11. Romanization I

     There are many different systems for representing the sounds of standard Mandarin in the Latin alphabet. The system used most often in Taiwan (at least up until recently) is the Wade-Giles (WG) 威妥馬式 ("Thomas Wade"), sometimes called 威翟式 ("Wade"). This system was also formerly used in Western Sinology (漢學 Chinese studies). Here is a quote from an essay on Romanization by Benjamin Ao regarding the origin of this system (this page also includes conversion tables):

     Systematic Chinese romanization started in the early 17th century by Jesuit priests like Matteo Ricci (1552-1610, Italian), Nicolas Trigault (1577-1628, French) and others as they came to China to learn the Chinese language and to promote Christianity. Their efforts were later joined by other westerners. In 1867, Thomas F. Wade, the Chinese language secretary in the British embassy to China published a book called Yuyan Zi Er Ji 語言自邇集 ["Teach Yourself Chinese"], in which he used a romanization system adapted from the 1815 system by the English priest R. Morrison. Forty-five years later, H. A. Giles published his Chinese English Dictionary, in which he used Thomas Wade's romanization system with slight modifications. This is how the famous Wade-Giles system came about.

     Here is a short entry on Wade-Giles and other Romanization systems from Wikipedia:


     WG is the system that uses a p for what sounds to most English speakers like a b, e.g. the capital city of Taiwan is written Taipei instead of Taibei. In fact, Taipei should actually be written T'ai-pei in WG; this system marks aspirated stops in Mandarin by adding an apostrophe ' after the symbol(s) for the unaspirated stop: ㄉ is written as t, and ㄊ as t'. This is supposedly to remind us that the main contrast between these two Chinese stops is not voiced vs. unvoiced, as it theoretically is in English, but unaspirated and aspirated.

     However, the 'voiced' English stops (b in boy, d in dog, and g in go) are in practice not usually voiced either, when they occur initially in a word (they are voiced when they come after a vowel, like the b in about). So that makes the p, p'   t, t'   k, k' system very confusing for English speakers. And one tends to omit the apostrophes besides, because they're too much bother and don't look that attractive in a name: who wants to write his name as Ts'ao K'e-ch'eng 曹克成 instead of Tsao Ke-cheng? The four tones are usually not indicated either!

     There are in fact many other problems with this system for modern users, e.g. ch is used for both ㄓ andㄐand ch' is used for both ㄔand ㄑ. While these sounds do occur in complementary distribution, use of one symbol for two distinct sounds is a source of confusion. And umlauts over the u's (ü) to indicate ㄩ [y] as opposed to ㄨ [u] are usually omitted, so you don't know if a word like chu is 豬, 初, 居, or 蛆 ('pig', 'first', 'to reside', or 'maggot'), and that's not counting in the tone problems! So it can be quite difficult to guess names written in Wade-Giles. On the other hand, the Wade-Giles system is still widely used in Taiwan (though few people understand the issue of Romanization very well), and worth knowing.

     Here is a link to a table you can use for converting the Mandarin Phonetic Symbols 注音符號 to Wade-Giles:


     But there are other Romanization schemes – perhaps too many! Read on to learn about the most successful ones.

Next: Romanization II

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