This is the sequel to my Pinyin Sucks post, so if you haven’t read that, I’d recommend starting on that before you read this post. If you already have, welcome back.
Now that you’ve heard me rant on how I think Pinyin isn’t perfect, what could possibly be the better alternative? Bopomofo? Really cool but no – it doesn’t use the Latin alphabet so it isn’t a romanization system. Wade-Giles? Goodness no. If Pinyin has a few problems with unintuitive spellings, I consider the entire Wade-Giles system to be problematic. Apparently, it’s based on the Beijing accent but I can’t imagine how 日 is supposed to be “jih”? Maybe it was back in the 1800s but that still means Wade-Giles isn’t appropriate for modern-day Mandarin. Regardless, the apostrophes and Hs in the Wade-Giles system make it unnecessarily confusing in my opinion. No, as you probably could tell from the title of the post, I think the superior alternative to Pinyin is the Yale Romanization of Mandarin.
The Better Way
Before you discount my opinion because of my Yale bias, allow me to explain the transliteration system and what makes it so good. The Yale Romanization system was created by George Kennedy in 1943 for his Chinese course to American soldiers. The system was used well into the 1970s until the worldwide adoption of Pinyin. It was quite innovative too – the first use of tonal marks in Chinese romanization comes from Yale! However, what I think makes it truly great is how intuitive the romanization system is for English speakers.
The Yale Romanization of Mandarin was specifically made with the idea of using English spelling conventions to approximate Chinese sounds. No more Qs, Xs, and Cs! Yale solves many of the issues I have with Pinyin regarding weird and unintuitive spellings. For example, the three equivalent spellings in Yale Romanization for q, c, and x are ch, ts, and sy. Those are much closer to the actual pronunciations in Mandarin Chinese.
The other important difference between Pinyin and Yale is how it treats the letter i. As you may remember, in Pinyin, i has a lot of different pronunciations depending on the intial consonant. Instead, the spellings under the Yale system closer reflect how an English speaker would best pronounce the Chinese words. In place of zhi, chi, shi, and ri, Yale writes them as jr, chr, shr, and r and instead of si, zi, and ci, it is sz, dz, and tsz. Although the lack of vowels in the Yale way might be a bit jarring, these spellings allow an untrained English speaker to pronounce Chinese somewhat accurately. For instance, the Chinese word for knowledge is 知识 rendered as zhishi and jrshr in Pinyin and Yale romanization, respectively. The Yale spelling will be the only one of the two that will sound remotely accurate to how the Chinese say the word.
Aside from those two major improvements, Yale romanization has a couple other differences from Pinyin. In Pinyin spellings in which a u precedes another vowel, Yale opts to replace that u with a w. I kind of like this because it makes it easier to tell what is the main vowel sound is. The two other differences, on the other hand, I’m less of a fan. In words in Pinyin ending with –ong, Yale finishes with a –ung instead. I just think this change is kind of unnecessary. The other is that the Pinyin ü is always written as yu in Yale which I think can make some spellings confusing and gawky.
For a full comparison of Pinyin, Yale, and other transliteration systems for Chinese, check out this page.
It isn’t perfect
I do think there are some problems that are not completely solved with Yale Romanization. The Pinyin and Yale systems use the letter e in the same way despite having initial-dependent pronunciations like the letter i. Further, I don’t really see why Yale doesn’t write sy as sh. The sy spellings can look awkward like sywe for 雪(snow). I think that it’d be more legible if sy were replaced with sh. Nonetheless, with its emphasis on having intuitive spellings for English speakers, I still believe Yale Romanization for Mandarin is an improvement to the current Pinyin system used for Chinese transliteration today.