Zhou Youguang, the inventor of a system to convert Chinese characters into words with the Roman alphabet, died Saturday at the age of 111. Since his system was introduced nearly six decades ago, few innovations have done more to boost literacy rates in China and bridge the divide between the country and the West.
Pinyin, which was adopted by China in 1958, gave readers unfamiliar with Chinese characters a crucial tool to understand how to pronounce them. Without such a system, they do not readily disclose information on how to say them aloud. With the advent of Pinyin, those characters more easily and clearly yielded their meaning when converted into languages like English and Spanish, which use the Roman alphabet.
For Chinese speakers, many of whom speak disparate dialects, the standardization also made education easier, giving instructors a single, relatively simple instrument to teach people how to read.
Beyond China's borders, Pinyin allowed the standardization of Chinese names. For instance, it's a big reason why the name Westerners commonly use for the Chinese capital shifted from "Peking" to "Beijing." And it's why many other such names changed dramatically along with it.
And yet Zhou, the man behind one of the most important linguistic innovations in the 20th century, said he was reluctant when asked by the Chinese government to take on the task in the mid-1950s.
At the time, he was an economic scholar, only recently returned to China after a stint working on Wall Street in the U.S. He had come back to the country after its 1949 Communist revolution.Read More...
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