Transcription with Chinese Characteristics

A quiz:
Name the language used in the following phrase.


Bonus points if you can catch the meaning.

If you guessed German, congratulations. This sentence comes from a book called 想说就说:德语, or “If you Want to Speak, Just Speak: German”. A friend of mine who works at a German company recently picked it up. The full entry is as follows:

Sehr schön, ziemlich schick.

And the corresponding pinyin:

zéi e shì yùn, cì yī mù lǐ xī shì yǐ kè.
hěn hǎokàn, hěn shímáo.

The first line of course is nonsense if read as Mandarin. Instead it’s supposed to be a way to teach native Mandarin speakers how to say the German phrases. Oddly enough, there is not a single glyph of IPA in this book. In the first couple pages a table is given with the German alphabet on one side and corresponding characters on the other side. So “A” gets “阿” and “Q” gets “哭”.

This is particularly odd given that the majority of Chinese graduating college today have had at least some experience with IPA, either in dictionaries or in their English classes. This seems a little more appropriate when done to transcribe other Sinitic languages like Wu which uses characters anyway. Though even then the real pronunciation is far from clear.

8 responses to “Transcription with Chinese Characteristics”

  1. Daan says:

    Yes, it always amazes me to see such transcriptions. Even if they don’t want to use IPA, they can always use the Latin alphabet. Students will be familiar with that from their studies of English, won’t they?

    There’s some more examples on Sinosplice. And the September 2005 issue of the HK Journal of Applied Linguistics contained an article on a book called The Chinese-English Instructor by Tong King-Shu (1862), used in 19th-century Canton, which contains similar transcriptions.

  2. Would a German person understand if a Chinese person pronounced the way the book suggests?

  3. Kellen says:

    There are a few more hints omitted here. Zei and e are linked, for example, signifying that they should be read as one syllable.

    I imagine if the German speaker knew what to listen for, they might get as well as 古的貓寧 sounds like “good morning” to an English speaker.

    edit: Just back from Shanghai’s Ikea where there were more than a handful of instances. The difference being that no one is walking through Ikea to learn Swedish.

  4. Colin Jacobs says:

    I speak German and could not make head or tails of that until I already knew what it said. IMHO it’s a terrible way to get the message across – it all but guarantees a near-indecipherable accent.

  5. Georg says:

    There’s no way I could have understood that. Hanzi-based transcription is sometimes necessary, especially when it comes to names, I wouldn’t charge the authors of this textbook with the task, however. (Okay, I’m just pissed because I didn’t recognize my own native language!) Did they transcribe “thank you” as “蛋壳”?

    Speaking of IKEA, I like the Chinese name “宜家” which alludes to the proverb “宜室宜家”. It sounds more like [jì káː] (now) in Cantonese and therefore less like “ee-kay-uh”.

  6. Chris says:

    They use IMHO for all languages, it is just an approximation, just like the Japanese use Katakana to write foreign names but that don’t make sense either, it seems to help them decipher the closest way of pronunciating the words, but only at beginner level of language learning, hence the popularity of native speakers in English language teaching institutions.
    I sometimes use it to give them the closest approximation of correct pronunciation too, it helps and makes you look good.;-)

  7. Vladimir says:

    Well, the custom of using hanzi for transcribing foreign works is certainly ancient. It is a bit surprising that it is still very much alive; I’ve seen a whole series of foreign-language phrasebooks done that way in a Wuhan department store. The Russian one is particularly delightful.

    What surprised me the most, however, was that they had a Cantonese phrasebook done the same way! Don’t ask me how…

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