Pinyin Orthographical Rules for Libraries

Victor H. Mair, Professor
Dept. of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

It is deeply troubling that the Library of Congress conversion to pinyin (PRC-style romanization) that has begun this month is not following the "official" Chinese orthographical rules for word spacing, but rather will leave spaces between all syllables. This is an extremely benighted policy, against which I have been fighting for more than two decades.

Who is ultimately responsible for this retrograde policy? Surely they can not be fluent in Mandarin or any other Sinitic langugage. If they are familiar with any of the Sinitic languages, they must have been given extremely bad advice by software designers who are totally ignorant of any Sinitic language(s).

Starting at least half a dozen years ago, I lobbied hard with Karl Kahler and other East Asian library professionals NOT to adopt the infantile policy of separating all syllables. Why do it this way? What's the point? What's the advantage? After the work of great linguists such as George Kennedy, stretching back more than half a century, it is absolutely clear that Sinitic languages are NOT monosyllabic. Even Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese), as I have shown in numerous lectures, articles, and reviews, is far from monosyllabic. Certainly, to write out Mandarin (or any other modern vernacular Sinitic language) with spaces between each syllable makes it look quaint and exotic. A "word" like ZHEXUE ("philosophy") becomes ZHE ("sagacious") XUE ("learning"), FEIJI ("airplane") becomes FEI ("flying") JI ("machine"), DIANNAO ("computer") becomes DIAN ("electric") NAO ("brain"), RUNSE ("polish, embellish") becomes RUN ("moisten") SE ("color"), and so on _ad nauseam_. You can see how ridiculous this makes Sinitic languages look. Please, let's show some dignity for Chinese!

The official Chinese rules for Mandarin orthography in pinyin have been adopted by the United Nations, the International Standards Organization, and other international bodies. An official English translation of these rules by John Rohsenow may be found in Appendix 1 of the excellent ABC Chinese-English Dictionary (University of Hawaii Press) edited by John DeFrancis, and an exhaustive treatment of various issues relating to Mandarin orthography may be found in the 580-page book by YIN Binyong (a senior scholar on the State Language Commission) and Mary Felley entitled Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and Orthography (Beijing: Sinolingua, 1990), ISBN 7-80052-148-6; 0-8351-1930-0. I am in possession of a 10-page index for this book which facilitates the lookup of key items and I shall be happy to share copies with interested parties (send stamped, self-addressed envelope [SAS]) to me at the address above or below).

Of course, not all problems pertaining to pinyin orthography have been definitively solved (e.g., how to render CHENGYU ["set phrases"]), but neither have all problems relating to English orthography been solved (is it "dobson fly" or "dobsonfly," "hound'stooth check" or "hound's-tooth check", etc.?). It is only through application that these difficulties, which actually are not very numerous in proportion to the entire lexicon of Sinitic, can be worked out. Furthermore, I should point out that the revised and greatly enlarged version of the ABC Chinese-English Dictionary (also edited by John DeFrancis and due out in 2001) will have close to 200,000 entries. All entries, including many CHENGYU, have been carefully checked for proper orthographical form by ZHANG Liqing in consultation with writing specialists in China. The new ABC2 will be an invaluable resource for librarians and other information specialists.

Finally, the issue of pinyin orthography has vital implications for information processing in general. Computers have a devil of a time making sense of Mandarin (or any other Sinitic language) when it is written out syllable by syllable, but they do infinitely better when users are kind to them and feed them whole words. We talk a lot about "user-friendly computers," but we also need to talk about "computer-friendly users"! Only when we are kind to our computers will they be kind to us. And you know how frustrating a refractory computer can be! On the other hand, if you treat your computer well, it can be of enormous advantage in all sorts of tasks. Sorting, searching, ordering, and other types of information processing operations will all be much simpler and faster when we treat Sinitic languages as having "words" rather than merely having syllables. Psycholinguists, reading specialists, and other researchers have demonstrated repeatedly that Sinitic languages truly do have words, not just syllables. So it is obtuse and obstructionist to pretend that Sinitic languages consist only of syllables and lack words.

Our libraries, as citadels for the dissemination of information to scholars and to the public at large, should take the lead in promoting a rational pinyin orthography. Not to do so will only lead to costly inefficiency for all users of Sinitic language materials.

As China's most distinguished applied linguist, ZHOU Youguang, put it in his preface to Chinese Romanization, how would speakers of English react to the name of our country being written as U NI TED STA TES OF A ME RI CA? For that matter, how would a computer react to such an ungodly, ungainly formulation? I have seen some of the terrible book and serial titles that are already being circulated (KAO GU, WEN WU, DI MING YAN JIU); such a lack of linguistic common sense is enough to make one weep. It is alarming to think of the consequences of millions of titles being entered into electronic catalogs and data bases as strings of disaggragated syllables. Wouldn't it be easier, both for humans and for computers, to understand PUTONGHUA JICHU FANGYAN than PU TONG HUA JI CHU FANG YAN?

I should have written this message three months ago when I first heard from Jidong Yang, our Chinese bibliographer at Penn, that the Library of Congress had opted for the lazy, linguistically unsophisticated way out by separating all syllables. When I initially heard from him that this was the LC policy, I was shocked and could scarcely believe my ears. Surely the best minds in America ought to be able to come up with something better! So it really never sank in that this crude way of handling pinyin orthography would ever actually be instituted at the national level. But now that work on the conversion of records has actually begun and Dr. Yang is sending me communications in the LC style with all syllables separated, I am astonished all over again that this horrible policy is really going into effect.

Perhaps if we all rise up and protest vociferously, the authorities of the Library of Congress will listen and will quickly switch to the official rules already promulgated in China years ago. If they do not do so now, we will all have to go through another extremely costly conversion later on, so why not do it now? Proper pinyin orthography is already here, and it is here to stay.

To save our country and the Chinese people a lot of unnecessary grief and expense, please add your voice to mine. I urge all recipients of this message to pass it on to others involved with Chinese Studies and to exert pressure on the Library of Congress and other responsible libraries / TUSHUGUAN (not li brar ies / TU SHU GUAN ["picture book hall"]!) officials to adopt a more reasonable, efficient, cost-effective policy.

Copyright 2000 Victor H. Mair.
Submitted to CLIEJ on 29 October 2000.