How to pronounce the surname "Tsien"

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A prominent scholar of early Chinese writing and books at the University of Chicago recently passed away:

"T.H. Tsien, Scholar of Chinese Written Word, Dies at 105" (4/19/15)

The New York Times "pronouncer" for "Tsien" is "chee-AHN".  That is very far from the mark.  Even for those who are not familiar with the niceties of Chinese consonants and vowels, "chee-AHN" doesn't sound remotely right because "Tsien" (like the vast majority of Chinese surnames) is one syllable, but "chee-AHN" makes it seem to have two syllables.  Moreover, Chinese is tonal, whereas the "AHN" of the pronouncer makes it seem to have emphasis on the second, (non-existent) syllable.

I did not know Prof. Tsien (1909-2015) personally, so I'm not sure what kind of Chinese he spoke, or how he pronounced his own name.  He was from Taizhou in middle Jiangsu, which is situated at the dividing line between north (Mandarin-speaking) and south (Wu-speaking) of that province.  Mandarin and Wu are mutually unintelligible, but while still in his late teens, Tsien moved to Nanjing.  Consequently, regardless of whether he was born into a Wu-speaking family, once in Nanjing he would have been in a Mandarin environment, which means that he probably was pronouncing his surname in the Nanjing variety of Mandarin while living there.

After graduating from the University of Nanking in 1932, Tsien took a job at the library of Jiaotong University in Shanghai, which indicates that he might have begun to speak Shanghainese, another Wu language, at that time.  From then until 1947, when he came to America and settled here, he lived in Shanghai (with brief stints in Nanjing).

No matter whether Tsien himself spoke with a Nanjing or Shanghainese accent, I gather from colleagues at the University of Chicago that everyone in East Asian Studies there pronounced his surname as Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) "Qian."  Tsien's full name in MSM was Qián Cúnxùn 錢存訓, but people at Chicago called him either "Mr. Tsien" or "T.H."

The romanization of 錢 that Tsien used is actually close to IPA for that character, which is tɕʰjɛn, though it lacks the aspiration.

Of the major romanization systems for Mandarin, the spelling "Tsien" resembles one version of that devised by École française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO), for which see here.

Cf. the German system described in F. Lessing and W. Othmer: Lehrbuch des nordchinesischen Umgangssprache (1912), which has tjiän for qian.

For comparisons of other romanization systems for Mandarin, see this Wikipedia article and Warren A. Shibles, "Chinese Romanization Systems: IPA Transliteration", 52 (November, 1994), Sino-Platonic Papers.

If someone asked me how to spell the MSM pronunciation of Tsien (or, for that matter, Qian) for English speakers who are not familiar with Mandarin phonology, I would suggest "Chyen", which is close to Yale ("Chyan").  Of all major romanizations, the Yale system, developed by George Kennedy, is the most easily pronounceable to sound like MSM, though Wade-Giles is closest to IPA for those who understand phonological principles (voiced and unvoiced, aspirated and unaspirated, etc.).  Try "Chyen".  It should come out sounding pretty much like what is stipulated for Hanyu Pinyin "Qian".  But I'd bet that, outside of specialist circles at the University of Chicago and elsewhere who were aware that "Tsien" = 錢, those noninitiates who encountered Prof. Tsien's surname would have given it all sorts of imaginative twists, everything from "tsee-yen" to "chee-AHN", and much else besides.

[Thanks to Ed Shaughnessy, Don Harper, Paul Copp, and Mark Swofford]


  1. ThomasH said,

    April 21, 2015 @ 5:10 pm

    I think the old Time Magazine "rhymes with" system is best so I'd understand the "Chyen" suggestion as "rhymes with 'chin.'" unless "rhymes with 'shin'" was meant.

  2. Nathan said,

    April 21, 2015 @ 5:49 pm

    @ThomasH: Do you have the pin-pen merger?

  3. Eli Nelson said,

    April 21, 2015 @ 7:41 pm

    Many English speakers syllabify the consonant /j/ in syllable-initial clusters when it comes before a vowel other than /uː/ in loanwords or foreign names. I'm not sure why, because it's not especially difficult to pronounce, but many people pronounce Tokyo with three syllables, and Kalyani with four.

  4. Matt said,

    April 21, 2015 @ 8:11 pm

    I'm not sure why, because it's not especially difficult to pronounce, but many people pronounce Tokyo with three syllables, and Kalyani with four.

    But it's not about the objective difficulty of the sound so much as the phonotactics, right? (That's what I learned.) Put another way, "Kyoto" actually is difficult to pronounce if your mental model of language just doesn't allow that cluster at the beginning of words, even if you can say things like "That's whack, yo" without problems. It's basically the converse of Japanese speakers saying "Sydoney" instead of "Sydney" — it's just that the Japanese version is more obvious because their writing system makes the adaptation explicit.

  5. Curt said,

    April 21, 2015 @ 8:44 pm

    If it's New York Times, I wonder why they didn't use IPA. It is more accurate representation both for native speakers and foreign readers, especially, when English spelling is phonemic and inconsistent, and can be pronounced differently in different areas, while IPA is used in dictionaries.
    As non-native speaker I store in my head spelling and pronunciation for each word separately, so when I see such transcriptions I often stumble in doubt what is the correct reading for that letters because it's not a meaningful word in English language.

  6. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 21, 2015 @ 8:54 pm

    That French/German approach to romanization is still seen in many/most Chinese restaurants in the U.S., since they often serve Tsingtao beer to go with the food. The current regime may now romanize the beer's place of origin as "Qingdao," but no one has thus far been foolish enough to change the spelling for the beer itself, which would presumably impair brand recognition.

  7. Fabian said,

    April 21, 2015 @ 9:55 pm

    Don't want to be a wisenheimer, but as this is a language-related blog, I feel that it might be a small contribution to say that "Lehrbuch des nordchinesischen Umgangssprache" is not grammatical; it must be "der" instead of "des".

    Anyway, thank you very much for your interesting post.

    Greetings from Mexico,

  8. Hans said,

    April 21, 2015 @ 11:12 pm

    Lehrbuch des nordchinesischen Umgangssprache
    Nitpick: That ought to be "Lehrbuch der nordchinesischen Umgangssprache", Sprache/i> is female.

  9. Boursin said,

    April 22, 2015 @ 3:13 am

    In Finnish, there are a number of three-syllable words whose last two syllables are "tsi-en", such as etsien 'by means of searching' or veitsien 'of knives' (as well as the construction sitä paitsi en 'besides, I don't/didn't …'). Pronouncing the two syllables in these as one gives a result remarkably close, but getting closer still would probably require *etšien (etc.).

  10. JQ said,

    April 22, 2015 @ 6:10 am

    I've heard "Tsien" pronounced with three syllables before.

  11. Louis Meng said,

    April 22, 2015 @ 7:14 am

    There are still several proper names in Mainland China which have not been changed into Mandarin. for instance, we have Tsinghua University (Qinghua University), Peking University (Beijing University), Soochow University (Suzhou University).

  12. Jongseong Park said,

    April 22, 2015 @ 7:32 am

    The current Wikipedia page on the Nanjing dialect (which is a huge mess) has an intriguing section which seems to have been copied from some older reference work:

    Four vowel compounds occurring in the Nanking finals might, however, be drawn attention to because they are not found in Pekingese and because distinctly savouring of the old Chinese language viz.: ui after n, I and ts (in Peking passed into ei), iai after ch (turned into ieh in Peking), Hen (changed into Han in Peking) and ah, an (English a of sane; cf. diacritic marks) after I, ni, n, p, s, t and ts (also when aspirated), for which Wade's Transcriptions ien, ieh have been retained, as the corresponding sounds after ch and hs are distinctly enunciated ieh, ien in Nankingese.

    Unfortunately I can't really make sense of what it's trying to say, and I have the feeling it's a slightly corrupted, OCRed version.

    The Standard Mandarin pronunciation of 錢 qian is [ʨʰjɛn], but we could use /ʦʰian/ as a more abstract phonological representation. In this analysis, [ʨʰ] is what you get when an underlying or historical /ʦʰ/ precedes a front vowel or a glide, and [jɛn] is the result of /ian/ fronting due to the glide /i/. The fact that the final -ian [jɛn] is pronounced [jɑɻ] when there is erhua supports the analysis as underlying /ian/. This also agrees with the pinyin spelling -ian and zhuyin ㄧㄢ "ian", though Wade-Giles has -ien (but it has -üan for the analogous pinyin -uan/zhuyin ㄩㄢ).

    What I'm curious about is whether any variety of Mandarin uses or recently used a pronunciation of -ian that is closer to this underlying /ian/ (something like /jan/) without fronting to [jɛn], and whether whatever that quoted passage on Nanjing dialect pronunciation is trying to say has something to do with that. In other words, could 錢 conceivably have been pronounced to rhyme with something like AHN in some variety of Mandarin that Tsien used at least at some point?

    The spelling Tsien is interesting. It evokes the historical pronunciation /ʦʰ/, which of course doesn't mean that Tsien himself used the non-palatalized initial (traditional English spellings often reflected non-palatalized historical pronunciations even after they became palatalized in Mandarin), but suggests a final that is closer to [jɛn] than underlying /ian/.

  13. Jongseong Park said,

    April 22, 2015 @ 7:39 am

    @Louis Meng: Tsinghua, Peking, and Soochow are technically Mandarin names. They are former romanizations based on Southern (Nanjing) Mandarin of more than a century ago, which still retained non-palatalized historical pronunciation (/ʦʰ/ in Qinghua/Tsinghua, /k/ in Beijing/Peking) that had already been lost in the north. Please see Chinese postal map romanization.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    April 22, 2015 @ 9:03 am

    T. H. Tsien's romanization of his full name is "Tsien Tsuen-hsuin" (in MSM that would be Qián Cúnxùn 錢存訓). The thing that has always intrigued me most about his full name is not the "Tsien" and certainly not the "Tsuen", both of which I could figure out fairly well, but the "hsuin". I've always wondered if he (or his teacher or somebody) made a mistake in reversing the "u" and "i". But I'm prompted now to bring this up because, in the quotation from the current Wikipedia page on the Nanjing dialect cited by Jongseong Park, it mentions the spelling "ui". Though it specifies "after n", I'm wondering if there really is / was such a sound ("ui") in Nanjing topolect, and whether it could occur in other environments than "after n", specifically after ⟨ɕ⟩, or whatever the equivalent of that was in the lect that Tsien was referencing with "hs".

  15. Mark S. said,

    April 22, 2015 @ 9:45 am

    The closest I can find to "hsuin" for Pinyin's "xun" in Legeza is the Baller system (from An Analytical Chinese-English Dictionary Compiled for the China Inland Mission, Shanghai, 1900), which gives "hsüin".

    In that system,
    Tsien Tsuen-hsuin would be
    Ch'ien Ts'uen-hsüin.

    Although the family name doesn't match, that's intriguingly close.

  16. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 22, 2015 @ 10:02 am

    It's a fair point (expanding on Jongseong Park's comment) that the traditional spelling of Tsingtao merely reflected the postal-map conventions, in which initial ts- is standard. That usage may have come into the postal map system via French influence or Nanking pronunciation or whatever but once those general norms were fixed that prior history was not necessarily directly relevant to the spelling of any given toponym. It had seemed plausible to me that a distinctly German approach to romanizing Chinese toponyms had been in play since Tsingtao had been leased by the Chinese government of the day to the Kaiser (and the brewery was set up and run by the Germans until they lost control during WW1) but that's maybe just a coincidence. Wikipedia says the Germans spelled it Tsingtau.

  17. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 22, 2015 @ 11:15 am

    Eli Nelson's comment about the syllabification of /j/ is spot on, and applies to Spanish loanwords as well. "San Diego" might as well be spelled "Sandy Aygo", and when I translated Joan Manuel Serrat's song Fiesta I made sure that in English the word "fiesta" was given three syllables.

  18. Jongseong Park said,

    April 22, 2015 @ 4:10 pm

    I fully agree with Eli Nelson and Coby Lubliner about the syllabification of /j/. A New York Times "pronouncer" should not take it for granted that the average English speaker would handle an initial consonant-/j/ cluster in front of a vowel other than /uː/ or /ʊər/. I don't remember ever hearing Hyundai pronounced in two syllables with the glide intact from a native English speaker. That said, lots of people don't seem to have problems pronouncing Pyongyang as two syllables with the glide.

    English speakers can definitely pronounce /ʧj/ sequences, as in one pronounciation of Appalachia /ˌæp.ə.ˈleɪʧ.i‿ə → ˌæp.ə.ˈleɪʧ.jə/. But this is when the /ʧ/ and /j/ are heterosyllabic, phonetically speaking. You don't really get anything starting with /ʧj/. So foreign names like Chiang Mai or Chiang Kai-shek either get the chee-ang treatment (glide is syllabified) or the chang treatment (glide is ignored).

  19. Aaron said,

    April 22, 2015 @ 4:33 pm

    @Jongseong Park: For what it's worth, every English speaker I've ever met (including me) has pronounced the "chia" in "Appalachia" as either /tʃə/ or /ʃə/, and pronouncing it with the /j/ feels pretty unnatural to me. Wiktionary lists all its pronunciations without /j/. However I'm speaking from a pretty small sample size, and I'm also not from the area.

  20. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 22, 2015 @ 4:43 pm describes four different pronunciations of Hyundai supposedly attested in the US or UK, used in four different contexts. A few years ago I considered and test-drove but ultimately did not buy a Hyundai. I expect that if I'd actually bought it I would have had to come up with a definite view on pronunciation and stick to it, but I didn't so I haven't.

    I can do e.g. Tokyo and Kyoto as two-syllable words quite well, but that's at least in part because I self-consciously trained myself to do so as a young person (and thus still not fully formed as to default phonotactics?) living briefly in Japan, I think in part specifically because of the shibboleth-like quality ("this is one of the things that gaijins are apparently supposed to screw up, so I won't") of the issue.

  21. DCA said,

    April 22, 2015 @ 7:28 pm

    Off-topic on the name, but not the scholar: the NYT should, I think, have included his 1985 book on paper and printing in China: Volume 5 part 1 of Needham's Science and Civilization, which is both broad-ranging and very readable.

  22. Usually Lowercase Dainichi said,

    April 22, 2015 @ 7:29 pm

    The only time I ever remember hearing a native English speaker say Hyundai is in Beck's Debra, where he sings "Lady, step inside my Hyundai", Hyundai clearly having only 2 syllables. Not saying this is common, just an anecdote.

    I think the focus on syllables is exaggerated. In my intuition, syllables are a phonemic construct which it doesn't necessarily make sense to maintain when you bring a word from one language into another. In the case of Tsien, you could argue that the 2-syllable pronouncer is necessary for the vowel in the first syllable to imitate the glide. One syllable in English phonotactics would inevitably turn the word into a non-glide "Chen", against which I imagine that people with the name "Qian/Tsien" would want to maintain the distinction.

    As for the "AHN", I second Jongseong's curiosity about pronunciations of "qian" with an actual "a" sound. If not, could it be contamination from the tendency to pronounce some French "en"s as AHN, like in AHN-velope?

  23. Matt_M said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 3:32 am

    @Jongseong Park: your example of Chiang Mai is actually a bit off the mark, since "chee-ang" is actually a reasonably accurate of the pronunciation of rendering of this word into English. The "ia" in "Chiang" represents a falling diphthong with a long first element: /i:ɐ/, rather similar to the vowels in "idea" or "fiat".

    By the way, are there any languages in the world that actually contrast a palatal stop or affricate such as /tʃ/ with a cluster of the same consonant + /j/ (e.g. /tʃ/ contrasting with /tʃj/)? It seems to me that it's impossible to pronounce a word like "chat", for example, without your tongue transitioning into the /j/ position at some point between the initial consonant and the vowel.

  24. Matt_M said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 3:35 am

    Oops. The nonsensical part of the first sentence above should be "a reasonably accurate rendering of the pronunciation of this word into English".

  25. Jongseong Park said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 5:37 am

    I stand corrected about Chiang Mai, which is an inexcusable error since I've lived in Thailand and know enough about the language to see that this isn't a glide in the original language but a full vowel.

    On the whole, /ʧj/ is pretty rare cross-linguistically. Korean (at least officially) doesn't contrast /ʨʰjV/ and /ʨʰV/ (or /ʥjV/ and /ʥV/), with the glide simply dropping so that they are merged to /ʨʰV/ (or /ʥV/). So 다쳐 dachyeo (spelled that way since the verb stem is 다치- dachi-) is pronounced as if spelled 다처 dacheo. That said, I've read about at least one study where Koreans produced a distinction between /ʨʰjV/ and /ʨʰV/ (probably by using a more palatalized variant for the former affricate rather than using an actual glide [j]), though I suspect this would only be the case for artificial spelling pronunciation. I would prefer to write the Korean affricate series as /ʦʲʰ, ʣʲ/ by the way, as recent studies indicate that the place of articulation is alveolar (though with a laminal tongue shape and more fronted than in the corresponding stops).

    Spanish has the Nahuatl-derived place name Chiapas /ˈʧja.pas/ which, if we trust the pronunciation given by Wikipedia, would form a minimal pair with chapas /ˈʧa.pas/.

  26. Rodger C said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 7:00 am

    @Aaron: The pronunciation "Appalaychiya" seems to be gaining ground over "Appalaycha" among the NPR set. At any rate the preferred pronunciation in the region is "Appalatcha." I could go on at tiresome length about this.

  27. Jongseong Park said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 7:22 am

    @Aaron, I myself pronounce Appalachia as /ˌæp.ə.ˈleɪʧ.ə/, and agree that a pronunciation with /j/ feels pretty unnatural to me. But the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary does indicate this option, as it does for words like Georgia (/ˈʤɔːrʤ.i‿ə → ˈʤɔːrʤ.jə/ in addition to the usual /ˈʤɔːrʤ.ə/). These are likely spelling-induced artificialities like the glide being pronounced after palatal sounds in Latinate words like ratio /ˈreɪʃ.i‿oʊ → ˈreɪʃ.joʊ/. I don't recall ever hearing them in the wild, in any case.

  28. Eli Nelson said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 7:34 am

    French contrasts all of /ʃ/ /ʃj/ /s/ /sj/ (chat, chien, son, sien) although the glide here is not contrastive with a full vowel.

  29. Bloix said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 9:04 am

    Hyundai has apparently made a corporate decision to be Hunday (rhymes with Sunday) in the US and Hi-OON-dye in the UK. (Sort of like Jagwar vs Jag-You-are?) You can find television commercials on Youtube with the different pronunciations.

    In my own speech, I find that Tokyo is three syllables and Kyoto is two. As the way I say things is of course the correct way, I would judge a two-syllable Tokyo to be an affectation and a three-syllable Kyoto to be Gomer-Pyle level hick.

  30. JS said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 7:19 pm

    I know nothing about old Nanjingese, but the Chinese Wikipedia page reports that it indeed ha(s/d?) the tuanyin 团音 / jianyin 尖音 distinction, in which a palatal series (representing earlier velars before high front vowels) contrasts with dental affricates+s (thus, /tɕʰian/ vs. /tsʰian/, etc.)

    One would think there would still be varieties in which (PY) -ian rhymed with -an — but I can't really hear the former /a/ other than fronted. There are certainly many places (e.g., Shandong) where -uan still rhymes well with -an, retaining a fronter vowel…

  31. Tetsuo said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 11:50 pm

    Now do one for Xi Jinping's family name, because if I keep hearing news outlets pronounce it "zee" or "gee" I might have an aneurysm.

  32. January First-of-May said,

    April 25, 2015 @ 6:06 am

    @Matt_M: Russian has чих /tɕix/ "sneeze" vs. чьих /tɕjix/ "whose.PL.GEN" – or, somewhat more seriously, чей /tɕej/ "whose.M.NOM" vs. чьей /tɕjej/ "whose.F.GEN" – as a kind-of minimal pair, but the cluster /tɕj/ isn't otherwise particularly common (and I can't think of any words starting with it that aren't forms of that pronoun).

    @Coby Lubliner: I've always found it silly how so many foreign words with what I perceive as an "eh" sound seem to be transcribed with "ay", which in my mind comes out to /eɪ/~/ej/ (especially word-finally).
    However, it's apparently a question of vowel quality, that is, the difference between the vowels /e/ and /ɛ/ – which is phonemic in French and some dialects of English, but allophonic in Russian (and the words in question, mainly French or Spanish, have the /e/ sound).

  33. Hwa Shi-Hsia said,

    May 4, 2015 @ 3:18 pm

    The current president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute is Robert Tjian (錢). When he visited my workplace I was told (by third parties) to call him Teej. I can't wrap my head around it.

  34. Mark W. said,

    May 5, 2015 @ 3:52 pm

    When Comet Hyakutake was in the news, I saw a newspaper article that gave a pronunciation that set off the "h" with a hyphen, so it was something like "h-yah-koo-tah-kay". For many years, thereafter, I thought the "h" was a separate syllable before reading more about Japanese phonology.

    Confusing matters even more is that, since I had zero exposure to linguistic science at the time, I had no idea how one might pronounce a syllable consisting of "h", so I ended up pronouncing it like the English name of the letter "h".

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