Sememic spelling

« previous post | next post »

During the last century and a half or so, there have been thousands of schemes for the reform of the Sinitic writing system.  Most of these schemes were devised by Chinese, though a relatively small number of them were created by foreigners.  They run the gamut from kana-like syllabaries to radical simplification of the strokes, to endless varieties of Romanization.  Among the more linguistically sophisticated (but also difficult to learn) are tonal spelling schemes, such as Gwoyeu Romatzyh (National Romanization), which spell out the Mandarin tones with letters.  There have even been efforts to produce Romanizations that could be read out by speakers from different areas according to the pronunciation of their own topolects, e.g., the Romanisation Interdialectique of Henri Lamasse (c. 1869-1952) and Ernest Jasmin (fl. 1920-1950) and Y. R. Chao's (1892-1982) diaphonemic orthography called General Chinese.

Ingenious though many of these schemes were, there was no chance that they could ever catch on for mass public adoption because they had too many phonologically complex rules.  But the reformers did not stop with trying to represent the sounds of Sinitic languages at different times and different places, and some even went a step further and strove to "spell" out the meanings of the radicals or other parts of the characters.  It was their dream to create a spelling system that would account for each and every character on a one-for-one basis.

A representative of this type of sememic spelling was the proposal of the American scholar Homer Hassenpflug Dubs (1892-1969), who taught at the University of Minnesota, Marshall College, Duke University, Columbia University, Hartford Seminary, and Oxford University.  In his A Roman City in Ancient China, Sinological Series 5 (London:  The China Society, 1957), Appendix, pp. 41-48, Dubs presents his proposal for an "Alphabetic Chinese Script".

This spelling employs 23 Latin letters to indicate syllables, (2) five numbers or accents to indicate tones, and (3) one or more from a list of only thirty radicals [VHM:  These "radicals" are "spelled" with Roman letters].

There have been written out distinctive spellings for more than 10,000 characters, from which list are taken the spellings for the characters employed in this paper.

Here's Mark Swofford's parody of Dubs' system:

Hao3WTF luan4IMHO p`in1OMG-yin1ROTFLMAO!

Though this type of Romanization may seem like a pipe dream to most hardheaded observers, there are still many script reformers in China today who are working on such schemes.

Selected readings


  1. Martin Ellison said,

    March 27, 2019 @ 11:13 pm

    Do any of these schemes actually work (for someone who knows the system to be able to correctly derive, say, the Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations of a character from its romanisation)? Chao in his General Chinese paper does not actually describe how to pronounce any of his syllables in any topolect.

  2. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    March 28, 2019 @ 5:14 am

    Dear Prof. Mair,

    This idea has fascinated me ever since I read the following excerpt on
    I'd love to have a copy of "Pinyin-to-Chinese Character Computer Conversion", by YIN Binyong, so that I can read it.

    A Pinyin pictophonetic writing system correspondingly adds semantically significant “silent” letters to the basic phonological representation “feng” in order to differentiate these different morphemes on a one-to-one basis, with Chinese characters, as follows: feng 風 wind, fengd 封 to seal d represents dongci (verb), fengx 豐 abundant x represents xingrongci (adjective), fengs 峰 summit s represents shan (mountain), fengh 烽 beacon h represents huo (fire), fengc 蜂 bee c represents chong (insect), fengm 楓 maple m represents mu (wood), fengb 瘋 insane b represents bing (sickness), fengz 逢 to meet z represents zou (going), fengss 縫 to sew ss represents si (silk), … etc. ,
    During the first stage of the development of conversion systems (the “syllable-based stage”), many such schemes for Pinyin pictophonetic conversion systems appeared, often referred to as yinxingma (音形碼 ; sound-form codes). By the time of the development of the second stage of Pinyin-to-character conversion systems, users discovered that the accuracy of converting Pinyin-to-Chinese characters by using whole words and input units could achieve from ninety-five to ninety-seven percent accuracy. After that, no one wanted to go to all the trouble of memorizing and adding extra silent letters after every syllable they typed, just to deal with five to ten percent of homophonous cases. The few homophonous characters can easily be dealt with by a back-up display and choose method. The development of whole word and phrase-based Pinyin-to-Chinese character conversion systems which are based on the linguistic fact that the majority of ambiguous symbols can be easily disambiguated by their linguistic context, thus clearly exposed the shortcomings of schemes for Pinyin pictophonetic writing systems.

  3. Rodger C said,

    March 28, 2019 @ 6:54 am

    Was this Marshall College the one in West Virginia, now Marshall University? If so, I had no idea, back in the day, that a noted sinologist (whom I was reading) had ever taught at the university I was attending. No one ever had the sense to mention this as a point of distinction.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    March 28, 2019 @ 7:04 am

    @Rodger C:

    Apparently so.

    "On March 2, 1961, West Virginia Legislature finally elevated Marshall to university status, and the legislation was signed by Governor W. W. Barron."

  5. Victor Mair said,

    March 28, 2019 @ 7:14 am

    @Antonio L. Banderas:

    I have alerted Mark Swofford, host of, and John Rohsenow, translator of Yin Binyong's article, to your comment.

  6. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    March 28, 2019 @ 9:22 am

    Could someone post some examples of the "five to ten percent of homophonous cases"?

    I'd love to have an "Index of Ambiguity" of homophonous Chinese lexical words so that their pinyin representations could be marked to avoid it if necessary.

  7. Chris Button said,

    March 30, 2019 @ 4:22 pm

    In his A Roman City in Ancient China, Sinological Series 5 (London: The China Society, 1957), Appendix, pp. 41-48, Dubs presents his proposal for an "Alphabetic Chinese Script".

    It seems like a version of this is available on JSTOR but without the "appendix" unfortunately. Does anyone happen to have a pdf of those 8 pages? (first name dot last name at hotmail dot com)

  8. Victor Mair said,

    March 30, 2019 @ 6:15 pm

    I'll send the pdf to you, Chris. If enough people want to read it, perhaps you could post it somewhere on the web.

  9. Chris Button said,

    March 31, 2019 @ 4:29 am

    Thanks Victor. It's interesting how a feature of a syllabic orthography designed originally to distinguish similar sounding, but not necessarily homophonous albeit often etymologically-related, monosyllabic words is being used solely, and largely unnecessarily, to distinguish pure homophones in an abstract alphabetic representation of a specific evolution of the language (i.e. Mandarin) as a result of the pervasive influence of the "monosyllabic myth" on spoken forms of Chinese today.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    March 31, 2019 @ 5:30 am

    Well spoken, Chris! It was worth sending the pdf to you!

RSS feed for comments on this post