The pronunciation of polyphonic character is usually deduced from the semantic of the context. In a transliterated word, there is no such context, the character only stands for its pronunciation, so it seems not a good idea to use polyphonic characters for that purpose.

However they are used in transliteration. For example is extensively used for Russian names. More interestingly, there seems to be an agreement that in transliteration, its less common pronunciation shi2 is always used instead of the more common shen2.

So my questions are, in transliteration field,

  1. Is there any guidelines around/against using polyphonic characters?
  2. How does one decide which pronunciation is the 'agreed' one to use?
  3. Is there any polyphonic character, of which multiple pronunciations are used for transliteration?
  • My guess is that there isn't any logic, and it's totally by convention. I'm looking forward to seeing if anyone has some useful information to share though :) Commented Oct 8, 2013 at 20:14
  • 5
    This is a simplified Chinese issue (but not necessary started by the mainland Chinese government). When pronounced shen2, the actual character is as in 甚麼. The Middle Chinese pronunciation of 什 is dzyip, and there was no -n or -m ending pronunciation. Still in Korean and Vietnamese today, 什 has only one pronounced with -p ending. The natural descendant of this pronunciation in today's mandarin is `shi2'.
    – user58955
    Commented Oct 8, 2013 at 22:23
  • See this answer and this wiki article. The characters chosen are via IPA to Chinese characters; 什 is always used for ʃ Commented Oct 8, 2013 at 22:23
  • 4
    Another point is that two different pronunciations of a polyphonic character (such as 角, 薄) illustrate 白读音(vernacular pronunciation) and 文读音 (scholastic pronunciation) in history. For 角, jiao is 白读 and jue 文读; for 薄, bao is 白读 and bo 文读. Which is which concerns Middle Chinese pronunciation. Usually 文读音 is used in translation, that's why Berlin is 柏林 (bo2 lin2) although the usually pronunciation of 柏 (the name of the tree) is bai3.
    – user58955
    Commented Oct 8, 2013 at 22:29
  • 1. No, that would rule out too many characters since most are polyphonic under the hood; 2. The rarer reading is often the agreed upon one in order to avoid semantic collision, and once agreed it becomes a template/convention; 3. Can't think of any, but if there is one, it might be different only because of different source languages where conventions are independently chosen.
    – Nimrod
    Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 1:56

1 Answer 1


Yes, there are guidelines. We won't get confused in the 什 example because PRC had long contact with Russia, but we may get confused for some unfamiliar countries.

Note that this guideline is only made and followed by authors and editors in mainland China. Taiwan and Hong Kong all have their own standards due to divergence in pronunciation. What's more, Hongkong-neses prefer reading and writing in Cantonese.

A translation guide for transliterating specific names in mainland China.

From the table, you can see that we use different characters for different syllables according to which language it is.

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