The politics of pinyin

One of the understudied intersections of linguistics and material culture is what I would call ‘contemporary epigraphy’: the study of modern inscriptions, ranging from traditional subjects (monumental inscriptions) to things like public signs and graffiti.  In my work on numbers, I am constantly on the alert for unusual and interesting uses of number in public texts (see this, e.g.), and recently, I and a group of senior undergraduates at McGill undertook a quantitative, spatial, and linguistically-focused survey of stop signs in Montreal, which has become the ongoing Stop: Toutes Directions project.   This sort of work combines the rigor of linguistics and grammatology (the study of writing systems) with the social analysis of archaeology and urban geography and the textual focus of classical epigraphy and semiotics.

For this reason, I was very interested to see in the news that Taiwan is simplifying its romanization of Chinese writing and will be replacing a huge number of public signs.  Essentially, before now, there was no standard way to transliterate Chinese into a Roman script (not to mention the difficulties in transliterating Chinese into Chinese script).  The existence of multiple standards can lead to all sorts of confusion, because, as the article linked above points out, ‘Minquan Road’ and ‘Minchuan Road’ may in fact be the same road named using two different standards.   This Wikipedia article illustrates the enormous difficulties this might present.  The cost of changing signs that are not in the variant chosen as the new standard (hanyu pinyin) will be considerable.

The pinyin system that has been chosen by the Taiwanese government is probably the most common one used today, primarily due to its official acceptance in the People’s Republic of China (i.e. the mainland) since the 50s and internationally since the 70s.  The article presents the most recent Taiwanese reform as one aimed at international visitors / non-native Chinese speakers, and undoubtedly that is part of the answer.  But any change that brings Taiwan closer to China is not only a business decision but also a sociopolitical one.  The article notes, “Ma’s predecessor resisted the writing system to snub China, which claims sovereignty over the self-ruled island, critics say,” which is no doubt another part of the story.   This change in sign policy is part of ongoing tensions between pro-independence and pro-reintegration factions in Taiwan, and such, echoes the sorts of issues that I have witnessed firsthand in Montreal, where sign texts are important subjects of political and social discourse.

These questions, then, cannot be fully separated from issues of language ideology – how particular languages, dialects, and utterances are conceptualized and evaluated (positively or negatively) both by individuals and by institutions.  It will be very interesting to follow this story as the new changes come into effect.

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