When we think of languages, there is a tendency to see them as always having been there, as changing maybe slightly over time, but being unending mostly. English speakers tend to have an overly bold attitude about their language, even without consciously being aware of it. English dominates the modern, global world–on the internet, airports, business, telephones (where would texting be without Roman characters?).
But longstanding languages incur major changes over time, and they’re the lucky ones; a majority of the world’s languages are perishing, or are moribund, a fancy tern for dying. Those that are able to stick around are subjected to the whims and influences of cultures, and Chinese was subjected to a major shift in the mid-twentieth century. Just after the revolution of 1949, the Communist party decided they needed to simplify the characters is their language in order to improve their dismal literacy rates. So, that’s what they did.
The Mandarin Chinese that I learned in college and while studying in China would not help me to read documents created in the traditional characters, as many of them are so pared down, they are not mutually intelligible. It is so odd to imagine that a person doing historical research in China would not be able to read the texts of even one hundred years ago unless he knew how to read traditional characters. It will certainly be interesting to see what this chasm in written script means for Chinese history and culture and language itself over the next century and beyond.
But there was a second, equally crucial part to the changes in Chinese language that took place in the 1950s, one that even they could not have realized was about to become highly significant in a world of computers, text messaging, cell phones, and keyboards with Roman letters on them: pinyin.
A recent New York Times article profiled the man whose job, starting in 1955, was to develop “a new phonetic alphabet.” Western visitors, traders, and public figures had been using several versions of Romanized Chinese words that had been developed in the 19th century, but it was time for a standard version, and especially, one approved of by the government.
Incidentally for Mr. Zhou Youguang, this new job came at just the right time to save him from most of the cruelty and death that his fellow western-educated scholars and professionals would face in the coming Cultural Revolution. Colleagues and students of his were not so lucky.
The most compelling idea in this article is that pinyin, the words we use all the time to phonetically spell out Chinese words in the non-Chinese-speaking world, might have looked quite different. It was not an assumed fact that pinyin would have taken form in the Roman alphabet.
In his new job, Mr. Zhou found tremendous confusion, but also a foundation for his work. In the late 1500s, the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci had formulated a system to Romanize Chinese characters. Many English speakers were already using the British Wade-Giles system, developed in the 19th century. Chinese linguists had devised other alternatives.
Mr. Zhou’s team wrangled endlessly: how to cope with the homonyms that are rife in Chinese; how to indicate the four tones of Mandarin; whether to use a Cyrillic, Japanese or Roman alphabet, or to invent a new Chinese alphabet based on the shapes of characters.
Mr. Zhou argued for the Roman alphabet, to better connect China with the outside world. In 1958, after three years of work, Pinyin — literally “to piece together sounds” — was finished and quickly adopted.
Imagine the role China plays today, and the importance of English in the globalized world, and a Cyrillic pinyin system for China? Also, the pronunciations and tone marks in the current system, while helpful, are certainly not highly intuitive–some of them take a lot of practice. The “c” sound at the beginning of a word like cai, for instance, is pronounced like the “ds” in kids. That one might have taken me the longest to master, moisture of your tongue and the roof of your mouth working to make it come out right, but it is one of my favorite sounds now. (Though I am certain I am still not saying it quite right.)
Literacy in China was enormously improved, and the changes in language are considered highly successful as a component of this goal. As of 2008, 92 percent of Chinese adults are literate.