Why Fung Shway? Why not Feng Shwee?

Okay, I’m guessing that it’s because the consensus pronunciation in China is Fung Shway, rhyming with “Young Play”. Is there some minority dialect that pronounces it Feng Shwee, to rhyme with “Leng[th] Tree”? If not, what’s with the spelling? And if so, why did we in the West learn the wrong way first instead of the right way?

In short, how is it that the initial transliteration of Asian words from ideograms to Western alphabets so often gives us the less orthodox pronunciation of the word (see also: Pieping/Peking instead of Beijing, and Nippon rather than Nihon*)?

Are we likely to see a change to fung shue any time soon?
*Not to mention Datsun in favor of Nissan. :stuck_out_tongue:

In America, maybe. Over here i’ve heard it as both Feng Shway and Feng Shwee.

The nuances of Chinese romanization have been covered in other threads, so you can search for those, but Beijing was actually called Bei Ping (or pei ping) between 1911ish and 1949, because “Jing” meant capital, and Beijing at this point was not the capital (it had been moved south to Nan Jing by the KMT goverment), so the name was actually changed to “Ping”, which meant, “equal” or “flat”, to emphasize that it was no longer the capital. It was changed back after the Communists took over and moved the capital back to Bei Jing/Bei Ping

Nippon and Nihon aren’t two different pronunciations of the same word.

Ah. I jumped to an unsupported conclusion, then, back in '87. Thanks for the correction.

This following post is going to be seriously complicated; sorry for the technical details, but there’s not an easy answer to this question. I won’t feel bad if no one reads it. The short of it is, we spell them that way in accordance with the Pinyin romanization system, which is official with the Beijing government, and Pinyin spells those words that way because it systematically represents “ung” (as in English “hung”) as “eng”, and “way” (like the English word) as “ui”. The reasons for that are complicated.

It’s pronounced (roughly) fung shway in Standard Mandarin, just as you indicate. We spell it in accordance with the Hanyu Pinyin romanization scheme, usually just called “Pinyin”. Pinyin was developed and officially adopted by the People’s Republic of China (while a number of different transcriptions are in use in Taiwan, and officially the Taipei government uses Tongyong Pinyin, which is similar to Hanyu Pinyin but somewhat different; the decision not to use the well-known Hanyu Pinyin system is pure politics.) I’m not familiar with any variety of Mandarin that would pronounce feng shui in accordance with the English reading of the characters, and if one exists, I doubt that’s why the phrase is spelled that way. We spell it that way because that’s how it is in pinyin.

Pinyin is a systematic transcription; words are spelled in pinyin according to it’s particular rules. So the question is why pinyin doesn’t spell words the way an English speaker would expect. There’s several reasons; for one, it was developed by the PRC, and it’s heavily used in China - for example, in order to teach pronunciation to native speakers of other dialects besides Standard Mandarin. Also, it’s not only used by English speakers - developing a transcription that would be read appropriately by English speakers is basically impossible from the start, as every language has different sounds and spelling conventions. A transcription that would work for all foreigners is even harder to develop. What makes sense to an English speaker wouldn’t necessarily make sense to a speaker of any other language. The goal of pinyin wasn’t to make Mandarin immediately readable for foreigners; that would be impossible. The goal is to create a systematic way of representing Mandarin.

A lot of the spellings in Pinyin are rather unintuitive. The vowel system in particular tends not to be automatically understandable (transcriptions, like the Yale Romanization, have been developed for the particular purpose of quickly teaching basic Chinese to English speakers. But again, that’s not the purpose of Pinyin.) In part, the transcription of vowels was designed to represent a theory of Mandarin phonology; you can get details at the Wikipedia page on Standard Mandarin, though the discussion is pretty technical. See, traditional treatment of Mandarin phonetics divides words into 22 “initials” - that is, consonants at the beginning of a syllable - and 34 “finals” - vowels, combinations of vowels, and combinations of vowels plus the consonants “n” and “ng”. But phonology tends to focus on analyzing sounds and sound combinations present in a language in order to figure out the underlying workings of the language’s sound system. The details are complicated and I don’t know how I can explain it without attempting to condense a course in phonology into a single post. But the basic goal is to try to figure out what set of “phonemes” - phonemes being abstractions representing groups of sounds - it takes to account for a language’s sound system.

In English, for instance, the letter “p” represents different sounds in the words “pie” and “spy”. In the former, it’s aspirated - that is, a small puff of air accompanies its release. In the latter, it’s not. (You can feel it if you hold your hand up to your mouth and feel carefully for that puff as you pronounce the words.) So those are actually two different sounds - but they’re not contrastive. That is, you can’t find a pair of words distinguished only on the basis of having /p[sup]h[/sup]/ or /p/ (“p” as in “pie” and “p” as in “spy”, respectively); which sound is produced depends entirely on the surrounding sounds. That’s because those two separate sounds are members of one phoneme in English - and English speakers consider those two sounds identical, because at an underlying level in our language’s phonological system, they are. It’s only when they’re produced in speech that other sets of rules cause them to change in response to neighboring sounds.

Likewise, in Mandarin, it’s possible to look at the 34 finals and analyze them into combinations of just a few vowels and consonants. The Wikipedia page I linked to makes a pretty good case that those sounds match the Pinyin transcription pretty closely; clearly, Pinyin was designed with a particular theory of Mandarin vowels in mind. And so, if that theory is correct, then the “e” in “feng” is probably the same phoneme as the “e” in “mei” (pronounced like “may” in English), even if they don’t sound the same to English speakers. Pinyin is implicitly based on Mandarin phonology, which ideally should make it more understandable to Mandarin speakers, because it represents Mandarin phonemes consistently. It’s just that Mandarin phonemes don’t match up to English phonemes very well. (For instance, the pie and spy sounds mentioned above are two different sounds in Mandarin.)

The spelling of “shui” is a bit odd, though. It’s composed of the initial “sh” (much like, but not the same as, an English “sh” sound) plus the final “uei”. “Shuei” would probably be a more natural way to write the sound, particularly for English speakers. In fact, when the final “uei” occurs without an initial consonant, it’s written “wei” (the switch from “u” to “w” makes sense, but it would take a while to explain . . . .) For some reason, Pinyin regularly drops the “e” in the “uei” and “uen” finals, and the “o” in the “iou” final. I’ve heard that explained as an effort to save writing or typing, since it never becomes ambiguous what syllable is meant, and people who know Pinyin quickly learn that “shui” is pronounced “shuei”, but it’s certainly not ideal to have words that rhyme - like “wei” and “shui” - spelled with different vowels. That’s one of the few really bad choices made in the design of Pinyin, in my opinion; in many ways, it’s an extremely elegant and carefully planned out system of transcribing Chinese. But the dropping of “e” and “o” is strange and hard to justify.

I seem to recall that “Nippon” and “Nihon” are both existing pronunciations of the word in Japanese, but I don’t speak Japanese so I couldn’t say that for certain.

“Peiping” has been explained as simply the spelling of a different name. “Peking” is a complex one. “Peking” is indeed a spelling of the word “Beijing”; it’s just a particularly bad one. It was official in what was called the “Postal System” - which more or less simply set a standard for references to places in China; as chaotic as spelling can be for Chinese cities and such nowadays, it was even worse back when the only real possibility was for outsiders to spell words out however they heard them.

As to the origin of that particular spelling for the city, I’ve heard two explanations. One is that the Postal System, for whatever reason, spelled the sound we now write with a “j” in two different ways, depending on the historical pronunciation of the word. In Mandarin, a few hundred years ago, “k” at the beginning of many syllables changed to “j”. It didn’t do that in the other Chinese languages - which you can see in the Chinese versions of some foreign names, since those Chinese versions tended to be written in Chinese characters by speakers of Cantonese or Shanghainese, rather than Mandarin. So the word “Canada”, for instance, became “kanada” (or something like that) when written in Chinese by Cantonese speakers. But when Mandarin speakers read those characters, they pronounced them as in Mandarin: “jianada” (pronounced “jyah-nah-dah”.) The “j” in “Beijing” was a “k” sound once upon a time, and so the Postal System preserved the ancient pronunciation in spelling.

So it’s possible that the “k” in “Peking” is a result of the Postal System’s affection for historical linguistics. The other explanation I’ve seen is just that it’s the pronunciation of the city’s name in some other Chinese dialect, though I’ve never seen it attributed to any particular dialect. As for the “p”, I’ll give the short version: the Chinese sound written “b” in Mandarin was written “p” in most other transcription systems; the actual sound is sort of halfway in between the two. That’s why the spelling of it varies some.

Nope. Pinyin is hear to stay for the immediate future; perhaps things might change if Taiwan conquers mainland China. :slight_smile:

I just realized that I phrased my last post badly.

Nippon and Nihon both mean Japan and are written with the same Chinese characters (though written differently when using the phonetic scripts). Both are acknowledged as equally valid (with minor differences in connotation,) though I guess it could be argued that they are in fact two pronunciations for the same word rather than being seperate words. What I should have said is that nobody was meaning Nihon when they wrote down Nippon.

Excalibre - a most excellent post on pinyin.

But grasshopper, obviously you show your tender age. The K came from the Wade-Giles romanization system. You should thank your stars you didn’t have to learn WG, Yale and whatever system used to be in place in Taiwan 25 years ago in addition to pinyin. Now the problem with Wade-Giles is it was developed by English speaking linguists and it was a beta 1 product. If you didn’t have a linguistic background, then it does NOT make a lot of intuitive sense.

Here’s a rundown on various romanization systems. According to the site, the eclectic “Postal System” contained a mixture of pre-Wade romanization systems and romanization based on local speech.

Wade-Giles: The first persons to create a standard transscription of Chinese were T.F. Wade (d. 1895) and H.A. Giles (d. 1935). Their system called Wade-Giles (chin.: Wei Tuoma shi pinyin 威妥瑪式拼音) is quite correct in reflecting the vowels (like “yüen” for [jy n]), but is very complicated in the manner of reflecting consonants. Wade and Giles saw the hard sound “k” as a soft one and added an apostroph to express hard pronunciation: [g an] is written “kuan”, [k an] is written k’uan. The sound (the french “j”) is written “j”, the sound [ç] is “hs”. A great problem to find a word in an index is that the Wade-Giles system makes no difference between the consonants [tç] and [t ] - both “ch’”, [d ] and [dj], both “ch”.

Mmm, I don’t know what we would do if Excalibre didn’t have the time to write thousand word replys to this question every week, I sure as hell can’t be bothered. :slight_smile:

They officially gave it up already, I think it was in 1995 or 1998.

Which “k”? “Beijing” is written “Pei-ching” in Wade-Giles. I’m more or less familiar with Wade-Giles; it’s still in fairly common use in Taiwan, you know. I couldn’t write it, but it’s not terribly hard to read. Not like Guoyu Luomazi (which I can’t even spell in Guoyu Luomazi.)

I think it’s arguable whether Wade-Giles makes less sense than Pinyin. There’s a number of reasons why I think it’s not as good a romanization system, but are you telling me that you think Pinyin is intuitively sensible to people without any background?

Um, no offense, but I’m not even really sure what to make of this. “Hard” and “soft” are not terms that are meaningful in phonetics and the use here is not the same as the casual use of them in describing English sounds. The phonetic transcriptions here are not accurate. What I can see, that is, since it appears some characters got lost between your computer and mine. I might not have the right character sets here. I’m just seeing spaces in some places - but a lot of the characters that made it are incorrect and reflect a naïve transcription by someone with no phonetics training.

:slight_smile: Give the people some credit! The Chinese Romanization questions aren’t all exactly the same . . . seriously, though, I could probably save time by saving previous answers and cutting and pasting the relevant parts.

What you’re describing is the Linguistics concept of Free Variation. The classic English example of that is the two pronunciations of either. They are certainly recognized as different pronunciations; however, they are also recognized as the same word.

Absolutely not. the yale system is probably the most intuitive for americans as a romanization system.

pinyin works reasonably well, but people using pinyin have to understand the letters are a representation, and really have little connection with how the letters are pronounced in english. the pinyin is a represenration of a sound rather than an attempt to use english to transliterate chinese sounds.