Tuesday, September 12, 2006


For some reason, perhaps because Argy Bargey has just gone off to China, I was thinking about the Chinese language last night - as one does. Chinese characters are more or less equivalent to words unlike alphabetic letters which are (more or less) equivalent to sounds. So Chinese people can speak lots of different dialects but use the same characters, they just pronounce them differently.

In Mandarin, each character is one syllable e.g. 西 (meaning west) is Xi (pronounced like she in English). If I remember correctly, the locals of Hangzhou pronounce this Si (like see in English), and, if I understand the
MDBG Chinese Dictionary correctly, in Cantonese they say Sai.

So the problem I was puzzling over, is how they pronounce foreign names rendered into Chinese characters. Liverpool is rendered as 利物浦 which is pronounced Li Wu Pu in Mandarin, but the same characters appear to be pronounced Lei Mat Pou in Cantonese. Andrew is 安德鲁 which is An De Lu in Mandarin, but that would be pronounced On Dak Lou in Cantonese.

Theoretically, the Cantonese-speakers of Hong Kong could have a different way of rendering Liverpool and Andrew so that they sound better in their dialect, but then you would have different forms of the words and Mandarin-speakers wouldn't recognise them.

I suppose the problem is similar to what happens if different users of the Roman alphabet try to pronounce the same combination of letters e.g. Europa is pronounced very differently in French, English, Spanish and German.

Not sure where I'm going with this - how did they end up with such a bizarre system anyway?

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