Mandarin language: 子

Chinese languages can be really simple or frustrating.

One of the often used and easiest word to write in Mandarin is 子. Phonetically notated in pinyin as zǐ (zi3) and others as tze, tzu, tzi. Yes, even the pronunciation for this simple word is quite a challenge. You see, 子 does not exactly have an equivalent consonant and vowel sound in English. The consonant is closer to ch in change with a z thrown in. The vowel part of the word is almost a non-sound. It’s a vowel, nonetheless, and the difficulty has nothing to do with the tonal nature of Chinese languages. Try making a punctured tire sound chssss … and it’s pretty close.

This is the part where I dislike the modern pinyin, though I applaud its attempt to standardise romanisation of pronunciations of Chinese words. The notation zi3 naturally reads as zee with third tonal inflection, which is no where close to the real thing.

The difficulty in transferring this Chinese pronunciation into western language can be seen in the many spellings to approximate this sound, from zi, su, zu, tzu, tse, tze, sze, to tzi. Running the vowels aeiou through my head, I can’t find one that is remotely close, by itself or in combination. I do pity the early translators and anyone trying to learn Mandarin or any other Chinese languages. (Yes, Chinese is not a language, it’s group of people whose ancestors came from a region generally known as China. Mandarin is the official language of PR China.)

Even I have problems trying to figure out what consonants and vowels go together to say the simplest words in Hokkien. I remembered a friend asked me how to say ‘far’ in Hokkien. The Mandarin word is Yuǎn in pinyin, but pronunciation would be closer yien or yen. For the curious, Hokkien ‘far’ is according to my approximation, hnui. Try saying hui and subvocalise n in between, almost like a hum and a bit nasal. This is where I really want to learn the phonetic notations used by Professor Higgins to see if he’s got these troublesome vowels and consonants filed somewhere in there. And I thought pronouncing the clicks of African Khoisan languages was hard.

Anyway, back to 子. Aside from pronunciation, 子 can be appended to many other characters, making its meaning rather abstract. The usual dictionaries lists the meaning of 子 as:
– son
– seed
– person
– egg
– coin
– young
– affiliated (eg subsidiary of a company)

In general, it’s an abstraction of derivative of something. A being or thing. 子 is also used in addressing a person.

The most famous Chinese philosopher, has the western name Confucious. It was actually from the Mandarin 孔夫子 (Kung Fu-zi), which literally means Master Kung. A respectable title for a member of the Kung family. His actual name is 孔丘 (Kung Qiu). In case one is not familiar with East Asian names, Kung is the surname. Qiu is the given name.

I don’t believe in reorganising any culture’s naming convention to fit western template of First name, Middle name(s), Last name(s). However official forms or software tries to contort it, it’s rude and disrespectful. It causes more harm than good. More confusion and clarity. Say NO to dumbing down.

Anyway, to add confusion to Confucius, he is generally addressed as 孔子 (Kung Zi) among native Mandarin speakers. 子 is usually a title given to a sage or philosopher. Here, 子 has been transposed as -cius. Another philosopher that were given this treatment is 孟子 – Meng zi – Mencius.

老子(Lao zi) is a name that shows 子 problem. He is commonly known as the author of Tao Te Ching and considered founder of Taoism. His name has been written as Laosi, Lao Tse, Lao-Tzu, Lao-Tsu, Laotze, Lao Zi, Laocius. His name was one of the reasons I started contemplating the 子. Someone, without telling me he meant  老子, in instant messenger (IM) mentioned ‘Lao Su’. I jumped to the conclusion it was mouse, Mandarin word 老 鼠 (lao shu). Looking at variations of 老子, I’m not surprised by the confusion. Personally, I prefer Lao-tze.

老子 is also an honorific. Literally means Old one or Old Master. Nothing rude about it. Just a term of respect and affection. Notice how this is different from Kung Zi and Meng Zi. Lao means old, not a surname. The actual name or even the actual existence of Lao Zi is a subject of academic debate. He may or may not be an actual single historical figure or a collective of philosophers who wrote and compiled the Tao Te Ching.


Okay, other than Professor Higgins, in the real world, we have the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Which is really interesting and I wouldn’t mind learning how to read it. It is a system to represent spoken sounds of any languages. If you can say any word in IPA, you can pretty much vocalise any language in the world. (It doesn’t mean you’d understand what you’re saying.) Anyway, anyone who knows Mandarin and IPA knows if there is IPA notation for 子?


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