(K. Brent Tomer),
FEW people live to 111. Fewer still leave as big a mark on linguistic lives as Zhou Youguang, who died on January 14th. Mr Zhou was the chief architect of pinyin, the system that the Chinese use to write Mandarin in the roman alphabet.
Pinyin has not, of course, replaced the Chinese characters. Rather, it is used as a gateway to literacy, giving young children a systematic way to learn the sounds of the thousands of characters required to be literate in Chinese. Pinyin is also used by most Chinese people to input Chinese characters into computers: type a word like wo (meaning “I”) and the proper character appears; if several characters share the same sound (which is common in Chinese), users choose from a short menu of these homophonic characters.
In other words, the primary way that the Chinese interact with their language in the digital age is via an alphabet borrowed by Communist China from its ideological enemies in the 1950s. The tale is an odd one. Mao Zedong (who was Mao Tse-tung before pinyin, under the “Wade-Giles” romanisation system) wanted a radical break with old ways after 1949, when the civil war…Continue reading