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Saturday, August 16, 2021

The ongoing Olympics has brought into focus the curious pronunciation problem that English-speakers have with the name of China’s capital city:

Beijing used to be known as Peking to English speakers. It officially changed in 1949, when the new Communist government adopted the pinyin transliteration method for proper names, according to Logoi.com, which sells software for learning languages. The change came into popular usage in the West when the Chinese began using Beijing on all official documents in the 1980s.

[College professor S. Robert] Ramsey said he believed Bay-zhing came into usage because it sounded more foreign, more mysterious. Some in the West may subconciously believe the harder-sounding “jing” sounds like a slur against the Chinese, he said.

What strikes him odd is that the “zh” sound isn’t used in the English language.

“You have to work to get it wrong,” he said.

That last part is laughably inaccurate — the “zh” sound is common enough in English: Vision, illusion, usual, seizure, measure, prestige, etc. Furthermore, the common “j” sound is really close to “zh”, so it’s not all the much “work” to have the tongue slip when applied to Beijing. I suspect that the unconventional “ay” sound for the “ei” combination in this case also leads to linguistic second-guessing when gliding into the word’s second syllable. Finally, our familiarity with the French “zh” sound for the letter j probably also contributes.

All that said, we should toe the line. Personally, the “jing” pronunciation was impressed upon me in college, when a professor of Chinese studies went through essentially this same argument. I guess it stuck, even though I also lapse into the wrong sound.

For what it’s worth, the Greek translation of the city’s name is Πεκίνο, which translates to “Peking”. I guess Athens never got the memo on the name revision.

by Costa Tsiokos, Sat 08/16/2008 07:34:25 PM
Category: Media, Political, Wordsmithing
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