The end of the line for Mandarin Phonetic Symbols?

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Just as all school children in the PRC learn to read and write through Hanyu Pinyin ("Sinitic spelling"), the official romanization on the mainland, so do all school children in Taiwan learn to read and write with the aid of what is commonly referred to as "Bopomofo ㄅㄆㄇㄈ "), after the first four letters of this semisyllabary.  The system has many other names, including "Zhùyīn fúhào 注音符號" ("[Mandarin] Phonetic Symbols"), its current formal designation, as well as earlier names such as Guóyīn Zìmǔ 國音字母 ("Phonetic Alphabet of the National Language") and Zhùyīn Zìmǔ 註音字母 ( "Phonetic Alphabet" or "Annotated Phonetic Letters").  From the plethora of names, you can get an idea of what sort of system it is.  I usually think of it as a cross between an alphabet and a syllabary.

Whatever type of writing system it is, Bopomofo has served the citizens of the Republic of China well since it was first proclaimed on November 23, 1928.  It was initially used on the mainland, but has continued as the official phonetic transcription for Mandarin on Taiwan from the end of the 40s when the government moved there until today.

Bopomofo can be used in virtually all applications for which an alphabet can be employed:  ordering, look-up, entry in digital devices, reading and writing, phonetic annotation, and so forth.  I learned most of my Chinese with the assistance of Bopomofo during the first decade and more of my studies.

"How to learn to read Chinese" (5/25/08)

I am forever grateful to Bopomofo for the vast amount of phonetically annotated reading material of all sorts that it made available to me, enabling me to read things quickly without having to painfully look up characters I didn't know by their difficult to discern radicals and residual or total strokes.  It is my earnest wish that one day there will be a similar abundance of reading materials phonetically annotated with Hanyu Pinyin (I have often made that suggestion to publishers, educators, and officials in China).

Now, however, Bopomofo is encountering some difficulties on Taiwan.  For one thing, Bopomofo is closely identified with the KMT (Kuomintang / Nationalist Party) of Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) which brought it to Taiwan, whereas the political winds have shifted to the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party), which is dominated by Taiwanese, after Chiang's son, Chiang Ching-kuo (1910-1988), who yielded power to them toward the end of his life.

Moreover, Bopomofo is used only on Taiwan and in some small émigré communities abroad, while Hanyu Pinyin has become the international standard (UN, ISO) and has even been increasingly creeping into Taiwan via all sorts of avenues (publications, software, visitors from the mainland, and so on).  So many of the people of Taiwan are keenly aware that their transcription system isolates them from developments elsewhere.

These doubts and reservations about the future of Bopomofo have increasingly come to the surface, so it was inevitable that politicians would start to talk about them in an open way.  Here's one newspaper account of proposals to do away with Bopomofo:

"Bopomofo will not be easy to scrap", by Hugo Tseng 曾泰元, Taipei Times (3/10/18)

It is not entirely clear which romanization system would emerge to replace Bopomofo, since there are several available candidates,  It is hard to imagine, however, that — given its increasing prominence on Taiwan — the final choice would be anything other than Hanyu Pinyin.  Some might wonder whether this would not amount to a capitulation to the PRC communist government on the part of the Taiwanese, but that is not how the latter see it.  Rather, they take Hanyu Pinyin to be an internationally recognized system for spelling the sounds of Mandarin that is no longer confined to the mainland.

As evidence of just how open-minded the Taiwanese can be, there have even been calls from high-ranking officials in Taiwan for English to be made an official language there (as mentioned at the end of the article by Hugo Tseng).  Language and politics are closely intertwined, but sometimes language transcends politics.

[h.t. June Teufel Dreyer]



22 Comments

  1. Mark S. said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 7:34 am

    Yeh received a lot of attention for her position, most of it negative. This even led many to post in bopomofo on her Facebook page.

    I overheard some people speaking about this the other day. They claimed, among other things, that zhuyin was a great success overseas, with students at some foreign university using it. I actually laughed out loud at this (the ratio of pinyin to zhuyin must be 1000:1 at schools in the West), though I didn't otherwise engage that small group of commenters, who also remarked on how those in southern Taiwan just didn't know how to think straight. I'd say the general level of discourse on this topic didn't rise much above that.

    When it comes to considering Pinyin as something for foreigners to use, most Taiwanese are happy to say "Hanyu Pinyin — sure. Whatever the foreigners want." But there's too much inertia behind zhuyin for anyone to expect a change in that for Taiwanese schoolchildren anytime soon.

    Yeh ended up dead last in her primary, attracting just 0.76 percent of the vote.

    Little by little, though, people will become more used to the idea, esp. as more Taiwanese switch to Hanyu Pinyin computer-input methods. (Using zhuyin to input Chinese characters is less efficient for touch typing because the top row of keys — the one with the numbers — have to be used frequently.)

  2. Frédéric Grosshans said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 8:18 am

    The end of a sentence in the middle of the article is missing: " It is my earnest wish that one day there will be a similar abundance of". A similar abundance of what? I guess Pinyin annotated text ?

  3. Arthur Waldron said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 9:27 am

    Like Victor I swear by Bopomofo. It is designed for Chinese. It is not an attempt to use a script designed for Latin which is Procrustean. Finally because it is a strange script for Westerners they cannot lean on the familiar Roman letters. We have to learn Chinese. PRC has already made a mess of both the language and the teaching. I know; my son wet to Princeton in Beijing a dumbed down politicized mediocrity. He was deeply disillusioned and unhappy I told him just meet your wondeful aunt every morning. Follow her around. She will explain everything. Result conversational proficiency bonding. Also he knows more than the CIA station chief. I suppose language is already bleeding politically. Now Taiwan don't get all emotional and close the last existing rational pathway to Chinese! Arthur

  4. Victor Mair said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 9:46 am

    @Frédéric Grosshans

    Thanks. Fixed now.

    After making the post, I had a subliminal recollection that I had left something out, but this is the first chance I've had to come back and fill it in.

  5. GALESL said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 10:32 am

    Given the well-known deficiencies of both the Roman alphabet and Hanyu Pinyin, it seems a pity bopomofo will probably be replaced by it. Although I'll admit to never using bopomofo except for a brief spell in Taibei.

    On a side note, my web browser, Vivaldi (based on Google' Blink layout engine, like Chrome), surprisingly displays bopomofo without a hitch while at the same time throwing a wobbly over third tones in pinyin. It displays the tone marker not directly above the vowel but above and to right, over empty space.

  6. Wayne said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 10:47 am

    No way is bopomofo encountering any problems in Taiwan.

    As Mark noted above, Yeh became a laughingstock because of her position. I caught a bit of her press conference where she said she wanted to get rid of zhuyin and she constantly referred to replacing it with 羅馬拼音. I'm sure if you had asked her if she meant proper Wades-Giles which you can basically only find in the National Palace Museum or the bastardized WG you see everywhere outside or Hanyu Pinyin or Yale or Tongyong or whatever, you would have gotten a blank stare in response.

    The biggest problem with scrapping zhuyin is that so few people are proficient in ANY romanization system. I'd estimate that the percentage of Taiwanese people who could correctly render any random Chinese syllable into any romanization system would be close to the percentage of Americans who could correctly render an English syllable in IPA.

    Moreover, with the prevalence of zhuyin IMEs on computers and cell phones in Taiwan, I'd say that zhuyin's position is not weaker but stronger today. Whereas I could imagine the average adult back in the 60s would barely encounter zhuyin in their daily working life, the average office worker today is probably pecking away in zhuyin 15 hours a day.

  7. Neil Kubler said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 11:34 am

    As Karlgren once wrote, there is no one transcription or romanization system that is the best for every purpose; it all depends on what the system is being used for. So while it would certainly make sense for Taiwan to adopt one system and use it consistently on street signs for the sake of foreigners (and Pinyin is increasingly the system used for that purpose), that does not mean the system used in schools for native children must necessarily be the same. From frequent observation and discussion in Taiwan, I do not think that, by any means, it is the "end of the line" for the Mandarin Phonetic Symbols; they are still going strong. When Taiwanese Nobel laureate and chemist 李遠哲 Yuan Tseh Lee was Director of Academia Sinica some twenty years ago, he publicly advocated replacing the Mandarin Phonetic Sympols with Pinyin, but he didn't get very far. I believe that for elementary and junior high school students in Taiwan, the Mandarin Phonetic Symbols work well and should be retained; as the English saying goes, "Why fix it if it ain't broke?" They do have the advantage that if small children are learning English and Chinese transcription simultaneously, there is no possibility of confusion, as there could be if children are learning Hanyu Pinyin and English simultaneously. It is perfectly normal and common for essentially the same languages (Mandarin in China & Taiwan) to have different writing systems, so there would seem to be no particular reason why Taiwan should change. Actually, I know of (a few) established scholars in both Taiwan and China (!) who prefer the Mandarin Phonetic Symbols over Pinyin for reasons of national pride, since the ROMAN alphabet is clearly foreign. However, many are not aware that the Mandarin Phonetic Symbols themselves were created under the inspiration of Japanese kana (but which, of course, were created based on Chinese characters).

  8. Victor Mair said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 11:39 am

    "pecking away in zhuyin 15 hours a day"

    Those are mighty long working days!

  9. Mara K said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 12:08 pm

    I wrote my BA thesis in 2014 on why Zhuyin is the best phonetic system for Mandarin, and why the PRC should adopt it but never will because politics. I hope you guys are right that it's not going anywhere.

    re the 15-hour days: that's 8 in the office plus 7 talking to people and reading stuff on the Internet. #millenialsociallife

  10. Tom davidson said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 12:44 pm

    Long live the 國語日報, and its publications

  11. Chau said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 12:55 pm

    There is an interesting article in the Letter-to-the-Editor section of the Liberty Times Net (自由時報) by Andreas Whittome (魏安德), a German professor teaching Chinese in a university in Peru. He wrote the letter in response to an earlier one by 曾泰元 (Hugo Tseng) on the subject of scrapping Bopomofo:

    http://talk.ltn.com.tw/article/paper/1183066

    Whittome learned Mandarin in Taiwan (similar to Victor Mair) and likes Bopomofo. He thinks the system is more accurate in reflecting the Mandarin sounds than pinyin. In fact the title of his letter pokes fun at pinyin. At the end of the letter he even points out an interesting phenomenon of dichotomy in linguistic processing that the Taiwanese who cannot pronounce the retroflex sounds (zh-, ch-, sh-) due to Taiwanese phonology can correctly spell out in bophomofo symbols.

  12. Michael Watts said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 1:02 pm

    "pecking away in zhuyin 15 hours a day"

    Those are mighty long working days!

    No more so than the fact that I spend more than 15 hours a day typing would indicate that my working day is more than 15 hours long. Compare the rest of the quoted comment:

    with the prevalence of zhuyin IMEs on computers and cell phones in Taiwan, I'd say that zhuyin's position is not weaker but stronger today.

    I imagine most office workers sometimes use computers and cell phones while they're not at work.

  13. Eli Nelson said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 2:23 pm

    #@Arthur Waldron, GALESL, Mara K: What is there that is seriously deficient about Pinyin? Latin-based scripts are used for languages around the world with no great problems. The Latin alphabet may not be designed for Chinese, but the Pinyin writing system was.

    I understand that there are minor things that people may dislike about Pinyin or find more complicated than necessary, like the abbreviation of -iou and -uei to -iu and -ui, etc. but I don't see how things like this would actually constitute a serious flaw. Students of the language need to learn lots of other things that take more time to master. Maybe I'm underestimating the spelling capabilities of the average person, but I feel like I have a basic handle of how Pinyin works and I haven't even studied Chinese to any real extent.

    It is my understanding that tone marks can be replaced with numbers if you can't use the diacritics for whatever reason.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 2:51 pm

    "I imagine most office workers sometimes use computers and cell phones while they're not at work."

  15. Michael Watts said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 3:30 pm

    That was an understatement. I am virtually certain that better than 95% of office workers use a computer and/or cell phone outside of work every single day.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 4:41 pm

    Are you absolutely "virtually certain that better than 95% of office workers use a computer and/or cell phone outside of work every single day"?

  17. Victor Mair said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 4:52 pm

    Certain individuals are prone to repeat what other commenters have already said more straightforwardly and simply, and to do so in a sardonic, sensationalizing, disputatious manner. Such behavior demonstrated month after month, year after year, is the mark of a *****.

  18. Michael Watts said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 5:39 pm

    Are you absolutely "virtually certain that better than 95% of office workers use a computer and/or cell phone outside of work every single day"?

    Yes, I don't think that's controversial at all.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 5:51 pm

    "…I don't think that's controversial at all."

  20. David Marjanović said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 6:40 pm

    At the end of the letter he even points out an interesting phenomenon of dichotomy in linguistic processing that the Taiwanese who cannot pronounce the retroflex sounds (zh-, ch-, sh-) due to Taiwanese phonology can correctly spell out in bophomofo symbols.

    That only means they've learned an orthography that isn't fully phonemic for them. And that is entirely unremarkable. English is much, much harder than that to spell for native speakers.

  21. Wayne said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 10:49 pm

    In regards to my comment about the average office worker pecking away in zhuyin 15 hours a day, I meant after sitting in an office and staring at a 17" monitor for 11-12 hours a day, the average office worker likes nothing more than sitting on their sofa and staring at their phone or tablet for another 3-4 hours.

    I had already studied Chinese in America and mainland China extensively (simplified characters/Hanyu Pinyin) before coming to Taiwan in 2003. I got used to reading traditional characters by slogging through the Apple Daily, but I never consciously tried to learn zhuyin. If anything, I learned how to read zhuyin by seeing the character first and then trying to decode the zhuyin next to it. But I never sat down and practiced typing in zhuyin to input Chinese on my phone or computer. All through the mid late 2000s I was able to find phones with Hanyu Pinyin input -> traditional Chinese output and once smartphones came out, it was trivial to get whatever IME configuration you wanted. It's now that I recently bought a car that I finally have to learn to input zhuyin in order to use the GPS.

  22. Avinor said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 4:54 pm

    "As Karlgren once wrote, there is no one transcription or romanization system that is the best for every purpose"

    Why don't we follow his example and use the Swedish Dialect Alphabet? :D

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