How Wade and Giles did a Disservice to the English Speaking World

For many years English speakers have been horribly mispronouncing Chinese words and names. The cause of this: the Wade-Giles system of romanization. I'm sure doctors Wade and Giles had only the best of intentions when they devised this attrocity--and I have no doubt that Linguists think it a masterpiece. But it is because of this system that we are today in such a state of calamity--as Alan Watts described it: "Department of utter confusion!"

So what's the problem?

The problem is that the Wade-Giles system is unintuitive--that is, if you haven't been taught how the system works, you will most assuredly get it wrong. Unless you are completely familiar with how the system works, you will inevitably mispronounce the majority of the words. This is why "tao" is pronounces d-a-oe, and why "T'ai Chi" is pronounced t-ah-ee j-ee. Alan Watts suggested, jokingly, that Wade and Giles set it up this way so that they could easily distinguish scholars from lay people. Later in this page I will show you how the system works, so that you too will be initiated.

Wait, it gets worse.

As if it isn't bad enough that English speakers have to use this misleading system of romanization, now it is becoming intermixed with the new systems. There are other romanization systems which are much more practical. In China, for instance, the Pinyin system is used, which is far more intuitive, mostly using proper English letters for their equivalent sounds. In many books published today, you will inevitably find some Chinese words spelled using the Wade-Giles system, and others spelled using the Pinyin or Yale systems. This happens especially with names. The names of older Chinese people, which were originally rendered with the Wade-Giles, are left that so that people will not get confused. But the names of recent Chinese people were rendered from the start using the Pinyin system, so that even in a book which uses Wade-Giles throughout, these people's names will appear in Pinyin.

Hold on, it gets even worse!

Having a mixture of Wade-Giles and Pinyin within the same book is bad enough, but there's something that is even worse. Many publishers today (aside from not knowing much about Typography, which is an outrage) do not know anything about the various systems of romanization, and so do not know what those apostrophes are for. So, not wanting to fool with them, they leave them out!. Consequently, there is a large amount of books published today which use the Wade-Giles spelling but without the apostrophes! This is a travesty worse that you can imagine. When this is done, even if you do know how the Wade-Giles system works, you still won't be able to figure out how to pronounce the words. Go to any book store and browse through the Martial Arts section. Notice that at least half of the books about Taijiquan (spelled "T'ai Chi Ch'uan" in the Wade-Giles system) actually have it spelled "Tai Chi Chuan"! Not only that, most of them do that to every Chinese word and name throughout the entire book. So the reader--even if he or she knows how to decifer the Wade-Giles code, has a snowball's chance in hell of pronouncing the words correctly.

How the System Works

Instead of just using Roman characters that would approximate the sounds of the Chinese language as closely as possible, Wade and Giles came up with a system that only a Linguist could appreciate. The majority of the confusion lies in the way they rendered the unvoiced consonants (those consonants on which you can't sing a continuous tone). They differentiated the aspirated and unaspirated consonants by using the same characterd, distinguishing them only with an apostrophy, as follows:

Labial Dental Velar Palatal Retroflex Sibilants
Aspirated p'
Pin
t'
Tip
k'
King
ch'
CHin
ch'
CHin
ts' (or tz')
biTS
Unaspirated p
Ball
t
Dog
k
Girl
ch
Joy
ch
meaSure
ts (or tz)
birDS