Sat, Jan 21, 2017 - Page 8

Phoney pinyin war

I am shocked to read Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislators’ opinion continuing the pinyin “phony war” by supporting the revival of the ill-designed Tongyong pinyin (“Language: A tool for messages or identity,” Jan. 18, page 8). They should spend their time instead on a wholesome language policy and real struggles of identity, rather than playing vainly with a few consonants.

When I wrote about this subject 17 years ago in this newspaper (“Letters,” Jan. 12, 2000, page 8), Tongyong pinyin was still a nascent system in a state of flux. Now we know its inconsistencies and defects.

One reason for these is that it was designed by amateurs rather than linguists. Another is the lack of public consultation and “road test” before being hastily promulgated — for crude ideological reasons.

We know how Tongyong has been designed, intentionally or not, to clash with Hanyu pinyin.

For example, the same two letters “ci” refers to one Mandarin syllable in Hanyu, but another in Tongyong.

The result is that many signs in Tongyong appear as irritating misspellings for those who have studied Mandarin through Hanyu pinyin.

At worst, lives might be at stake if such confusion appears in, say, mountaineering maps.

While proponents of Tongyong pinyin despise the international standard Hanyu pinyin, they gladly take for granted the privileged status of English as the dominant reference. They then mistakenly equate the Latin script with the English language.

However, the Latin letters’ sounds are not universally bound to those in English: They can be assigned different values depending on the language being written.

What is written as “ch” is pronounced differently in Italian, Spanish and German from that in English. This can be also the case in Mandarin, Taiwanese (also known as Hoklo) and Hakka — that is just fine. It does not have to be one-size-fits-all (tongyong, 通用)

As I wrote 17 years ago, the legislators should focus on developing a wholesome language policy.

The pro-localization groups could better spend their effort to change place names that do not accord with local identity and transitional justice (eg, Songjiang Road, Dihua Street, references to Chiang Kai-shek [蔣介石]).

They could promote signs written in the local languages: Zhongli/Chung-lak being the Hakka capital of northern Taiwan, perhaps signs in Taoyuan/Tho-yen airport metro can also show Hakka written in its Latin orthography?

Most importantly, we should support the established orthographies rather than new inventions.

Hanyu pinyin is no longer the property of this or that nation, but the common heritage of all Mandarin-speaking people, no matter their nationality.

Zhou Youguang (周永光) — the father of Hanyu pinyin — passed away this week at age 111. He was one of the very few modern intellectuals who had such stature to be able to criticize the Chinese regime without being brutally silenced.

May we remember his spirit of progressive rationality, especially when we consider issues of language policy.

Te Khai-su

Helsingfors, Finland