Sunday, July 1, 2007

How to Read Chinese

I'm asked often about the tattoo on my arm. I specifically put this tattoo on my inner forearm, turned so that it is right-side-up to me, so that I would see it each and every day. It's a Chinese character. Because Japanese shares many characters with Chinese, it is also Japanese and one of my Japanese speaking customers explained it's Japanese meaning which was only slightly different than the Chinese. In Chinese, it reads Dao. Tao? Well, yes, because this is the same word.

Because Chinese as a written language is not phonetic (meaning there is not a letter or mark for every sound), Europeans developed systems for romanizing the Chinese language. Romanization made it easier for them to record things because they could do it based on how the words sound rather than learning and memorizing thousands of characters (if you ever wonder how the Chinese have such great memories, it's because they have to - every word has its own character!). The older Wade-Jiles system of romanization is the one that writes Tao, Taoism, T'ai Chi and I Ching. The newer pinyin system writes Dao, Daoism, Taiji and Yi Jing. The new system is easier to pronounce correctly and is the current international standard.

Dao = Tao and they are both pronounced like Dow, as in the Dow Jones or Dow Chemical. It is never pronounced Tow or Tay-Oh, except by most non-Chinese speakers, cute girls and I would venture to guess, stupid people. The Tao of Tea plays on this alternative spelling, but is still pronounced Dow of Tea. Taoism is still pronounced Dow-ism.

Another common mistake is Tai Chi. You might see it written T'ai Chi, Tai Chi or the more modern Tai ji (can also be written as one word Taiji). Either way, it's all pronounced the same - like T-eye G.

It bothers me when I tell what my tattoo means or that I'm studying Taiji and I have to mispronounce the words before people comprehend what word I'm saying. The point of this wasn't really to discuss my tattoos, but to rant about people mis-reading, mis-pronouncing and mis-understanding Chinese romanization, but if you want to know more about my tattoo(s), it can be found here.

No comments: