Chinese to English question about names

I worked last night for the first time (which is why I didn’t ask the girl herself) with someone named Qin. Pronounced “Chin”. Who decided that the sound ‘ch’ would be rendered in English with the letter ‘Q’. And why?

Wouldn’t it have been more logical to spell the name “Chin”, since the name has to be rendered in a completely different way in English?

It’s not pronounced “Chin” unless she was deliberately simplifying the pronunciation for westerners. The Chinese Q is a sound not found in English and her name is written as “Qin” because that’s the way it’s transliterated using the Pinyin system. The same sound is written as ch’ in the Wade-giles system and is pronouced kind of like “ts.”

Just because it looks like the letter used in English doesn’t mean it represents the same sound as in English.

Here’s some more info for you.

There have been several threads here in the last couple years about Chinese transliteration to English, oten with experts providing really good synopses of current & past practice.

If the OP is really curious, a little searching should pay dividends.

One thing you don’t seem to have picked up on is that all the romanization systems currently in use are systematic - that is, a given sound is always spelled with a given Roman letter. Which wasn’t always the case. Clearly she used Pinyin romanization; there are other romanization schemes that indicate that sound differently. In the older (also systematic but rather confusing) Wade-Giles system, for instance, it would have been Ch’in.

Wade-Giles and Pinyin differ in their approaches; Wade-Giles depends on the reader having some knowledge of Mandarin syllable structure, which allows them to recognize that, say, these four syllables all begin with different sounds: ch’ing, ching, ch’ung, chung. In Pinyin, those would be qing, jing, cheng, and zheng respectively. Each initial sound in Pinyin is spelled differently, and even if non-speakers won’t be able to pronounce them all correctly, my suspicion is that for beginning students of Mandarin, Pinyin is easier that way. Further, it prevents the confusion caused by frequent omissions of those all-important apostrophes.

So the simple answer is that Mandarin has a number of sounds very much like the English “ch”. As has been touched upon, “Qin” is not actually pronounced with a “ch” sound precisely, although it’s liable to sound that way to someone who doesn’t speak the language. (As a matter of fact, Mandarin doesn’t have anything corresponding exactly to the English “ch” sound.) The reason for the odd choice of Q to represent the sound is that CH had already been taken; because the sounds of Mandarin and English don’t line up that nicely, some letters had to be press-ganged into service representing totally different sounds. Thus Q, X, and ZH are used to represent sounds that a naive English-speaker would likely hear as “ch”, “sh”, and “j”.

Further, there are some regularities in the way consonants are spelled out in Pinyin. There are three parallel series of fricatives and affricates in Mandarin, spelled in Pinyin as S, C, Z; X, Q, J; and SH, CH, ZH respectively. The oddly-spelled X, Q, J series is in complementary distribution with the other two series - that is, those letters can’t appear in the same phonetic environments (thus you can have “qin” but not “chin”, “zhao” but not “jao”). These three, the palatals, are thus spelled differently in order to point out their distinctiveness from the other two series. Whereas in the SH, CH, ZH series, the H is used to mark that they’re retroflex (R-like, pronounced with the tip of the tongue curled back against the roof of the mouth) equivalents of S, C, and Z, and appear in the same phonetic environments.

So there is some underlying logic to Pinyin. It serves several purposes - unambiguously indicating the Mandarin pronunciation of a word; providing a single, unambiguous representation of Chinese names and place names; helping non-native students of the language; and even serving as a mechanism to order card catalogs and dictionaries (particularly so outside China; complicated but usable methods involving the structure of the written Chinese characters exist that are still used for many such purposes within China.) All of these things represented separate demands on the development of the romanization scheme; Pinyin has the additional advantage of providing a rather elegant illustration of certain features of Mandarin phonology, as with the aforementioned use of H to mark retroflex sounds. So even if a name is not immediately pronounceable to Westerners, that’s not the only goal of the Pinyin system.

Thanks all. Although I find myself more confused than ever. :smack:

I understand that there are sounds in Chinese (as in most languages, I suppose) which can’t be reproduced in English but I wondered why such an unlikely letter as ‘Q’ was chosen to represent the ‘ch’ (or close to ‘ch’) sound. Q is pronounced kw in English and I know it’s not pronounced that way in other languages (eg French) but I don’t think it even comes close to the way Qin said her name.

I appreciate the input, anyway.

I guess I’m just not sure what other letter (or pair of letters) could have been used in its place. We only have a certain number of letters; I have a sneaking suspicion that the use of Q, X, and ZH was deliberate in order to make words that appear unpronounceable so as to prevent ignorant foreigners from mispronouncing them. But anyway, we only have one combination that represents the English “ch” sound; that was already taken, so what should have been used in its stead?

“Ch” would have sounded closer than ‘Q’. It’s already used in many words for the “sh” sound and would have been a lot closer to the way Qin pronounced her name than the letter ‘Q’.

Is this why the spelling of Mao Tse Tung was changed to Mao Zedong? Do you know why the second and third names were made one name?

Because Wade-Giles and Pinyin have different conventions. Mao Tse-Tung is Wade-giles, Mao Zedong is the Pinyin version of the same name. Now that Pinyin has become the standard for transliterations, the conventional spelling changes.

As for why Q is used to represent the sound - different languages assign different pronunciations for different Roman letters. You might be surprised how a Pole pronounces the letter C but just because it feels weird to you doesn’t mean their phonetic system is broken. “Ch” is already used to represent the Chinese “ch” sound, so it can’t be used. Q is a nice, convenient letter. There’s no reason to use a poor approximation when you can represent that sound precisely.

I’m not sure what you mean here. Are you talking about “ch” being pronounced as “sh” in English or Chinese? Because “q” is not pronounced anything like “sh” and not a whole lot like “ch” (which are both used to represent other Chinese sounds anyway), and unless you’re proposing that all Chinese consonants that sound like the English “ch” be simplified into one sound to make it easier for English speakers using “ch” or “sh” would be just as illogical as using “q”.

But like I said, “CH” is in use for another sound. Either that one would have to be changed, or else Pinyin would end up being ambiguous - remember my explanation about all the different sounds represented by “CH” or “CH’” in the older Wade-Giles romanization? Pinyin has uses beyond trying to help foreigners pronounce words, and one of its goals is to be unambiguous in permitting Chinese speakers to properly pronounce a word based only on its Pinyin spelling.

The proper Wade-Giles transcription is Mao2 Tse2-tung1 while the Pinyin is Máo Zédöng (that diaresis over the O should be a macron - a straight horizontal line - but I have no way to reproduce it here.) There are differences besides the list of which Roman letters correspond to which sounds. The numbers reflect which tone the syllable uses; those were replaced by diacritics in Pinyin. The other major difference is that compounds - either names or words of more than one syllable - are separated with hyphens in Wade-Giles but aren’t separated in Pinyin; I’m not sure exactly why they originally chose to use hyphens, but it does hint at the fact that separate syllables are represented by separate Chinese characters. The Pinyin convention, on the other hand, emphasizes that a word may indeed be more than one syllable and character.

Pinyin was developed by the PRC government 1958 and in the late seventies, China switched entirely to that system, and conventionally the United States has followed suit by using Pinyin to represent names and places in mainlaind China. That’s why the change happened - the official romanization scheme used by the PRC changed. Interestingly, Taiwan still used Wade-Giles until quite recently, not wanting to use the PRC-developed Pinyin system, and thus in order to pronounce a name written in Roman letters it’s sometimes necessary to try to figure out where the person is from. Nowadays Taiwan’s official romanization is a scheme developed by the ROC government which is quite similar, but not identical, to Pinyin. But I doubt it’s in common use yet for representing the names of Taiwanese citizens.

Already been well answered. Just wanted to chime in and say to please keep in mind that although using roman letters, the letters are only an approximation of a sound. Thus, Q and Ch are different sounds and not necessarily the same as in English or any other roman language. Thus, X is pronounced like the “sh” sound of “sheet” with lips pulled back in a smiling position. SH is more like pronouncing “sheet” with lips in a rounded “O” shaped position.

You’ll really have fun at first trying to distinguish between xi, ci, si, shi sounds. :eek:

Also, the romanization isn’t just aimed at English speakers. In Italian, for example, “ch” has a hard “k” sound, whereas in French it’s usually like our “sh”. Therefore the pinyin Q is just a symbol representing a sound that you have to learn.

I can send you some tiny sound files, if you like. That should make things microscopically more clear. As China Guy says (and everyone else who has studied knows), the differences between some of the sounds are not particularly distinguishable to Western ears.

I used to work in a company that had a lot of Chinese people in my department (including a Qin, although she more commonly went with a “canadian” name because it was easier).

I tried very hard to pronounce names properly, and spent a lot of time working on that, but most people told me that I was still only coming close on some of them, such as Xiaoxing. Other names, like Lei or Songyuan I got pretty easily. It really is a matter of learning new sounds. I compared it a little to singing. If you have a good ear and good control, you’ll be able to mimic a note and eventually learn to sing a song. But, if you’re like me, and you can’t distinguish between similar sounds at all - well, you’re going to have trouble!

It is a lot of fun, though, to try and learn about such a different language. Although if what my coworkers said is true, it’s a lot easier to learn to read it than it is to speak it!

Much like there is the occasional question here about why the Chinese mispronounce the “L” and “R” sounds, there is probably a message board in China where the posters ask why Westerners can’t differentiate between “Q”, “X”, “J”, “CH”, “SH”, and “ZH”.

The symbol “ch” is already used in pinyin to represent another sound–another sound, btw, which also sounds alot like “ch” to english speaking ears. Since ch is already in use for that other sound, it can’t be used for the sound in question. To represent this sound, there was no other symbol in Roman available which would look to a Roman user like a representation of a “ch”-like sound. So a Roman symbol had to be used which doesn’t look like a representation of a “ch”-like sound. “Q” is as good as any other (not already used in pinyin) symbol for this purpose.

Is it clear yet? :slight_smile:


I didn’t know this! I’ve looked through a few elementary Chinese learning textbooks, but none of them ever pointed out this complementary distribution, to my recollection.

Let me make sure I’ve understood you correctly. I think an implication of what you’ve said is that, in fact, a single symbol could have been used for the C, Q, and CH sounds, since the distinction between them would be disambiguated by the vowel that follows them. Is that right?

(Of course such a system, though simpler than pinyin strictly speaking, would still seem more confusing to the average language user so I can see why they didn’t do it that way…)


“C” and “CH” are in the same distribution - both can be followed by A, E, O, U (representing the back vowel, as opposed to Ü, representing a rounded front vowel but sometimes written as U in Pinyin) and I (representing the central vowel or missing vowel of “ci” or “chi”, as opposed to the high front vowel of “qi”.) “Q”, on the other hand, has to be followed by I (the high front vowel) or Ü. So you could use the same consonant to represent both “Q” and “CH”, but you’d need a different one for “C” - which is exactly what Wade-Giles does (but this also requires that different vowels that are conventionally written the same in Pinyin must be spelled differently - compare “QU” and “CHU”, which are (if memory serves) “CH’Ü” and “CH’U” in Wade-Giles.)

So the difference is that Pinyin requires different consonant symbols to resolve ambiguities among vowel symbols that represent more than one sound; Wade-Giles, on the other hand, uses different vowel symbols to resolve ambiguities among consonant symbols that represent more than one sound. Either way, knowledge of Chinese is required to read it, although it’s my opinion that Pinyin is still probably a tad easier, particularly since Pinyin requires fewer diareses (those two dots in “Ü”) and apostrophes, both of which tend to be omitted in Western publications.

Thank you again for all your patient explanations. Yes, I do have a glimmering of understanding now.

I worked a while back with another girl whose name is Yen. Everyone pronounced it ‘Yen’ (oddly enough :smiley: ). She didn’t correct this pronunciation. Would that be because it really is pronounced ‘Yen’ or she was just being polite or felt we would be unable to say it correctly anyway?

Nope, that one would be pronounced “Yen” (though in this case, she’s not using Pinyin romanization, as Pinyin would spell that “Yan”. No, I don’t know why. I don’t think there’s an answer to why that is.)