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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.

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