it.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    October 16, 2014 @ 5:28 am

    @Rodger C

    Since Dordrecht is informally called Dordt by its inhabitants, I wondered whether that might have any connection to Dortmund in Germany. That led me to look at the history of the latter name, and what a maze that presented (though no tie to Dordrecht / Dordt that I could detect)!

    Dortmund ([ˈdɔɐ̯tmʊnt]; Low German: Düörpm; Latin: Tremonia) is a city in Germany. The first time Dortmund was mentioned in official documents was around 882 as Throtmanni. After 1320, the city appeared in writing as "Dorpmunde".


  24. Victor Mair said,

    October 16, 2014 @ 5:30 am


    In paragraph 3 of your comment, did you mean "prescribe" rather than "proscribe"?

  25. Jean-Michel said,

    October 17, 2014 @ 7:02 pm

    I understand this sort of thing is common in Japan as well, though I suppose that would be expected given the way kanji in proper names can be assigned readings more or less arbitrarily. I recall reading (possibly in the comments section of this blog) that there's an Okinawan place name that actually includes a silent character.

  26. Charles Belov said,

    October 18, 2014 @ 2:34 am

    @Keith: I pronounce the "mouth" in Portsmouth as mθ, or maybe with a short i in between, just barely.

    @Lazar: And aren't the "wich" in Greenwich and Norwich, Connecticut pronounced out? Odd then that the second "c" in Connecticut is silent.

  27. Jean-Michel said,

    October 18, 2014 @ 2:56 pm

    Found that post I was thinking of, from Petrus in 2011:

    There are some place names in Okinawa that have so-called silent characters. 金武 being pronounced 'kin' is one that comes to mind.

    "Kin" is a normal Sino-Japanese reading of 金, so the silent character here is 武.

  28. flow said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 3:17 am

    @vhm oh those troublesome characters! the KMT tried to *pre*scribe the use of 北平 and to *pro*scribe the use of 北京. maybe choose another pair of words to make that distinction clearer….

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