Australian politician Zhenya Wang, sometimes called Dio Wang, Chinese name 王振亚, has his surname written in English as "Wang", but it's sometimes pronounced in English as "Wong". Another Australian politician used "Wong" in an English sentence, and was accused of getting his name wrong.

From an English speaker's perspective, a name written as "Wang" being pronounced "Wong" seems wrong, even by English's ghoti-y standards. Is there an explanation relating to the Chinese language for this, such as how Chinese speakers describe their name in Chinese with Pinyin?

Ideally, answers to this should be understandable for someone with no prior knowledge about Chinese.

  • 3
    "Wang" is written in the Pinyin system for transcribing the Mandarin pronunciations in PRC, Taiwan and Singapore. "Wong" is the Cantonese pronunciation, so in Hong Kong, the surname 王 is just written as "Wong" (but in Guangdong province in PRC, the area where Cantonese is spoken, most people don't follow this). I guess maybe in Australia there are many Chinese people calling him in Cantonese, so some English speakers follow the Cantonese pronunciation. – Stan Dec 3 '14 at 10:14
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    What may complicate this case is the fact that there is also the Australian senator Penny Wong, with the surname 黄 (i.e. different Chinese surname, different pronunciation in Mandarin but same in Cantonese, and romanised into English via Cantonese rather than standard Mandarin Pinyin). It may be a simple mistake. – Michaelyus Dec 3 '14 at 11:56
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    This question would be greatly improved if you clarified the actual pronunciations in question. "Wang" and "Wong" are spellings, and the way English-speakers pronounce them vary greatly (e.g., vowel /a/ vs /ɒ/ vs /æ/ vs /ɔ/). This confuses the issue and leads to people talking past one another. – Stumpy Joe Pete Dec 8 '14 at 20:15
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    We do not use "regional spellings" for Western names (George in French sounds different than in English), so we should not use it for Chinese names either. Stick to the ISO standard Mandarin pinyin for spelling Chinese names in transliteration, and then it is up to each individual to use a local pronunication, be it Kejia, Min or Cantonese. Also, do not reverse the name order. That is a perverse Japanese custom to adopt to Western tradition. The name is thus Wang Zhenya, and nothing else. Don't agree? Then at least be consistent, and also write Zedong Mao, Jinping Xi and Ming Yao. – user4452 Dec 8 '14 at 21:42
  • @倪阔乐 Hmmm... In France, my name would be Pierre. In Russia, Пётр (Pyotr). In Mexico, Pedro. In Greece, Πέτρος (Petros). While a Pinyin-based standard for transcribing Chinese names is convenient for me, saying that "regional spellings" do not exist for Western names is not really correct. – Stumpy Joe Pete Dec 8 '14 at 23:43

Pronunciation ≠ Spelling!

It's very important to distinguish spellings from pronunciations, so I'm using IPA throughout my answer. I don't know how you pronounce "wang" or "wong", but it's very likely that the closest pronunciation available in your dialect of English is neither of them.

Chinese pronunciations

I'm basing my IPA off of the Wikipedia help pages on IPA for Mandarin and IPA for Cantonese.

  • The Mandarin pronunciation of 王 (ignoring tones) is /wɑŋ/. I'm assuming this is the correct pronunciation of the politician's name.
  • The Cantonese pronunciation of 王 (ignoring tones) is /wɔːŋ/.

Chinese transliterations

  • The Pinyin (standard transliteration for Mandarin) spelling of 王 is "wang".
  • The Jyutping (standard transliteration for Cantonese) spelling of 王 is "wong".

English pronunciations

There are many dialects of English, and they have wildly divergent pronunciations. I'm basing my IPA choices off of this chart. If you're confused about what the "TRAP vowel" or "CLOTH vowel" mean, see this article on lexical sets. They're by far the easiest way to talk about English vowels.

I give the concrete pronunciations for RP (Received Pronunciation), GA (General American), and AuE (Australian English).

  • If "wang" is interpreted as having the TRAP vowel (i.e., the same vowel as "bank" or "hang"), then:

    • RP = /wæŋ/, GA = /wæŋ/, AuE = /wæŋ/
    • This pronunciation is not the correct pronunciation of the politician's name.
  • Some people who are more savvy to transliterations and loan words might approach "a"s in unfamiliar foreign words as being the PALM vowel (i.e., same vowel as "father"). Then "wang" becomes:

    • RP = /wäːŋ/, GA = /wɑŋ/ or /wäŋ/, AuE = /wɑːŋ/
    • This is the best match to the Mandarin pronunciation available in the given dialects.
  • Almost certainly, "wong" will be interpreted as the CLOTH vowel (i.e., the same vowel as "long" and "wrong").

    • RP = /wɒŋ/ or /wɔŋ/ (free variation?), AuE = /wɔŋ/
    • About half of GA speakers have /wɔŋ/ and half have /wɑŋ/.
    • Almost all of these are not correct, as they have a rounded vowel. Only the cot-caught merging speakers of GA have a good match to the Mandarin.

Wang is the form of 拼音 (Pinyin).

Wong is the form of 粤语 (Cantonese, Used in Guangdong province and Hong Kong).

But The Cantonese style is a little different from Pinyin style, because Hong Kong used to be owned by Britain. British guys want to learn Cantonese more easily so they create the style.

Notice that "Cantonese" means "广东的/广东人/广东话 (粤语)". "Canton" is derived from "广东 (Guangdong)". They have greatly similar pronunciation, but the Cantonese style is much kinder for English-speaking countries to read.

So if there is somebody who has never learnt about Chinese pronunciation could misread "Wang" more easily (because (s)he might read it in /wæ:ŋ/ but not /wɔ:ŋ/).

In addition, people come from Guangdong or Hong Kong would use Cantonese style more often (because only the people from these place know it's helpful to make their own name easier to let foreigners read and to avoid being displeased).

  • 3
    Your reasoning is not correct. Many people born in the early 1900s are illiterate and do not know how to speak Mandarin. They speak their own dialect, which could be Cantonese, Hokkien or Teochew. The names are transcribed according to their dialect. This is quite common in places where the working language is English. Nowadays the trend is towards pinyin transcription since fewer people can speak dialect. – 杨以轩 Dec 3 '14 at 14:01

In Mandarin, 王 (pinyin = Wang) is pronounced (in Mandarin) as "Wong" (the sound of it). To an english speaker this will not make much sense because Wang does not sound like Wong at all.

Often times people will ask, how do you say your name in chinese? Assuming my surname is 王. I would say it's pronounced as "Wong" (or as close to as that). But still, people will simply say Wang because it is more natural for them (English speakers) to say it.

As for the wrong use of the surname - I would think there are 2 possibilities

1 - the person who used it only knew how the name was pronounced and not how it was written so he/she assumed it was written as it sounds and wrote Wong.

2 - the person who used it was Cantonese and assumed the other person is also Cantonese and use Wong because that's how they write it.

How should you pronounce it?

I think this comes down to personal preference. To me you can say Wang or Wong and I would not care. However, to someone else they might care and correct you on your pronunciation.

Any english speaker meeting someone named Wang, is naturally going to say Wang unless they have so much interaction with chinese people and knows the chinese way of saying it.

if you want to say the person's name properly in Mandarin, then pronounce it as "Wong", if you don't care and the other person with surname 王 don't mind, then say "Wang". It's best just to ask the other person what they want you to pronounce and go from there.

Further more...

Zhenya Wang is from Nanjing so the correct chinese way to say/pronounce her name in chinese is "Wong" but I would not expect english speakers to know this

  • It seems Americans would pronounce [ɒ] in "not" a little like [a] in "ah" ... But maybe British people will pronounce "Wong" like [wɔŋ]? – Stan Dec 8 '14 at 19:28
  • @Stan Sorry I don't have the knowledge to answer your question – Huangism Dec 8 '14 at 19:37
  • @Stan I pronounce "Wong" as [wɔŋ], but some Americans would pronounce it like [wɑŋ]. This is why IPA is pretty important to answer a question like this. Anytime anyone writes "It's pronounced like 'Wong', not 'Wang'", I want to yell, "That doesn't clarify anything!". – Stumpy Joe Pete Jun 2 '15 at 17:41
  • @StumpyJoePete Totally agreed. – Stan Jun 3 '15 at 1:18

Not only in Chinese even in Luo speaking community(Acoli in Northern Uganda and South Sudan and all the Nilo people) do refers to "Wang" as water source(source of something) . This means in sounding is the same. example like Wang Oo=where friends and families gather during evening fireside,Wanglengo= village in Lamwo,Wang Bur= wound.

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