Xiao’erjin is not quite Pinyin
Xiao’erjin (alternatively xiao’erjing¹ 小儿经) is the name of a form of transcription for Mandarin and related languages. Rather than using Cyrillic or Roman letters, the Arabic script is used. China has had a large Muslim population for about as long as there have been Muslims, and it was among those of them who were less likely to have a traditional classical education that the system was used.
The structure is fairly simple. Syllable initial consonants are written with a single Arabic letter. The final then was primarily done with harakat or vowel diacritics. Before Annals of Wu, was blogging on xiao’erjin and Chinese Islam in general on another site, appropriately enough called xiao er jing.
I recently received an email on the topic, which happens from time to time. This time, though, I decided a more public response might have some value.
Here’s the email:
I live in Beijing and want to give a non-Chinese speaking arabic friend a surprise by translating a few words for him in your widget.
Am I right in thinking it is entirely phonetic, so that similar sounding words with the same pinyin will have the same arabic script? Also, which way around should it be read as it comes out of your widget? I ask because when I cut and paste it into Illustrator, it seems to be the mirror image.
The widget in question can be found on the sister site. It’s a quick and dirty conversion tool for converting pinyin to xiao’erjin based on the most widely known forms with some changes of my own to improve legibility² and fidelity to the pinyin. Xiao’erjin also preserves 入声 entering tone syllables, now long gone from Mandarin in any meaningful way. I digress.
Xiao’erjin is in fact phonetic, but it’s not quite an Arabic pinyin. For example the Arabic script lacks a letter for /ŋ/, a sound that is ubiquitous in Mandarin. Xiao’erjin uses the same letter for /n/ as it does /ŋ/. Arabic, on the other hand, often combines ـن /n/ and ـغ which is usually /ɣ/ by itself but, when combined with ن (i.e. ـنغ), it is typically pronounced /ŋ/. Mind you this is only in loan words.
Also, the equivalents to pinyin x or q are also missing from the Arabic script and language. Xiao’erjin is a historical script intended for a limited audience. It unfortunately doesn’t have much correlation to pinyin, and would probably elicit little reaction from an Arabic speaker beyond confusion.
Before, the system of xiao’erjin was used by members of the Islamic community who were unable or unwilling to read the Sinitic characters. With the spread of computers and the official status of pinyin, I think it’s safe to say that xiao’erjin has been pretty completely wiped out. Long-time readers may recall me mentioning a desire to re-work the system using letters from the Uyghur adaptation of the Arabic script, but this would only be for the sake of intellectual curiosity, and not for any practical purposes.
I would be curious to know how a Mandarin text book from an Arabic speaking country would look. I imagine any good one would simply use pinyin, but that doesn’t mean they all would. I had a room-mate from Turkey who brought with him a Turkish-Mandarin phrase book in which every Mandarin syllable was transcribed phonetically with the Turkish alphabet. It posed a similar problem of missing phonetic representations as found when trying to adapt one language’s writing to another.
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1. In this case I’m using “xiao’erjin” despite never writing that in Chinese for no other reason than to differentiate from the website of the same name.
2. e.g. X and S may both be written س so to clear things up a bit I moved one over to ص which was mostly un-used. What’s more, a single-dotted س exists in some sources, but isn’t really Unicode-compliant. Meawhile ښ (that’s س with one dot above and one below) and ݭ (two vertical dots above) seemed like overkill and, more importantly, unlikely to display on most computers.