How are English spellings determined for words from languages with logographic writing systems. Since these don't have an alphabetic script the words in the original language don't have a "spelling." So when originally writing these words in English you cannot simply transliterate character for character such as can be done with, for example, Greek.

Since the original script is usually describing a phonetic syllable (AFAIK) it would make sense when writing it in English to use the appropriate letter or combination of letters for each phoneme. When it is a sound not used in English one would use the closest approximation.

What I'm wondering is how so many far eastern language loanwords and names ended up with such odd English spellings.

Some examples:

Chinese place names beginning with "x" in English. These words are pronounced with an "s" or "sh" sound. How did we end up using an "x" to represent them?

How did feng shui get it's spelling? Most English speakers pronounce it ''fung shway." The e makes sense since the actual pronunciation is more like a "ə" but the "i" at the end makes no sense.

This phenomenon is especially prominent in Korean words and place names. Daehhak-ro is pronounced more like "Tay-on-lo." Cheong-ryang-ri is more like "Tung-yon-lee " These are of course approximated but the spellings seem way off. Even the capital seems oddly spelled. As far as I've ever heard native speakers pronounce it exactly the same as we pronounce the word "soul." Why the extra "e?"

An exception seems to be Japanese. Nearly all Japanese words seem to be spelled just as one would expect. Perhaps Japanese phonemes are closer to English than the other far eastern languages?

If there was a spelling that was retained from the original language, such as for European or Arabic words, it makes sense. Then have to go back to the original language to find out why it has a non-standard spelling. But when the language doesn't have a "spelling" in the phonetic sense of the word why don't we just spell them as they sound?


2 Answers 2


General Remarks

Different languages have different sound systems. So no romanization system can be perfectly faithful to the native language, and at the same time perfectly intuitive to speakers of another particular language. There have to be tradeoffs. In general, any large language not written in the Latin alphabet will have accumulated multiple romanization systems, each designed with different goals in mind.

Chinese, Japanese, and Korean all have more than one romanization system. Standard romanizations for Eastern languages are often designed more for native speakers or second-language learners than for monoglot English speakers. Why English speakers choose to use these standardized but non-intuitive (for them) systems rather than respelling according to English sounds is a different issue. (One factor that possibly contributes to the general preference for not respelling foreign words according to English spelling conventions might be that English spelling doesn't have a very straightforward correspondence to English pronunciation even for native English words.)

The people who choose what system to use in English publications are probably the editors, so I guess you can blame them for these "odd English spellings." (In particular, I'd imagine the most influential editors in this regard are those of news media and dictionaries.)

Standardized romanization systems are also used to some extent in romanization of personal names, in which case the individual might have a preference. But in this case, the preference actually isn't always for the standard romanization -- many Koreans adjust the spelling of their family name to match English better, as in "Park" or "Lee."

Below, I'll discuss some specific languages.


The Pinyin Romanization system is currently standard for Mandarin Chinese. Other systems have been used in the past, however. The Yale Romanization in particular is considered by some people to be more intuitive to untrained English speakers. In the Yale system, we write "feng shwei." But Yale was never very prevalent compared to other alternatives, such as Wade-Giles, that had different oddities of their own (most notoriously, the use of apostrophes to mark aspirated consonants).

Pinyin does make sense, though; it just doesn't follow the same pattern as English sound-spelling correspondences. For example, in "feng shui," the "e" regularly represents a vowel similar to that in English "but" [ə] and the "-ui" regularly represents a sound like that in the English "sway" [wei̯]. Using -ui instead of -uei does seem a little unintuitive, but it saves a letter, and it is not ambiguous because [wi] does not exist as a sequence of sounds in Mandarin. Likewise, the -iu ending represents "yo" /jou̯/ rather than "yoo" /ju/.


Revised Romanization is mostly used, but there are also other systems of romanization for Korean.


The system most used in an English-language context, the Hepburn Romanization, is actually based on English (Wikipedia says it was designed for use in an Japanese-English dictionary). That is probably why you as an English speaker find it the most intuitive.

Some of the other romanization systems for Japanese are designed for native speakers or people familiar with the language, and look "weirder" to monoglot English speakers. Example: Kunrei-Shiki romanization. There are also historical systems that have been used by speakers of other languages, like Portuguese, German and French.


In fact, romanization of Arabic is generally based on the sounds (transcription) as well as the letters (transliteration). Written Arabic normally omits the diacritics that are used to indicate many vowel sounds, but vowels are always included in the romanizations used in English texts.


Actually, Korean, Thai, Japanese, Mongolian and so on all have non-logographic writing systems, so only Chinese fills the bill of having no "spelling". Use of "x" in Pinyin for a palatal sibilant would have come from Portuguese. The details of the history of Pinyin are summarized here, but it would be better to ask on Chinese SE for details about the history of Chinese transliteration. Korean has had a number of transliteration schemes starting with the McCune–Reischauer system, which have been challenging, owing in part to the considerable number of segments that have to be represented. Everybody seems to hate diacritics, so breves on top of vowels are to be avoided; so in the Revised Romanization of Korean, they decided that they could use "eo" to represent schwa, since it wasn't being used.

  • I was not aware that most of the languages had an alphabetic system. Are most English spellings direct transliteration from these alphabets?
    – Tom
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 20:50
  • 1
    For Korean, I think so. For Japanese, I don't think the concept "transliteration" from a syllabary is applicable, but as far as I know, if we extend the concept of "transliteration", a transliteration and a transcription of Japanese kana would be the same thing. Not all non-logographic writing systems are technically "alphabets", e.g. syllabaries and abjads are not alphabets.
    – user6726
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 21:42

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