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Chinese alphabet nonsense

Chinese alphabet? Yes, you read that right. In my various travels around the Web looking for East Asia-related content, I’ve noticed that this term comes up far more than it should. So much, in fact, that I thought it was worth writing about, if only to try and do my bit to dispel this nonsense.

So, if by some chance you’ve ended up on this site and didn’t know already…

There is no Chinese alphabet.

Hopefully that won’t have been too much of a revelation for most readers, though. But seriously, just Google for it, and there are several million results for this, and most of it is inaccurate and misleading. There aren’t enough people explaining the facts of this situation. There are romanisation systems for Chinese that are alphabetical, but actual Chinese is not written with an alphabet.

I know that when most people say ‘Chinese alphabet’ or search for it, what they mean is the writing system for Chinese. That would be Chinese characters, and they’re nothing like an alphabet. They’re not letters. It seems to me that the Web does a pretty poor job of making that clear (see below).

I just think that the term ‘Chinese alphabet’ shouldn’t be used at all, even to describe romanisation systems like pinyin. It spreads the idea that Chinese characters are letters that spell out words, and there are already enough misconceptions about the language without that one being spread around. So even though pinyin etc. is alphabetical and it is Chinese, I would actually still agree with the statement “there is no Chinese alphabet”.

Which is why it really annoys me that things like this exist. Seriously, Chinese Tools? You just completely made up a fake Chinese alphabet out of nowhere? What they’ve done there, if you’re wondering, is go through the American pronunciation of the Roman alphabet, and then choose random Chinese characters that, when read in Mandarin, sound a little bit similar to the names of the letters. Ugh.

Just to demonstrate how much of a load of rubbish that Chinese Tools page is, I’ve produced my English name in Chinese according to their system. Apparently it works like this:

Hugh = 艾尺伊吾吉艾尺

Now, I’m not even going to give that the dignity of attempting to translate it properly, so here’s what some automatic translation software came up with for it:

“The mugwort feet of she my giga-mugwort feet”

Sensible! There’s just endless crap like this all over the Web. If you don’t like the made-up phonetic approach, you can also have a go with this made-up visual approach. This one even claims to be a translation, but also begins with “Add Mystery To Your Writing”. So much rage… The “Chinese characters are mysterious and mystical” thing is so irritating. Chinese characters are an everyday writing system like any other, used by one fifth of human beings to write normal, boring stuff all the time. They are not magical runes.

As an antidote to that nonsense, I’m also going to refer everyone to this very sensible Wikipedia page titled ‘Chinese alphabet‘, that decides it’s better to clarify the issue rather than fabricate a load of rubbish about it.

How is Chinese written, then?

What Chinese characters are and how to classify them is actually a hotly debated issue, and I won’t attempt to settle it here.

But If I had to try and summarise the whole thing as neatly as possible, I would put it like this: Chinese characters represent one syllable and one morpheme each. That’s about as general as you can get with it, and there are exceptions even to that. In any case, though, they are not alphabetic and can’t be used to spell out words.

If you want to understand the issue, then I would thoroughly recommend actually learning some Chinese. Or, have a read of some content at the excellent pinyin.info website. Also have a look at Hanzi Smatter for much hilarity surrounding this issue.

  • http://www.hackingchinese.com Olle Linge

    The good thing with your article is that it’s either educating or entertaining, depending on what you know when you start reading it. :)

    I’d like to add that I think part of the problem is that most people have no clue what an alphabet is. If you did a survey of people who haven’t studied languages or language-related subjects, I’m sure you’d find that most people actually believe “alphabet” simply means “writing system”.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg

      That’s a good point actually, sort of what I was trying to get at in the article. A lot of people whose native language is written with an alphabet tend to assume that ‘alphabet’ is synonymous with ‘writing system’ like you say, which is probably the initial cause of some of this confusion.

      What I really wanted to rant about, though, is the next stage, where some websites inexplicably decide to promote this rubbish by fabricating totally fake ‘Chinese alphabets’ for their readers.

      • http://www.hackingchinese.com Olle Linge

        Yeah, the Chinese Tools page is hilarious. Considering the smiley at the bottom, I think it might be some kind of joke, but I’m afraid that’s lost on most visitors. I laughed, though. :)

        • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg

          That made me wonder if it was a joke as well, but it’s a pretty irresponsible one!

    • http://www.hackingchinese.com Olle Linge

      I forgot to mention the Gibberish Asian Font that explains many weird tattoos. This is also a kind of misconception about alphabets and writing systems. Perhaps it should be obvious to most people that you can’t just translate directly even between two alphabets, the wide-spread use of the gibberish font is still quite interesting and related to your post. Check this article: Gibberish Asian Font Mystery Solved.

      • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg

        That’s not the only ‘Asian font’, actually, as I discovered when I did a little bit of Googling for this. There are quite a few fonts that claim to let you ‘translate’ into ‘Asian’.

  • http://chinaheritagewatch.wordpress.com/ Kelly M

    I’ve long given up trying to explain how Chinese characters “work” to others. Every time I mention that I’ve studied Chinese (albeit years ago now) someone will ask me to translate some obscure phrase to use as a tattoo or ask them to proofread the gibberish that they got off the internet. Some people will gladly concede that they knowing nothing about Chinese characters. Others will roll their eyes and use the “I thought you said you knew Chinese” line or insist that I’m wrong when I try to explain how Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet. I could explain what pinyin is to them, what tones are and how this all relates to the Chinese script but this usually bores most people to tears. :p

    • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg

      Yeah it is an issue that is surrounded by ignorance. Why there are so many misconceptions about the Chinese writing system would be quite an interesting topic to do some actual research into, if I had the time.

  • http://confusedlaowai.com Confused Laowai

    Thank you Hugh. Yes, so many times yes.

    As mentioned in the other comments. I have to agree. Before I started learning Chinese, I always though the alphabet was the go to way to do orthography. I was just completely oblivious to other languages and their writing systems. Now, that I’ve done research into them (and learned Chinese), it is definitely one of my favorite aspects of languages (and probably one of the most frustrating at times too).

    The more I think about it, the fact that we have Chinese characters as script in this world, is fucking awesome. I hope one day hope more people can realize it (and all the other interesting scripts out there: Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Cyrillic, Georgian etc etc).

    • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg

      Glad this struck a chord with you!

      I think anyone blogging about Chinese has a bit of a responsibility to try and dispel these myths and misunderstandings, or at least put forwards their own understanding of the issues, as it’s likely to be more accurate / nuanced than that of the general population.

      I totally agree that it’s fucking awesome that writing systems like Chinese exist. I’m a bit of a sci-fi fan, and I love the kind of variety that forces us to leave behind our limited conceptions of what certain things are. The Chinese writing system does exactly that for people who have only experienced alphabetic systems, and the fact that it exists and is in use in our world is so cool.

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  • http://travelingvanillabean.com Heather

    In Taiwan, they’ve created an “alphabet” of sorts to teach the basic phonetic sounds to children and blending of sounds. I’ve learned this as well studying Chinese and it is far better than Pinyin as it doesn’t attempt to assign an English letter to a Chinese sound.

    It’s called BoPoMo and every Taiwanese child learns it in school. While these symbols aren’t used to write Chinese characters, they are helpful tools in learning Chinese sounds and blending of sounds for locals and foreigners alike!

    Have you heard of BoPoMo?

    • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg

      Yeah I was aware of bomopofo. I think pinyin is as much a “Chinese alphabet” as bopomofo, which is why I made a quick nod to it above. But these systems are really what I’m talking about in the post – it’s more about totally made-up, misleading “alphabets” that suggest Chinese characters are an alphabetic system.

  • Theunis

    Hi Hugh,
    I am a South African, and I must say that I agree 100%. Professors and so on think that they are so damn clever but actually damn stupid. I have asked a tattoo artist, and a man that I have met that can speak a little bit of Chinese, and asked to write my name in Chinese. Man, they had no idea! After a year I have made friends with a man from China that I work with. I asked him if my name was spelled correctly and to my surprise it was wrong and he showed me, they must have taken it off those sites that are wrong.

  • Anqi

    Well we just learned in my Chinese linguistics class that maybe the Chinese alphabet is really just the different strokes for each character. There are around 30 some strokes in Chinese, and knowing what they’re called allows you to write the characters, kind of like when you spell out English words. You can essentially do the same with Chinese characters, given that you at least know the basics of which orientation the word goes in.

    • Weili

      That’s an interesting thought but strokes still would not be considered “alphabets” because they don’t represent any sounds.

      • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg

        Agreed. Plus you wouldn’t usually ‘spell out’ a Chinese character by giving the individual strokes but by giving its larger components.

  • Swerve

    what website should i go to to learn Chinese?

  • Chloe

    Now, surely there are a lot of people searching up “Chinese alphabet”. But perhaps I can clarify. I have always known that Chinese doesn’t use an alphabet, not like English does. In 7th grade history they told of very vaguely that Chinese uses a different system than English and is very hard to learn etc etc etc, nothing more. I searched “Chinese alphabet” knowing full well one didn’t exist, hoping only for clarification on what there was instead.

    Based on what I’ve heard people say about Chinese, it seems to be common knowledge that there is no Chinese alphabet. I’d bet a good portion of the people who search up the term are mostly seeking clarification on what there is instead. And then, of course, the crackpot websites are just responding to the high search rate, desperate for pageviews.

    I could be wrong and alone, but it’s a theory, and I hope it may help a little to regain faith on humanity :)

  • Jon Bruce

    I have been learning Chinese for awhile now, not how to speak it but how to read and write. There isn’t really much of a pattern, so it’s easiest to just memorize each one as you go, like you are cracking a code or something.

  • Karishma

    Hello. Thank you very much for posting this. I have been searching for ages to get my name translated in Chinese. I can never seem to get anything. My name is katishma. The Chinese tools website gave me 卡日沙嗎 but I am not sure about what it means or if it is right. Anyway, if someone can help me with this please do! Thank you

    • Al

      The reason it’s hard to translate your name into Chinese is because of the “phonetics” nature of the Englisher language. There are certain sound in English that has not direct equivalent in Chinese. In your case, it’s the ‘sh’ sound in Katishma.

      I can suggest 2 approachs:

      1. substitute ‘sh’ with some thing similar (eg. “su” or hard ‘S’), that means, in Chinese, it will be pronounced as “Katisuma” or “Katisma”)

      For Karishma (as your username on this forume):

      Karisuma : 卡莉蘇瑪 (Ka-li-su-ma)
      Karisma : 卡莉詩瑪 (ka-li-ss-ma)

      For Katishma:

      Katisuma: 卡蒂蘇瑪 (ka-ti-su-ma)
      Katisma: 卡蒂詩瑪 (ka-ti-ss-ma)

      2. drop the ‘sh’ in Chinese, so it will be pronounced as ‘Katima’

      Katima: 卡蒂瑪 (ka-ti-ma)
      Karima: 卡莉瑪 (ka-li-ma)

      The characters I’ve chosen are usually seen in femail name (I assumed it’s a female name :) ) when translated from English to Chinese. Personally, I like “卡蒂詩瑪” (Katisma) or “卡莉詩瑪” (Karisma).

      Just for fun: 莉 jasmine, 詩 poem, 瑪 gem stone (all beautiful!)

      Hope this help.