Pictograph Translations and Sound
June 27, 2005 7:25 PM   Subscribe

Why are Asian languages not translated into English phonetically?

When you're going from a pictograph to a set of individual sounds, what's the purpose of making the Roman characters not sound like themselves?

For example, I remember an ad campaign from the late 90s for Tsingtao beer. The ad said: "It's pronounced 'Ching dao'".

Why not just spell it like that in the first place?

I've heard the explanation that it's that way because of subtleties in the pronounciation, but that doesn't explain it to me; if you have a character, and it's pronounced a certain way, when you translate it into English, why not just write it *exactly* the way it's supposed to be said?
posted by interrobang to Human Relations (21 answers total)
 
Because you can't. There is no English phonetic equivalent for a lot of the sounds in Chinese, for example the Ts/Ch sound, is more like at ts-u type sound. There is no equivalent sound in Enlish, so you can't write it out with English letters. The difference in spelling usually comes from convention or from different dialects. If you look at English spellings for Chinese names, you get a lot of variation, though it might be the same name in Chinese. An example would be Chang and Zhang, the same word in Chinese, but different in English. Since there is no exact equivalent, people ended up taking the closest guess, though it really isn't the same.
posted by orangskye at 7:34 PM on June 27, 2005


It's possible that some other Roman alphabet language came up with the phoenetics that we use in English? I know that the French transcriptions of polynesian languages were fairly different than English transcriptions.

Also, not all of the sounds that occur in Thai exist in English (ditto for other Asian languages).

On preview: what Orangskye said.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:37 PM on June 27, 2005


Because Ching Dao is not *exactly* the way you say it. It's tricky to transliterate Chinese to be phonetically accurate in English.

Also, Chinese is a tonal language, which means that words change meaning depending on whether they're said with a rising tone, falling tone, falling then rising, or flat. We don't have any symbols for that.
posted by desuetude at 7:42 PM on June 27, 2005


The classic tonal example I heard over and over again in Thailand was "Mai mai mai mai mai" which translated to something like "New wood doesn't burn, does it?"

I also agree with orangskye in that it depends on the sounds that you're language can handle. I think Campuchea and Cambodge are examples of this when spelling out Cambodia.

When I get home I'll look up the proper reference for that last one.
posted by furtive at 7:51 PM on June 27, 2005



Because Ching Dao is not *exactly* the way you say it. It's tricky to transliterate Chinese to be phonetically accurate in English.


But "Ching Dao" is closer to the way it's supposed to be pronounced than "Tsing Tao" is, right? It's "closer enough" that they had to specifically say on an ad that you should pronounce it other than the way it's written on the label. Why write it on the label like that to begin with?

I understand the tonalities thing, but the English language is extremely adaptable, and we have lots of letter combinations to indicate sounds. Why not go with this in the first place, rather than spelling a word one way, and pronouncing it another?
posted by interrobang at 7:51 PM on June 27, 2005


...I also wonder: who's going to get insulted or confused in an English context if a word is not pronounced *precisely* right, especially when your phonetic markers in a word are totally not in line with how the word is to be pronounced according to the rules of the language it's being translated into?
posted by interrobang at 7:55 PM on June 27, 2005


There have been a number of different transliteration schemes for Chinese over the years. Perhaps the name "Tsingtao" was trademarked when an older transliteration for Chinese was in fashion? People may currently agree that "Ching dao" is a better rendition into English, but the beer probably doesn't want to create brand confusion by changing the spelling on the label.
posted by aneel at 8:04 PM on June 27, 2005


The transliteration system isn't just for English, it's a general tool taht's used for all languages that use Roman characters, many of which pronounce the same spelling differently.
posted by smackfu at 8:12 PM on June 27, 2005


There have been a number of different transliteration schemes for Chinese over the years. Perhaps the name "Tsingtao" was trademarked when an older transliteration for Chinese was in fashion?

Thats basically it. Although the Pinyin and Wade-Giles Romanizations are more common today, Tsing Tao appears to be from an earlier scheme put forth by the French -EFEO
posted by vacapinta at 8:14 PM on June 27, 2005


From the Wikipedia entry on Beijing:
"An older English name for Beijing is Peking. The term originated with French missionaries four hundred years ago, and corresponds to an older, now obsolete pronunciation which predates a subsequent sound change in Mandarin from [k?] to [t?]. ([t?] is represented in pinyin as j, as in Beijing.)"
posted by o0o0o at 8:35 PM on June 27, 2005


A lot of what makes this a problem for English speakers is that the current official PRC standard for romanization of Chinese, Pinyin, is a language-neutral romanization, not a Anglicization as the "easier" Wade-Giles standard is. The introduction and "Controversy" sections of the Wikipedia Pinyin article touch on this.

Just for fun: "Ching dao" is a combination of the Wade-Giles and Pinyin way to write Tsingtao (Simplified Chinese: ??; Traditional Chinese: ??; pinyin: Qingdao; Wade-Giles: Ch'ing-tao; Postal System Pinyin: Tsingtao).
posted by zsazsa at 8:51 PM on June 27, 2005


It's also worth noting that this isn't really the case with all Asian languages. While it's pretty difficult to get a handle on Chinese romanization, Japanese romanization is remarkably straight forward. It's no more difficult to learn to passably pronounce romanized Japanese than, say, Spanish.

I haven't really looked at Korean romanization much, but this site has a pretty neat pdf guide to the different Korean romanization systems.
posted by cloeburner at 8:56 PM on June 27, 2005


When I was last in Thailand, they had just changed their romanization, so that for example the city formerly known as Taegu was now known as Daegu.

The link explains the reasons for the change, and belies the fact that this is a tricky business.

Furtive: that's fascinating; I've never heard that! I was under the impression that Thai wasn't tonal, is that not correct? Well, I was told that in reality, some tonality sneaks through from the Chinese, etc. infleuence.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 9:50 PM on June 27, 2005


Interesting answers, everyone. I've always wondered about this. Thanks.
posted by interrobang at 11:06 PM on June 27, 2005


In "Asian", are you including South Asia, or do you mean "Asian" the way Americans mean it?

As an Indian (part of Asia), I can tell you that the 26 letters in the English alphabet are not enough to represent many of the sounds in Indian languages. So you wouldn't be able to pronounce a lot of Hindi. My name, "Madhu", for instance, is pronounced with a heavy, breathy "d" that is actually a consonant in the alphabet, but Westerners can't pronounce it right because there's no English equivalent.

Heck, my native language, Malayalam, has 56 letters, and Indians from other states have problems pronouncing many of the letters. So English would be quite inadequate for a reliable transliteration.
posted by madman at 12:47 AM on June 28, 2005 [2 favorites]


I was under the impression that Thai wasn't tonal, is that not correct?

Central Thai has five tones - high, low, mid, rising, falling.

Same with Laos-Issan (the language nearly a third of the population speak in addition to Central Thai).
posted by the cuban at 1:07 AM on June 28, 2005


This is exactly why I find zhuyin fuhao to be a superior phonetic system for Mandarin than pinyin fuhao, because it doesn't come with the baggage of the roman alphabet.
posted by randomstriker at 1:41 AM on June 28, 2005


This is exactly why I find zhuyin fuhao to be a superior phonetic system for Mandarin than pinyin fuhao, because it doesn't come with the baggage of the roman alphabet.

That's absolutely ludicrous. People who have never studied Chinese can at least look at pinyin or Wades-Giles and have a fairly good clue how to say something, while zhuyin is just as incomprehensible to them as Chinese characters. If you're properly studying Chinese, learning pinyin is still faster than learning zhuyin. The only advantage I see to zhuyin is that they consistently put tone markers on zhuyin while you frequently see pinyin without tone markers (though there's no logical reason why pinyin can't be consistently written with tone markers,) and beginner students often aren't careful enough with memorrizing their tones.

/have lived in Taiwan for two years and haven't bothered to learn bopomofo
posted by alidarbac at 2:57 AM on June 28, 2005


Vietnamese has been romanised since the 17th century by missionaries, who added new symbols for the tones. The roman script or qu?c ng? (meaning something like "national language") eventually replaced completely the original Chinese writing and has been in use for the last century.

While it was introduced primarily to help the colonisation of the country (for instance, French authorities thought that it would help create a rift between the young users of qu?c ng? and the old chinese-writing intelligentsia), the simple fact that it was easier to learn than Chinese made it a much more effective means of disseminating ideas, including independentist ones...
posted by elgilito at 4:24 AM on June 28, 2005


...I also wonder: who's going to get insulted or confused in an English context if a word is not pronounced *precisely* right, especially when your phonetic markers in a word are totally not in line with how the word is to be pronounced according to the rules of the language it's being translated into?

In the case of Pinyin, it was developed in China, and is actually used as a tool in schools to teach Mandarin pronunciation. As said before, it's not an Anglicization. Tsingtao comes from Postal System Pinyin, an older Pinyin system.
posted by zsazsa at 5:44 AM on June 28, 2005


I've studied Hindi and Sanscrit, and when it's been written phonetically in the Roman alphabet, the only was to get even close to the true pronunciation was with diacritical marks. As folks have said up-thread, many languages have sounds that can't be represented in an alphabet other than their native one (in the case of Hindi and Sanscrit, it's Devanagari).
posted by Specklet at 10:07 AM on June 28, 2005


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