GR in UK, 1955

Michael Rank has a fascinating review (h/t Danwei) of a book that’s now on my “buy when I go back to the US” list: Mandarin Blue: RAF Chinese Linguists in the Cold War.

I hope the book goes more into the difficulties of the Gwoyeu Romatzyh romanization for Chinese, because this may be the one time in history that a large number of people used GR (let me know if you know of others!). Here’s a quote

An idiosyncrasy of the course was that the Romanization used was the now obsolete Gwoyeu Romatzyh (GR), which uses an ingenious if complex system of “tonal spelling” rather than accents or numerals to indicate the four tones of Mandarin Chinese. This makes the tone part of the syllable, as it were, rather than an added-on feature, but the system is time-consuming to learn and even some of the Chinese instructors had difficulties getting to grips with it. But the powers that be were so committed to GR that two American military textbooks were transcribed into GR specifically for the RAF course.

Anyone read it?

6 thoughts on “GR in UK, 1955

  1. I believe I know one Chinese person who uses this method in her name. My professor here in the states said something about her name using a method that changes spellings to reflect tones. Maybe I will ask her what if it is GR.

  2. I have a soft spot too, even though there are lots of pieces of GR I keep having to relearn. I think the system is helpful in trying to communicate to foreigners learning Mandarin how deeply meaningful tones really are. They’re part of the fabric of the phonology, not an afterthought. GR’s not like pinyin, where you might just say “oh, I guess I left off the tone mark.”

    That said, I’ll take Pinyin for learning any day.

  3. I know quite a few people who were formally taught Mandarin using GR instead of pinyin. The system takes about 6 weeks to master, as opposed to about 2 weeks for pinyin. (This is within a college-level language class.) Definitely more initial investment of time. But I have to say, everyone I know who learned that way has fantastic tones, far far better than the average tonal command of people who learned with pinyin.

    You just can’t get way with leaving tone marks off, or not paying attention to tone marks, in GR. Also, many more words have distinctive-looking shapes (like “woo”), which aids in reading comprehension, making GR more effective as a potential orthography than pinyin is, IMHO.

  4. Zev, now you’re making me regret I haven’t spent real time with GR. The “distinctive shape” factor strikes me as huge.

    Are people still learning with GR? Or is that now a bygone era as far as you know?

  5. I don’t know if there are any major Chinese language programs in the US still using GR. I suspect not. This made much more sense when most people studying Chinese were interested in scholarship and were likely only to visit Hong Kong or Taiwan. Now that the clientele is largely composed of people who will actually travel to China and interact with mainland Chinese people, and many only study a year or two of language in the States, pinyin just makes much more sense. That’s from a practical, not a pedagogical, standpoint.

    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.

    GR was clearly designed by a linguist. There are a few tweaks that could have been used to make the whole system a bit more superficially consistent and easier to learn. Some of the things that look like inconsistencies to most people have a deeper consistency if you have some familiarity with Chinese historical linguistics. I imagine Chao had great fun creating it.

    By the way, did you also know that there is a GR for Cantonese? Now that’s an impressive feat!