Chinese orthography and pronunciation

I would like to know why it is that the practice which we spell “feng shui” is actually pronounced “fung shway”. If it’s pronunced “fung shway”, why not spell it “fung shway” (or “fung shué”, maybe?) I mean, it’s not spelled anything in Chinese. We could have spelled it however we wanted!

I think it has to do with the first person who romanized Chinese (forgot his name) back around 1900(?). He had Beijing as Peking, for example. Maybe all the corrections haven’t been made.

Just to get this thread started :slight_smile: I believe the most common romanization system for Chinese is the Hepburn system, developed sometime in the nineteenth century. God knows what this Hepburn fellow was thinking/drinking/smoking, but any system that puts qi as “chee” and xi as “shee” needs some serious work.

All I wanna do is to thank you, even though I don’t know who you are…

Wow, my first double post ever. Whassup, BigDaddyD? :smiley:

I’ve never heard of the “Hepburn system”. In the first half of this century, the most common system was called Wade-Giles, which was famous for its aspirants–aka apostrophes. That’s why you saw the last Chinese dynasty designated as the “Ch’ing” dynasty. Its only traditional rival has been the Yale system, AFAIK. Forget the fringe romanization systems formulated by wild-eyed Sinophiles but never adopted in mainstream journalism or academia.

The current system is called “pinyin”, and it has been in use since the 1950s, though Western newspapers and academic works generally didn’t adopt it until the late 70s/early 80s. Under this system the last Chinese dynasty is called the “Qing”. Pinyin also gives us the term “feng shui”, rather than the Wade Giles “fung shui”–not too much different.

BTW, “Peking” doesn’t come from Wade Giles, which I think would render the Chinese capital as “Pei-ch’ing”. My impression is that Peking, as well as Soochow, Canton, Chungking, and other funky place names come from ad hoc romanizations made up by missionaries and traders in the early 19th century. I might be wrong, though–perhaps there was some earlier system called “Hepburn”, and these place names are a remnant. If anyone has any sources, I’d be interested to see them.


IIRC, Hepburn is one of the systems used for Romanizing Japanese.

Eschew Obfuscation

Actually, I had a passing knowledge of Wade-Giles and Pinyin. But why does Pinyin spell “fung” “feng”? How is that an improvement?

As opposed to the oh-so-logical English spelling system? Wasn’t it Bernard Shaw that pointed out that “fish” in English could conceivably be spelled “ghoti”?

I think the main point of romanization is to provide a consistent means of representing individual sounds from a non-Roman alphabet; I’d think that making pronunciations obvious for speakers of other languages is only a secondary concern. And remember that pinyin is to be used by speakers of Spanish, French, Italian, and any other language that has a Roman alphabet. The designers of pinyin didn’t necessarily have English speakers in mind.


Woohoo boy, the SDMB’s original first year Chinese student is getting a workout this weekend.

As others have pointed out, the current system of romanization uses pinyin. This is a fairly good system, considering the difficulties faced. Chinese has sounds English doesn’t.

For instance, the word Qi. The “i” is pronounced “ee” as it is in all(?) Romance language except our bastardization. But where the hell did q come from?

Well, Chinese has two sounds similar to the sound english “Ch” makes. One of these is signified by “ch”. The other is signified by “Q”, because our letter q doesn’t make any useful sounds. Similarly, “x” makes one of two sh-like sounds sound in Chinese.

'Twis brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Bernard Shaw was clever, but dead wrong. There is no way under the actual rules of English pronunciation that “ghoti” would actually be pronounced “fish.” “gh” at the beginning of a word is always pronouced as a hard “g” (i.e., “ghost” and “ghastly”) and “ti” is only pronounced “sh” if it’s followed by “on.”

“What we have here is failure to communicate.” – Strother Martin, anticipating the Internet.

He was being droll, my dear boy.



mouth moves in odd way, sound is obviously dubbed

I have dishonored the linguistics community with my unforgiveable error. My diploma from Georgetown is not worth the ink that was used in its imprinting. I am… disgraced.

horrifically nasty seppuku scene ensues

You are, of course, correct, Tengu. Mr. Knucklehead here even studied kanji and the kana systems for a while, which is why I dredged up the Hepburn system. One of these days I gotta rearrange the files in my cranium here.

All I wanna do is to thank you, even though I don’t know who you are…