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A romanization system is basically a system in which roman (latin) letters are used for languages that use non-roman scripts. This has the obvious benefit that people who can (maybe only) read roman letters (a great part of the world's population) will be able to read it. But people who don't know the language being romanized will pronounce roman letters as they pronounce them in their language or in a general common pronunciation shared by romance languages and english, mainly.

So I've heard people pronounce Chinese names wrong each and every time, when those names have letters like B, D, ZH, C, Q, X and G. This letters are obviously pronounced very different in Pinyin than in any other language, so why were they chosen?

I know that if one were to choose roman letters that sound like Chinese phonemes and not repeating those letters, the roman alphabet just isn't large enough for all Chinese phonemes, but anyway, a foreign speaker shouldn't need to distinguish Q from CH and ZH, especially if they were not to learn the language, but just to pronounce some Chinese names right.

What I think is, Pinyin is great for Chinese learners, who need to tell apart sounds like G & K; Q, CH & ZH; and SH & X, but for foreign readers, a simplified Pinyin should be used.
So if someone who doesn't know chinese, reads "qing xin", they would pronounce "king ksin", but rather, if it was written "ching shin" they would read it right, at least the best way a non-Chinese speaker can.

TL;DR: Sorry for the long post, but the question would be, do you know why this foreigner-confusing letters as Q, X and C were chosen for Pinyin instead of making it more readable for non-chinese speakers?

Edit:
This would be a Relaxed Pinyin which would just allow a better pronunciation of Chinese names for people that don't know Pinyin:

Pinyin - Relaxed Pinyin
B        P
C        TS
CH       CH
D        T
G        K
K        K
P        P
Q        CH
SH       SH
T        T
X        SH
Z        TS
ZH       CH

Of course, you can't go back from this to Pinyin because some letters represent more than one Piyin letter.

So, for example, the Pinyin qīng xiāo which would be incorrectly pronounced by someone who doesn't know Pinyin, would be written ching shiao in a Relaxed Pinyin, which would allow them to pronunce Chinese in the most possibly correct way they could, without having to learn anything they don't already know.

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Since you are from Argentina, you should know that roman letters are not pronounced the same in all the roman letter-based languages. "r" in Spanish is very different from "r" in French, which itself is different from "r" in English, etc. –  this.lau_ Dec 27 '11 at 15:07
    
Of course I know that, and you chose the R example wisely, because it's the one chinese sound that doesn't have a match in nearly no other language. But for the letters I mention, there's a general common shared pronunciation, not the exact same, but a fairly common, don't think discrete, think continuous :D –  Petruza Dec 27 '11 at 17:34

5 Answers 5

up vote 9 down vote accepted

I have never found a reasoning on how Pinyin was created, but as Alenanno says, there have been predecessors and people working on the Pinyin standard already had some experience with existing systems. Some sounds can probably be mapped to similar IPA notation, while others seem totally off.

From my own reasoning I'd say there are at least two arguments that may speak for the possibly awkward choice of letters:

  1. Whatever letters you chose, you could quite possibly only satisfy the pronunciation system of one language. And given that many sounds of Mandarin cannot be pronounced by non-native speakers, why even try to find "closer" matches (in whatever metrics you would define)? After all Pinyin was developed to map all Putonghua sounds to Roman letters in a bijective fashion. It is used to teach millions of Chinese school children, not only for foreigners to pronounce.
  2. There are 26 Roman letters. Without wanting to introduce too many diacritics, you need to map all the sounds to this limited set. There are already "overloaded" letters like 'e' having different pronunciations or simplifications like the sound 'ü' becoming 'u' (e.g. "yu" vs. "nü"). Any more tweaks will make the overall system more complicated.

There are, by the way, academic studies on how Pinyin "letter mismatch" complicates the acquisition of Mandarin for western speakers. I'll look for them if you want more details.

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Yes, I'd love to read such studies, thanks! –  Petruza Dec 26 '11 at 22:37
    
I will look for the article. Do remind me if I fail to answer. –  cburgmer Dec 27 '11 at 18:27
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You failed to answer. :D –  Petruza Sep 8 '12 at 21:25
    
Sorry, you are right. So the book is stored away somewhere. Here's what I could find online: blcup.com/en/list_1.asp?id=1783 The Cognition, Learning and Teaching of Chinese Characters, Guder et al. One article is about doing tests on how students pronounce Pinyin incorrectly following hints derived from their native language (it might have been Italian). –  cburgmer Sep 10 '12 at 11:49
    
I found pinyin "letter mismatch" so disruptive, that I deliberately learned zhuyin (bopomofo), which I found to really help clarify the sounds by letting me get away from roman letters that meant very different things to me. –  juckele Dec 14 '12 at 15:56

Pinyin, like other written systems, is an arbitrary system, and the corresponding sounds were expressly decided. It seems it was based on preexisting systems: Gwoyeu Romatzyh of 1928, Latinxua Sin Wenz of 1931, and the diacritic markings from Zhuyin (also known as Bopomofo).

But the same problem you highlight in your question happens when learning any other language. For example, I'm Italian and when learning English I had to learn that:

  • "th" can have different pronunciations, that vs thick;
  • "ou" has several pronunciations according to the word: though, foul, through;
  • "c" is not just "tch" or "k" sound but also "s": center;
  • etc...

With Spanish, other sounds, such as "j" in joven, or with french, with "ç" in "ça va?", etc.

So why pinyin with Chinese should be different? A certain system has been decided, all that is left to do is for you to learn that system and learn to distinguish the sounds described in Pinyin from those in your language.

I think the "confusion" is for anyone that decides to learn Chinese (and therefore, Pinyin) regardless of your mother tongue (if not from asian countries): some sounds correspond to a certain language, others to another language and so on, so everyone has some advantage. The sounds that really differ are a few, and you have the same chance of finding them when learning other languages too.

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The difference is that Pinyin is a romanization system while Spanish, English and Italian are not. Languages weren't created for foreigners to be able to read them, whereas Pinyin, supposedly, is. Pinyin is great for chinese students, as I am, but not for foreigners that want to pronounce chinese names right. –  Petruza Dec 26 '11 at 17:46
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Ok, but then we would need to create a different pinyin for each other language and that was my point: each of us has different rules when it comes to reading. If Chinese had to satisfy each of us, there would be a "french pinyin", a "spanish pinyin", an "italian pinyin", and so on. While now there's only one and all you need to do is learn it. The references are plenty. –  Alenanno Dec 26 '11 at 18:03
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No, not each of us, but C, Q and X have a pretty standard common pronunciation across many languages and it happens to be quite different from Pinyin's. I know Pinyin and it works great for me, what I say is it doesn't work very well for people that don't learn chinese. –  Petruza Dec 26 '11 at 19:04
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Q and ZH are not the same sound, so using only "CH" for both would not be enough. Besides, in italian "CH" is "K", in french it's roughly "SH" and in german it's a voiceless velar frcative, like in "ICH". Only in Spanish it is "tch" as in "watch". Note that "TS" is not necessarily the same as "C" in Chinese. Again, we go back to the point: you want to base pinyin on european languages. Pinyin is not there for who doesn't learn Chinese, but to provide a small aid for those who are learning it. –  Alenanno Dec 26 '11 at 22:46
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I guess we have to agree to disagree... :) But don't you think that SH for both "SH" and "X" is confusing? They're not the same sounds, why would you use the same letters? –  Alenanno Dec 26 '11 at 22:56

I vaguely remember reading that Pinyin was developed originally to teach Chinese to Russians, so some of the sounds are based on Russian sounds. I'm not sure how the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets were mapped.

From a brief browse through Wikipedia articles on Pinyin and Sin Wenz the Russian connection sounds reasonable, but I can't find any details to confirm my memory. I suspect I originally read about it in either The Man Who Loved China, or one of Peter Hessler's books.

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Well this actually makes sense of the choice of using zh which is the same romanization and it's kind of a plosive version of Ж –  Petruza Dec 27 '11 at 17:42

Pinyin was designed primarily as a writing system for Chinese speakers to use, and to help children who speak other dialects to learn Mandarin. As such, making it easy for foreigners was not a particular priority.

In any case, different languages use the Roman letters differently, so what would be obvious choice? For example, in different languages J can pronounced like in the English words lo*ch* (Spanish), plea*s*ure (French), or *y*es (German and many other languages this side of Europe).

Consider also that Catalan pronounces X like 'sh', Polish pronounces C like 'ts', and Spanish pronounces Q like Italian pronounces CH, so these aren't terrible choices.

At least with Pinyin you can learn how to pronounce it properly, unlike Wade-Giles which, since it is almost never used correctly, leaves even proficient speakers making wild guesses.

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This is the key point - pinyin was not designed for foreign learners, but for the Chinese people themselves. –  neubau Dec 31 '13 at 5:50

The international phonetic alphabet would have been a great tool. I understand petruza's frustration completely. Names like Zhuang, Zhang, Zhou and Qing to name a few are almost always mispronounced. Tones and accents are not the problem, the accuracy of consonants needs to be brought in.

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