A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


How would you pronounce "Qin"?

A recent article in the "Times Literary Supplement" about China refers at one point to the word "Qin," and helpfully explains that it should be pronounced "Chin," and is the word from which China gets its name.  Some of us are old enough to remember when a new spelling for Chinese names was introduced to English-speakers, many of which are to be pronounced in a way that would be completely unnatural to anyone raised on English.  "Qin" is a perfect example.   Can anyone explain why this was done?


Commenting Guidelines

I asked that same question last year, and several commenters had some thoughts/answers:

It's the Hanyu Pinyin system. This is the official romanization of Mandarin used by the PRC since the late 70s or early 80s. Despite the fact that sometimes it bears no resemblance to English phonetics, it is very useful when you are actually trying to learn standard Mandarin. For instance, both the "q" and the "ch" make similar "ch" sounds, but the letter "i" sounds different after either one. There are other rules that are confusing to people who aren't students of Mandarin. Recently in the U.S. there's some discussion on how to pronounce the Milwaukee Bucks' draft-pick's family name, for instance (Yi: it's EE not YEE). However, all of these rules that seem so confounding to the rest of the world are actually very helpful when trying to learn to speak Standard Mandarin.

But why couldn't they have chosen some spelling that comes closer to how English is pronounced? Would diacritical marks have done the trick, as with Slavic languages?What is the PRC?

Fr. Komonchak--I may be wrong about this, but depending upon whether it's baseball season or not, PRC means "Pitch Righthander Chamberlain" or "People's Republic of China." ;)

It all gets incredibly confusing (for us round-eyed devils, that is) when you discover that the names of cities and even people are different now ... Peking is now Beijing, Canton is now Guangzhou, etc. ... and while Mao is still Mao, the Tse-tung part is now Xiadong ... it raises interesting challenges for historians and historical researchers. For instance, Chiang Kai-Shek's name is also spelled Chiang Chieh-shih ... Jung Gaaisek ... Chi Ki-sek ... Jing Zhngzhng ... Chiang Chung-cheng ... ChiTiong-chng or Jung Jngjing depending on which Chinese dialect and which translation system you're following! No wonder he left China for Formosa ... er, Taiwan ...

Based on my experience in college textbook publishing, Hanyu Pinyin has been about as helpful as lead-based paint on toys. We are still trying to cope with it. Most of us (even young people) are probably used to seeing Deng Xiaoping instead of Dung Chow Ping, but should Chiang Kai-shek be called Jing JishHave you ever eaten zsu, cho min, or even Beijing Duck?(This may not turn out well if the accented characters don't render correctly when I press Post.)

A helpful correspondent sent me to the Wikipedia article on "pinyin," where I find this initial paragraph:"Pinyin, more formally called Hanyu Pinyin , is the most common Standard Mandarin romanization system in use. Hanyu means the Chinese language, pin means "spell" and yin means "sound". It is also known as scheme of the Chinese phonetic alphabet."Pinyin uses the Latin alphabet to represent sounds in Standard Mandarin. The way these letters represent sounds in Standard Mandarin do not correspond to any other one particular language that use the Roman alphabet. For example, the sounds indicated in pinyin by b and g correspond more closely to the sounds indicated by p and k in some Western uses of the Latin script, e.g., French. Other letters, like j, q, x or zh, indicate sounds that do not correspond to any exact sound in English. Some of the transcriptions in pinyin, such as the ian ending, do not correspond to English pronunciations, either. This means that people who have not studied Chinese or the pinyin system are likely to severely mispronounce some words if they attempt to pronounce pinyin according to their own language spellings. "What puzzles me is why this system was chosen, one that almost guarantees that the vast majority of English-speakers, who will not be studying Chinese or the pinyin system, will mispronounce it.Mr. Collier: You have placed me in a difficult situation, having to choose between two evils.

And wasn't Deng also called Teng Hsiao-p'ing before the spelling changes? That's how I first heard of him ... I wonder if K'ung-fu-tzu (Confucius, to us) ever said anything about naming and misnaming things ...

Pinyin is actually the far more logically way or reproducing Mandarin in the Roman alphabet. Chinese people refer to Beijing as "Bei Jing" ("Northern Capital"), not "Peking" (that's just for the yummy duck!). A pet peeve I have is that Westerners seem unable to pronounce the "jing" in Beijing-- it's a simple "j" sound. That said, my prununciation skills in Chinese are terrible, as is my ability to assess tones (up, down, flat, u-shaped). I do know that there are subtle differences in pronunciation that sound the same to us English speakers. For example, "zh" is "j", but they already have a "j". "Zhou" is "Jo" and "Zhao" is "Jao", but "Jiang" is "Jiang". Likewise, "x" is "sh" but "sh" exists too (for example, "xi" and "shao"). But if you think that is hard, try the Romanization of Vietmanese -- impossible!

Ambrose is correct, it was instituted by the Chinese and I found it very helpful in actually learning correct Chinese pronunciation.Part of the problem is so many of the original transliterations of Chinese came from people translating different dialects -- so while the written form of Chiang's name was the same all over China, it was pronounced potentially quite differently depending on whether you were in South China (Cantonese) or North China (Mandarin). Mandarin is the official dialect, so the pinyin system declared official by China uses this pronunciation as a guide.Also, in Chinese there are simply some sounds that are hard to replicate in the Latin alphabet of the English-speaking world as they are sounds that just don't occur in English. Pinyin uses both "Q" and "CH" for what we in English cal "ch", but there is a subtle different in pronunciation that is readily apparant to a native speaker -- important enough (to them) to have developed a different way of writing it. Same with "X" and "SH", and "J" and "ZH". Basically, the latter are 'thicker' and more voiced.Basically though China finally figured since the Westerners were coming up with all kinds of different ways to romanize their language, they might as well establish a universal standard and make it easier for the language to go 'international'. Since it was developed by them (not us), it reflects their own perceptions of the nuances of pronunciation (and their own not-always-convenient-for-us understanding of English pronunciation values, too!). But overall it makes good sense.RM

Based on what I understand from Chinese friends, transliterating from original Chinese to the Roman alphabet is so difficult and so imperfect that it almost doesn't matter what the system is. I think pinyin tries to get most words closer to original mandarin pronunciation. One friend, raised in mandarin confided that he hated visiting with the parents of American born Chinese friends because they all spoke Cantonese and he could hardly understand them. And whatever else you can say about "Qin" you know it's foreign and not the English word "chin" with a capital C. So maybe you are motivated to look it up and just memorize it, and maybe the next time some bewildered non-native speaker asks you how, exactly, the spelling and pronunciation of English words like "tough" or "weigh" were standardized you will have sympathy for their struggles!

An important question that has occurred to me is, under what circumstances, if any, can "Qin" be used in Scrabble?

Ambrose and Morning's Minion are right. Pinyin is a Chinese-developed system of romanizing the language -- at least standard Mandarin or putonghua (or Hanyu). It was not developed for the benefit of English speakers but partly as a teaching tool to help improve Chinese literacy. Now however it is used now by most western newspapers and many (not all) scholarly writers to replace Wade-Giles, the earlier standard for English speakers. It makes neither more nor less sense than WG, which is still used mostly in Taiwan, and very often by people writing about pre-twentieth century China.Qin, for example, in WG is Ch'in, while Jin, in WG is Chin. Xiao comes out in WG as Hsiao; Jiang comes out in WG as Chiang, wherease Qiang comes out as Ch'iang. Zhang comes out in WG as Chang, and is actually pronounced Jang (hard j). Got it? If you don't undestand, just say Wo bu dong, unless you're using WG in which case it's Wo pu tung.Morning's Minion is also right about the inability of newscasters and others to understand that Beijing is pronounced with a hard J, not a Frenchified soft J; or indeed that Deng, as in the late Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hsiao-p'ing in WG), is pronounced as in cowdung. There are other systems of romanization as well. The early Jesuits (xvii and xviii century) developed their own. So did the French, so did the Russians, so did the Germans. And there are some common variants to Wade Giles; Beijing (Northern capital) should be Pei-ching in WG, but was commonly spelt Peking, or Pkin for the French. Shanghai, on the other hand, is the same in all systems.On the other hand, if you come across New York in a Chinese paper, the characters are usually read Niu Yue, which means "knob appointment." George Bush senior came out Bushi (pronounced Bushir) while Dubya sometimes comes out Xiao Bushi, or Little Bush.And if you're a Jesuit, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam comes out Yuxian Zhurong.

Does any one remember the Sino-Japanese or Leibniz's little book Novissima Sinica?. The Latin for China seems to be "Sinarum regnum" and the Chinese are "Sinae" (which is masculine despite the declension. I suspect the Vatican will never yield on matters of principle, or Latinity.


About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.