Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Monday, July 29, 2002

Here are some follow up comments about the whole Tongyong Pinyin vs. Hanyu Pinyin debate:

In this debate about Pinyin systems, has it occurred to anyone to ask how many of the people involved in the decision making are linguists? At the very least, people espousing opinions about Tongyong Pinyin¡¦s ability to romanize languages other than Mandarin Chinese, should be familiar with existent Pinyin systems that have been specifically developed for Holo (commonly referred to as Taiwanese), Hakka or Aboriginal languages. Otherwise, what point of comparison do they have? Should we accept their opinions on good faith alone? Where is the proof that Tongyong Pinyin can represent Holo, Hakka or Aboriginal languages?

I have learned Mandarin using both Hanyu Pinyin and Bo Po Mo Fo, and Lo Ma Pinyin or Lo Ma Ji for Holo. Incidentally, the romanization system that I¡¦ve referred to for use with Holo is not just a phonetic system; it is an orthographic system, therefore, it is more accurately referred to it as Lo Ma Ji (romanized words) not Lo Ma Pinyin. In addition to my familiarity with these three romanization systems, I have examined a comprehensive comparison chart of Hanyu Pinyin and Tongyong Pinyin. So, I feel qualified to offer an opinion on Tongyong Pinyin and its ability to represent Holo.

Having learned Lo Ma Ji for Holo, I can say with certainty that Tongyong Pinyin does not accommodate the range of sounds for the Holo language. Holo has nasalized vowels and two pairs of ¡§voiced¡¨ and ¡§voiceless¡¨ consonants represented by b/p and g/k. For example, Holo has two distinctive ¡§b¡¨ and ¡§g¡¨ sounds. The "b" and ¡§g¡¨ sounds which are not voiced throughout are represented by "p" and "k" respectively; the ¡§b¡¨ and ¡§g¡¨ sounds which are voiced through out are represented by ¡§b¡¨ and ¡§g¡¨ respectively. Similar contrasting pairs also exist in Taiwan¡¦s aboriginal languages and European Germanic languages, but they do not exist in Mandarin Chinese, as transcribed by Hanyu Pinyin or Tongiong Pinyin.

Hanyu Pinyin was created for Mandarin Chinese in 1959. Its romanization system is derived from the Slavic language family, which includes languages such as Russian, Polish and Hungarian. Tongyong Pinyin is basically derived from Hanyu Pinyin, so differences between Tongyong Pinyin and Hanyu Pinyin are largely superficial. Tongyong Pinyin differs from Hanyu Pinyin basically because it uses different letters to represent the sounds of Mandarin Chinese, but the range of sounds that it represents remains the same. These sounds are essentially related to the Slavic language family and are not compatible with Holo. As previously mentioned, Holo is more similar to Germanic languages such as English, German and Dutch, and thus should use a system that accommodates these characteristics.

Tongyong Pinyin needs to be revised to accommodate the aforementioned sounds of Holo. If the present version of Tongyong Pinyin is adopted to teach Holo, many of the language¡¦s unique sounds and consequently, words will be lost. If Tongyong Pinyin needs to be revised for Holo, is it worth the extra time and effort to do so, when Lo Ma Ji is already a perfectly adequate system? Does the answer really lie in using or developing a new Pinyin system? We should examine the existing romanized systems and from these, select the most viable ones for each applicable language or languages. Tongyong Pinyin does not offer much benefit over Hanyu Pinyin, except that it lays claim on being able to represent Hakka.

Taiwan¡¦s long history of struggle under various authoritarian regimes has led to the erosion of its native languages; as a result, the urgency of selecting a Pinyin system has reached epic proportions. The native languages of Taiwan have come to symbolize the unique culture and identity of Taiwan. Politics and history aside, first and foremost, a Pinyin system should be able to accurately represent the range of sounds in a particular language. It¡¦s also essential that the Pinyin system preserves the integrity of a language, including the distinct culture and identity of Taiwan that is reflected in the language.

Many people favor Tongyong Pinyin because it was developed by a group of pro-Taiwan academics; there are no linguists among them. Lo Ma Ji is supported by many PhD linguists and students in Taiwan, and was originally created by an English priest by the name of Medhurst in 1832. Since then it has been revised several times. It doesn¡¦t really matter who created the particular Pinyin system, but that the system teaches correct pronunciation. In doing so, the Pinyin system will serve to preserve a part of Taiwan¡¦s culture.

Tongyong Pinyin offers the hope that only one, universal romanized system can be used to teach Taiwan¡¦s languages. Undoubtedly, this would be an ideal situation but a Pinyin system should not be adopted in the name of convenience, especially if it, namely, Tongyong Pinyin, does not capture the essence of a language, in this case, Holo (as the public has been led to believe). Using Tongyong Pinyin for Holo would compromise the character of this language. I don¡¦t see any problem in teaching more than one romanized system. We can liken this to using the alphabet to learn English and French; each language has its own pronunciation for letters. The differences between Hanyu Pinyin for Mandarin and Lo Ma Ji for Holo are probably greater than the differences in pronunciation of the alphabet for English and French, but I don¡¦t think it should pose much of a problem for learners. Most native English speakers have not encountered major difficulties using the aforementioned Pinyin systems or confusing them with the English pronunciation of such letters, provided that they have studied and learned the rational behind each Pinyin system.

The most unfortunate thing about this debate is the lack of participation by the local Taiwanese people. They are not simply being apathetic on the topic; they are unable to have an opinion on the topic since the majority of them have learned Mandarin using the Bo Po Mo Fo system, and it seems to have worked well for them. In fact, after conversing with many of them, it is quickly apparent that they don¡¦t realize that Taiwan is basically the only place in the world that teaches Mandarin using Bo Po Mo Fo, or that there¡¦s been talk of completely doing away with this system, or that Hanyu Pinyin is used to teach pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese in China. The vast majority of Taiwanese have never used romanized Pinyin systems to learn Mandarin, Holo or Hakka, so they have no basis on which to formulate an opinion. It¡¦s very unfortunate because although this decision will most immediately affect foreigners, hence all the recent brouhaha from the foreign community, ultimately, it will affect the Taiwanese in the future when schools abandon the use of Bo Po Mo Fo in favor of a romanized Pinyin system.


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