I miss katakana in Chinese!

Coke Bottles
Originally uploaded by JMRosenfeld

As I’ve probably mentioned already, I’m teaching myself Chinese at the moment.

One thing that is annoying me greatly is that Chinese has no simple way of transliterating foreign names. Because of the writing system, Chinese has to use characters which are already used for existing words based on their phonetic likeness.

Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, and Wikipedia have extensive tables to show which characters to use for transliterating foreign names (here’s the table for English). For instance, /m??/, /mæ/ and /m?/ are all transliterated as ?, which is pronounced m? and means ‘horse’.

Let’s look at a concrete example at the consequences. “Coca-Cola” is called “????”, which is pronounced k?k?uk?lè, and on their own the characters would mean “available – mouth – available – music”.

Compare that to Japanese, which has a syllabary called katakana that is used mainly for transliterating foreign names; in katakana, Coca-Cola is ????? (“kokak?ra”). I’m sure the Chinese name has been chosen because of both the typographic simplicity and semantic attractiveness of the characters, but that’s ludicrous!

It would be so much better if Chinese were to adopt something similar to katakana. For instance, they could use bopomofo without tone marks and write ???????? (“koukekoule”), which would accurately represent the pronunciation in Chinese while marking it as a foreign name.

It would also have the added advantage of making foreign names stand out in a text. As an example, here’s the first sentence from the Chinese Wikipedia’s article on Libya:


Without reading and understanding the whole sentence, it’s impossible to locate the names of the countries (which are all borrowings from English). Compare this to my bopomofoified version:


It’s much easier to parse, and you don’t waste time wondering why ? ‘Asia’ is mentioned (it’s there for its sound value).

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