Now that’s what I call great use of linguistics …

by Richard Coates

It’s a moment to remember with gratitude the Chinese scholar Zhōu Yǒuguāng, who died on 14 January at the astonishing age of 111 years and 1 day – perhaps the oldest person ever who is famous for something in addition to being improbably old. He was originally a banker and agricultural policy economist, but had an interest in linguistics from his student days. He is the scholar behind the Hànyǔ Pīnyīn system, which is now universally used for writing Mandarin in roman characters (as exemplified in the names above). It took him three years, at the head of a small team. The original intention was to create a pronunciation guide for traditional Chinese characters, with a view to raising literacy standards in China, which was praiseworthy enough, but the project took off into something of far greater and more permanent significance. The Chinese government adopted Hànyǔ Pīnyīn (usually called just Pīnyīn (Pinyin) by foreigners) as its preferred romanization system in 1958, eight years before the contemptible and disastrous social experiment of the Cultural Revolution (1966-75), during which this distinguished man was marked out for “re-education” and spent two years in a labour camp. Since then, after his rehabilitation (i.e. return to normality) Pīnyīn was adopted by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in 1982, and by the United Nations in 1986. Not content with this major success, in the 1980s, he was part of a team which translated Encyclopedia Britannica into Chinese (for newcomers to the world, that’s an early form of Wikipedia without the wiki element). Zhōu, a Marxist from his early adulthood, had worked abroad until the Communist revolution of 1949, at which point he returned to China. He continued to be a measured critic of Chinese government policy in his retirement, and a number of his books are currently banned in China.

Did you know, by the way, that another famous Chinese linguist, Zhào Yuánrèn (known in the West as Yuen Ren Chao), coined the word stir-fry in a book devoted to publishing his wife Yáng Bùwěi’s recipes? No? Well, you do now.

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