Ever been stumped by how to say Xi Jinping?
You're not alone, and, according to linguists, China's Olympic organizers seem to have recognized the problem.
The organizers have chosen an unconventional way to name their new 2022 Olympic mascots: a panda and an anthropomorphic lantern.
Instead of using Pinyin, the romanized spelling system used by more than 1 billion Mandarin speakers, both mascots have names spelled in ways that make it easier for non-Chinese speakers to pronounce.
Follow #BingDwenDwen and #ShueyRhonRhon on their adventures! See you in #Beijing2022! pic.twitter.com/e16CvIa95P
" Beijing 2022 (@Beijing2022) September 17, 2019
The mascot Bing Dwen Dwen is a young panda in an icy full-body suit. Shuey Rhon Rhon, the Paralympic mascot, is a red Chinese lantern with eyes, arms and legs.
Spelled in Pinyin, Bing Dwen Dwen would be "Bing Dun Dun" and Shuey Rhon Rhon would be "Xue Rong Rong."
The Pinyin spellings would be instantly recognizable to Chinese-language learners who understand the system. For example, Pinyin users would know the "un" in "Dun" is a similar sound to the "wen" in Owen rather than the "un" in Duncan.
But for non-Chinese speakers without prior knowledge of Pinyin, pronouncing some romanized Chinese names phonetically could result in faux pas.
Non-Chinese speakers often find words that start with "x," "z" and "q" particularly difficult. Aside from the Chinese president, names like mine, Qin Chen, can be hard to pronounce.
David Moser, a Chinese-language linguist and author of the book A Billion Voices: China's Search for a Common Language told Inkstone that the Paralympic mascot's name, if written in Pinyin as Xue, would be almost impossible for non-Chinese speakers to say properly.
"It's very clear they were just using spellings that they thought would be easier to pronounce for foreigners," he said, adding Shuey was better than Xue.
"(It's) actually sort of a big deal for such a high-profile case of soft power branding to go against standard language policy" in mainland China, he said.
The Beijing Olympic Committee has not replied to Inkstone's request for comment about the names.
According to Moser, Beijing is trying to find easier ways for foreigners to pronounce Chinese words more accurately by adopting a new "patchwork" system.
The romanized spelling of the mascot names is loosely, but not entirely, based on Gwoyeu Romatzyh, a system originally developed by Chinese linguists in the late 1920s but is now rarely used.
Chinese is a tonal language. Gwoyeu Romatzyh uses different letters in the spelling of the word to denote tone, without needing to use extra strokes.
The "Dwen" in Bing Dwen Dwen could be Duen or Doen or Duenn depending on the tone.
In Pinyin, it will always be spelled as Dun, but with tiny strokes, called diacritics, to indicate tones: Dūn, DUn, Dŭn, DUn.
Once a widely accepted way for romanizing Chinese, Gwoyeu Romatzyh has fallen out of mainstream fashion. Wade-Giles is another way of romanizing Mandarin Chinese and is still commonly used in Taiwan.
Moser says in the future, we could see the Chinese government use more of this kind of "made-up" spelling as it looks for ways to make some words more pronounceable globally.
That's good news for anyone stumped by Pinyin.
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