Phonetic annotation of Chinese characters

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Here is the name card of one of the officers at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Boston.

Nearly every literate person who receives this card would pronounce her name, 黃薳玉, as Huáng Yuǎnyù, but they would be wrong.

The correct pronunciation of the officer's name is Huáng Wěiyù. Since most people would not be familiar with the second character of her name, they would just guess at the pronunciation on the basis of its resemblance to the very common character yuǎn 遠 ("distant; far"), which appears to be functioning as the phonophore beneath the "grass" radical at the top. Because the poor officer undoubtedly has had countless people refer to her as Huáng Yuǎnyù rather than as Huáng Wěiyù (her real name), she has added the phonetic annotation "Wěi", which is indicated by the three symbols (two letters and a tonal diacritical mark), to the right of the character in question. Unfortunately, the symbols she has used (so-called bopomofo or Zhùyīn fúhào 注音符號) are familiar only to a very small number of people outside of Taiwan.

I have long been a strong advocate of using Hanyu Pinyin (the official romanization of the People's Republic of China) for the phonetic annotation of Mandarin texts (the same way that Japanese use furigana). See, for example, this post: "How to learn to read Chinese".

I am pleased to report that, since I wrote that post in 2008, we now have more and more pinyin annotated pedagogical materials, such as the wonderful series of Chinese biographies edited by my colleague, Grace Wu, and published by Cheng & Tsui, based in Boston. I wish to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Jill Cheng, founder and publisher of Cheng & Tsui, whose original bookstore I visited in the garage of her house on a bitterly cold winter's day 40 years ago. What we need now are publishers of similar vision in mainland China.

[A tip of the hat to Neil Kubler]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 7:52 am

    See also "Nontrivial script fail"

  2. Ted said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 8:47 am

    All of which makes her email address that much more perplexing.

  3. Wells said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 9:06 am

    Hmmm…. agreed…. but in the Taiwan context, it is not unusual to see the Chinese phonetics just to the right of the character, exactly as you see here. My guess is that many of us who learned Mandarin on the island learned the phonetics alongside the characters. I have no disagreement with your point about Pinyin. Still, westerners learn the phonetics (if they choose) in Mandarin university programs on Taiwan, and I believe that all school kids on the island do as well. The card seemed perfectly normal to me. I think your claims about "nearly every literate person" would probably be wrong on the island, but you seem to know that.

  4. Mike said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 9:25 am

    Dr. Mair, a link in your 2008 post leads to an article on complex characters, to which this comment is made:

    The writer is saying that ZHE2 (talkative) is made up the character for "thunder" repeated four times in a quadrangle. I've never seen characters like that before. Is this correct?

  5. Gianni said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 9:53 am

    Since the pronunciation yuǎn for the second character is "unmarked", namely, everyone's first natural reaction, she has to add bopomofo to actually "mark" this character in her name, leaving other two characters unmarked.

    This reminds me of Dr. Prager Branner's 2011 research on these seemingly right but actually wrong pronunciation such as xúnmá for qiánmá 蕁麻. In one word, the phonophores are unreliable!

  6. Victor Mair said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 10:36 am


    Yes, there certainly are many characters like that (several horses, several women, several dragons, etc.).

  7. Mike said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 12:19 pm

    @VM: Thank you. For the uninitiated like me, a description is here:

  8. Plane said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 1:54 pm

    Phonophore? Does that pair with semaphore?

    I've seen a few different bits of terminology used to describe semantic-phonetic characters, but phonophore is new to me. I dutifully tried to look it up, and failed. (At least, the definition I found appears to use a different sense of the word than is used here.)

  9. Dan Lufkin said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 2:58 pm

    Plane — Split phono phore and look up the parts separately. Phono- = sound and -phore = carrier.

  10. Plane said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 3:05 pm

    I figured that out when I looked up semaphore at etymonline, which showed sema "sign, signal" + phoros "bearer". (Though the meaning of phonophore was obvious, I think, without analyzing it.)

    Anyway, that's why I guessed it paired with semaphore, but I asked because I couldn't find any instances of semaphore and phonophore paired on Google, so I thought my guess might be wrong.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 9:37 pm

    As noted above, "every literate person" who learned to read Mandarin under the auspices of the ROC government can presumably read bopomofo. If you worked for the ROC government, that might be good enough for you, just as you would not use simplified characters on your card just to make it easier to read for those with the misfortune of having been educated elsewhere. I assume that if she's based in Boston she must have another business card for the benefit of those of us who are literate in languages other than Mandarin, which I assume, as is traditional for personal names of people from Taiwan, would be in a transliteration other than hanyu pinyin. (One reads that the KMT has now nominally endorsed pinyin, but the current ROC president is a KMT guy and he is still Ma Ying-Jeoh rather than Yingjiu on his official website.) Presented with this business card, I would address her as either "Cynthia" or "ma'am."

  12. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 10:51 pm

    I do think it's a shame that Bopomofo will never be adopted in the PRC for purely political reasons rather than due to any inherent flaws in the script. As the personal card above shows, one of its chief advantages over Pinyin is that it is equally intelligible written vertically or horizontally. It's also more compact: Pinyin syllables can be up to six characters long (e.g. zhuāng) whereas the maximum for a Bopomofo syllable is three (cf. ㄓㄨㄤ).

    Perhaps Mainlanders could copy the example of the ROC government and design a "Pīnyīn Fúhào" which is all but identical to Bopomofo save one or two cosmetic alterations.

  13. michael farris said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 1:22 am

    I'll admit that when I first saw the card I thought the middle character was just an unusually cumbersome character (that is I thought the bopomofo was part of the character)

    I always thought it would be cool to mush up bopomofo into single syllables like Korean. Probably not a good idea, but…

    I personally (being 99.91 percent illiterate in Chinese) think that bopomofo works better as annotation than pinyin (I think mixing latin alphabet and chinese is kind of inherently ugly looking).

    On the other hand, pinyin has the ability to stand on its own as a functioning writing system which bopomofo doesn't (yet and probably never).

    Maybe a three script solution? Characters (annotated with bopomofo when necessary) and hanyu pinyin for other, non-character, purposes?

  14. Vanya said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 2:11 am

    I agree with Daniel. Bopomofo really is a more sensible system for writing Mandarin than Pinyin, just as the kana systems work better for Japanese than Romaji.

  15. joanne salton said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 7:17 am

    Sensible it may be, in itself, but I have spent a certain amount of time attempting to learn it and since forgotten it all again. There is very little likelihood that very many people are going to bother making that reasonably taxing effort in future, and suggestions otherwise don't seem all that sensible to me I'm afraid.

  16. Jason said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 11:22 am

    @ Wells Now many textbooks used by foreigners studying Mandarin in Taiwan have both bopomofo and Hanyu Pinyin; from what I can tell, most foreigners use Hanyu Pinyin.

  17. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 1:28 pm

    On the other hand, pinyin has the ability to stand on its own as a functioning writing system which bopomofo doesn't (yet and probably never).

    I'm curious what makes you say that. I've seen books written entirely in Bopomofo before; it doesn't strike me as in any less fit for purpose in that regard than Hanyu Pinyin or–for that matter–kana in the case of Japanese.

    Sensible it may be, in itself, but I have spent a certain amount of time attempting to learn it and since forgotten it all again.

    I've had the same problem with the kana. Fundamentally, I'm not all that interested in reading and writing Japanese, so I don't get the kind of reinforcement necessary to make those arbitrary squiggles stick in my head.

    Bopomofo is easier for me because of the more transparent relationships between them and the characters from which they were derived. I look at, say, ㄨ and immediately think of 五. I don't have the same experience when I look at う.

  18. Andrew H. said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 7:01 pm

    Unfortunately, the symbols she has used (so-called bopomofo or Zhùyīn fúhào 注音符號) are familiar only to a very small number of people outside of Taiwan.

    While an MBA student I audited a pre-modern Chinese fiction course that used all Taiwan-published materials with traditional characters and bopomofo marks to the side. I read traditional Chinese characters fairly well, but obviously there were a number I couldn't recognize. To my chagrine, however, all of the undergrads dutifully read their passages aloud with no problem at all! The heritage speakers I could understand, but the others?

    After a couple of meetings, however, I realized it was because the school included bopomofo as part of the Chinese language curriculum. I don't think that's particularly common, but it paid dividends for those students in that case.

  19. Bruce said,

    October 17, 2012 @ 4:08 am

    Personal names and railway timetables seem to be twin obstacles to reduction in the character counts in common use. I don't have examples at hand but I remember that the original PRC GB2312 character set omitted names for certain places in the railway system. I don't know what they did about that. Used substitutes? Printed the timetables with a more powerful system?

  20. michael farris said,

    October 17, 2012 @ 9:17 am

    "I've seen books written entirely in Bopomofo before"

    I had no idea usage was that extensive. I was under the expression is was an auxiliary only (and used for things like alphabetization which is very clumsy with characters).

    Any links to online texts in Bpmf?

  21. Stephen Zweig said,

    October 29, 2012 @ 3:42 am

    "I've seen books written entirely in Bopomofo before; it doesn't strike me as in any less fit for purpose in that regard than Hanyu Pinyin or–for that matter–kana in the case of Japanese."

    Pinyin does have more advantages if we compare it to Zhuyin in terms of their functions as a writing system and a teaching aid. First, whether we record Chinese languages in an alphabet (like pinyin) or semi-syllabary (like zhuyin) they both need defined rules of orthography. In this case, only Pinyin has orthography and division between words. While you can still make orthography rules for Zhuyin, word divisions in Zhuyin are not as efficient as in Pinyin. For example, "这儿" is "zhèr" in Pinyin and "ㄓㄜˋㄦ" in Zhuyin. In Pinyin you can see that the two characters are one syllable while in Zhuyin "这儿" can be either "zhèr" or "zhè er." Although this doesn't always cause ambiguity and Zhuyin can include the syllable as a whole as in "ㄓㄜㄦˋ." However, I believe rules regarding erhua syllables haven't been made as clear as Pinyin. Second of all, Pinyin is flexible because many sounds can be made with the limited letters of the system. On the other hand, Zhuyin will need to add a new syllable for each new sounds. Interjections can even be harder to record accurately in Zhuyin:

  22. Stephen Zweig said,

    October 29, 2012 @ 3:43 am

    Pinyin – IPA – Character
    1. yo – [jɔ] – 哟、唷
    2. lo – [lo] – 咯
    3. hm – [hm] – 噷?
    4. hng – [hŋ] – 哼
    5. m – [m] – 呒
    6. ng – [ŋ] – 嗯

    Also, instead of learning new symbols you can just associate new sounds to the letters you already knew. Nevertheless, Zhuyin has advantage over Pinyin as ruby character. Although with the help of good typography Pinyin can also function as efficient as Zhuyin in this use.

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