Now I know my ABCs (Pinyin)

Picture: Usborne Internet-Linked

Chinese–Mouth to Ear: Now I Know My ABCs

When I began my study of Russian, the alphabet was the first lesson. The instructor divided the letters into familiar-looking ones that stand for roughly the same sounds in English, unfamiliar-looking ones, and familiar-looking ones with different sounds than in English. The first set was easy. The second was only a bit more difficult. But the last set of letters caused problems until we became used to reading them in context.

I have a small vocabulary in Chinese and just enough knowledge to understand that our struggles with Russian pronunciation were nothing compared to beginners learning Chinese. This centuries-old language is logographic. That is, the characters themselves don’t have specific sounds—they represent concepts.

Even more interesting, each character can be pronounced different ways by different speaker groups. It’s much more than variations in accent, like someone from New England compared to someone from Alabama. The same characters actually correspond to entirely different sounds. In fact, speakers of Mandarin, for example, cannot understand speakers of Cantonese. It’s a difficult concept for someone who grew up speaking a language with an alphabet!

Very early Chinese characters were more pictographic, representing actual images of the concepts to be conveyed. Today’s Chinese is more logographic. That is, the characters represent concepts, not just objects. The logographic script shaped the culture because those who could read absorbed concepts directly from the characters. For centuries, reading and writing were rare and valued skills, necessary for commerce and government. Literacy was a sharp dividing line between the commoners and the elite.

One reason for this was the time involved in memorizing characters. Just as today’s immigrants to the U.S. find little time to learn English, the pressures of pursuing a living for one’s family left no spare time for study in China. For centuries, learning to read meant learning the characters one by one, mouth to ear, as someone pronounced and wrote them. Imagine memorizing the words in your mother language without the aid of phonics!

Learning to read was such a struggle that until the middle of the last century, the literacy rate in China was as low as 15 percent. It was then that the newly developed Communist government decided that the population needed to learn to read and write to bring the country into the twentieth century. It was an enormous task—one that could, perhaps, only have been accomplished by a totalitarian regime.

A phonetic script for Chinese characters had existed since the early 1900s. Called zhuyin fuhao or Bopomofo, it used portions of some Chinese characters as pronounced in Mandarin. Still in use in Taiwan, the phonetic representations are shown either to the right of each character or above it, depending on whether the writing is vertical or horizontal. The government, however, wanted to use the same representations as the West.

Enter Zhou Youguan. An economist by trade and an acquaintance of Zhou Enlai, China’s premier from 1949 to 1976, he was tasked with helping increase literacy by making it easier to learn to read the characters. He settled on the Roman alphabet and developed what is today called Pinyin. The system uses some of the characteristics of the Zhuyin alphabet but writes them with Roman letters.

Pinyin (meaning spelled sounds) was introduced in 1958 to help both children and foreigners learn to pronounce Chinese characters as Mandarin speakers do. Mandarin was chosen because it was the variety most used in government, although it is only one way the Chinese characters are pronounced. The Roman letters are used to represent approximately the same sounds they generally have in English and other languages.

Learning to read and write Chinese can still be a daunting task. There are about 50,000 characters, about 2,000 of which are in common use. These characters display in square blocks and are made up of roughly 214 components, although only about 100 components are regularly used. Because each character is a concept rather than a definition, they can be put together in numerous ways to create new concepts. For example, 女 is woman and 子 is child. Putting them together becomes 好, which means good.

I have a great deal of admiration for our Chinese linguists who interpret between the spoken languages, Cantonese or Mandarin, and another language. I find myself wondering about the mental processes required to move between symbols and words.

We are grateful to have their skills as we help clients determine what languages they need for their target markets.

Would you like to hear the different Chinese sounds? Request the graphic below.

Patricia May