Category: Language Learning

That’s Why I Chose Yale (Romanization)

Credit: little plant / Unsplash

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.

Bopomofo (sometimes called Zhuyin 注音) vs Pinyin. It works similar to katakana in Japanese in which symbols are put together to build words.
Credit: Wikipedia

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.

A page from an old Chinese book with vocabulary written in both Yale Romanization and Pinyin.
A page from an old Chinese book with vocabulary written in both Yale Romanization and Pinyin.

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.

Pinyin Sucks!

An expample of Pinyin. "大家请说普通话,语言文字规范化" "Dajia qing shuo Putonghua / Yuyan, wenzi, guifanhua!". ("Let's everybody speak Standard Mandarin, [and] standardize speech and spelling!")
Credit: Vmenkov, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

For English speakers, the Chinese language is considered one of the hardest to learn. The Foreign Service Institute puts it in category 5, an exclusive group of languages deemed “exceptionally difficult for native-English speakers” based on the time required to achieve proficiency. This comes at no surprise; Chinese is notorious for its tonal pronunciation, complex writing system, and rich idiomatic expressions. If you’re crazy enough to attempt to learn Chinese (Mandarin or 普通话, that is), you’ll inevitably come across the Pinyin system as a way to improve your pronunciation and help parse complex characters into the spoken word. In today’s blog post, I’ll go over why I think it’s such a flawed system and how to (roughly) read Pinyin.

For linguists and language learners, romanization is the way of converting foreign writing into the Latin script and Pinyin is one such system for Mandarin Chinese. It uses all English letters (as V is used sometimes instead of Ü) and includes 3 digraphs (two letters that represent one sound) and several diphthongs.

The 23 consonants and 24 "vowels" used in Chinese Pinyin
The Complete Pinyin Alphabet. Credit: 南京若白网络科技有限公司, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Looks simple enough, right? Just pronounce it as it’s written and we’ll be well on our way to ordering next week’s takeout in Chinese. Let’s try a few.

  1. Bīngjīlíng (冰激凌): Ice cream – Easy.
  2. Mápó dòufu (麻婆豆腐): Stir-fried tofu in chili sauce – Not bad. Your tones could use some work but the waitress will probably understand you
  3. Zhájiàngmiàn (炸酱面): Noodles in soybean paste – OK. You’ll have to mix in some English to help explain your order.
  4. Yúxiāng qiézi (鱼香茄子): Eggplant in spicy garlic sauce – Impossible. If you don’t know Pinyin, there’s no chance of pronouncing this in any intelligible manner.

Pinyin as a Romanization System

This is my issue with Pinyin. There are several unintuitive spellings that make it impossible for people who don’t know Chinese to even attempt to say. To me, a good romanization system allows people unfamiliar with the language to pronounce it as accurately as possible without any language training. For foreign languages with an alphabet, an alternative measure is how accurately the romanization reproduces the spelling in that language (Wylie transliteration for Tibetan is a good example of this kind of system). However, since Chinese doesn’t use an alphabet, pronunciation is the only benchmark we have for its romanization. Why do I focus on the people who don’t know Chinese? Because anybody who knows or is learning Chinese has learned or will learn the proper pronunciations and how to read the characters. A romanization system should serve to help those who don’t know Chinese characters read Chinese.

Pinyin Primer

I think Chinese does a bad job in this regard – there are letters that are not pronounced at all like they are in English. The letters c, x, and q are pronounced more like [ts] (“ts” in “cats”), [ʃ] (“sh” in “shark”), and [tʃ] (“tch” in “catch”), respectively. Some of these orthographies are present in other languages (x in Basque and c in Czech, for example) but this doesn’t mean they’re intuitive for English speakers. There are also those pesky digraphs (ch, sh, and zh) that seem kind of redundant because they’re nearly identical in pronunciation to q, x, and j.

But my issues are not just with consonants. At least with those, you just have to remember the special pronunciations for three letters. With vowels, you get special pronunciations with rules!

The Pinyin letter u is the hardest vowel for English speakers to pronounce. First, there are actually u’s in Chinese: u and ü. Now, I’ll be forgiving on pronouncing ü because the sound doesn’t exist in English (Hint: try making an [iː] (“ee” in “geese”) sound while your lips are formed as if you’re about to pronounce an [uː] (“oo” in “goose”) sound). It’s u that I have a problem with. U’s pronunciation depends on the consonant; most of the time, it’s like [uː] (“oo” in “goose”) with the exception of ju, qu, xu, and yu in which it’s like ü. Wu is a weird one I’d like to bring up as well because there’s technically no “w” sound when you pronounce it, i.e. it’s just the [uː] sound. It looks weird to write the single letter u, so Pinyin decided to write a w in front. Although Chinese people will say there’s no difference, there is to my English ears. Furthermore, with the exceptions of jun, qun, xun, and yun which are pronounced like ju, qu, xu, and yu with an “n” sound, un in Pinyin is pronounced more like the English word “win” [wɪn] (e.g. kun is pronounced like “Quinn” the name).

The letter i has the most variation in its pronunciation in Pinyin. Bi, pi, mi, di, ti, ni, li, ji, qi, xi, and yi all rhyme with the English word “me”. Zhi, chi, shi, ri? Those rhyme with “sure”. And ci, zi, si? You don’t even pronounce the i, instead you make a quick buzzing sound like you’re imitating an electric shock. Also, the diphthong ui is actually pronounced like “way” so i is taking on the role of ei in Pinyin.

E is another vowel that’s pronounced unintuitively for English speakers and has several variations. E is only pronounced like [ɛ] (“e” in bed”) when it’s preceded by I, Y, or Ü. By itself or followed by an ng, it’s more like the “uh” sound in “uh-oh” [ʌ]. If just an n follows it, the whole thing sounds like the English word “in” [ɪn].

Fortunately, the rest of Pinyin is pretty easy. The letter a by itself or followed by an ng always makes the long “a” sound like in “father” [ɑː]. When a is followed by an n, the sound is more like an “en” in “ten” sound [ɛn]. The diphthongs ai and ei are pronounced like the English letters I [aɪ] and A [eɪ]. Ao is pronounced like the “ou” in “mouth” [aʊ]. O is a little weird. In bo, po, mo, fo, and wo, the o is pronounced like the o in a Bostonian accent. This is also how you pronounce any Pinyin with uo. In all other cases, you should pronounce o and ou like the “o” in “bone” [oʊ].

To review, here is a table summarizing the unintuitive Pinyin pronunciations:

PinyinEnglish ApproximationChinese Ex./Pinyin
English/Eng. Approx.
c“ts” in cats醋/cu
x“sh” in shark心/xin
q“ch” in chair七/qi
zh“j” in jazz猪/zhu
u“oo” in goose哭/ku
to cry/”ku”
i“ee” in geese米/mi
i“er” in her吃/chi
to eat/”cher”
i“zz” in buzz四/si
e“e” in bed野/ye
eng“ung” in hung冷/leng
a“a” in father辣/la
an“en” in ten山/shan
ai“y” in sky海/hai
ei“ay” in stay黑/hei
o“o” in bone龙/long
oBoston o佛/fo
uoBoston o国/guo
ou“o” in bone口/kou
All other Pinyin are pretty much how you would expect to pronounce them. For other diphthongs, simply add together of the individual vowels based on the pronunciation listed first in the table.
Note: For English approximations, your accent may be different. I speak with an American East Coast accent.

Chinese is a very difficult language to pronounce, even without considering the tones. Any system of approximating Chinese with English pronunciation will run into this challenge. However, I think there’s a better way than Pinyin. Be sure to read part 2, where I introduce what I believe to be a superior alternative.

Copyright © 2023 Planet Dorje

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑