Mo Yan wins the Nobel prize in literature

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The winner for the 2012 Nobel prize in literature is Mò Yán 莫言 (means roughly "speechless"), pen name of Guǎn Móyè 管谟业.

Currently the most comprehensive exposition of his work is Shelly W. Chan's A Subversive Voice in China: The Fictional World of Mo Yan published by Cambria Press in 2011.

Yesterday, there was talk from the PRC that, if Mo Yan won the prize, this would be the first for China, but that is far from the truth, since Gao Xingjian won the literature prize in 2000 and Liu Xiaobo — who languishes in prison — won the peace prize in 2010.

Despite the good news for Mo Yan that is being trumpeted around the world, his simple two syllable pen name is being murdered as "Mow Yawn", "Moe Yahng", and so forth. Here is a recording of what it sounds like in Modern Standard Mandarin as pronounced by a native speaker.

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The biggest challenge is what to do with the vowel of the first syllable. David Moser writes,

…one of my quick-and-dirty shortcuts to get Chinese-clueless foreigners to pronounce "Mo" (since it's my surname in Chinese, btw) is to have them pronounce "more" with a strong Brooklyn accent, as in "gimme some mwah". (Not sure if Brooklyn is the right location, but you know what I mean).

Once you master the "o" of "Mo", you can use the same sound in the last syllable of Liu Xiaobo's name and in the surname of the former Communist Party Secretary of Chongqing municipality and Central Politburo member, Bo Xilai (sounds like "Buo She-lie"), whose wife, Gu Kailai, allegedly murdered the British businessman, Neil Heywood.

As for pinyin "yan", Mark Swofford wrote a blog post about how to pronounce it already back in 2009.

So, congratulations to Mo Yan — not "Mow Yawn", "Moe Yahng", or whatever.

[Thanks to Anne Henochowicz, Grace Wu, and Sophie Wei]


  1. Gianni said,

    October 11, 2012 @ 2:28 pm

    This "o" in "Mo" is more akin to the Spanish "o" than the English "o" no matter in open or close syllables.

    Any way, congratulations to Mo Yan!

  2. Bruce Rusk said,

    October 11, 2012 @ 2:44 pm

    I thought the first Chinese Nobel Prize winner was the Dalai Lama, in 1989.

  3. Henning Makholm said,

    October 11, 2012 @ 3:13 pm

    Is the first vowel a diphtong, or is it just how my ears interpret the word tone?

  4. Xiao Guo said,

    October 11, 2012 @ 3:35 pm

    Actually, the first Chinese Nobel Prize Winners are Yang Zhenning and Li Zhengdao in 1957. They are Chinese, but the nationality is the U.S. Same with Gao Xingjian, he has become a french when he got Nobel Prize. So the first real Chinese Nobel Prize winner is Dalai Lama, if he admit he is Chinese, and the first real Chinese Noble Prize Winner in Literature is Mo Yan. Congtratulations!

  5. Peter said,

    October 11, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

    [mu̯ɔ] [i̯ɛn]

    This is not the only way to transcribe it in IPA, but it's what is used on Wikipedia, and it's quite acceptable.

  6. Adrian said,

    October 11, 2012 @ 4:27 pm

    I think that if a newsreader says "Moh Yen" or "Moh Yan" I'd be happy with that. Newsreaders can appear patronising (or foolish) if they attempt a foreign accent.

  7. B.Ma said,

    October 11, 2012 @ 4:30 pm

    This is why I will use a system based on Gwoyeu Romatzyh for the "English" version of my kids' names. I know too many people whose Chings have become Kwings.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    October 11, 2012 @ 7:07 pm

    From Sanping Chen:

    One of the commentators is misinformed. When C.N Yang and T.D. Lee won Nobel Prize in physics in 1957, both were Chinese citizens, albeit mostly likely holding passports issued by the ROC, not the PRC. Yang and Lee became naturalized U.S. citizens in the 1960s.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    October 11, 2012 @ 7:08 pm

    From an anonymous correspondent:

    … 莫言是体制内作家,是中共党员,是20年军龄的前解放军战士、军旅作家,是解放军艺术学院毕业的军官作家,如今是最高人民检察院《检察日报》的作家,他还曾为检察官写过宣传稿 … 当然还有别的宣传文章。

    …. Mo Yan is a writer within THE [CCP] SYSTEM, a member of the CCP, an ex PLA army officer of 20 years of "military age," a professional army writer who graduated from the PLA Art Academy, currently also the writer for the Procuratorial Daily, the organ of the PRC Supreme People's Procuratorate. He has ghostwritten propaganda pamphlets for prosecutors … [and] of course other propagandic articles.

  10. Xiao Guo said,

    October 11, 2012 @ 9:48 pm

    Well, Sanping Chen is right, Yang got the U.S. nationality in 1964, and Li in 1962, I apologize for the mistake. However, considering just from the nationality, the first Chinese Nobel Prize winner in Literature is Pearl S. Buck赛珍珠 in 1938, she has both Chinese and the U.S. nationality that year. And she wrote "The Good Earth", in Nanking, 1931, and this book wins her Nobel Prize.

  11. Xiao Guo said,

    October 11, 2012 @ 10:22 pm

    The anonymous correspondent is prejudiced, as I see it. I will not comment on the plitical opinions in the article, for politics has nothing to do with Mo Yan's getting of Nobel Prize in Literature.
    As for the literature comments and the comparison of Mo Yan with other Chinese writers, they are injustice and arbitrary, I think. Please make your own judgement after reading and comparison, do not be misled by other's opinions and the stereotype in your mind.

  12. NW said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 4:13 am

    Is it the labial that causes the diphthong? Because Pinyin does also have the terminal -uo, as in the guo of Zhongguo. How does this differ from -o?

  13. Alon Lischinsky said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 4:14 am


    I'd say [mwɔ jɑn] is a closer approximation; I don't think I've heard /ɛ/ in this context.

    If I had to explain it to an English monolingual, I'd compare it to the wa in wall and the yon in Beyoncé.

  14. Alon Lischinsky said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 4:18 am

    @NW: that's broadly correct. I don't know if the spelling reflects an older pronunciation, or is simply arbitrary, but o represents [wɔ] after the bilabials /m/, /b/, /p/ and labiodental /f/.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 6:22 am

  16. Rodger C said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 6:55 am

    @Alon Lischinsky: I think that's called phonemic spelling.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 7:38 am

    From a graduate student in China:

    Before the announcement of the the Nobel Prize in Literature, there was a rumor which was that Mo Yan would get the prize. Many people said that he did not deserve to get the prize. There were two main reasons, the first one is he transcribed "The speech in the Yan'an literary and art forum" (在延安文艺座谈会上的讲话) by Mao Zedong with other more than one hundred writers, to memorialize the 70th anniversary of the speech. The second one is that he walked out during the speech of Dai Qing 戴晴 at the Frankfurt Book Fair with the rest of the Chinese delegation (only Qin Hui 秦晖 stayed).

    I met Mo Yan once when I was an undergraduate student. It was on the occasion of the Zhu Ziqing (朱自清) literature festival at our university. Mo Yan was invited by us to make a speech at the opening ceremony. We asked a professor in the Department of History, who was also a famous writer, to invite him. He came and left alone in low key that day, and made a very good speech.

    I have read several novels of Mo Yan before, and I like them very much. He is from Shandong Province, and he novels are almost all about Gaomi 高密in Shandong, which is his hometown. I don't know if the standard for the Nobel prize in Literature was mainly focused on the literature itself. If it was, Mo Yan deserved to get it.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 7:56 am

    This article has quotes from the artist Ai Weiwei, with whom the author (Clifford Coonan) spoke to last night about the Nobel. Coonan reports that Ai Weiwei was very upset about the award.

  19. Xiao Guo said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 9:47 am

    The way to pronunce Chinese -uo in Guo is to pronunce "u " , then"o" ,and ending with lips being flat just like an aphonic "e" sound in Pinyin, so that should be u+o+e(silent). As to the difference between "o" and "uo", Alon Lischinsky offered a good answer. And also, there is acturally a silent "e(ə)" after "O" as an ending.

  20. Xiao Guo said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 11:06 am

    "THE NOM de plume of the 2012 Nobel literature laureate, Mo Yan, translates as “don’t speak”, and it is precisely this refusal to comment on political issues and freedom of expression that has made him a controversial figure within China’s artistic community."–Irishtimes
    "A writer who names himself Don’t Speak, an allusion to the fear of getting into trouble in a one-party state"–Rendezvous

    所以当我开始我的作家生涯时,我为自己起了一个笔名:莫言。但就像我的母亲经常骂我的那样,“狗改不了吃屎,狼改不了吃肉”,我改不了喜欢说话的毛病。为此我把文坛上的许多人都得罪了,因为我最喜欢说的是真话。现在,随着年龄增长,我的话说得愈来愈少,我母亲的在天之灵一定可以感到一些欣慰了吧?——节选自2009年1月莫言在斯坦福大学的演讲( Said Mo Yan himself about his pseudonym in 2009, Stanford University)
    Someone don't understand Chinese can use Google Translate to read it.

    “At that time in China, lives were not normal, so my father and mother told me not to speak outside,” he said at a forum at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2011. “If you speak outside, and say what you think, you will get into trouble. So I listened to them and did not speak.” (Said Mo Yan himself about his pen name in 2011, UC Berleley)[]

    The second one is from New York Times, this is not as clear as the first one to show the relationship between the name and the plitics.

    And of course both the "I" and "R" have not asserted anything, but just mislead the generals by making imaginary connections. As their mode, if they want to criticize Bush, they may say the name bush is the allusion of his wilderness and shortness in politics, that's rediculous.

    And Mo Yan had already pointed out his pseudonym is because of had offended may scholars by saying too much, but some media still neglect of his saying.

    It is true that the media in mainland have a strong standpoint on behalf of CCP or PRC, and in fact, none of media is objective. If one would like to find the deep truth, one should see from different angles to try to be objective.
    I think the repot of NY Times contains more infrmation.
    This is the link of NY Times report:

  21. Xiao Guo said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 11:25 am

    As the two main reasons raised from the graduate student from mainland China, they should not be strong doubts on if Mo Yan deserve Nobel Prize. Because the reasons just showed his standpoint but has nothing to do with his literature accomplishments, if he does not like Dai Qing, is there any wrong?
    The student in the end puts:"I don't know if the standard for the Nobel prize in Literature was mainly focused on the literature itself. If it was, Mo Yan deserved to get it."
    I agree.

  22. J said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 1:14 pm

    @Xiao Guo And how do you pronounce a silent sound?

  23. Xiao Guo said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 10:11 pm

    @J You just do not leave you mouth in "O", after pronuncing "O", turn you lips to be little more flat~

  24. Jason said,

    October 13, 2012 @ 6:31 am

    That's not a silent sound. (Which, course, is an oxymoron.) You're altering the 'o' vowel.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    October 13, 2012 @ 6:37 am

    And now this stunning development!

    Could it be that the Nobel literature committee had some sort of understanding with Mo Yan (and even with very high CCP authorities) BEFORE the award was offered to him? I would only say that Göran Malmqvist, who is the most important person on the literature prize selection committee, is very well connected with writers in both China and Taiwan.

    Malmqvist is a former student of the distinguished linguist [historical phonologist] Bernhard Karlgren.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    October 13, 2012 @ 7:54 am

    For some of the reactions to the award on the mainland, see this nice post by Anne Henochowicz, "Drawing the News: Mo Yan and the Nobel", which includes very clever and telling illustrations.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    October 13, 2012 @ 1:38 pm

    Here is a collection of comments from the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

  28. Xiao Guo said,

    October 13, 2012 @ 5:03 pm

    @J Probably you are right. I know little about Linguistics, just to tell the way to pronunce it. But I have a question, if I am altering the "O" to "E", then the "E" should make sound, but I feel "E" is not sounded. That makes me confused. Could you please figure me out the linguistic process of pronuncing -uo?
    But I am sure the lips should be enddingd at almost "e" position.

  29. Xiao Guo said,

    October 13, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

    Chinese Weibo is functioning as Twitter, you can enter into Chinese Weibo(the most commonly used 2) by this link:新浪)
    to register and then put Mo Yan(莫言)in searching line, you can see all the comments yourself. If you do not understand Chinese, use Google translate~
    I just found the given collections of comments is too hard to get, the author may cost lots of effort to find them out from the sea of information.
    And he/she said himself/herself is not neuter, how about his 800 follwers?
    It is so complex to judge, just to see by yourself.

  30. Edna Butler said,

    October 13, 2012 @ 8:35 pm

    Actually, MO YAN was given the prize this year as a way for Norway to get back in the good trade graces with China, since the 2010 peace prize to Liu Xiaobo, China cancelled all trade relations with Norway. This prize was a sham. However, if it gets Mr Liu released from jail then it was worth it. as there may have been a quid pro quo here.

  31. Victor Mair said,

    October 13, 2012 @ 9:58 pm

    From a senior lecturer in Chinese who hails from China:


    "I see online it is said that the language of the foreign translations of Mo Yan's writings is very good, even better than the language of his original works…."

  32. Victor Mair said,

    October 14, 2012 @ 8:43 am

    @Edna Butler

    That's a reasonable hypothesis, except that the Nobel Peace Prize winner is chosen by a committee in Norway (isn't it?), which is why China vented its anger on Norway for the award to Liu Xiaobo, whereas the prize in literature, like all (?) the other prizes, is chosen by a committee of Swedes. Nonetheless, in support of your hypothesis, it is possible that the Scandinavians, in collaboration with Mo Yan and Chinese authorities, worked out a deal that would give Mo Yan the literature prize if he would call for Liu Xiaobo's release from prison. Now that he has done that, let us see if the Communist rulers will let Liu Xiaobo go free in good health.

  33. Victor Mair said,

    October 14, 2012 @ 12:18 pm

    Mo Yan's Journalist (of Prosecutorial Daily) Identity Exposed

  34. Xiao Guo said,

    October 14, 2012 @ 2:52 pm

    We talked a lot about politics here, and ironically, seldom of us know politics well, and although most of us are studying literature here, but none of us are touching on upon literature.
    Nobel Prize(L) is just a prize, which shows the recognition of a writer, but not saying who wins it, who is the best.
    There are a lot of reasonable hypothesis, not only about Mo Yan, but also on Churchill, Obama, Dalai Lama and also Xiaobo Liu. But before its being verified, it is still not truth. We have different values on seeing politics, but we have some similar aesthetical standard to see an literary work. To focus on Mo Yan in literary way, that is the way we are good at, leave politics to the political researchers.
    If someone think Mo Yan is not qualified, they do can prove it in literature way, but only in literature way, for he got a Nobel Prize in literature, but not in peace. Just like Kipling, you can say he is shit, but you cannot therefore say that his works is shit.
    I do can understand the calling of fairness and we do not like politics lending a hand at literature. But should we abuse and even insult a writer based on some hypothesis?
    And I think Nobel Prize is a comparatively fair one, that is why it become one of the highest recognition of writers and scientists.
    Shouldn't the westerners introspect themselves why they doubt Mo Yan without reading his works first?
    As to these words below:
    "I see online it is said that the language of the foreign translations of Mo Yan's writings is very good, even better than the language of his original works…."
    That is a valuable opinion, which means that the translater is also a perfect writer who may also qualify Nobel Prize. But, he/she is not a good translater, but an adaptor. We can read the good translations.
    More than a hundred years ago, A Chinese translter named Li n Qinnan translated lots of Dickens and Hardy's works into Classical Chinese. The translations are not loyal to the originals, but some of the translations are highly valued by some scholars, they also think that the translations are better than the originals. This evaluation is not supposed to be true, but at least it is saying that these translations are rather good to some extent. So, I guess the translations of Mo Yan would not let us down and they are valuable to read.

  35. Xiao Guo said,

    October 14, 2012 @ 9:18 pm

    An article writting by Zaifu Liu about the relationship between Chinese writers and the Nobel Prize Committee:

    Visiting Mo Yan, by Gehui Xu:

  36. Victor Mair said,

    October 14, 2012 @ 9:59 pm

    Brendan O'Kane has a detailed discussion of the award to Mo Yan at Rectified Name (with many useful links):

    Is Mo Yan a Stooge for the Chinese Government?

  37. joe said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 8:53 am

    this "mo" business is really confusing for me. in chinese pin yin, bo, mo, po soud (rhyme with) like duo 多, guo 郭, so why there is no u when we say bo and mo and po but we have u when we say duo and guo? they sound exactly the same to my ear. when i was learning to input chinese words on computer years ago by pin yin, i was often confused and had difficulty in figuring out what was the pin yin for 波 and 郭. now i know through experience and practice. but i have no idea why pin yin is designed that way to handle bo and guo like this.

  38. guoxiao said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 3:18 pm

    @Joe, I paste Alon Lischinsky's answer to you:
    Alon Lischinsky said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 4:18 am

    @NW: that's broadly correct. I don't know if the spelling reflects an older pronunciation, or is simply arbitrary, but o represents [wɔ] after the bilabials /m/, /b/, /p/ and labiodental /f/.

    And, In Chinese, there is no "-uo" after the bilabials /m/, /b/, /p/ and labiodental /f/.

    I have already mailed a scholar in China who is a professor in Broadcasting Chinese, if I get the answer I will write here, however, it may take some time.

  39. Victor Mair said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 5:05 pm


    from Zheng-sheng Zhang:

    This one is relatively straightforward. B, P, M, F are all labial sounds, but D, G are not. Now u in uo is rounded, which is also associated with the lips.


    from Bob Sanders:

    I would add the comment that the logic behind this decision reflects the thinking of a phonologist looking for elegant phonological descriptions, which is very useful for phonologists. If, on the other hand, you are designing a way of representing the sound system for the benefit of the linguistically naive, including non-native learners, then buo, puo, muo and fuo are more descriptive than bo, po, mo and fo, though there may be a bit of over-kill for some. As an aside, pinyin is not completely consistent in how it treats this mid vowel. Sometimes it is written with an o, while at other times with an e. If the point is to spell alophonic variation phonemically, and hence be phonologically elegant, then just one of these letters should be used to write both.


    from Neil Kubler:

    When students ask, I give them the same explanation that Zheng-sheng does – b, p, m, and f are labial sounds that are made with the lips, so there is a little “w” or “u” sound that is “built in” when pronouncing them, and therefore there is no need to write a separate “u” (so the orthography can save a letter, i.e., save space, and the writer can save time). However, to be quite honest, I must confess that I don’t completely believe my own explanation. Why? Because it is actually phonetically quite possible to pronounce “bo po mo fo” WITHOUT the labialization (as is the case in several Chinese dialects); and vice versa, it is impossible for a native Mandarin speaker to pronounce “duo” or “tuo” or “nuo” without the labialization; so why not just write “do” “to” and “no” instead of standard Pinyin “duo” “tuo” and “nuo”? I don’t have an easy answer to that question. So I suppose I’ll just continue to tell students there is no “u” in “bo po mo fo” because those are labial initials…

  40. JS said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 11:06 pm

    While bo/po/mo/fo rhyme with duo/tuo etc. in MSM, these two groups are sharply distinct in many Mandarin dialects of the Northeast — I cannot say for certain that the former rhyme with de/te etc. in those parts, but they certainly come close. My (entirely unsubstantiated) assumption had thus always been that the Pinyin for these syllables had been formulated with the idea of providing separate spellings for each of these three categories of final ("Qieyun" style!), as "close-to-standard" varieties made two different sorts of distinctions (with the possibility that all three groups were once, somewhere, distinct).

  41. joe said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 8:03 am

    thanks for responses.

    after i posted my puzzle about the bo busienss yesterday, i thought about it more. there is something else about this mo business i would like to mention. i am not sure it has anything to do with pin yin design.

    here is the thing. when i was learning pin yin at primary school, we had chinese characters to go with these pin yin letters. for b, p, m, f, we had chinese words 波坡摸佛. for d, t, n, l, we had 得特呢勒. the chinese words here are probably not i used at that time. but the point is, every pin yin element has a chinese character to go with it. but the trange thing is, chinese does not have any word to go with b, p, m, f that rhymes with d, t, n, l, and g, k, h. so they have to be bo, po, mo, fo in the original design so that there can be chinese words to go with b, p, m, f. with chinese words to go with pin yin, people can certainly have much less difficulty to master the pin yin system.

    as we practice b, p, m, f, we are actually saying bo, po, mo, fo (or buo, puo, muo, fuo). as we say d, t, n, l, we actually say de, te, ne, le, but when b, p, m, f work with other pin yins such as ang, the o following b, p, m, f is gone. so when we say pin yin of bang or gang, we say bo ang bang and de ang dang. where is the o in bang and where is the e in dang? when they work with other pin yin, they work exactly as they do in english.

    for this reason, i guess that when the pin yin system was on the drawing board, the scholars went out of their way to use chinese words to decide how these pin yin "letters" should sound individually and how they should sound collectively.

    this is my guess. i could be totally wrong about this.

  42. Victor Mair said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 10:07 am


    Pinyin is one word, not two.

  43. joe said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

    @ Victor Mair

    拼音 are two words, not one.

  44. Victor Mair said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 10:26 pm


    No, 拼音 are two characters, but one word. Check the Xiandai Hanyu cidian 现代汉语词典 or any other reliable dictionary of modern Chinese. Do you not know the difference between a zì 字 ("character") and a cí 词 ("word"), between a zìdiǎn 字典 ("character dictionary") and a cídiǎn 词典 ("word dictionary")?

  45. joe said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 10:45 pm

    @ Victor Mair

    i know 新华字典, which is a reliable and government-sanctioned (i assume) dictionary of words. i know chinese 字 and chinese 词。i doubt the wisdom and academic grounds in calling 中国字 as chinese characters in english. and i doubt the wisdom and academic grounds in using the english word character as a yardstick to determine 中国字 are merely a word.

    let's take a look at an online dictionary.


    what it requires a searcher to do is to input a key word. what we get as search results are a great number of 词.

    the conclusion can i draw here, if in a simplistic way, the results are all 词 composed of words.

    so we come back to the yardstick issue. is the english word character the last say on 字?

    if yes, why?

  46. joe said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 10:53 pm

    i don't know whether it is right to say in the final analysis here, but in the final analysis, do we need the english word character as a yardstick in chinese linguistics? and do we have every reason to embrace it as the yardstick? is it right, academically or otherwise, to apply english linguistics and its rules to the study of the chinese language and say it is the last say on the issue?

  47. joe said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 11:14 pm

    let me use this dictionary and input 打. the page lists 100 词. are we sure that we have nothing but 100 words here? if yes, how do we use them to create sentences? and what part do they play in a sentence? and when they appear in sentences, do these sentences and these so called words stand grammatical analysis?

  48. joe said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 11:23 pm

    what do we say when we translate in a word for word style? we need to examine the idea of "word for word" closely. does the linguistic decision applies here? when we translate chinese into english or english into chinese and if we are following a word for word guideline, what do we do and what do we get as a result? we do it in a character for word or word for character style. that partly illustrates that a chinese 字 is equal to an english word. if we follow a word for word translation guideline and if we think the 100 词 listed in the above-mentioned page are nothing but chinese words, what do we get if we translate them into english in a word for word style?

  49. joe said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 11:38 pm

    one more thing:
    about reliable dictionaries published in china. they are reliable not because they champion the idea that chinese 字 should be translated as character in english and that chinese 词 should be translated as word in english. they are reliable for other reasons. their merits are not bilingual studies or make linguistic judgments and bilingual analysis.

  50. Victor Mair said,

    October 17, 2012 @ 7:20 am

    @ joe

    There are countless bilingual dictionaries in China that make the same contrast between zì 字 ("character") and cí 词 ("word") that I've been trying to tell you about in this series of exchanges and in previous exchanges with you on this subject.

    Perhaps you are unaware that, before the 20th century, Chinese did not have the concept of "word", and so they got along with the concepts of zì 字 ("character") and cí 辭 ("phrase, diction"). However, in the 20th century modern linguistics was introduced to China, and scholars who studied language added to the graph cí 词 the meaning of "word". I suppose you want to go back to the time before the 20th century when China had no word for "word". Unfortunately, this is Language Log, and we deal with modern linguistics.

    Maybe you're opposed to the concept of "word" on political grounds as well, since the government of China long ago promulgated an official set of orthographic rules (zhèngcífǎ 正词法) which explains the difference between zì 字 ("character") and cí 词 ("word"), how to link up syllables and put spaces between words, and so forth. If you want to know where to find these rules, I'll tell you, though I've mentioned them many times before on Language Log, so I think you can find them easily if you're willing to acquaint yourself with modern linguistic science as it exists in China and the world today. If you don't want to become familiar with modern language studies, that why do you keep coming to Language Log and writing your outmoded comments here?

  51. joe said,

    October 17, 2012 @ 8:51 am

    @ victor mair

    what you are talking about is the romanization of chinese words. i know 说文解字, a dictionary made about 2,000 years ago. we chinese have the concept 字 and have been using it for several thousand years. it's still authoritative. if a government agency makes a bunch of rules of romanizing chinese so that they look like western, but that does not mean that romanized pin yin things are chinese. i can write english words in chinese words, but i can set up a bunch of rules, but that does not mean that i can say this sinized english words are any good.

    正词法 is a group of translation rules for translating 汉字 into pin yin. 正词法 does not necessarily mean it is the rules how to write 汉字 or how to judge what 字 is. that does not automatically mean that this is the final say on 字 or word. my opinion here is reverse engineering does not work here.

    i didn't start this this time. but since you started this thread of issues by saying "pinyin is one word", i have posted a few concrete valid and academically legit questions above and i would like to see a few answers that are good enough to enlighten me. i really wish to get enlightened on the questions. i hope no one would act like a coward and dare not face the challenge and 顾左右而言他 by avoiding answering questions and suggesting why don't you go away.

    i really feel sorry for having unexpectedly heard some bad words, bad accusations, and bad comments. behind which i see something that does not go with civility and geniality.

    if you do understand chinese, write in chinese and try to explain your chinese linguistics without using any english word. let us see how well your theory and system stand up after they are applied to the way chinese people use chinese actually and after they are applied to the chinese you write.

    if some chinese scholars and government agencies happen to agree with you, that does not necessarily mean that they are right about you or about chinese. i have seen too much about how some chinese scholars could be wrong academically and how some decision makers and their decisions on academic issues could be wrong.

    chinese is a language that goes back to thousands of years. if any modern linguistics on chinese does not handle this ancient history by hiding behind a wall called modern linguistics, well, what can i say?

    of course i may be totally wrong. but how i am wrong can't be dismissed by simply saying "your outmoded comments" or something i read in your posts before this time. i know my comments aren't all outmoded, though my understanding of some issues may be proved incorrect. but we are all humans.

  52. Mark S. said,

    October 17, 2012 @ 9:31 am

    "正词法 is a group of translation rules for translating 汉字 into pin yin."
    No, it isn't. Hanyu Pinyin is an efficient and standardized way of writing modern standard Mandarin — a language, not a bunch of Chinese characters — using the Roman alphabet. Trying to approach Pinyin in terms of Chinese characters is taking the wrong path, one that leads only to confusion — an extremely common confusion, but confusion nonetheless.

    Nor is Pinyin "translation." Nor is it English (or French or German or Swahili or Vietnamese…).

    If every single Chinese character disappeared from the face of the earth tomorrow, Mandarin would still be a language and it would still have words, the vast majority of which are of more than one syllable. If every single Roman letter were to do the same, English would still be a language and it would still have words.

  53. Victor Mair said,

    October 17, 2012 @ 11:02 am


    I think you need to take into account the fact that modern Chinese languages have evolved to be radically different from Classical Chinese (in morphology, phonology, lexicon, grammar, and syntax). But even Classical Chinese had many disyllabic words (e.g., those for "spider", "earthworm", "coral", "butterfly", "meandering", and countless others). In any event, the average length of a word in Modern Standard Mandarin is almost exactly two syllables. Shuowen jiezie does not apply to modern Chinese languages, though you may still use it as a reference for the discussion of the history of Chinese characters, but it is not very accurate even for that purpose, since it is innocent of any knowledge about the oracle bone forms of the characters.

  54. Victor Mair said,

    October 17, 2012 @ 2:00 pm


    "what you are talking about is the romanization of chinese words."

    Apollo Wu (Wu Wenchao), Chow Tse-tsung, and others — some of whom are outstanding specialists in Classical Chinese and Chinese history — have written texts with Chinese characters using word spacing, so this is not merely a matter of romanization, nor is it something done exclusively by Westerners. Rather, writing Chinese employing word spacing — whether with Chinese characters or with Roman letters — is something done by those who recognize that Chinese languages, like all other languages, have words, and that many of these words are of more than one syllable in length. This polysyllabicity of words in Chinese languages does not negate the fact that the basic units of writing these languages may be single characters or single letters. Nor does the fact that the basic units of writing Chinese languages may be single characters or single letters negate the polysyllabicity of words in Chinese languages. Naturally, as in other languages, some Chinese words are monosyllabic and some are polysyllabic. Finally, as Mark Swofford eloquently pointed out, people do not speak characters or letters, they speak languages. Human beings spoke languages long before they wrote them, and many people in the world still speak languages without regard to writing. One should not confuse writing systems with languages.

  55. Victor Mair said,

    October 17, 2012 @ 3:32 pm

    from Yunong Zhou, a senior lecturer in Chinese from the PRC:

    “拼音” is "Pinyin". Since it's a proper noun, the initial P should be capitalized, the same as with the initial capital of Zhongguo ("China").

    Writing “拼音” as "pin yin", "Pin-Yin", and so forth are all incorrect. These forms are often the result of people in Taiwan and Hong Kong using Pinyin but without following its spelling rules.

    We may also note that last month the government of China issued new rules for Pinyin orthography, according to which personal names of Chinese should have the surname in front of the given name, e.g., Ye Shiwen.

  56. Victor Mair said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 5:53 am


    People would take what you post more seriously if you would carefully read what the other commenters have written and respond to the information they have provided. Please do not ignore the comments of other readers and please do not keep repeating yourself.

    Before you make another comment in this thread or on other Language Log posts, as you have done so often and repetitively, please contact Pinyin Joe (your alter ego) for help:

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