Why use X in Chinese to English Translations

If I am correct we know say Bejing not Peking, because Bejing is closer to how the Chinese really say it.

So why when I look at my map are so many names translated with an X. Like the old way was Sian it is now Xian.

Since in English X really doesn’t have a sound of it’s own why use it on a new way (and supposedly better way) of saying things?

Because the english language doesn’t have a true pronunciation of the sound. At least that’s how it was esplained to me.

The Chinese transliteration you refer to is Pinyin. It was developed by Chinese scholars in the 1950s and became official in the People’s Republic of China and for use internationally in the late 1970s.

The Chinese sound transliterated by “x” is a palatal sibilant. It’s the same sound as English “sh” in “she.”

The reason some Chinese words use “x” and others use “sh” is that these represent two different sounds in Chinese. English doesn’t make any distinction between the two, but the distinction in Chinese is important. That’s why they need to spell it two different ways.

In Pinyin, “sh” is used for the retroflex sibilant, with the tongue tip bent back and up. “X” is used for the palatal sibilant, with the tongue tip pointing forward. These sound the same to English ears, but Polish and Sanskrit are two other examples of languages where these sounds are distinguished. Sanskrit has two different letters for them. Polish writes s with an accent mark for the palatal one (as in Solidarnos’c’), and “sz” for the retroflex one (as in Szeczin).
The different place of articulation affects the vowel sound too (making it easier for English speakers to tell them apart). The palatal Chinese word xi is pronounced the same as English “she”. But the retroflex word shi has a vowel that is further back, sounding like the “shi” in English “shirt” if you subtract the r and t.

Though the explination is good, I thought the whole point of the new translation system was so the English version would sound more like the Chinese. Since the letter X in English has no one sound just by looking at XIAN we have no idea how to pronounce it. If X should be said as SHI in SHIRT shouldn’t we translate it as SHIAN. As being the closest.

No, the point of is not to make the English version sound like Chinese. The point is to have a system of transliteration that consistenly and accurately distinguishes the different phonemes of Chinese. Read my post again, and note that xi spelled with “x” is the same sound as English “she.” While shi spelled with “sh” is a sound like in “shirt.” Two completely different phonemes in Chinese, and very important for telling apart different words. The use of x for the “sh” sound is not unprecedented: Portuguese uses it that way. Brazilian TV host’s name Xuxa is pronounced Shusha. Now don’t go asking why the Brazilians don’t spell their language the same as English!

In medieval Spanish, x was also used for the “sh” sound (that sound has been lost in modern Spanish). That’s why we use x for the unknown in algebra. The original Arabic algebraic texts like Kitâb al-jabr wa-al-muqâbalah used the Arabic letter shîn for the unknown, an abbrevation for the word shay’ meaning ‘a thing, something’. When medieval Spanish translators in Toledo put it into Latin, they used “x” as corresponding to the sound of Arabic shîn.

Jomo mentioned this, but to underscore it, the system you’re talking about it called pinyin and it was created for use in China. Word processors & dictionaries, for instance, use pinyin to look up characters. It’s important that the same sound be pronounced the same way, and not be confused with others. Making sense to English speakers is good but secondary.

There are only a few of these oddly used letters:

x is discussed above.
q is a counterpart to x, only for the ‘ch’ instead of the ‘sh’; qi rhymes with xi and chi with shi.
c is pronounced like “ts” in “pets”
z is pronounced like “ds” in “beds”
v I have seen (very rarely) used to represent ü in character sets that don’t have ü.

If you need to use Chinese place names a lot you can get used to it pretty quickly, and if you’re just doing something casually an encyclopedia or map will frequently have pronunciations.


Oops, forgot… pinyin also uses the European (and linguistics) vowels, not English. English had the Great Vowel Shift* which shifted all its vowels one over. So Spanish and Chinese “mi” rhyme with English “me”, not “I”, despite the appearances. This is less likely to throw an English speaker, who will most likely have been exposed to some Spanish or French.

And from the OP… it’s BeIjing (pronounced like bay), not Bejing.


One other thing, a pet peeve of mine, people who can’t be bothered to type out the word “Christian” and always write “Xian.” Hel-LO? All you’re doing is displaying your total ignorance of Chinese geography. Xian is a historically important city in China, once the eastern terminus of the Silk Road.

>> If I am correct we know say Bejing not Peking, because Bejing is closer to how the Chinese really say it.

Not really. Of course you can say whatever you want but the English name for the capital of China is still Pekin. What has happened is that there were several different methods of Romanising Chinese names which just made things confusing so China developed one called Hanyu Pinyin and made it the official way to Romanise their language. It does not mean it has any effect on English or any other language but places which did not have their own names in English would now use the new transliteration system. They are not really “translations” as much as different transliterations.

When you read a map of Germany or Hungary, you are reading the names as they are spelled locally, not a translation so you can know how it is pronounced in English. This is the same case. What you see is how the Chinese write the word with Roman characters.

>> I thought the whole point of the new translation system was so the English version would sound more like the Chinese.

As I just said, it is not a translation system and it is not aimed or thought for Americans at all.

…adding the caveat that the pronuncuation of the pinyinizations is heavily dependent upon the regional dialect. pinyin ‘x’ may be a hard english ‘sh’ in one area but be a much softer soft-palated sound in other regions, sounding like the ‘dch’ in the German ‘madchen’. In my classes we learned Beijing-dialect Mandarin (from a teacher with a Taiwanese accent!) and our ‘x’ was prounced very subtly.

umm. I meant to type ‘pronounced’. Also, I am umlaut-challenged on the keyboard, so allow me an assumed umlaut in the ‘madchen’ :smiley:

Jomo Mojo and others have explained this very well. Xi and Shi are two very different sounds.

Sailor, I would be picking nits with you. Pekin or Peking, you see it both ways, is a poor transliteration of Beiping or Northern Peace.

Hanyu Pinyin is the official romanization adopted by the People’s Republic of China. There are other systems around such as wade-giles, yale, the version used in Taiwan. In the late 1970’s, the US news and wire services adopted Hanyu Pinyin. Thus for over 20 years, Beijing has been the proper name in English for the capital of China. You can say Canton as well for Guangzhou, but the official name in English is Guangzhou.

I disagree. The English name of places is determined by the speakers of English and the English language has names in English for Beijing and Guangzhou. Now, if you are telling me we have to use their names tell me why we use words like Germany, Spain, Rome, Cairo, etc which are not what the natives call those places and also tell me why the Chinese are at liberty to call the US Meiguo when we all know the name is America. When the Chinese learn to pronounce correctly in English all the names of places in the US then I might consider myself under the obligation of using Chinese names when I am speaking English. The idea that the Chinese government is the academy of the American language is not very convincing to me.

Having said that I will add that I most often use the Chinese names because I am talking with Chinese people who will understand them better and because I am a snob and like people to know I know the correct pronunciation in Chinese. I often hear people pronounce Shanghai as Shan-guy and it drives me up the wall, especially after I have corrected them.

But the fact is we are speaking English and not Chinese. Now, if you want to make the argument that we should say “España” because that’s the “real” name of Spain, then, where do we stop? I guess we cannot use words like Sherry (Jerez) or bullfight or matador. Heck we’ll just have to speak Spanish when we talk about Spain and Chinese when we talk about China.

Oh, BTW, Taiwan was holding out just because they did not want to lose face but they finally gave in and Hanyu Pinyin became official about a year or two ago. I guess they figure it gives the mainland one less reason to invade them :slight_smile:

Do you have a cite that shows Taiwan has moved to Hanyu Pinyin? I’d be real curious to see it. I thought they were still on that goofy ass old wage-giles derivative system. Does this also mean they are going to drop zhuyinfuhao?

Back to Beijing. I think that is the official language although the old usage is still widely known. This is different from having to learn the name of everything in a lative language. China came out and said that they use pinyin, and then pinyin was adopted by news agencies as the “proper” method. China also came out and requested that Peking be referred to as Beijing. Now, I’m not sure, but I think Beijing will appear in German and French etc as the official name. So, Beijing is more of an “international” name rather than an English name.

It’s like Myanmar. Sure, the country is widely known as Burma, but they asked that the official name now be used. Or like Prince, now known as the artist formerly known as prince or by his symbol.

thanks. That is a big change. Leave a country for 12 years and look at what they do when your back is turned.

Do you know if they still use bopomofo? Or has that been thrown out as well in favor of pinyin. What about every one’s name on the passport. Will they go back and change all the Lee’s to Li?

To make it simple it is important to bear in mind that Chinese has one more extra vowel that most Indo European languages lack

The ï - an i with the 2 dots on it, a “centralised” i. In the Wades Giles system this is the “-ih”.

This “ï” is found only 6 times in today’s Chinese language - with consonants (in Hanyu Pinyin) s, sh, c, ch, z, zh to form the phonemes si, shi, ci, chi, zi, zhi.

Unfortunately, there are also 3 phonemes beginning with s, c, z and ending with a normal “i” - the “i” as in “mint”.
There cannot be 2 pronounciations to the same spelling, can there? So the folks behind the entire pinyin project probably decided to combine the phonemes with the normal “i” with x, q and j, giving rise to Xi (pronounced as “See”), qi (“tsee”) and ji, while instructing everyone else to read “si”, “ci” et al as /sï /, /tsï /, to avoid confusion and the introduction of a new letter.

I really can’t tell you because I have never been to Taiwan and do not follow closely what happens there. I just remembered seeing that piece of news and I now see it was longer ago than I thought.