Last month, I introduced a post about the Chinese language, written Chinese, and Chinese naming and transliteration customs, as it relates to Chinese names. This month, I’ll move on to explain pronunciation.
First step: Vowels
While Wades-Giles and Pinyin transliterations appear quite dissimilar, they use the same set of Latin letters in almost the same way to represent Mandarin vowels: ‹a›, ‹e›, ‹i›, ‹o›, ‹u›, ‹y›, and ‹w›. Remember: do not think in terms of English. English has a rich set of vowels, so these few poor Latin letters have to take on multiple values in the notoriously creative English spelling. In Mandarin,
- ‹a› is always AH.
- ‹e› is like uh but longer, unless in ‹eh› (Wade-Giles), ‹ie›, ‹ue› (Pinyin), or ‹ei› (both), then it is like the e in bet.
- ‹i› is like EE but shorter, unless in ‹ih› (Wade-Giles) or preceded by ‹z›, ‹c›, ‹s›, ‹zh›, ‹ch›, ‹sh›, and ‹r› in Pinyin, in which case it is like the sound your throat makes when gargling. You can approximate it with a more backward, closed uh.
- ‹i› can also be used as a glider or semi-vowel, as seen in ‹ia›, ‹ai›, ‹ie›, ‹iu›, etc.
- A single ‹o› or ‹uo› is pronounced as the wa part in dwarf, or a W-sound followed by an open O, except in Wade-Giles ‹o› appearing after ‹k›, ‹k’›, and ‹h› is the same as ‹e›. In Pinyin ‹ong› the W-sound is very short.
- ‹ao› is the ou part of ouch.
- ‹iu› sounds the same as the interjection yo; ‹ui› (and ‹wei›) is way, and ‹ou› is oh. ‹ua› and ‹uai› are simple enough.
- In Pinyin ‹u› after ‹j›, ‹q›, ‹x› or in ‹ue› and ‹yu› is the same as French u or German ü (with the umlaut or diaeresis). You can approximate it by saying YWEE fast. Sometimes after ‹l› and ‹n› the ‹u› is also pronounced this way, but since the diacritic is often missing, you will have to ask. In all other cases ‹u› is either OO or serves as a W-sounding glider, unless explained above.
- In Wades-Giles the differentiation between ‹u› and ‹ü› is mandatory but sadly always ignored in practice, so what should have been spelled chuan, ch’uan, chüan, and ch’üan are all rendered as chuan. You can only give the best shot and default the ‹u› you see to OO or glider W, unless in ‹iu› and ‹ui›, as explained above, or when preceded by ‹ts›, ‹tz›, ‹ss›, or ‹sz›, where it is almost the same as ‹ih›, or in ‹ung›, which is the same as Pinyin ‹ong›. Exceptions where you can be certain that ‹u› is pronounced YWEE is yuan, yun, after ‹hs›, and the ‹ueh› combination.
- In syllables without leading consonants, ‹i› is replaced by ‹y›, and ‹u› by ‹w›.
- Vowels can be appended with ‹n› or ‹ng› to form more rhymes. Make sure you refrain from over-nasalizing or “drop the g” when it is not spelled ‹ng›. When a single ‹n› is preceded by ‹u›, add a short ‹e› or uh-sound between them if the syllable’s leading consonant is not ‹j›, ‹q›, ‹x› (Pinyin) or their (indecipherable) Wade-Giles equivalents. In Taiwan ‹eng› after ‹b› (Pinyin), ‹p’› (Wade-Giles), ‹p›, ‹m›, and ‹f› (both) is pronounced as ‹ong› (Pinyin) or ‹ung› (Wade-Giles).
- ‹erh› (Wade-Giles) or ‹er› (Pinyin) is the same as the er or or part in terminator. This syllable is never with a leading consonant in Standard Mandarin and does not appear frequently in names, but it is associated with a significant process called erhua or erization in Northern dialects.
This is all very nice. Now what about the q’s and x’s?
Probably the most frequent distinction in phonetics that can be made for consonants articulated similarly is voicing. The Latin alphabet is in fact designed to distinguish between voiced and voiceless consonant pairs: b – p, g – k, z – s, and d – t. These are found in English, too. In addition, voiceless consonants in English are aspirated, or pronounced with a burst of air coming out of the mouth, when they begin a word or a stressed syllable. The first p in people, for instance, is aspirated, whereas the second one is not, but they are both spelled p. If you aspirate or un-aspirate both p’s, like someone with a Mexican or Indian accent, you can still be understood.
In Mandarin, however, there are no voiced consonants, and the distinction between aspirated and non-aspirated voicelessness is vital. This is one of the major problems Sinologists encounter when designing a Romanization method. Wade-Giles, developed in the late nineteenth century, did it the “right” way by using Latin letters for voiceless consonants for non-aspirated voiceless consonants in Mandarin, and apostrophes to indicate aspiration. You will never find letters b and d in a Wade-Giles transliteration, and g only occurs in syllable-ending ‹ng›. Pinyin, on the other hand, favored practicality and assigned Latin letters for voiced consonants to Mandarin non-aspirated voiceless ones, and Latin letters for voiceless consonants to Mandarin aspirated ones. A morphological “shift”, if you will. Given that voiceless letters in English sometimes also indicate aspiration, and voiced consonants sound rather identical to voiceless ones to untrained Chinese ears, the Pinyin assignment, though orthographically abnormal, actually makes sense.
Consonants ‹f›, ‹h›, ‹l›, ‹m›, ‹n›, and ‹s› are used the same way in Wade-Giles and Pinyin and pronounced as in English. Note that ‹h› is either the h in hat or rougher, but never silent as in Spanish or Cockney. ‹sh› is another letter combination shared by both transliteration schemes. To approximate the sound, start with English sh, loosen your jaws so the mouth is less rounded, and roll your tongue upwards. The other consonants are listed as follows:
- ‹p› (Wade-Giles) or ‹b› (Pinyin) is the p in ripple, whereas ‹p’› (Wade-Giles) or ‹p› (Pinyin) is the p’s in papaya.
- ‹t› (Wade-Giles) or ‹d› (Pinyin) is the t in atom, whereas ‹t’› (Wade-Giles) or ‹t› (Pinyin) is the t in tool.
- ‹k› (Wade-Giles) or ‹g› (Pinyin) is the k in sky, whereas ‹k’› (Wade-Giles) or ‹k› (Pinyin) is the c in car.
- ‹ts›, ‹tz› (Wade-Giles) or ‹z› (Pinyin) is the ts part in cats and also in tsunami if pronounced correctly. ‹ts’›, ‹tz’› (Wade-Giles) or ‹c› (Pinyin) is just the aspirated version, characterized by letting a burst of air out while making the sound. Pinyin’s use of ‹z› and ‹c› here and of ‹q› and ‹x› in the bullets below is consistent with practices of some European languages.
- ‹ch› before ‹i› but not ‹ih› (Wade-Giles) or ‹j› (Pinyin) can be approximated by loosening your jaws or only using the upper half of your mouth while pronouncing the j in jade. ‹ch’› before ‹i› (Wade-Giles) or ‹q› (Pinyin) is the corresponding aspirated consonant.
- ‹ch› before ‹ih› or not followed by ‹i› at all (Wade-Giles) or ‹zh› (Pinyin) can be approximated by rolling your tongue upwards while pronouncing the j in jade. It is definitely not how English speakers would pronounce Russian zh or French j. Add an apostrophe (Wade-Giles) or switch to ‹ch› (Pinyin) for its aspirated counterpart.
- ‹hs› (Wade-Giles) or ‹x› (Pinyin) can be approximated by loosening your jaws or only using the upper half of your mouth while pronouncing the English sh.
- ‹j› (Wade-Giles) or ‹r› as syllable-leading consonant (Pinyin) can be approximated by loosening your jaws and making the mouth less rounded while pronouncing the English r. When this consonant appears before ‹u›, it actually sounds just like the English r. Wade-Giles’s choice of ‹j› instead of ‹r› here makes a little sense if you think it as French j and observe the fact that r is one of the most versatile and confounding letters in the Latin alphabet.
You have noticed that the approximation methods provided are more or less the same, only with different English starting points. As a matter of fact, in Mandarin phonology ‹j›, ‹q›, and ‹x› (to use Pinyin notation) constitute a set of similar sounds, so are ‹z›-‹c›-‹s› and ‹zh›-‹ch›-‹sh›-‹r›. These three sets are complements to each other, and you can see it from the ‹ch›-before-‹i›-or-not bit in Wade-Giles. The theoretical counterparts of ‹r› in the other sets would be ll or y in Spanish and the English z, though of course they do not exist in Mandarin.
Again, since apostrophes are rarely present in documents, there is no way to tell an aspiratable consonant spelled in Wade-Giles is actually aspirated or not. Defaulting to the non-aspirated voiceless consonant without voicing it is respectful enough.
On tones and final thoughts
There is no need to worry about tones because they are usually not marked in transliteration, but in case you are still interested, there are five of them in Mandarin, one of which is neutral tone or rather the lack thereof, and it never occurs in names unless parents want to mess with their children. Of the four tones of importance, per Wikipedia,
- The first or high-level tone is a steady high sound.
- The second or rising tone is a sound that rises from mid-level to high.
- The third or dipping tone is a sound that first dips from mid-level to low and then rises. The rising part is often omitted in speech, so the third tone may just be a low sound.
- The fourth or falling tone features a sharp fall from high to low.
Mapping the tones on a standard five-line music staff is the framework linguists employ when studying all Chinese phonology. The tones can be marked in Pinyin visually, using European diacritics macron (bar), acute, caron (check), and grave, above the principal vowel of a syllable. Wade-Giles uses numeral superscripts, but for aesthetic and practical reasons I opted for the Pinyin way in the example.
Having diplomatic foreign names is almost exclusively a Chinese practice. When the first Christian missionaries came to China, they adopted fancy Chinese names partially based on their original ones. To this date many high-profile diplomats still keep the tradition in order to familiarize themselves with the culture they are stationed in. In turn, Chinese people often go by foreign names, usually English ones, in international commerce situations or when they live in a foreign land. This is not the same as Asian Americans having English names by birth. In Taiwan, children start to learn English younger and younger, and teachers usually give them English names right at the beginning to facilitate a “native speaking environment.” Things might get out of hand, though. Some people identify with their English names so much that they relegate their real names to only official functions. In high-tech, financial, and trade industries foreign names have become a fashionable must that even employees in purely domestic capacity have them. Colleagues call each other with English names all the time, and it is not surprising that in the company only the human resources know your birth name.
This, I presume, is part of a broader social phenomenon, that in modern ethnic Chinese mentality the White race or Western civilization suggests or is synonymous to superiority. Before the nineteenth century, Chinese still considered themselves the one superpower of the world, as the endonym literally means “central nation,” when in fact the society had started to stagnate and rot from the inside. Several wars with Western and Japanese colonial powers and a series of unequal treaties destroyed the pride and confidence of the Chinese people, and their aftermath can still be breathed today.
About the Author
Chi-Jui Chang, Master’s student, Financial Engineering
Published in: Student Voices