Will Pinyin take hold?

By Dan Jacobson, [as extensively respelled by the] Opinion & Analysis column, China News, Taipei, Taiwan. Monday, April 5, 1999, page 6.

Tuesday, the Ministry of Education will meet to decide what sort of recommendation to give the Executive Yuan concerning street sign spellings and whether or not textbooks should drop the "bo po mo fo" phonetic system in favor of a new romanization system.

The list of attendees, screened personally by vice Premier Liu Chao-hsuan, includes representatives of government agencies, 30 scholars and me, the only foreigner. I myself am pushing hard for Hanyu Pinyin, the romanization system used in China.

Why are road signs such a mess in Taiwan? Because there are several Chinese romanization systems in competition. Adding to the confusion is a political factor: Taiwan wants to avoid using the same system as the mainland. Over the past 50 years, the Postal System (a simplification of Wade-Giles) has been used on the island. But, with "B's" and "P's", "D's" and "T's" spelled the same, even the government had to admit recently that enough was enough.

The Ministry of Education's (MOE) planned heir to the romanization throne, the "Di Er Shr" system, does well at its goal -- to spell Mandarin sounds in a way which the average American English speaker might accurately pronounce. But, one must ask, should we squeeze the description of Mandarin sounds into the narrow framework of what an American English speaker can pronounce, or should we instead take the Hanyu Pinyin approach making no compromises (especially as Mandarin is the world's most-spoken language)? Pinyin uses more letters to represent the entire scope of sounds in Mandarin, even though "Q," "X" and other letters might not be familiar to American eyes.

When one travels abroad, one usually takes a few minutes to read up on the destination country's language, instead of expecting that country's transcription system to make compromises to accommodate one class of tourists from one part of the world. Furthermore, just looking at, say, Lonely Planet's Taiwan Guidebook, one can see that, no matter how good the MOE's intentions are, foreigners still use Hanyu Pinyin. The Taiwan Guidebook adds it after each place name. Hanyu Pinyin is also used by everybody who studied Chinese before coming to Taiwan.

Hanyu Pinyin seems to be the obvious choice, given the number of people that already use and recognize it. But things are not normal here. Let's look at the 1986 MOE decree promulgating the "Di Er Shr" system. Nowhere in the decree or many other MOE documents does one see mention of_the existence of Hanyu Pinyin. Foreigners must wonder why the MOE must take the trouble to invent another system and more trouble to promote it.

It must arise from a desire to place Taiwan apart from China, Luckily, Vice Premier Liu has set the ground rules for Tuesday's meeting -- no politics. This meeting also represents a breakthrough, as it is the first time scholars have been invited to discuss the transliteration issue alongside various government agency representatives.

The MOE knows that to win the street sign battle, one must get one's signs up on the poles -- the more, the quicker, the better. Yu Bo Cyuan knows this, too. With the election of the DPP's Chen Shui-bian as mayor of Taipei, Yu, an Academia Sinica Ethnology Department researcher, realized that there was an opportunity to break though the MOE's plans for "Di Er Shr" islandwide. Some were excited that Pinyin might make it to the street signs.

As time went by, however, it seemed Yu also wanted to be different from China, linguistics thus took a back seat. Pinyin had to be "improved" by him before it could be used to write Taiwanese and Hakka. However, no matter how long the list of non-linguistic violations committed by Yu's "Tong Yong Pinyin" team, I must admit that if he didn't take the initiative to change Taipei's street signs, we wouldn't have today's opportunity to re-discuss the matter.

So, why are Taiwan's street signs still the subject of a constant battle over romanization systems? It's the same old story of politics interfering with science.

One would hope market forces would decide the issue. Political forces have isolated us from the world-wide Chinese language market.

If it weren't for politics, this could have been decided in a minute.

When you say "Taiwan independence," politically, there's no problem. I'm all for it. But, when you demand that members of the global village of Mandarin speakers use a different spelling system for exactly the same language, just because you derive some sort of political satisfaction, then I say you are on the same side as the apartheidists.

I hope that the MOE will re-examine Hanyu Pinyin, not as an enemy, but instead, though using this worldwide standard to romanize Mandarin, Taiwanese and Hakka, we would be making the best choice in promotion of these languages, and the impossible task of promoting a new romanization system will have been already done for us.

Dan Jacobson

Last modified: 2007-09-14 01:11:34 +0800