So I'm looking at a bag of "XOCHiTL" corn chips. The bag helpfully provides a pronunciation guide to the name, "so- cheel" with marks to indicate the accent is on the first syllable and long-O sound. So who decided that "X" would used to indicate "S?" How is that transliteration?

While we're at it, the same with Mandarin. President Xi? Why not "She" or "Zhee?"

It seems that phonetic simplicity for English speakers would be the goal of English transliteration.

Thank you.

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    Accuracy might be a more important goal. Xi is really not read like Shi or Zhi (and this is without even mentioning that pinyin is not aimed at English speakers at all) – Denis Nardin Apr 23 '20 at 19:41
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    They aren't English transliteration: they are Latin alphabet transliteration. Would you want the Chinese to have separate spelling rules for English, German, French, Italian, and so on? – jick Apr 23 '20 at 19:52
  • @jick Actually languages in the Latin alphabet to have separate spelling rules. Deng Xiaoping, Deng Xiaoping, Deng Šjaoping, Deng Syaopin.... And not just for Chinese. More examples at github.com/deepchar/entities. Xochitl just isn't English. – Adam Bittlingmayer Apr 24 '20 at 6:11
  • I speak Romance languages and the transliterations often work pretty well if you know the pattern. E.g., Jinping is like that because the jiN is a /n/ but the piNg is a /ŋ/, the g is there likely because ŋ is not Latin therefore it can't be used. So it is more, as usual, an English language problem. But idk why this question got downvoted since downvotes are used for sloppy/dishonest questions. It seems to be a readable and legit inquiry to me. – user22430 Apr 24 '20 at 7:57

Transliteration is converting letters of one alphabet to those of another: you can transliterate Latin into Arabic, Arabic into Ge'ez, Ge'ez into Devanagari and Devanagari into Cyrillic. You don't transliterate Russian into Ukranian or Tajik. Modern Meso-American writing systems are Latin-based so they don't require transliteration into Latin (they are already there). But: even though you know the (vast majority of the) alphabet they use in Somali, Shona, Saami and Albanian, you have only a poor idea how words would be pronounced – you still have to know the special rules to pronounce tsv, c, dj, xh in a way that resembles the pronunciation in the original language. The rationale for seemingly crazy spelling systems is often lost in the mists of history, but in the case of Somali, Shona and Saami, the goal was to limit the number of special characters used in the alphabet – none at all in the case of Somali and Shona. Therefore, Somali spells [ʕ] as "c" (note how the letter resembles the phonetic symbol). Zulu / Xhosa etc. have a large collection of clicks and rather than litter writing with those exotic symbols, they use "x,c,q" which are otherwise unused, to denote clicks. That means that to pronounce a hypothetical string "cisa", you have to know whether it is Zulu (dental click), Somali (voiced pharyngeal approximant) or Saami (alveolar affricate), and how "c" is pronounced in those languages.


For some of these languages, it's not transliteration, it's just how the language is written! Very few Mesoamerican languages were ever written in anything except the Latin alphabet, and nowadays it's (as far as I know) completely universal. So the goal of the spelling xochitl is to make sense to Nahuatl-speakers, not to English-speakers.

For other languages, like Mandarin, the goal is to represent all the sounds of the language unambiguously in the Latin alphabet. Mandarin has two sounds that are fairly similar to the English "sh", and the difference between them is important (see the comments for examples). So one of them is transliterated as sh, the other as x, to preserve that distinction.

As for why x was chosen for that sound in Nahuatl in the first place—the modern Nahuatl orthography is descended from systems invented by Spanish-speaking colonizers. And at that point, Spanish had a sound very close to English "sh", spelled with an x (as in Old Spanish baxo "low", which became Modern Spanish bajo). So when the conquistadors needed a way to spell a similar sound in Nahuatl, they used the letter they were familiar with.

P.S. I'm assuming the chips are named from the Nahuatl word xōchitl "flower"; the Classical Nahuatl pronunciation would be something like "SHOH-cheet". That's why I talk about x being pronounced like English "sh".

  • I do not actually agree that the distinction between pinyin x and sh is "important". They can be seen as allophones of the same phoneme in different contexts. Pinyin is not really well thought out phonologically. – fdb Apr 23 '20 at 20:24
  • @fdb Huh, I thought they were distinct phonemes? But I know almost nothing about Mandarin phonology (except that it has the interesting analysis with two vowels and a bunch of glides) so I'll defer to your knowledge there. – Draconis Apr 23 '20 at 20:25
  • (Removed the comment about that, now it just says there's a distinction, not an important one.) – Draconis Apr 23 '20 at 20:26
  • @fdb They only work as allophones if you accept vowelless syllables, and that these only occur specifically with dental and postalveolar fricatoids, which is not a foregone conclusion. Given the isolating nature of the language, it really doesn’t make any sense to say that Pinyin isn’t well thought out phonologically, since phonetic transparency is by definition going to be more relevant than morphemic transparency. Having allophones written differently really has no disadvantages in a language like Mandarin. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 23 '20 at 22:20
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    @Draconis The distinction is important. Pronouncing the wrong sound can change the meaning. They are only allophones at an analytic level. Phonetically, the only difference between 小 xiǎo [ɕa̠ʊ˨˩˦] and 少 shǎo [ʂa̠ʊ˨˩˦] is the quality of the initial consonant. Phonemically, they may be analysed as /ʂjaw/ and /ʂaw/ and in complementary distribution, but phonetically, there are many minimal pairs that make the distinction important. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 23 '20 at 22:29

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