As far as I know, Zhuyin fuhao, or Bopomofo, is the first system of phonetic symbols devised to aid to write Chinese phonology.
That was in 1910, so we could say very recent in the history of Chinese.
So I wonder if the way in that the phonemes, or sounds if you will, were grouped and assigned a symbol did in any way standardize the phonemes that were in use by Chinese.

I want to be clear, what I mean is, I can imagine that may be two or more characters that had slightly different phonemes or sounds and/or tones, were standardized with a single bopomofo or later Pinyin to make things simpler. Did this happen?
Because before any attempt to make a phonetic writing system, I'm not sure if everybody knew that two different characters that were later rendered with the exact same bopomofo, were in fact the same sound, or slighltly different sounds.

I mean, before bopomofo, there wasn't a standard way or a common phonetic base language to refer to when stating that two characters were pronounced the same, for example, I guess in that time you had to say 气 sounds just like 七 (ignoring tones) and now you can refer to Pinyin and say both are rendered qi thus referring to a common base. (just imagine that this characters sounded a little different, may be one closer to zhi and the other closer to chi to illustrate my point)

I'm not sure if I was clear, if not, please ask and I'll try to explain better.

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    I don't think we could/should discuss it here because I believe most of the members here are not linguists or on a research level. You are talking about the evolution of the sounds in Chinese. Average people don't know this,even you use 'imagine' in your question.
    – Huang
    Feb 8 '12 at 3:02
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    In fact, the earlier system seems to be the fanqie (300 AD), which was used to indicate the pronunciation of Chinese characters (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fanqie ). This is an interesting question though - can a romanization system influence how the language is pronounced? In theory, it shouldn't, in practice, that seems possible (since pupils learn with it).
    – laurent
    Feb 8 '12 at 3:29
  • Are you asking whether the creation of the Bopomofo romanization affected the learning/pronunciation of Chinese?
    – Alenanno
    Feb 8 '12 at 9:56
  • @戴洛弘 : nice tip! gonna take a look.
    – Petruza
    Feb 8 '12 at 13:36
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    This question would probably be best answered on linguistics.stackexchange.com It certainly happened that the introduction of printing and thus standardised spelling in England altered the pronunciation of English words. Even though noticeable accents exist, these have changed over time. I could be logical to conclude that standardised phonetic representation would have similar effects on other languages including Chinese. Feb 21 '12 at 14:40

It seems there are several different issues, so I'll address them separately:

Was Bopomofo the first system of symbols for use in Chinese phonology?

The Qieyun and Guangyun were published about a millenia before the Bopomofo system, and they are clearly analyses of Chinese phonology (although not of Mandarin, as that didn't exist yet). Rather than using symbols for the different sounds, they came up with a clever system called Fanqie, where a character's pronunciation would be indicated by two other characters--one with the same initial sound, and one with the same final. Beyond that, they grouped and labeled the initials and finals (which provides clues as to their actual pronunciations).

In the modern era, Bopomofo was also not the first of its kind. Some earlier phonetic transcription systems:

  • Pe̍h-ōe-jī (19th century, Taiwanese Min)
  • Legge (19th century, Mandarin)
  • Qieyin Xinzi (1892, Xiamen Min)
  • Wade-Giles (1867, Mandarin)

Did Bopomofo accurately capture existing phonemic distinctions?

Well, if you're asking about Beijing pronunciation, then yeah, pretty much. At the very least, it makes the same distinctions as Wade-Giles, which was around earlier. Modern Beijing dialect has some phonological differences from the standard, but the phonemic inventory is the same.

Did transcriptions affect Chinese people's pronunciation?

Yes!! A century ago, most Chinese spoke their own dialect only. The promotion of a national language (and a standard pronunciation) is rather recent. Many people end up speaking a version of Mandarin heavily influenced by the local dialect (Commonly merged phonemes: n-l, f-h, n-ng, zh-z, ch-c, sh-s) anyways. However, a lot of people feel that nonstandard pronunciation is inferior, even if they're the ones pronouncing it that way. This deference to the standard (as recorded in the dictionary) sometimes results in people modifying the way they speak (or at least the way they judge speech), even if the dictionary is at odds with actual usage.


As far as I know, Bopomofo and other schemes were based on the pronunciation of Beijing dialect. That is, Bopomofo and pinyin are a representation of the phonological inventory of Mandarin as pronounced in Beijing. I don't believe that this involved standardising 'two or more characters that had slightly different phonemes or sounds and/or tones' with a single bopomofo (or later Pinyin) to 'make things simpler'.

Of course, the creation of Bopomofo and pinyin involved drawing distinctions that were not found in other dialects of Chinese (including other pronunciations of Mandarin). One example is the distinction that pinyin draws between 'sh' and 's', which is missing from many dialects, even northern dialects (modern-day Dongbei, for example). It is therefore also possible that the opposite case was true, i.e., some distinctions drawn in other dialects were not drawn in the pronunciation of Beijing, and therefore ignored in Bopomofo and pinyin. I'm not knowledgeable about non-Beijing phonological inventories and have no way of commenting on this, but it is conceivable that the choice of Beijing dialect as standard (rather than, say, Nanjing or other varieties) may have involved getting rid of certain phonological distinctions found in other varieties of Mandarin. This was not caused, however, by the adoption of Bopomofo, but by the choice of a particular variety as standard.

Pronunciation of individual words has also been manipulated quite extensively in pinyin usage in order to bring about standardisation (I'm not sure about Bopomofo). For example, 法国 'France' was originally pronounced fàguó; it has now been standardised as fǎguó. 往 was originally pronounced wàng; it is now standardised as wǎng. There are many other cases where pronunciations have been standardised, including the abolition of alternative readings. But this is quite a different matter from making changes to the phonological inventory of the language.

So I think the answer to your question must be that, no, neither Bopomofo nor pinyin involved simplifying Mandarin phonological distinctions (where Mandarin is defined as based on Beijing pronunciation) out of existence.

  • Great answer! Also, Beijing Mandarin does lack some distinctions that other dialects make. For instance, it seems Nanjing Mandarin still has the entering tone. Jun 21 '12 at 2:34

For 'phoneme', it is defined as "In a language or dialect, a phoneme is the smallest segmental unit of sound employed to form meaningful contrasts between utterances" in wiki. In different languages, the sets of phonemes would be different, and the difference would include one phoneme in one language would correspond to several phonemes in another.

I'm not quite familiar with bopomofo. The symbols in it should correspond to one phoneme in Chinese each. But that does not mean they are pronounced in the same way in every syllable. The different way of pronouncing one phoneme is call allophones. For Chinese people, these allophones would be heard as the same or at least very similar with no affection on meaning. For people from other language background, they can be heard as very different.

So, one bopomofo correspond to one phoneme in Chinese, but it can contain several allophones. These allophones can be heard differently, especially be foreigners.

  • Thanks for the answer about phonology but it barely touches the subject.
    – Petruza
    Feb 8 '12 at 16:29
  • I think phonology is actually central to this topic. You say: 'before bopomofo, there wasn't a standard way or a common phonetic base language to refer to when stating that two characters were pronounced the same'. But the whole idea of phonology is that phonemes actually exist in people's minds without needing a writing system to tell them what is what. Your question seems to assume that phonological distinctions don't exist until someone writes them down, which is a rather interesting assumption.
    – Bathrobe
    Feb 9 '12 at 2:59
  • 戴洛弘's tip about fanqie also indicates that the Chinese had a very good grasp of the phonology of their language, before Bopomofo or pinyin came along. The problem with fanqie, of course, is that it refers to a much older stage of Chinese, and the pronunciation (including the phonological inventory) had changed a lot between the era of fanqie and the 20th century.
    – Bathrobe
    Feb 9 '12 at 3:05

No. Since bopomofo and Pinyin are used as aids to literacy only by native speakers, they are not relying on those systems to learn how to pronounce the words in the first place. Any influence on pronunciation would be no greater than teachers in Taiwan pointing out that there is a difference between sh and x (Pinyin sounds): kids might do it in the classroom, but five minutes later on the playground, it's all x.

"Ain't" isn't "proper English", and every English class for native speakers gives a class about how it should not be used. Yet people who were brought up speaking that way continue to use it regardless.

Input trumps learning every time.

  • I agree to a point. It's true, it's very hard to change people's phonological inventories, because getting people to hear, let alone adopt, new sound distinctions is very difficult. On the other hand, schools do manage to get people to change their pronunciations of individual words. For example, the Beijing pronunciation of 办公室 is bàngōngshǐ. The school system is trying (and partially succeeding) in getting people to say bàngōngshì. In many cases they have been entirely successful: e.g., fǎguó is now universal for 法国,and wǎng is now universal for 往, despite their earlier pronunciations.
    – Bathrobe
    Feb 9 '12 at 3:36
  • Definitely true -- yet I doubt that happened just because they changed the Romanization... ;-) Feb 10 '12 at 13:54

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