Monday, March 15, 2004

If You've a Date in Peking, She'll Be Waiting in Beijing

Bill Poser of Language Log has an informative post on why there are so many different names for the capital city of China – Peking, Peiping, Beijing, etc. The short version: different names for the same city, different dialects’ pronunciations of the same names, and different romanizations of the same names and pronunciations.

However, none of this answers my question, which is why American journalists and officials have felt the need to keep changing how we refer to this city. With respect to European places, English writers and speakers have felt no special need to update their names or pronunciations to achieve greater fidelity to the names and pronunciations used by the natives. We call Deutschland Germany, München Munich, Firenze Florence, and so on. We write Paris for Paris, but only the pretentious pronounce it “Pair-ee.” So there is a longstanding tradition of using Anglicized place names without apology or correction. But in the case of China, influential people decided to keep changing the name and pronunciation instead of sticking to just one. Why?

Given the perceived need to change the name, I’d also like to know why journalists felt the need to sneak the changes in without notice. I remember when news anchors started talking about some city called “Beijing” in the 1980s, and I remember wondering why this place was important, and whether it was anywhere near Peking. It was a good while before someone explained to me that they were the same place. Somehow I missed the memo. My parents said they could remember the previous change, when Peiping became Peking; they, too, never received notification. Couldn’t journalists at least institute a “phase-in” period during which both names are used?

UPDATE: Answers! But also more questions. Bill Poser emailed me the following:
That's a good question. I suspect that part of the answer is that using Peiping instead of Peking showed that you were a good anticommunist. Peking then resurfaced as virulent anti-communism died down. The change from Peking to Beijing seems less clear. There was, I suppose, an upsurge in interest in China triggered by the US recognition and all, but it didn't in other respects extend to people learning Chinese or becoming all that knowledgable about China, so I don't know why the change occurred.
And then he sent a follow-up:
I asked Bill Bright, a "retired" linguist who is interested in placenames, about the switch from Peking to Beijing. He says that it came about when the Chinese news service, Xinhua, announced that henceforth they would give all placenames in Pinyin romanization. The big western news services decided to follow suit, and so it trickled down. I'm guessing that it was a matter of convenience. If you get an item from Xinhua and want to use traditional names, you've got to have staff who recognize the Pinyin versions and can convert them into the familiar versions. You can't automate this since it isn't just a mechanical conversion from one romanization to another; it requires some fairly knowledgable people and/or reference books. So life is a lot easier if you go along with Xinhua.

On the other hand, it seems to me that news sources haven't done this with complete consistency, especially in the case of personal names. For instance, Sun Yat-Sen is always referred to as such, which is the Cantonese form of his name. A Xinhua item that mentioned him would presumably give his name in the Pinyin romanization of the Mandarin version, which is Sun Yi-Xian. But maybe Xinhua itself uses the familiar forms of the names of famous people in their English service - I'm not sure.
Aha! So there was a memo. I still want to know why American journalists didn't bother to clarify all this for us at the time. But I didn't (and still don't) watch the news every single day, so maybe there was an announcement and I just missed it.

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