Just a little mistake?

Hanyu pinyin is a pretty easy system of romanization to learn.  There are very few “rules” that stray from its connection with Chinese phonemes.  One of the rules is that the final iou is contracted to iu (unless there is no initial, in which case the i changes to y).  Other than for the sake of brevity, I’m not sure why this rule was adopted, but sometimes we can see the original pop through as a mistake.

My younger son was writing his journal today about Alice in Wonderland, which we saw yesterday, and after him telling me that he thinks it’s not good to write pinyin when he doesn’t know a character, and me telling him that that’s one of the best uses of pinyin, he wrote how Alice, after drinking water from a little bottle, “jiòu biàn 小了”.

10 responses to “Just a little mistake?”

  1. Syz says:

    That iou->iu rule of convenience gave me no end of problems when I was first learning Pinyin, because I was just learning on my own, intuitively, based on reading a bit of Pinyin and listening to spoken Mandarin, i.e. no one was instructing me. I kept trying to say it as an /i/ + /u/ sound. I knew it wasn’t coming out right and I thought it was a script problem (“hey, why do they write it wrong!”). When I learned it was designed that way I lost one degree of respect for Pinyin (although it’s still a pretty decent system).

  2. I had a conversation with an old boss a year or so back. She used to be a Mandarin teacher before becoming manager at the company for whom I worked. She was explaining to my co-worker how syllables in Mandarin work. “xi eee aa, 虾” she’d say. She got to the -iu ending and said “eee oooh, yo”. My college was having some difficulty getting it so I pointed out to the boss that the eee oooh bit wasn’t actuallly representative of the sound, as far as I’d heard it thus far. We’d had a previous conversation on the suckage that is pinyin, how it’s really only truly useful to someone who has already learned the whole system. 久 being pronounced kinda like Joe instead of Jew proved a useful example.

    Actually I’ve recently starting yoo-ing my -iu on some words. I say 6 liù and have at least on 4 separate occasions been misunderstood as saying 1 yāo. My tones are fine. My /l/ isn’t a /j/ (though I know some locals here for whom that’s the case). Yet for some reason they sometimes hear yāo. So now with those couple people with whom it’s happened, I say “lèw” with an exaggerated fall.

  3. Zev Handel says:

    There’s also the parallel situation with with base form uei changing to -ui when there is a preceding initial (and of course as wei when there is no initial).

    The sad fact is that there is no romanization system for any language that will satisfy all users. The most important criterion is that there be an unambiguous relationship between written and spoken forms, and all the major systems (Yale, pinyin, Wade-Giles, etc.) satisfy that criterion. But second-language learners are always going to find things that seem confusing or counter-intuitive no matter the romanization. One might be able to come up with a modification of pinyin that strikes English speakers as somewhat more natural, but that’s just going to make it even harder for French- and Russian-speaking learners of Chinese to use. Ultimately, the proper and effective use of romanizations and other transcriptions depends on knowledge of the underlying language. There’s just no getting around it.

    (Just be glad you’re not dealing with parallel issues in Korean romanization!)

  4. Youngjun Kwon says:

    Top secret of Hanyu Pinyin: “yong” does not sound “iong” but “üeng” while “ye”, “yan” sound “ie”, “ian”. If you compare Pinyin with 注音符號(ㄅㄆㄇㄈ; Bopomofo), you will see the weak point of Pinyin. Bopomofo would lead you to accurate Chinese pronunciation.

    In regard to romanization of Korean, the Revised Romanization of Korean was announced by Korean government in July, 2000. I was the only student who studied the revised version in my class. No one cared about that. It’s been a decade, all the traffic signs and official romanized marks all over Korea changed to the revised version; “Hangŭl” became “Hangeul”, “Kwon Yŏngjun” became “Gwon Yeongjun”(my names romanized in official ways), “Pusan” became “Busan” but Pusan International Film Festival still remains “PIFF”. Nevertheless, I haven’t seen any Korean who read about the Romanization of Korean. I think there are two reasons. First, Korean government did not actively support the education of the romanization. Second, the romanization system of Korean is not persuasive to Korean people to use at any rate.

  5. Zev Handel says:


    Both bopomofo and pinyin indicate unambiguously the correct pronunciation of a Chinese syllable. In either case you have to learn which sounds the graphs and combinations of graphs represent — in other words, you have to learn the rules by which the system operates. Objectively, both systems are equally adequate as transliterations of Mandarin pronunciation. As for which one is easier to learn, that is going to vary depending on the background of the learner — it is to some extent dependent on one’s language background, but there is also a subjective difference from individual to individual. Bopomofo also has features that are not really consistent from a phonetic point of view. For example, the pinyin ending -ong as in dōng 東 is written u (ㄨ) + eng (ㄥ) in bopomofo.

    I think it’s fine for people to have their preferences about which system they like to use, but I’m suspicious of arguments that claim that one system is objectively superior to the other.

    In my reference to Korean romanizations, I just meant that there are complications involved in deciding among Korean romanization systems that simply don’t arise when thinking about Chinese romanization. In part this is because Korean morphophonology is so complex, and in part because of discrepancies between Korean orthography and Korean pronunciation. For example, should a romanization of Korean match the Korean spelling in a one-to-one fashion, or should it match the pronunciation more directly? Should the phoneme /k/ in Korean (ㄱ) always be written in romanization, or should it variously be written or depending on whether in that context it is pronounced as [k] or [g]? Should 한자 (“Chinese character”) be transcribed (matching Korean spelling) or (matching Korean pronunciation)? These are tough decisions that must be made by the person who devises any romanization system. Ultimately, only knowledge of the Korean language and of the relationship between the letters in the romanization and the sounds of the language will yield accurate pronunciation. Fortunately, as you note, ordinary Koreans don’t have to worry much about romanization — just as ordinary Americans don’t need to worry much about different systems for transliterating English using Cyrillic or Arabic or Hangeul.

  6. Youngjun Kwon says:

    I fully agree with all the graph systems and written systems are incomplete. I didn’t mean to say that one system is superior to the others, but I admit that there is a certain ground for misunderstanding in my comment. I’d like ask you further questions:

    I just meant that there are complications involved in deciding among Korean romanization systems that simply don’t arise when thinking about Chinese romanization

    I think complications of that level (ㄱ, k, g) are also found in Chinese romanization. For example, the initial ‘j’ in jian sounds variously depends on the tone. ‘j’ in high tone initials like jiān, jiàn are different from ‘j’ in comparatively low tone initials jián, jiăn. Do you think complicition of Korean is more severe than that of Chinese?

    Should 한자(”Chinese character”) be transcribed (matching Korean spelling) or (matching Korean pronunciation)?

    In this context, I think you should use 한자어(漢字語, “Sino-Korean word”) rather than 한자. Or, were there any special intention?

  7. Chrix says:

    the “yong”-ㄩㄥ thing came up on chinese-forums.com too. So are there definitive sources for its pronunciation of “üeng”?

    Some people speculated that may have been the right pronunciation in the Nanjing standard of Mandarin from the 1920s, but I’d like some reference to back this up…

  8. Zev Handel says:

    I wasn’t clear. I was referring not to Chinese characters or to Sino-Korean words, but to the one Korean word “한자” which means “Chinese character”. I chose this word because it illustrates compound tensing. The word is spelled “한자” but is pronounced “한짜”. There are many words that exhibit similar compound tensing. The issue with Romanization is whether it should match the Korean spelling and thus the underlying form of the Korean word–“hanja”–or whether it should match the Korean pronuncation and thus the surface form after the tensing rule has been applied–“hanjja”.

  9. Zev Handel says:


    I jumped over to chinese-forums but couldn’t locate the discussion. I don’t know the full story but my guess would be that the spelling of (pinyin) “iong” as (zhuyin) “ㄩㄥ” is based on a phonemic analysis of Mandarin rather than on actual pronunciation. (This is the same reason that (pinyin) “ian” = (zhuyin) “ㄧㄢ”, rather than “ien”, is used to represent [iɛn].) If phonemically you consider (pinyin) “ung” to be medial /u/ plus /əŋ/ and you consider (pinyin) “iong” to be medial /y/ plus /əŋ/ then you get a very neat system:

    zero + /əŋ/ = “eng” ㄥ [əŋ]
    /i/ + /əŋ/ = “ing” ㄧㄥ [iŋ]
    /u/ + /əŋ/ = “ong” ㄨㄥ [uŋ]
    /y/ + /əŋ/ = “iong” ㄩㄥ [yuŋ]

    This is a case where the zhuyin spelling is more phonemic, while the pinyin spelling is closer to actual pronunciation and obscures the phonemic structure.

    As if this isn’t complicated enough, it’s worth pointing out that in Modern Standard Mandarin the first sound of (pinyin) “iong” is in fact a front rounded vowel [y], and arguably should be written “üong” in pinyin, but in fact most foreign speakers automatically round the [i] to [y] anyway because of assimilation to the following rounded vowel.

  10. Chrix says:

    it’s an impossibly long thread, so I feel a bit reluctant to post it because I think it might be a waste of time to go through all of that (but it I think it starts around here, on page 9 out of 13: http://www.chinese-forums.com/showthread.php?t=15014&page=9)

    One forum member kept insisting that it was indeed pronounced that way in Taiwan. Most other forum members, including those with Taiwan experience, disagreed, though some offered this hypothesis of a lingering Nanjing standard from the 1920s…

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