Stupid Question ™
May 18, 2000
By John Ruch
Q: When Asian words are written in English letters, why aren’t they just spelled the way they’re pronounced? For example, why isn’t feng shui spelled “fung shway”?
A: They are spelled they way they’re pronounced. The question is: whose pronunciation and whose spelling?
The process of translating Asian words into the Roman alphabet, called romanization, is very difficult and always imperfect. There are more than 150 competing systems for romanizing Chinese alone.
Asian languages contain sounds that don’t exist in English. These sounds can only be suggested with Roman letters, and it seems every romanizer has his or her own way of doing it. Artificial syllables and sounds sometimes have to be added to make the word pronounceable.
Asia also has dozens of dialects with different pronunciations of the same words. Which pronunciation should be romanized as the “right” one?
Asian writing is based on symbolic ideograms rather than alphabetical letters. (Korea does have a phonetic alphabet, but it still shares the following problems.) There’s no alphabet you can just switch with the Roman alphabet, no clues for romanization.
And it provides no rules for spelling, word division and punctuation.
Finally, our alphabet is itself an ambiguous system that uses the same letter to indicate a wide variety of sounds.
The pronunciations of the letters vary among the languages that use them, and among dialects in those languages. The same romanization will sound very different in English and Spanish. English is worst of all, since it doesn’t have accent marks that would be very useful in romanization.
Given all these troubles, many foreigners simply make up an ad hoc romanization that sounds close enough to the original. That’s where we get words like “tsunami,” “catsup” and “kung fu.”
Romanization systems, on the other hand, are complete shadow languages that standardize pronunciation and spelling, and suggest something of the original language’s structure. Those that make pronunciation easy usually are skimpy on the structure part, and vice versa.
Feng shui is very easy to pronounce—if you know the Wade-Giles or Pinyin systems, which use vowel sounds closer to the Romance languages than to English. From outside the system (and especially to English-speakers), the spelling looks needlessly complicated, but is actually part of a simple system for assigning specific sounds to specific letters.
While some systems are more English-friendly, one could never be built on “simple” phonetic renderings of each term. English pronunciation is too ambiguous ofr that to work, and the “system” would reflect English structure more than Asian.