A Lament on the State of Chinese Pronunciation

(A warning in advance: this post assumes Pinyin transliteration. I will not attempt to untangle the mess that is Wade-Giles.)

Here’s one thing that I’ve gathered to be nearly universally true about Chinese people: they don’t correct others that pronounce their names incorrectly.

I used to be one of them. I thought I was helping to be considerate of people who don’t get how Chinese, as transliterated, is pronounced (transliteration itself being a problem due to the various methods by which it happens). Quite a few events, however, most notably when I overheard a conversation in my high school office in which someone said something along the lines of “…and it’s another Chang (?), you know, there’s so many ways to spell that last name.” It was, of course, pronounced incorrectly, for any of the various definitely different Chinese last names that she may have meant. And I decided I did not want to help spread the ignorance. Thus I have increasingly tried to contribute to proper (or at least close-to-proper) Chinese pronunciation. So at the risk of making certain Chinese names and words sound weirder in an English context, I’d like to take a moment to lament how Chinese is pronounced, by the populace in general, but more importantly by Chinese people helping to let it continue to happen.

Here’s a chart.


Congratulations, you’ve been pronouncing the blue ones correctly (up to tone, at least)! That’s the set of Chinese words and names that go along with intuition. (This is of course excepting those that haven’t yet absorbed the general standard of “ai” being a long “i” and “ei” being a long “a”.) The green ones are ones most people have been getting close enough for it to be acceptable (due to nuances in certain sounds between Chinese and English), so that’s also pretty good. The red ones, unfortunately, are the ones that nearly everyone mispronounces, and are the subject of today’s lament. Look at how many of them there are! Now, the ones with a cyan background involve sounds or sound patterns that do not exist in English, so it is quite understandable if someone who only speaks English natively does not pronounce them correctly, but there’s all of the other ones such that people that do not pronounce them properly can be politely corrected as to their pronunciation. I know it can happen, because the orange ones are words and names I’ve heard a significant number of people pronounce correctly, but not most. The teal names and words are those for which the general Pinyin transliterations, due to the fact that people tend to not resolve between the two different Chinese u’s in transliteration, are actually still ambiguous, and for which an additional query is typically needed for proper pronunciation.

By the way, feel free to go over to the pronunciation guide for Chinese I wrote earlier in this blog to see how those red words and names are supposed to be pronounced.

Note/Erratum: A small number of actually existent valid words and names have been left out of the table.


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