Sat, Mar 10, 2018 - Page 8 News List

Bopomofo will not be easy to scrap

By Hugo Tseng 曾泰元

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Yeh Yi-jin (葉宜津), who campaigned to be her party’s candidate in the Tainan mayoral election, proposed abolishing Mandarin phonetic symbols — also known as zhuyin fuhao (注音符號, commonly known as Bopomofo) — and adopting romanized spelling — also called pinyin (拼音) — as one of her platform policies.

Taiwan is the only nation that uses Mandarin phonetic symbols, while Chinese-language education around the world uses “romanization,” she said, adding that Taiwan’s practice puts more of a burden on schoolchildren, while failing to connect with the international community.

I largely agree with Yeh and support most of her political views. However, adopting romanized spelling is one thing, but abolishing Mandarin phonetic symbols is a more radical idea and no trivial matter. If such a policy were to ever be adopted, it would likely have considerable repercussions.

First, there is something that Yeh needs to clarify: namely, what she means by “romanization.” Does she mean the dominant Chinese spelling system used worldwide, Hanyu pinyin (漢語拼音), or Tongyong pinyin (通用拼音), which was a flash in the pan some time ago? Or does she mean the Wade-Giles spelling system, which used to have pride of place, or some other system of romanization?

“Romanization” is an umbrella term that means using Latin letters, or the Roman alphabet, to transliterate other kinds of script. There are many romanization systems for Chinese. The process was started by Western missionaries, and after several centuries of competition and evolution, Hanyu pinyin eventually emerged the winner.

Hanyu pinyin is the international standard for spelling Chinese and is now the main system used in the international community.

Before that, Wade-Giles was for a long time the dominant system, while other kinds of romanization, such as the postal system, Gwoyeu Romatzyh, Yale romanization, Mandarin Phonetic Symbols II, Tongyong pinyin and so forth, have all taken the stage for a while, but have later gone quiet and been relegated to history.

If what Yeh means by romanization is Hanyu pinyin, that is the standard in Taiwan. However, after the DPP got into government in 2000, it adopted Tongyong pinyin, a system designed by Yu Bor-chuan (余伯泉), who at the time was an associate researcher at Academia Sinica, as Taiwan’s official romanization system.

It is reasonable to think that Tongyong pinyin was derived from China’s Hanyu pinyin, with certain adjustments and revisions. The purpose of these changes was to make it different, thereby expressing the difference between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

When the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) got back into office in 2008, it stopped using Tongyong pinyin and started using Hanyu pinyin instead, in an attempt to be more similar to China. In part, it was done for the sake of cross-strait integration and aligning more with international standards.

After the DPP in 2016 got back into power, it has continued the policy of its predecessor. It remains to be seen what will happen, but Yeh’s policy proposal might guide official attitudes.

Taiwan uses Hanyu pinyin mainly to transliterate the names of streets and other places. Not all counties and municipalities use it and it has very little impact on the general public.

If Yeh’s Hanyu pinyin policy ends up being implemented, thereby establishing a unified system instead of Taiwan’s spelling mess, it would be a boon.

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