A Closer Look at Pinyin

Chinese and English are two of the most commonly used languages in the world. Beyond this commonality they are quite different, especially when it comes to writing. Like other Western languages English uses an alphabet. Chinese on the other hand uses logograms, which are written characters that represent not only words but also entire phrases.

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You might be surprised to learn that while Chinese uses a different writing system, it doesn’t require a specifically Chinese keyboard to do so. This is accomplished through the pinyin system, which was developed by linguists in the 1950s to standardize the Romanization of Chinese.  This standard was adopted by the ISO (International Standards Organization) in 1982 and by the UN in 1986.

The linguists who developed pinyin likely had no idea what a big role pinyin would play in modern life. Pinyin is now the go to computer input method throughout China and Taiwan since it allows users to input Chinese writing using the Latin keyboard that comes standard on a lot of desktop and mobile devices.

Technology can have a hand in shaping culture. Pinyin played a big role in paving the way to China’s modernization by offering a standard to support intercultural communication. Likewise, technology is still shaping the Chinese language, as young people are reaching back to classical forms to fuel the modern need for speedy communication. This was explained to me recently by WLSA’s very own Myrle de Swart.

“Young people sometimes use classical Chinese expressions when texting. In modern Chinese most of the words have two syllables, two characters, but classical Chinese has one syllable so it’s shorter. They use classical phrases to type so you can say the whole sentence with four characters.” Myrle de Swart Events & Programs Coordinator at WLSA

Myrle knows a thing or two about languages since she speaks nine of them, including her native Dutch as well as English, Chinese, German, French, ancient Greek, and Latin.