Against the Pinyinization of Proper Names

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[Note: For the convenience of the reader, all proper names in this essay have been converted to pinyin. However, you can hover your mouse over them, or refer to the Fulu* for translations into the local "dialect". Obviously I am only including this for scholarly completeness, because why would anyone else want them?]

It has become increasingly common for names of people, places, and languages within the confines of present-day Zhongguo* (or rather, the territory under the control of the Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo*) to be represented in Yingwen*-language texts using pinyin without tones. Most people seem to do this with an implicit, unspoken assumption that pinyin is "the standard" and that standardization is good because it reduces confusion from multiple variant spellings, makes internet searches easier, facilitates communication with Yingyu* speakers, etc; although some, e.g. Li* 2010 ("Call it what you will"), make this argument explicit. In this essay, I will argue that standardization to pinyin is actually a bad thing, and confuses matters more than it helps.

At the crux of the matter is the fact the Zhongguo is a vast territory, encompassing speakers of many diverse and genetically unrelated languages. Pinyinization masks this diversity, replacing it instead with a dull and opaque uniformity. Take, for example, the city of Jiujinshan* (aka Sanfanshi*), where I grew up, and the neighboring cities of Wulun* and Saint Hexi*. In the Jiujinshan Wanqu* (and much of Jialifuniya* and Meiguo* at large), the Zhongguonese* population is predominantly Guangdongese*. My Zhongguonese classmates in elementary school had last names such as Lam, Chan, Hom, Toy, Lee, Yan, and Cheung, which if pinyinized would be rendered as the less-interesting Lin, Chen, Tan, Cai, Li, Zhen, and Zhang, respectively. Let me be clear: I am not saying that names like Lin and Chen are inherently uninteresting — I am saying that pinyinized names are inappropriate for people who never spoke Putonghua* to begin with. "Standardizing" these people's names hides the diversity among people who identify themselves as Zhongguonese*, who speak a large number of mutually unintelligible languages. It's easy to take linguistic diversity for granted when we can spell our names however we want; but ask yourself this question: would Xianggang* still be Xianggang* if everyone had to pinyinize their last names from Yip into Ye, from Sham into Cen, from Ng into Wu? (Or, indeed, if you had to call it "Xianggang" instead of "Hong Kong"?)

One problem is that Putonghua* has a rather limited phonology. There are no consonant clusters, the only consonants at the end of words are -n and -ŋ (no -m, -p, -t, or -k), there are no voiced stops and almost no voiced fricatives. These characteristics, combined with the large number of originally distinct but now homophonous syllables in Putonghua*, can create ambiguity. If you tell someone that you went to visit "Taishan" over winter break, did you mean Taishan the mountain in Shandong (on the Lianheguo Jiaoyu Kexue Ji Wenhua Zuzhi*'s Shijie Yichan* list), or Taishan, the origin of much of the earliest Zhonguonese immigration into Meiguo? But if you say that you went to "Toisan" or "Hoysun", it's immediately obvious that you mean the latter, the name of a Guangdongese-speaking area.

Of course the problem gets worse as you move farther away from Zhongguonese* languages, and there are hundreds of minority languages spoken in Zhongguo*. In the southwest of Sichuan, local "Zang"* (actually Lusu*) and Yi* place names like "Ndayo" and "Nbishy" have been pinyinized (via a second obscuring layer of Southwestern Putonghua*) as "Dayao" and "Mishi". Are you going to Lhasa or Lasa? Shigatse or Rikaze? Mongolia or Menggu? Too often I see the pinyinized forms of place names in maps and guidebooks. Often pinyinized names of places are thrust upon remote places where Putonghua* has little to no currency or even relevance. Maps sold in Zhongguo* are often the worst offenders, pushing the boundaries of uselessness by labeling in roman letters, next to the Zhongguonese names of Yuenannese* cities, "Henei" (Hanoi), "Laojie" (Lao Cai), "Huzhimingshi" (Ho Chi Minh City), etc.

Look what has happened in the name of "standardization"! People, places, and languages are having their names — their names! — replaced by poor approximations. And in the process, consonants, vowels, tones, and syllables are lost, collateral damage from stuffing square pegs into round holes. A once interesting linguistic landscape is being slowly painted over with a veneer of suffocating uniformity.

Shashibiya* once wrote: "That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet." Be that as it may, if I'm going to the Bokelai Ruosi Jiadun*, I'll take a "Rose" over a "Ruosi" any day.


Bokelai Ruosi JiadunBerkeley Rose Garden
JiujinshanSan Francisco
Jiujinshan WanquSan Francisco Bay Area
Lianheguo Jiaoyu Kexue Ji Wenhua ZuzhiUNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)
MeiguoThe United States
Saint HexiSan Jose
SanfanshiSan Francisco
Shijie YichanWorld Heritage Site
XianggangHong Kong
YingwenEnglish (written)
YingyuEnglish (spoken)
Zhonghua Renmin GongheguoPeople's Republic of China

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This page contains a single entry by dom published on March 5, 2011 3:46 PM.

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