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When looking at the history of name changes, one of the most common changes to city names seems to be the replacement of K with J and Q. For example, the spelling "Peking" has been changed into "Beijing", Nanking into Nanjing, Chungking into Chongqing, etc. But my question is why exactly has K been replaced with J and Q in so many Chinese city names? K sounds nothing like those letters in Chinese. Even the city name "peking" (and its varieties) when borrowed into English or other languages sounds more like "pe-king" and "beijing" more like "peiching". Why exactlly has Chinese replaced so many Ks in city names with Js and Qs? What's the historical reason?

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    IPA, e.g.: /p/ vs. /p‘/ or /tɕ/ vs /tɕ‘/
    – Mou某
    Mar 2 at 21:10
  • Yeah that's what I meant Mar 2 at 21:24
  • It is simply a case of double standard. For example, of all the official names of university of mainland China that are translated into English, only the two based in the capital city, namely, 北京大学 and 清华大学, still keep their old version, Peking U and Tsinghua U respectively. Mar 4 at 4:09

3 Answers 3

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"Peking", "Nanking", and "Chungking" are Chinese postal romanisations of the pronunciations based on Ming-era and Qing-era Nanjing Mandarin. This is a different dialect of Mandarin than what the Pinyin system (used to transcribe Standard Chinese) is based on, which is 20th century Beijing Mandarin.

As an approximation, you can expect Ming/Qing-era Nanjing Mandarin to be somewhere in-between Middle Chinese (MC) and Modern Nanjing Mandarin. Example IPA are given below (tones omitted):

  • 北京 (Pinyin: Beijing, Postal romanisation: Peking):
  • 南京 (Pinyin: Nanjing, Postal romanisation: Nanking):
    • ZR MC: /nʌm kˠiæŋ/
    • Modern Nanjing dialect: [lã tɕĩ]
  • 重慶 (Pinyin: Chongqing, Postal romanisation: Chungking):
    • ZR MC: /ɖɨoŋ kʰˠiæŋ/
    • Modern Nanjing dialect: [ʈʂʰõ tɕʰĩ]
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    Is the n in nanjing/nanking really pronounced l? Mar 3 at 15:36
  • @AkshatGoswami that's not what "Modern Nanjing dialect: [lã tɕĩ]" says or implies. Nanjing (pinyin, based on modern Beijing dialect) or Nanking (Postal romanisation, based on Ming/Qing Nanjing Mandarin) does not represent the modern Nanjing Mandarin dialect.
    – dROOOze
    Mar 3 at 17:48
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    @PdotWang That page is about Nanjing dialect, so it does not describe features shared by all (or most) dialects of Mandarin. You should look here and here. Also in discussions centred on (modern or historical) phonology, it is better to use IPA.
    – Arfrever
    Mar 3 at 21:21
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    I had assumed that those romanizations (Peking, Nanking, Chungking) came from Cantonese (whose speakers early Portuguese/European traders encountered). Is that completely mistaken and is there no possibility of that?
    – user103496
    Mar 4 at 10:34
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    @user103496 I'm not an expert on these sorts of things. However, Cantonese in particular is unlikely for 北 in 北京 (the vowel in Cantonese /pɐk̚/ is unlikely to be romanised as "e") and 南 in 南京 (Cantonese /naːm/ is unlikely to be romanised as "nan"). Also remember that Europeans not only arrived from the coastal south as traders; Jesuit missionaries in China were frequent since the Yuan Dynasty and were mostly settled in central or northern inland cities, especially Beijing.
    – dROOOze
    Mar 4 at 11:04
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This is sound change called palatalization. It occurred in history of many languages. That page lists various examples.

Palatalization most often affected velar consonants such as /k/, /g/. In Mandarin language, palatalization occurred in 18th / 19th century, it affected dental consonants [t͡s, t͡sʰ, s] and velar consonants [k, kʰ, x] before high front vowels and glides:

  • [t͡s], [k] → [t͡ɕ] (Pinyin spelling: j)

  • [t͡sʰ], [kʰ] → [t͡ɕʰ] (Pinyin spelling: q)

  • [s], [x] → [ɕ] (Pinyin spelling: x)

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  • Well, then why didn't they just retain the letter K, considering it only happened before certain vowels? Mar 3 at 2:29
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    Presumably creators of Pinyin wanted that different pronunciations be reflected in spelling. English orthography mostly retains spellings for medieval pronunciations, and result is horrible mess...
    – Arfrever
    Mar 3 at 2:48
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    I agree that the Pinyin creators wanted to represent different consonants with different letters and without using (').
    – PdotWang
    Mar 3 at 20:55
  • @AkshatGoswami There were multiple different syllables that merged as a result of this change. Pinyin "qi" could have resulted from either a /kʰi/ or a /t͡sʰi/ in the earlier language. Mar 3 at 21:24
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    @AkshatGoswami I don't think anyone would pronounce the English proper noun "Peking University" as "Beijing University", regardless of whether someone was in China, if that's what you mean. Personally, I'm used to hearing and pronouncing "Peking" as "Pei-king". In Chinese, however, the name is going to be the Standard Chinese Běijīng Dàxué; nobody will revert to a Ming/Qing-era Nanjing Mandarin pronunciation.
    – dROOOze
    Mar 4 at 4:09
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Different people may have different opinions on your question and the answers. That is totally OK on a public discussion forum. My answer posted here is different from other people. I hope those who disagree with me will be OK too.

Why has Chinese replaced so many Ks in city names with Js and Qs? What's the historical reasons?

Most of the obsolete city names in your examples were based on the Chinese Postal Romanization (邮政拼音) that was invented in 1907. The new citi names are based on Hanyu Pinyin (汉语拼音) of 1958. The International Organization for Standardization accepted Pinyin (ISO 7098) in 1982.

The first modification to the Postal system was to merge k and k' just for conveiniece in postal applications. Therefore Ch'ungk'ing became Chungking. It has nothing to do with the pronounciation of the Chinese language.

Then, after a number of versions of Chinese Romanization, the way of representing the consonants k and k' changed from the Postal system to the Pinyin system, as we see it today. Again, those changes are merely "representing" issues, which has nothing to do with the spoken language. (Someone has an opinion against this statement, that is totally OK to me. In 1950's there were a couple of hundreds Hanyu Pinyin proposals and each one has his/hers own reasonings.)

k'e -> ke (可)

ke -> ge (哥)

k'u -> ku (哭)

ku -> gu (姑), Kweilin -> Guilin (桂林)

k'i -> qi (齐), such as Ch'ungk'ing -> Chongqing (重庆)

ki -> ji (基), such as Peking -> Beijing (北京)

k'v -> qv (取), such as Kufow -> Qufu (曲阜)

kv -> jv (居)

Note: v is the vowel of 鱼, which may be written as u in Pinyin.

There are also other differences if directly comparing the Postal system and the Pinyin system. But those changes did not happen in one night. There were a couple of important versions of the Chinese romanization, including Wade-Giles pinyin, BOPOMOFO, Mandarin Alphabet, Gwoyeu Romatzyh, etc.

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    True but did the change of Ks to Js or Qs in many words have anything to do with palatalization that K got palatalized? Mar 3 at 5:06
  • I do not think so. Because there are very few people even know anything about pinyin or any form of romanization, including the Chinese version Bopomofo. Only since 1958, Hanyu Pinyin becomes popular in education. But Pinyin only regulates the standard pronounciation, not mean to alter it. I am not an expert on the history though.
    – PdotWang
    Mar 3 at 5:28
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    ... those changes are merely "representing" issues, which has nothing to do with the spoken language. This doesn't make sense. When postal romanisation (Nanking) was used, they did not speak Modern Standard Chinese, which is based on the Beijing dialect, and which Pinyin (Nanjing) is based on. Of course you would expect representation issues due to differences in pronunciation.
    – dROOOze
    Mar 3 at 17:53
  • That the Postal romanisation (1907) represents the Nanking dialect and the Hanyu Pinyin romanization (1958) represents the Beijing dialect is an explanation of the letter-representing-sound matter. That the Postal romanisation (1907) represents the classical spoken Chinese and the Hanyu Pinyin romanization (1958) represents the mordern spoken Chinese is another explanation of the letter-representing-sound matter. My point of view is that the letter-representing-sound matter are more subjective choice than objective fact.
    – PdotWang
    Mar 3 at 20:20

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