Romanization is the representation of a written word or spoken speech with the Roman (Latin) script, or a system for doing so, where the original word or language uses a different writing system.
For example with Chinese, how would you pronounce this: “語”?
No clue, right?
But if I asked you to pronounce “yǔ,” you’d have a much better chance. Even with the funny mark over the u.
So then, in the case of the Chinese language, it’s obvious as to the need for “Romanization.”
There are many different systems of Romanizing Chinese, depending on the time in history, location, Chinese language, sub-language, dialect, etc.
Without going into the details of separating orthographies, etc., let’s look at some of these interesting ways of making a Chinese language a little easier to grasp via Latin-based languages.
And yes, still others.
There are systems for Min Dong (Eastern Min) languages, Hakka, Siyen, Gan, and others as well.
In Romanized systems of Chinese, tones are addressed usually in one of three ways. For example the word 馬, or horse, could be written in one of three ways for the Mandarin pronunciation of the word:
- Using Diacritical Marks: Mǎ
- Using Roman Numerals: Ma3, Ma3, etc.
- Ignoring tones altogether: Ma
Common Romanization Systems
The three most common systems of Chinese Romanization are Wade-Giles, Yale, and Pīnyīn.
Wade-Giles came about in the 19th century by Sir Thomas Francis Wade, a British officer and diplomat who served in China and wrote quite a few books on Chinese. His system was later modified by Cambridge professor Herbert Allen Giles. Obviously, the name of the system is a combination of the two creators’ last names.
It’s been replaced by Pinyin.
Yale was developed at Yale University in the late 1940’s, originally used for teaching Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese to military and diplomatic personnel, and was named after the University in which it was developed.
Yale and Jyutping are the two most common used systems for Cantonese today.
Pinyin, literally meaning “spell-sound,” is the official system that the People’s Republic of China began developing in the late 1950’s to help fight illiteracy. The name of this system is an attempt to describe the system. For Mandarin, this is the system in use today.
Common, Standard, Different
Although these three systems are the most common and their origin and use follow a sense of easy logic, there are some things regarding the Western tongue’s application of Chinese which are odd.
For many years, the West’s primary contact with a Chinese-speaking culture was with Hong Kong, where Cantonese is the primary language.
The name “Hong Kong” itself, for instance, is Cantonese.
The Mandarin name is actually Xiāng Gāng.
Quite different ways to pronounce the same two characters (香 港), though both names mean “Fragrant Harbor.”
Another system from long ago still making the occasional appearance is the Chinese Postal Romanization system, which was based largely on French spelling approaches to pronunciation.
It was the most common way of rendering Chinese place names in the West for a large part of the 20th century.
This name, 青 島, would be as follows in the modern Romanization systems for Mandarin and Cantonese, respectively: Qīng Dǎo / Cing1 Dou2. But the name “Tsing Tao” has become a recognized brand.
A Quick Comparison
Although there are definitely the oddball things like we mentioned above, the standards are more prevalent and the defacto standards.
It is Pinyin you’ll definitely be using and learning for Mandarin. For Cantonese, it depends.
Before closing out, let’s take a quick look at an example sentence, written in Wade-Giles, Yale and Pinyin.
“I am going to Beijing“:
|I am going to Beijing|
|Wade-Giles||Wo3 Ch`ü4 Pei3 Ching1.|
|Yale||Wŏ Chyù Běi Jīng.|
|Pinyin||Wŏ Qù Běi Jīng.|