What is Chinese alphabet (Pinyin)?

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What is Chinese alphabet (Pinyin)?

Postby Jonathan » Fri May 09, 2003 8:34 am

Pinyin - transliterating system for Chinese: a system for transliterating written Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet for diplomatic, official, and media uses, introduced in 1959 and adopted by the People’s Republic of China in 1979
Microsoft® Encarta® Reference Library 2003. © 1993-2002 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


In the English-speaking world, since 1892, Chinese words (except personal and place-names) have usually been transliterated according to a phonetic spelling system called Wade-Giles romanization, propounded by British Orientalists Sir Thomas Wade and Herbert Giles. Personal names were romanized according to individual wishes, however, and place-names followed the nonsystematic spellings of the Chinese Post Office. Since 1958 another phonetic romanization known as pinyin (spelling) has had official standing in the People's Republic of China, where it is used for telegrams and in primary education. Replacement of the traditional characters by pinyin has been advocated but is unlikely to be carried through completely because of the threat it poses to literature and historical documentation in the classical language. Simplification of the sound system through time, with the resultant homonyms, has made the terse classical style unintelligible when transcribed in an alphabetic script. Since January 1, 1979, Xinhua (New China News Agency) has used pinyin in all dispatches to foreign countries. The United States government, many scholarly publications, and newspapers such as the New York Times have also adopted the pinyin system, as has this encyclopedia.


The modern Chinese dialects (from the 11th century ad) evolved from Old, or Archaic, Chinese (8th century to 3rd century bc), the sounds of which have been tentatively reconstructed. Although monosyllabic, Old Chinese was not wholly uninflected. The next stage of Chinese that has been carefully analyzed was Middle, or Ancient, Chinese (to about the 11th century ad). By this time the rich sound system of Old Chinese had progressed far toward the extreme simplification seen in the modern dialects. For instance, Old Chinese possessed series of consonants such as p, ph, b, bh (where h stands for aspiration or rough breathing). In Middle Chinese this had become p, ph, bh; in Mandarin only p and ph (now spelled b and p) are left.

The modern Mandarin syllable consists, at the least, of a so-called final element—namely, a vowel (a, e) or semivowel (i, u) or some combination of these (a diphthong or triphthong)—with a tone (level, rising, dipping, or falling) and sometimes a final consonant—which, however, can only be an n, ng, or r. Old Chinese, however, had in addition a final p, t, k, b, d, g, and m. The final element may be preceded by an initial consonant but never by a consonant cluster; Old Chinese probably had clusters, as at the beginning of klam and glam.

As sonic distinctions became fewer—for example, as final n absorbed final m, so that syllables such as lam and lan became simply lan—the number of Mandarin syllables different from one another in sound fell to about 1,300. No fewer words existed, but more words were homonyms. Thus, the words for poetry, bestow, moist, lose, corpse, and louse had all been pronounced differently from one another in Middle Chinese; in Mandarin they all become shi in the level tone. In fact, so many homonyms came to exist that ambiguity would have become intolerable if compound words had not been simultaneously developed. Thus, poetry became shi-ge (poetry-song), and teacher became lao-shi (old-teacher). Although a modern Chinese dictionary contains many more such compounds than one-syllable expressions, most of the compounds still break down into independently meaningful syllables.

Microsoft® Encarta® Reference Library 2003. © 1993-2002 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


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