Substituting Pinyin for unknown Chinese characters

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On September 25, I posted on "Character amnesia and the emergence of digraphia", which occasioned a vigorous debate. A few of the commenters thought the essay in question wasn't actually written by a student. Be that as it may, this habit of replacing characters by Pinyin is becoming more and more common, especially among young students. Let us look at this scene from the Chinese documentary "Qǐng tóu wǒ yī piào" 请投我一票 (Please vote for me) at (34:29).

As part of an exercise in democracy, the boy is practicing the speech he wants to give since he's running for bānzhǎng 班长 ("class monitor"). As you can see, he replaces a couple of characters with the Pinyin equivalents.

Even adults do this in casual, informal, private situations (e.g., writing down shopping lists). Of course, they normally wouldn't want others to see them spelling things in Pinyin, for fear of being accused of not being fully literate in characters or of selling out the motherland to a foreign device. Never mind that Hanyu Pinyin is the official Romanization of Modern Standard Mandarin and that there are also official orthographic rules for word division, punctuation, and so forth). Here's the latest version (2012) of the orthographic rules.

An English translation (by John Rohsenow) of the previous edition (1996) of the orthographic rules is printed at the back of all ABC Chinese-English dictionaries from the University of Hawai'i Press.

Because of this increasing tendency for people to replace characters they cannot write with Pinyin (very much like kana in Japanese), not to mention the overwhelming use of Pinyin for inputting in computers and on cellphones, I think it is fair to speak of an emerging digraphia.

By the way, the documentary mentioned above begins with students being asked what "democracy" (mínzhǔ 民主) and "voting" (tóupiào" 投票) are. They don't have a clue.

[Thanks to Matt Kosko]


  1. Jeff Moore said,

    December 3, 2013 @ 3:13 am

    As you mentioned, Japanese speakers use kana in place of kanji they can't remember, but there are some other interesting replacements going on as well. 障害者(shougaisha/disabled person) is often written 障がい者 on official posters, in order to avoid having a character that connotes being "damaged". Do Chinese speakers ever do something similar in Pinyin?

  2. Thoreau Chen said,

    December 3, 2013 @ 8:07 am

    No matter whether the characters connote being something unlucky or not, Pinyin will never replace these characters, instead, we often some more suitable words or phrases to express the same meanings in the official documents.

  3. Thoreau Chen said,

    December 3, 2013 @ 8:43 am

    Sorry for the spelling mistakes. It should be "No matter whether the characters connote being something unlucky or not, Pinyin will never replace these characters, instead, we use more suitable words or phrases to express the same meanings in the official documents."

  4. Simon P said,

    December 4, 2013 @ 1:36 am

    This same phenomenon commonly occurrs in Cantonese, as well. Cantonese has of course the added problems of not having a standard way of writing many morphemes, and not having a commonly known phonetic transcription system. Systems like Yale and Jyutping are used only by scholars and second language learners. There are thus many morphemes that, while there exist quasi-standardized characters for them that can be found in dictionaries, are usually written with an approximation of English phonology. This of course creates its own problems since English might be the least phonologically spelled alphabetical language in history.

    So we get words like "hea", pronounced like "health" with a long "ea" and without the "lth". The common interjection written "aa" in Jyutping can be spelled "ar" (the 'r' is silent). The same phenomenon can be found in the southern Chinese kung fu style "hung gar", where "gar" is a trascription of 家 (pronounced "gaa1". Also "wor" (wo3). I've also seen "beu3" (to push, tackle) written as "beer". Other common words written in the latin scripts include "fing" (to toss around) and "fit" (揸fit: to take charge).

  5. Rodger C said,

    December 4, 2013 @ 8:32 am

    English might be the least phonologically spelled alphabetical language in history.


  6. Mr Punch said,

    December 4, 2013 @ 11:16 am

    English is certainly not spelled very phonologically in general, but it seems to me that the situation is made worse when English people (but not non-rhotic Americans) insist on inserting the unpronounced r in their approximations of other languages.

  7. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    December 4, 2013 @ 3:18 pm

    Calling it 'the unpronounced r' is deceptive. It's unpronounced in the sense that no distinct sound corresponds to it, but it modifies the vowel, so naturally it is used in approximations of other languages to represent the modified vowel. It's true that a non-rhotic pronunciation of, say, 'barn' could be represented without an r, by writing 'bahn'. But I see no way of representing a non-rhotic pronunciation of 'nurse' without an r.

  8. Matt_M said,

    December 4, 2013 @ 8:13 pm

    @Andrew: and writing "bahn" might fix the "problem" of an "unpronounced r", but it does so only by introducing an "unpronounced h".

    To expand on your point, English spelling (and English-based transliterations of non-European languages) is full of "unpronounced h's": think of the spellings of church, ship, and think, for example. "Ch", "sh" and "th", of course, are better thought of as digraphs, but then so are "ar" and "or" in the spellings of the words "hung gar" and "wor" noted by Simon above. These spellings only have an "unpronounced r" in the same sense that the pinyin spelling "shang" for 上 has an "unpronounced h" and an "unpronounced g".

  9. wgj said,

    December 5, 2013 @ 9:06 am

    That download link for the latest Pinyin orthographic rules no long works. Any alternative download?

  10. Levantine said,

    December 5, 2013 @ 11:32 am

    Mr Punch, can you provide an example of what you mean? Are you talking about such cases as 'Park' for the Korean surname? If so, I don't really see the problem — it's an established and useful convention in British English, and one that is utilised also in the spelling of native sounds (BrE 'er' and 'erm' as compared with AmE 'uh' and 'um'). American approximations of other languages often assume the distinctive American pronunciation of O (AmE 'god' more or less rhymes with RP 'guard'), so there's 'blame' to be shared on all sides.

  11. Levantine said,

    December 5, 2013 @ 11:37 am

    A good example of such American approximations is 'kebob' for what in British English is rendered 'kebab'. The first actually sounds closer to the original source language(s), but only if the person saying it knows how the American O is pronounced.

  12. Lazar said,

    December 5, 2013 @ 11:58 am

    @Levantine: For whatever reason, though, "Park" is just as common here in North America (with the /r/ pronounced). It seems to be overwhelmingly preferred to "Pak" among people of Korean descent here (e.g. the actresses Grace Park and Linda Park), perhaps because it looks more like an English name.

  13. Levantine said,

    December 5, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

    Lazar, I was watching an American TV show with an immigrant Korean character in it, and I noticed that she spoke with a non-rhotic accent. I don't know if this reflects the pronunciation of first-generation Korean Americans more generally, but if it does, it may help explain why 'Park' is common in the States too. I agree, though, that the anglicised appearance of the spelling may also have contributed to its popularity vis-à-vis 'Pak'.

  14. julie lee said,

    December 5, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

    "Kebob" and "kebab" reminds me of something I saw this morning in the newspaper, San Francisco Chronicle. The Lama Bean restaurant in Berkeley has "shawerma ($14)" on its menu. The picture shows something I've always seen spelled as "shwarma" in restaurants–roasted meat wrapped in flatbread.

  15. julie lee said,

    December 5, 2013 @ 1:11 pm

    Re "Pak" vs "Park" in Korean. There is the surname "Ma" in Mandarin. The character is the word for "horse", ma. I have a friend who spells his name Ma as Marr.

  16. Levantine said,

    December 5, 2013 @ 1:23 pm

    julie lee, I wonder if the variant spellings of what in Standard Arabic is 'shawarma' reflects pronunciational differences across Arabic dialects. In the UK, the same kind of kebab is known as 'doner' (pronounced the same as 'Donna'), from the Turkish word 'döner', meaning 'turning'. Arabic 'shawarma' may itself derive from Turkish 'çevirme', which again means 'turning'.

  17. Lazar said,

    December 5, 2013 @ 1:34 pm

    In the US that kind of kebab is sold in various places as a "gyro" or "shawarma", with the term "döner" not being so widely known. I've even seen places that sell both gyros and shawarmas, distinguished (I think) by the use of tzatziki in the former and tahini in the latter.

  18. Levantine said,

    December 5, 2013 @ 1:51 pm

    Lazar, that's a fascinating distinction! I thought the choice of name merely reflected the ethnic background of the seller. In the UK, even Greek and Arab restaurants sell the product as 'doner', as the other names are virtually unknown.

  19. julie lee said,

    December 5, 2013 @ 4:05 pm

    I learned the word "shwarma" (or "shawarma" ?) in the Golders Green part of London, in small Jewish restaurants that I lunched at.

    Thanks for explaining Arabic" shawarma", Turkish "doner", and Turkish cevirme. And @Lazar, thanks for "gyro". These terms have puzzled me. There were lots of Turkish restaurants in Golders Green too.

  20. Levantine said,

    December 5, 2013 @ 9:22 pm

    julie lee, thanks for explaining where you first encountered 'shwarma'. I'm surprised to hear that it was in London, as I've never myself seen the word used in the UK. Very interesting!

  21. JQ said,

    December 6, 2013 @ 2:41 am

    I have eaten sharwarmas (usually spelled that way) in most areas of London, particularly street stalls.

  22. Mark Dunan said,

    December 6, 2013 @ 9:46 am

    Two more pieces of trivia about kebabs: here in Japan they're always called "döner" (ドネル doneru in katakana; the umlaut is ignored) no matter the ethnicity of who's selling them.

    And when in Vienna a few years ago I found people calling them kebap. Given that in German a final b is devoiced (as are g and d), it's easy to understand people not knowing which the original spelling and pronunciation were!

  23. Levantine said,

    December 6, 2013 @ 10:10 am

    JQ, I stand corrected. I'm sure next time I'm in London (I grew up there but have been living in the States for seven years), I'll encounter lots of sh(a)warma stalls that I simply failed to notice before.

    Mark Dunan, the spelling you saw in Vienna is the Turkish spelling, which reflects the modern Turkish pronunciation of the word.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    December 9, 2013 @ 12:57 am

    Digraphia encouraged

  25. Adrian said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 7:46 am

    I won't put this on the latest threads because that would be even cheekier, but if someone could help Michael with this pottery mark that'd be very kind :)

  26. julie lee said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 8:14 pm

    I think the inscription in Chinese reads
    羊城戌辰年製 (yang-cheng xu-chen-nian zhi),literally "Yangcheng xuchen-year manufactured", which means "manufactured in the year xuchen in Yangcheng".
    "Xuchen" is the name of a year in the old lunar calendar. Yangcheng is a place-name.

  27. julie lee said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 8:21 pm

    p.s. The inscription is upside-down. Yangcheng 羊城 is another name for Gwangzhou (aka Canton), capital city of Gwangdong (Kwangtung) province.

  28. julie lee said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 8:32 pm

    pps. Oops, it should be "wu-chen year" (戊辰年) , not "xu-chen year" (戌辰年)。 I misread a character.

  29. julie lee said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 8:55 pm

    I just looked up Wikipedia for "wu-chen year" in the 60-year cycle of years in the Chinese calendar. One wu-chen year would be 1928, another would be 1928 + 60, or 1988, for example.

  30. hanmeng said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 6:16 am

    The boy's running for head honcho!

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