13. Romanization III

     Taiwan has finally felt the necessity of formulating a new Romanization policy. Up until recently there had been a laissez-faire attitude towards Romanization, but mostly Wade-Giles was used. Taiwan subsequently entered a 'Warring States' period as regards Romanization systems. The two main contenders were Pinyin 漢語拼音 (probably used by most, but not all, people in the world who bother with the issue at all) and a home-grown variety called Tongyong 通用拼音. Tongyong is very similar to Pinyin; there is said to be only about a 15% difference between the two, though some disagree with this and put the number at over 19% in terms of syllable types. In any case, the differences in the Tongyong system (e.g. Pinyin q = Tongyong c) can put one off if you're not used to it.

     Chinese Wikipedia provides a good overview of the Tongyong system (in Chinese):


     And here is a Tongyong conversion tool:


     The debate was mainly one of making interfaces more compatible internationally vs. asserting one's national individuality. An additional complication in this issue is that Taipei street signs, for example, are not only written in systems of mysterious origin, but there are many spelling mistakes in them as well, so you never know just what you're getting.

One argument against teaching Romanization too early is that it may interfere with foreign language (usually English) learning later on. Do you think this is a valid argument? Why or why not?

For very clear, informative, and highly readable discussions of Romanization and phonetic symbols, link to these two excellent essays (in Chinese) by Li Wen-Chao 李文肇, a professor of phonology from Taiwan now teaching at San Francisco State University.

(1) 認識羅馬拼音之一:拼音、音標與標準語
Chinese Romanization (1): Phonetic Symbols and the Standard Language

(2) 羅馬拼音與注音符號; 記音工具或認同指標?
Romanization and the Mandarin Phonetic Symbols:
Transcription Tool or Symbol of National Identity?

     Tongyong won out for a time, becoming Taiwan's official Romanization system as of July 11, 2002. But it was never widely adopted, partly because it was such a political decision, but perhaps mainly out of apathy and lack of awareness of the importance of learning any Romanization system. And the Taipei City Government, under Mayor Ma Ying-jeou, unilaterally chose to post streets names in the Pinyin system, disregarding official national policy. And when Mayor Ma became President Ma, Pinyin was finally made the new official Romanization system in Taiwan. But many signs are still in Tongyong, and for many signs, it's hard to tell what system they're written in, if any, because they are full of mistakes. Any system of Romanization will have a hard time truly establishing itself until Romanization is taught in Taiwan schools. This has never been widely done, and it seems it's largely off the radar of education policy makers. So the chaos continues, though with some movement toward standardization. MRT signs are now mostly written in correct Pinyin Romanization.

    We'll leave the headache-causing but interesting sociolinguistic study of Taiwan's Romanization policy at that, and move on now to a big and important topic in phonetics and phonology.

Next: Phonemes and allophones


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