我最討厭粵拼 (a bashing of romanized cantonese)

Consider for a moment the script with which the Japanese and the Koreans write.  Japanese kana are phonetic and original (i.e. the Japanese didn’t borrow western characters to write their words with; they devised their own).  The Koreans also created their own script – it is phonetic, and the strokes used for each character even mimic the shape of the mouth as they are spoken.  It is therefore very simple to learn both of these scripts; of course, in both cases, Chinese characters are also integrated into writings, but there is always a way of expressing any word using native characters.

Jyutping is the Cantonese equivalent of Pinyin – devised by the LSHK, it is a way of transcribing sounds “phonetically”, using the same alphabet we use in English. Note the carefully inserted inverted commas – it’s not really phonetic at all, for reasons I have yet to fathom.

Take, for example, the word “Jyutping” itself.  Guess how to pronounce it.  Jutping?  Yutping?  It’s actually sounds something like Yuet-ping, not that you’d know that without hearing it. Other sounds that can be represented by a “u” on its own are “o” (as in “lock”) and “oo” (as in “boom”).  This is very confusing to a student of Cantonese, and adds a pointless extra barrier to mastery.

There are plenty of other anomalies to be found in that particular transcription scheme, and it is typically the vowel inconsistencies that cause most problems.  The difficulties are further compounded by other competing romanization schemes, which still don’t do a good job of writing words in an intuitive way.  Yale transcribes 墻 as cheuhng – good luck deciphering that.

To add a sense of pointlessness to the whole exercise, native speakers don’t seem to be familiar with either Yale or Jyutping, and instead devise their own transcriptions on the fly if needed. They stare at learners’ (my) textbooks and dictionaries in disbelief at the irregular and incomprehensible notation.

My biggest question then is this: if the Koreans could devise the perfectly regular and wonderfully intuitive Hangul by committee, why the hell couldn’t the LSHK?!

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6 thoughts on “我最討厭粵拼 (a bashing of romanized cantonese)

  1. Pingback: Notes on “How To Learn Cantonese” #2 « thousand mile journey

  2. Jyutping is actually not irregular at all, it is simply that the pronunciation of syllables is based on how speakers of many non-English languages would pronounce them intuitively. So for example me as a native German speaker, Jyutping is great because the pronunciation is exactly like German syllables (excluding certain Cantonese-specific cases of courses). The “j” in German is for example just pronounced like Jyutping specifies.

    On the other hand Yale is a nightmare for me because it is exactly the opposite, it is based on how native English speakers would naturally pronounce syllables.

  3. Yeah, looking back at this I would mostly agree. I have no problem at all with the system now, after two years or so.

    HOWEVER, consider that Hong Kong natives and Mandarin speakers learning Cantonese will only know English as a language that exclusively uses Roman characters. The problems makes it very counter-intuitive for them (a major target audience), no?

    I personally would favour a Bopomofo-style script to show how words are pronounced, which could also be used to phonetically represent loanwords, much as Japanese Katakana does. Then there can be no linguistic favouritism 😛

  4. Yeah, I agree it is annoying that Jyutping requires you relearn the sounds from scratch. But then again, it’s like any other language, i.e. Spanish or French ABC’s where you have to learn a new set of sounds.

    BTW, I’m a real fan of your website. You fill a big void for English-speakers trying to learn Cantonese.

  5. You’re right – it’s mostly the same as if one were learning a European language. I also should retract the comment I made in this post about Jyutping not being phonetic, since it mostly is.

    Having said that… I hate pinyin systems anyway >.<

    Thanks for the encouragement, by the way! And good luck with your own learning! =D

  6. Pingback: Private Chinese Talk Show | Thousand Mile Journey

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