“Hi, my name is Chris. And you are … KYE-JOO?”
“CHEE … RAY? But it’s spelled with a j… Can I call you Chi for short?”
“Sorry, no, but you can call me Daniel.”
This is a typical conversation a Chinese or Taiwanese person would have with a foreigner. Despite a much appreciated American courtesy to pronounce things right, it showcases a series of choices one has to make regarding the personal name:
- Should I pronounce the name as if it is spelled in English, or should I pronounce it correctly?
- Chinese is tonal. Should I pronounce the tones, or ignore them since foreigners most likely cannot tell or remember the difference?
- If I choose to ignore the tones, how do I pronounce the syllables then?
- Should I make it easy for others by letting them have their way?
- Should I just go by a diplomatic name in English?
The whole name-exchange business becomes so complicated because people with various degrees of cultural awareness and linguistic knowledge make different choices, and because Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese use incompatible transliteration schemes. In this article I will try to break down the “mystery” of Chinese names with as few technical terms as possible, so hopefully by the time you finish reading it you will be able to pronounce them with confidence, and even impress your friends by explaining to them the basics of Chinese phonology.
So what is Chinese in the first place?
Chinese is not a single language; it is a family of speeches with a theoretical common ancestry. When somebody says he or she is learning Chinese, it most likely refers to the standardized and official form of Mandarin, which is based on but not the same as the Beijing dialect. Mandarin, with all its variants, is the commonest native tongue of Chinese people, and almost everyone in the People’s Republic and Taiwan understands some Mandarin. The diversity within Mandarin is comparable to the difference between Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese.
In the parts of China south of Yangtze River, people have native tongues that are not mutually intelligible with Mandarin or with each other: Cantonese, Shanghainese, Min, to name a few. As an immigrant society, Taiwanese of Chinese descent (97% of the island’s population) mostly speak Hakka or Southern Min in addition to Mandarin. The classification of these speeches is subject to ongoing academic and political debate. Sometimes they are referred to as languages with their own dialects; sometimes they are treated as regional variants of a “Chinese language.”
Chinese is obviously best written with Chinese characters, as are a significant borrowed portion of vocabulary in Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese. This is especially true for Mandarin, because centuries of linguistic evolvement have left a large number of homonyms. A formal, complete name exchange between two Chinese people must involve character differentiation. For example,
“My name is Ch’í-Juì.”
“How is it written?”
“Ch’í as in ch’í-t’ā; Juì as in juì-chìh but with a yù on the side.”
(It’s okay. This is just an example.) The transliteration scheme shown here is called Wade-Giles, supplemented with diacritics as tone marks. Tones are essential to all variants of Chinese; the same syllable takes on different, unrelated meanings depending on the tone. In Mandarin there are four tones of importance, on which we will elaborate later. What you need to know now is that a Chinese name is only complete with its characters, and each character has associated meanings and a toned pronunciation.
Nevertheless, in foreign countries where alphabets are the written standard, Chinese names and words have to be transliterated, preserving only the phonetic aspect of them. Transliterating with Latin letters is called Latinization or Romanization. Ideally it should work anywhere in the world, but since Latin letters are so widely adopted, and each language has its own ideas on how the letters should be pronounced, the resulting confusion is tremendous, not to mention that there are countless Romanization methods out there for Mandarin because none of them is satisfactory.
A note on Chinese naming and transliteration customs
Before moving on to tackle Standard Mandarin phonology, it is helpful to look at how Chinese names are formed:
- A Chinese name consists of a surname and a given name. There is no middle name or patronym.
- Surnames are placed before given names, as in other Eastern Asian countries and Hungary.
- Surnames are generally one syllable, although two-syllable and compound surnames exist.
- Given names are often two syllables, but one-syllable given names are still common in Mainland China. A person from a prominent family may have one of those syllables as a generation name, and naming a newborn after some elder relative or rather anyone is considered inappropriate.
- There are ways to form nicknames from a given name, but they do not quite work the same as in English. Calling me Chi would be like calling Los Angeles simply “Los”.
- Unlike in Western cultures, there are relatively few surnames in Chinese. Persons are not distinguishable if only the surnames are known. This hints on the Chinese perception of family bonding On the other hand, there are infinite possibilities for given names because you can choose from tens of thousands of characters, combine them, and name your child uniquely.
- When transliterating, Taiwanese usually hyphenate their two-syllable given names and evoke the Wade-Giles Romanization for Mandarin, although other schemes had been declared official in the past, and the government is in the process of switching to Pinyin.
- Citizens of China, quite consistently, use Pinyin and write givens names as a single word.
- People from Hong Kong and Macau transliterate the syllables of their names from Cantonese instead of Mandarin and write them in natural order, separately as different words. Koreans sometimes hyphenate their given names as Taiwanese do, but obviously transliteration for Korean is out of the scope of this article.
- Elements in transliteration schemes other than Latin letters, such as tone marks and apostrophes, are almost always ignorantly omitted because people do not know their importance or because they are not readily available on American English keyboards. Hence my papers read Chi-Jui or Chi Jui instead of Ch’í-Juì.
Again, hyphenated names come from Taiwan and are most likely spelled in Wade-Giles, otherwise they are from the People’s Republic and use Pinyin. Letter combinations like ‹hs›, ‹ih›, ‹tz›, ‹ts›, and ‹ung› are specific to Wade-Giles, whereas Pinyin is distinct for its use of ‹b›, ‹d›, ‹q›, ‹r›, ‹x›, ‹zh›, and standalone ‹c›, ‹g›, and ‹z› as leading consonant of a syllable. Identifying the transliteration scheme being used is important to pronounce Chinese names properly, as the schemes sometimes use different letters to represent the same sound, and the same letter for different sounds.
About the Author
Chi-Jui Chang, Master’s student, Financial Engineering
Published in: Student Voices