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 22, 2002

Tongyong Pinyin vs. Hanyu Pinyin ...is one of the hottest topics of debate here, regarding the selection of a Pinyin system for Taiwan. For more background on this debate check out: Don't know what the difference between Hanyu Pinyin and Tonyong Pinyin is? (a site that's VERY biased in favor of Hanyu Pinyin)... or What types of Chinese romanization are out there? , and just to balance things out alittle more, here's an argument in favor of Tongyong Pinyin, Here are my thoughts:


Taiwan Needs A Pinyin System To Save Its Native Languages Now

It’s no surprise that the issue of choosing Tongyong Pinyin over Hanyu Pinyin has quickly become a highly politicized debate. Language is an integral part of culture and identity, but where Taiwan is concerned, these have never been easy things to define. All too often the definitions have carried political connotations and hinged on how Taiwan differentiates itself from China. That’s what this debate has been reduced to since Tongyong Pinyin was developed by linguists who have been labeled “pro-independent?and Hanyu Pinyin is the system devised by and used in China.

Language is an expression that reflects the uniqueness of a country’s culture and customs. A person’s expression of thought is most certainly influenced by the peculiar words that have developed in a particular language, and by the tone and rhythm of a language. Knowing a language also lends special insight into the lives of people and an understanding of their culture and customs. In Taiwan there are many native languages, including Holo Taiwanese, Hakka, and Aborginal languages (Atayal, Ami, Paiwan, Rukai, Puyuma, Tsou, Bunun, Saisyat, Kavalan and Sedeka). Each has unique characteristics that need to be considered in adopting a Pinyin system. Taiwan is at a crucial point in which it needs to preserve its cultural identity and native languages. There are many Taiwanese people who desperately wish to devise a system to preserve the uniqueness of Taiwan’s multilingual society.

Taiwan has had a long history of authoritarian rulers who have outlawed anything other than the official languages (of Japanese or Mandarin Chinese). The previous government’s language policy singularly enforced education in Mandarin Chinese and the usage of native languages was institutionally suppressed. Only a generation ago, speaking impeccable Mandarin Chinese was academically revered and publicly speaking in a native language (Holo, Hakka, Aboriginal languages) in lieu of Mandarin Chinese was met with harsh punishment, especially in the classroom. These systematic tactics have taken its toll on Taiwan’s native languages. For these reasons, the usage of native languages in Taiwan has been fading. A romanization system or symbolic sound system (e.g. “Kanagata?used by the Japanese) has never been developed for them.

Enter Tongyong Pinyin, which was developed by a group of pro-Taiwan academics who declare it is superior to Hanyu Pinyin, which was developed by the People’s Republic of China to teach Mandarin Chinese. Tongyong Pinyin is claimed to be suitable for teaching Taiwan’s native languages, in addition to Mandarin Chinese, a claim that Hanyu Pinyin cannot fulfill. The idea of Tongyong Pinyin has popular appeal for those who have longed for an elixir to heal Taiwan’s romanization ills.

Many who oppose choosing Tongyong Pinyin over Hanyu Pinyin assert that Tongyong Pinyin’s shortcomings include a lack of acceptance as a standard Pinyin system since it was developed only a few years ago and therefore has not passed the test of time. Others accuse supporters of Tongyong Pinyin as pushing this issue in the name of pro-independence sentiment.

How did China go about selecting Hanyu Pinyin as its romanization system? Did it apply these arguments of selecting a system based on precedence, or general acceptance?

There were Pinyin systems for Mandarin Chinese developed before Hanyu Pinyin, the one which is now currently in use. The two most widely known of these being: Wade-Giles system and Yale system. The Wade-Giles system was developed for use in the Western world in the 19th century by Sir Thomas Francis Wade, a British officer and diplomat. It was later modified by Cambridge University professor, Herbert Allen Giles. The Yale system was developed at Yale University in the 1940’s to teach Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese to military and diplomatic personnel. Hanyu Pinyin was developed in the 1950’s by the People’s Republic of China in its fight against illiteracy.

It’s not clear as to why China didn’t simply adopt one of the two previous systems. China chose a newly developed system that didn’t have any precedence. Perhaps the PRC government simply favored a homegrown system over one created by foreigners.

Countries should be allowed to choose a romanization system that best serves the distinct languages of its people. If Tongyong Pinyin can in fact represent the native languages of Taiwan, then I say, what’s stopping everyone? Taiwan should not be afraid of change. Learning Taiwan’s native languages through the use of one uniform system most certainly would be of invaluable benefit to its peoples. If Tongyong Pinyin can accomplish all this, Taiwan should not be concerned about diverging from the international standard for romanizing Mandarin or accusations of being pro-independent.

Taiwan has been using its own unique Bo Po Mo Fo system to teach pronunciation of Chinese characters and also uses traditional Chinese characters. In comparison, China uses Hanyu Pinyin and simplified characters. To date these differences have not been major factors in isolating Taiwan from the international community. Taiwan needs to overcome far more challenging obstacles, other than the romanization issue, in order to break out of its isolation from the international community. Furthermore, the standard usage of Tongyong Pinyin would not preclude Mandarin Chinese from being taught using Hanyu Pinyin. Nor does it preclude the usage of Hanyu Pinyin in official communications with other Chinese speaking nations. Tongyong Pinyin is being proposed as the standard for usage within Taiwan.

There have been disagreements over which system (Hanyu or Tongyong) is easier to use or more intuitive. It’s difficult to compare the merits of different Pinyin systems. No system is perfect. What is most crucial is that the Pinyin system preserves the original integrity of a language. Every system of romanization and language has inconsistencies or quirks, which pose different problems for learners depending on the learner’s biases (i.e. What is the learner’s native language, or familiarity with the romanized alphabet?). Does the learner’s native speaking language have sounds or tones that are similar to the foreign language being learned? How has the learner been taught to pronounce the various letters of the alphabet? These problems are overcome once the learner understands the rules and principles of a Pinyin system and that letters simply serve as symbols to represent sound.


For example, Lo Ma Ji, a romanized writing system which represents Holo Taiwanese, uses many letters in a manner that is counter intuitive to English speakers:

“b?and “p?represent slight variations on “b?sounds
“g?and “k?represent slight variations on “g?sounds
(“b?and “g?are voiced throughout and pre-nazalized, “p?and “k?are not voiced or aspirated)
“ph?represents the “p?sound
“kh?representing the “k?sound

Once the rules and principles behind these letter combinations are learned, the Lo Ma Ji system proves to be an accurate means to pronounce Holo Taiwanese words. Pinyin simply uses letters of the romanized alphabet as symbols to represent sounds. The letters serve as symbols to assist in pronunciation.

No Pinyin system is infallible. The rules of each system must be learned so that they can be used properly. Pinyin cannot be used by someone who does not already speak Mandarin Chinese or know how to use the system. If a non-Mandarin Chinese speaker tries to pronounce the names of streets as they appear on signs, he or she will most certainly pronounce the Chinese characters that they are meant to represent incorrectly. But consistently labeled signs can still greatly assist those who cannot read Chinese characters in getting around.

Foreigners argue that they are the ones most in need of a consistent, standard Pinyin system to facilitate the study of Mandarin Chinese and as a practicality, to have proper labeling of street signs. They argue that Hanyu Pinyin should be chosen since it is the standard for students of Chinese throughout the world. At present it is true that the foreign community has the most vested interest in Taiwan’s choice of Pinyin system because, as of yet Taiwan has not yet selected a Pinyin system to use uniformly in its education. Native Taiwanese students are still being taught the Bo Po Mo Fo system to sound out characters, thus using Pinyin to read street signs is a moot point for most native Taiwanese people.

Currently Taiwan’s signage is in a disastrous state because three different Pinyin systems are concurrently being used. On typical city map, it’s not unusual to find a single street labeled with three seemingly different names because different Pinyin systems have been used throughout the map. I’ve often stood on the corner of busy intersections reading the street signs; in one instance, a street one sign was written as “Xin Yi Road?and on the opposite side of the very same street, another street sign read “Hsin Yee Road.?Obviously, the inconsistent Pinyin on street signs can cause quite a bit of confusion for those who don’t read Chinese characters.

I truly believe that the people of Taiwan want to implement a standard romanized Pinyin system in place of the old Bo Po Mo Fo system. It’s crucial that Taiwan choose a Pinyin system that can meet the needs of its multilingual society. The Tongyong Pinyin vs. Hanyu Pinyin issue is one that concerns both local Taiwanese and foreign community. Interestingly, the foreigner community has been the camp voicing the strongest disapproval of Tongyong Pinyin, while the majority of Taiwanese people are unable to voice an opinion.

Taiwan’s problem rests in its multilingualism. People want a Pinyin system that can encompass Mandarin Chinese, Holo Taiwanese, Hakka, and Aborginal languages. But one has to pause and ask: Is it really possible to have one Pinyin system that represents the unique sounds of the various languages spoken in Taiwan- as Tongyong Pinyin professes? Can the unique sounds of each language really be preserved and represented by only one Pinyin system? Thus far I have not been able to uncover any solid evidence of this. Holo Taiwanese has many nasal sounds in addition to the subtle sounds I described earlier. I’m not entirely convinced that these nuances in pronunciation can truly be captured by Tongyong Pinyin. I’m skeptical, but if Holo, Hakka, and Aborigine linguists endorse Tongyong Pinyin, and agree that the system is precise representation of the range of sounds for each of these languages, then I fully support using Tongyong Pinyin as the standard Pinyin system in Taiwan.

In the end it doesn’t really matter what Pinyin system is learned as long as you can accurately pronounce the words in the spoken language or read and comprehend the meaning of written characters. Pinyin is meant merely to assist in learning the correct pronunciation of Chinese characters. If Tongyong Pinyin isn’t the answer, Taiwan needs to concentrate on developing or selecting alternative romanization systems that truly capture the essence of Taiwan’s native languages immediately, before it’s too late.

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