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How to Say: Chinese leaders' names

18:00 UK time, Thursday, 15 November 2012

An occasional guide to the words and names in the news from Jo Kim of the BBC Pronunciation Unit.

The 18th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China has drawn to a close and China has appointed a new generation of leaders. The new Politburo Standing Committee, which is made up of the top leadership of the Communist Party, was led to the stage by newly appointed CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping as the final showpiece.

Here are our recommendations for pronouncing the names of the Standing Committee members. Unlike English names, Chinese names do not appear in the Western order, i.e. given name first. Chinese names, like Korean, Vietnamese and Hungarian names, appear family-name first in the original language. Stressed syllables are shown in upper case, -uh as 'a' in sofa.

Xi Jinping: SHEE jin PING (-sh as in ship, -j as in Jack, -i as in sit, -ng as in sing)
Li Keqiang: LEE kuh chee-AANG (-ee as in street, -aa as in father, -ch as in church, -ng as in sing)
Zhang Dejiang: JAANG duh jee-AANG (-j as in Jack, -aa as in father, -ng as in sing)
Zhang Gaoli: JAANG gow LEE (-j as in Jack, -aa as in father, -ng as in sing, -ow as in now)
Wang Qishan: WAANG chee SHAN (-aa as in father, -ng as in sing -ch as in church)
Liu Yunshan: LYOH yuen SHAN (-ly as in million, -oh as in no, -ue as in French vu)
Yu Zhengsheng: YUE jung SHUNG (-ue as in French vu, -j as in Jack, -u as in bun, -ng as in sing)

The Pronunciation Unit's advice is anglicised so that any word, name or phrase, in any language, is pronounceable by broadcasters and intelligible to audiences. Some of our previous blog posts have discussed why Mandarin Chinese presents challenges in the process of anglicisation. Not only does Mandarin Chinese have a number of vowels and consonants that do not exist in English and have no obvious equivalent but it is also a tone language. Mandarin Chinese has four tones - high level, high rising, fall-rise, falling (and a fifth null-tone) - which are vital, just like vowels and consonants, to differentiating meaning.

Many readers will know the famous example of the four 'ma's: depending on the tone, this syllable can mean "mother", "hemp", "horse" or "to scold". English is not a tone language and English broadcasters are not expected to recognise, much less reproduce, this level of phonetic detail in Chinese, or indeed, in all the world's languages, which is why in the Pronunciation Unit's systematic way of anglicising Chinese syllables, we do not reflect tones.

The mismatch between the English and Mandarin Chinese systems also presents difficulties for Chinese speakers trying to pronounce English words and names. Mandarin Chinese does not have the vowel which appears in the English word cup and London written in Simplified Chinese as 伦敦, is pronounced by Mandarin speakers as luun duun (-uu as in book) with a rising tone on the first syllable and a high level tone on the second syllable.

I should add here that while English isn't a tone language and that's why many native English speakers find it so hard to learn tone languages, English speakers do sometimes use tone and pitch in words to differentiate meaning, although not in the same way as Mandarin Chinese uses lexical tone.

Let us imagine two British people trying to walk through a narrow doorway from either side. One person says a perfunctory "sorry!" but so quietly that the other doesn't quite hear her. "Sorry?" the second woman asks. "Sorry!" says the first woman, earnestly apologising for not speaking loudly enough. If you are a native British English speaker, you might have found yourself saying all these different sorries on any given day, sorries that have a pitch rise as a question, sorries that are apologies and have a big pitch fall.

Hanyu Pinyin, the official transliteration system of Mandarin Chinese in the People's Republic of China, may also present confusion (and, in my particular case, a certain amount of despair in the first week of learning Pinyin) for people unfamiliar with the system because of the seeming discrepancy between spelling and pronunciation: the grapheme 'i' represents the sounds -ee (as in street), as in Pinyin 'xi', -uh (as 'a' in ago), as in Pinyin 'shi' and -i (as in pin), as in Pinyin 'jin'.

However, Hanyu Pinyin's relationship between spelling and pronunciation is not as random as it seems because it is actually syllable-based; the syllable xi is always pronounced shee (-sh as in ship, -ee as in meet), whether in Xí Jìnpíng or móxī (the Chinese name for Moses). Compared with the wide variation one finds for the English syllable she in the words shed, she, fishes and masher, pronouncing Pinyin can suddenly seem much more pleasingly systematic and straightforward.

You can download the BBC Pronunciation Unit's guide to text spelling.

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