Romanization Rumble: GR vs Pinyin

A couple weeks ago Zrv issued this challenge to Pinyin-lovers:

As an interesting experiment, see if you can find a paragraph-long passage written in both GR [Gwoyeu Romatzyh] and pinyin.  Even if you don’t know GR well, I think you’ll find that just glancing over it, it looks much more like a real written language.

It sounded better to me than responding to clients’ emails, but I didn’t have a paragraph of GR handy. Then I remembered that someone out there had created a romanization converter.

Behold! Thanks to the nifty converter from Online Chinese Tools and a Pinyinified essay by 张靖和 [Zhāng Jìnghé] from, we can all have a front row seat at the showdown:

Pinyin GR
Tán Zhōngguó de “yǔ” hé “wén” de wèntí, wǒ juéde zuìhǎo néng xiān liǎojiě yīxià zài Zhōngguó tōngyòng de yǔyán. Zhōngguó de zhǔyào yǔyán yǒu nǎxiē? Wèishénme wǒ shuō zhège, ér bù shuō nàge? Yīnwei huánjìng? Yīnwei bèi qiǎngpò? Yīnwei wǒ ài zhège yǔyán? Yīnwei yǒu bìyào? Yīnwei zhè ge yǔyán hěn zhòngyào? Yě xiǎngxiang shénme shì Zhōngguórén de gòngtóng yǔyán? Yòng yīge gòngtóng yǔyán yǒu bìyào ma? Wèishenme? Biéde Hànyǔ de qùxiàng huì zěnmeyàng? Rúguǒ nǐ shǐyòng Zhōngguó de gòng tóng yǔyán Pǔtónghuà, nǐ liǎojiě zhège yǔyán de yǔfǎ (bǐrú “de” hé “le” de bùtóng yǒngfǎ) ma? Zhīdao zhège yǔyán de jīběn yīnjié (bù bàokuò shēngdiào) zhǐ yǒu 408 ge ma? Tarn Jonggwo .de “yeu” her “wen” .de wenntyi, woo tzueyhao neng shian leaujiee ishiah tzay Jonggwo tongyonq .de yeuyan. Jonggwo .de juuyaw yeuyan yeou naashie? woo shuo, erl buh shuo In.uei hwanjinq? In.uei bey cheangpoh? In.uei woo ay yeuyan? In.uei yeou bihyaw? In.uei jeh .ge yeuyan heen jonqyaw? Yee sheang.shiang shyh Jonggworen .de gonqtorng yeuyan? Yonq gonqtorng yeuyan yeou bihyaw .ma? Hannyeu .de chiuhshianq huey tzeen.meyanq? Ruguoo nii shyyyonq Jonggwo .de gonq torng yeuyan Puutornghuah, nii leaujiee yeuyan .de yeufaa (biiru “.de” her “.le” .de buhtorng yeongfaa) .ma? Jy.dau yeuyan .de jibeen injye (buh bawkuoh shengdiaw) jyy yeou 408 .ge .ma?
As an interesting experiment, see if you can find a paragraph-long passage written in both GR and pinyin.  Even if you don’t know GR well, I think you’ll find that just glancing over it, it looks much more like a real written language.

Maybe someone who knows more GR than I do (practically anyone) can see if the GR needs any tweaking. I notice, for example, that the converter uses “.ge” to indicate neutral tone 个. Originally I thought that was wrong and it should be just “g”. After all, that’s the convention that gives us “ig” for 一个! But as far as I understand it now after a bit more research, “.ge” is a perfectly reasonable alternative to just “g” without the “e” or the dot. They indicate the same thing.

Beyond that, which one looks more like a “real written language”?

Honestly, I think that’s like the question of which foreign language “sounds better” — it depends on who you ask and what you’re used to. In this case, reacting to GR as a beginner, I can see some arguments on both sides.

“Real language” (according to English speakers)

  • Some letter clusters seem more English-like, so maybe the familiarity is comforting to those of us who know English: -arn, -uey, -eau.
  • No Q and X, which of course play a minimal role in English orthography


  • Those pesky periods
  • “shyyyong” — no kidding

7 responses to “Romanization Rumble: GR vs Pinyin”

  1. Aaron says:

    GR gives me a headache. I guess I can kind of appreciate the cleverness of encoding the tone within the spelling of each syllable, but frankly I find that to be misleading and ultimately unhelpful. One thing I really like about standard hànyǔ pīnyīn is that it separates the two pieces of information required to pronounce each syllable: tones, and “toneless pronunciation” (is there a good technical term for this? Just “spelling” maybe?). To dig out my long-forgotten math vocabulary, they’re orthogonal “axes,” and mixing the two up only obfuscates their true forms.

  2. Kellen says:

    GR FTW!


  3. Kellen says:

    Syz: I’m trying to find that book I showed you a while back with the title rendered in GR. It had 3 y’s in a row as well. Drawing a blank on it now though, and can only remember that I found it through

  4. Kaiwen says:

    @ Aaron:
    segmental and suprasegmental elements might be the technical terms for this (warning, not a linguist!).

  5. Gus says:

    I agree with Aaron that hiding the tones in the spelling makes it harder to extract them for analytic purposes. But for a novice learner of Mandarin, I believe obfuscating the tones is actually more useful then making them apparent. Here’s my theory:

    Native Chinese speakers don’t seem to think about tones consciously when they articulate. The more linguistically conscious ones can tell you which tone they’ve just uttered but only after a moment of introspection where they say it to themselves in their head. Committed non-native learners, though, can tell you in an instant because they’ve mentally filed all their vocabulary in the aforementioned pinyin “orthogonal” way: spelling and tone. Which is not necessarily detrimental, but definitely not “native”.

    So that’s why I think GR is a more natural for learners. Mushing spelling and tone together is closer to the way native speakers conceptualize their own pronunciation, even if it looks completely unfamiliar to them on paper.

    But that’s just my own personal observation; I started from GR and made the transition later. Does anyone know of any research on GR versus pinyin for Mandarin learners?

  6. Mark S. says:

    You can see another comparison with orthographically correct GR (because Y.R. Chao wrote this one himself) here: Humpty Dumpty in Mandarin Chinese.

    @Gus: For research on GR vs. Pinyin for Mandarin learners, see “Tonal Spelling versus Diacritics for Teaching Pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese” (JSTOR access needed to read the article itself.)

    Here’s the abstract:

    This study presents results from a 2-year investigation of the comparative efficacy of tonal spelling and diacritics in the teaching of Mandarin Chinese pronunciation. The research site was the elementary level Chinese language course at the University of Oregon. During the 1991-92 academic year, the course was taught using a romanization system with diacritics, hanyu pinyin (PY); during the 1992-93 academic year, the course was taught using a tonal spelling system, gwoyeu romatzyh (GR). The analytical mechanism of this study calculates student tonal error rates in identical (save for the romanization system used) reading tasks at identical points in each year’s course. Native speakers of Chinese served as assessors. The results clearly indicated that GR did not lead to significantly greater accuracy in tonal production. Indeed, the use of GR reflected slightly lower rates of tonal production accuracy for native speakers of both American English and Japanese.

    (emphasis added)

    No points for guessing which side of GR vs. Hanyu Pinyin I fall on. 😉

  7. Gus says:

    @Mark: Awesome, thanks for the link!

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