Blog, Language

Taijquan or Tai chi Chuan: code switching and martial art  

I read a nice article today by Gene Ching, of Kung Taichi Magazine Fame, over on the YMAA website.  He speaks about the confusion that faces westerners in the naming and language issues that are present in Chinese martial arts, highlighted by the term Taijiquan. Or Tai Chi Chuan. Or T’ai Chi Ch’uan. Or how ever you have come to know the art of 太極拳. He details a bit about the differences in English and Chinese, the difference between Cantonese and Mandarin, but mainly it centers on the romanization systems used to present these words in English or another alphabetic language and the problems they present to English speakers. 

These are indeed prevalent concerns, but it dovetails into another interesting topic of code switching and the movement of words between languages. The issue of code switching is most often expressed in arguments over ‘proper pronunciation’ of words used during conversation. I am not speaking of scenarios where one is learning Mandarin as to speak it with native speakers. I am only referring to our conversations in English where we are forced to use Chinese terms in conversation with non Chinese speakers. Names, arts, techniques, styles, and the like all require us to switch languages for a moment as we speak. When most English speakers do this, there is a wide range of pronunciations that could be produced. There are several reasons for this, which I will detail, but it does raise the question, “What is correct pronunciation outside of the language?”.

Code switching in linguistics is a fascinating and deep subject. And there are many theories, interpretations and applications of the phenomena that out of the scope of this piece. There are many types of code switching and many reasons for doing so, but I will focus on the one that is most common with martial artists. The interjection of words from the language of the martial art into English utterances. This being done by both English speakers and native speakers of the language in question, in this case, Mandarin Chinese. 


The first issue non Chinese speakers/readers encounter in the learning of a Chinese martial art, is one of romanization systems. Since the Chinese written language is logographic, using images to represent full morphological units instead of letters that create words, it requires a way to write the phonetics in alphabetic languages. For English this is the Roman alphabet, hence the term; romanization. Any type of writing system is going to be imperfect in representing the sounds of the language it is trying to replicate, but using a system that is foreign to the language, these miscues become quite frequent. Never the less, it must be done. 

There are two main systems used today among the Chinese Martial Art community here, in the US; Wade-Giles and Pinyin. The Wade-Giles system has been the standard for a while in the Us and Europe. But in the later part of the 20th century, the Chinese standardized a romanization system called Pinyin. This system while, not as intuitive for English speakers, is more reliable as it is a maintained standard that is relatively unchanging. I tend to favor Pinyin on the blog as they are often more stable transliterations. As far as pronunciation of the Chinese words by non-speakers, these two systems play a crucial role. 

An exhaustive investigation of this topic is out of my scope right now, but a little example is in order. Gene’s piece about 太極拳 provides a perfect one (please check it out). Wade-Giles romanizes it as “Ta’i Chi Ch’uan”. This was the first way it was written in the west. Therefore, it is the most recognizable spelling. And the intuitive reading of this for most English speakers is “Tie Chee Chwahn”.  The phonetic pronunciation for the majority of native Mandarin speakers is closer to “Tie Jee Chwen” (tʰài tɕíː tɕʰʷǽn in API The Pinyin makes a distinction between the two sounds in “Taijiquan”, the “ch” sound becoming a “q” and the hard “j” sound becomes “j”. 

Hand to Mouth

Ok, we have two methods of romanization producing two different spellings for the same term. Neither of them are exact in their phonetic representation, and each has pros and cons separate to those concerns. Simply put, both spellings leave something to be desired in being accurate representations as to what the words sound like in Mandarin. But this is a common bug to writing systems. Most writing systems are secondary codes, meaning they represent another code instead of the information that is encoded. So there is an extra step in understanding; one must first read and create a verbal utterance from the encoded message before understanding the message. It is that verbal utterance which is the true language that encodes the information. Even within a language, there are written conventions that are arbitrary, or representing something that is not shared in other languages. These will often be confounding to readers. Especially when they are mixed in with another language as is the case with so many martial arts discussions. 

This means that these words from, in our case Mandarin, are being read by different people who all have different expectations as to what it should sound like. And this is fundamental to the problem. The way consonants and vowels are pronounced in English is different than in Mandarin. Such of this is due to things called voicing and aspiration in speech. Looking at the letter “j” and “ch” in the two variations of 太極拳 give a good sample. The “j” and “ch” sounds are often difficult for English speakers. The sound is more like the “j” in the tongue and mouth, but unlike in English, it is not voiced. Often English speakers will voice a bit behind the aspiration. Making it sound a bit like “juh” instead of the “dɕ” or “ji’” sound. And of course, we still have tones in Chinese to deal with as well as regional dialects in both languages. Simply imagine a thick Jersey accent on Tai Chi Chuan and know that there are equivalents in Chinese languages as well. For example, I still pronounce many words in Mandarin with my teacher Gabriel’s specific Shandong accent which differs in some ways from the conventional classroom Mandarin.

Lexical borrowing

Words like deja vu, adios, spaghetti, and hamburger are all words in English that have been acquired through lexical borrowing. They are all from other languages yet are no longer pronounced or conjugated in the same way as in their native tongue. When a word or phrase become so well used within a language group, that word tends to then start to conform to the syntax and grammar of the main language, in this case, English. While these words are still found in the source languages, when English speakers use them, they tend to use them with English rules and pronunciation. The words are so common that such changes are understood widely by English’s speakers even if the origin of the word is not known. 

There are a few words in Mandarin that have achieved this status in American English. Kung Fu, Tai Chi, and any of the ‘-isms’ are all now loan words from Mandarin, and in some cases, Cantonese. That means that they are now obeying English rules for how they are used in conversation. And most of this relates to spoken language. The rules are more malleable in the written form. This includes rules for conjugation, pronunciation, and prosody, the non linguistic aspects of speech like tone and pitch of voice and inflection. What this means in real terms is that it will use English phonetics (sounds) for pronunciation, drop the Chinese tones and use English inflections as one would a proper noun in English. There are definable characteristics that are shared between speakers of English of these words, so that the same (mis)pronunciation becomes the standard. Kung Fu is pronounced with the hard ‘K’ sound although the word is pronounced with a sound closer to ‘G’. Since it has been written with the ‘K’ for so long, English speakers adopted a pronunciation that is closest to the English reading of those letters. The same holds true for Tai Chi. 

How concerned should we be?

Before we get too far in the weeds let’s reign it in to the original topic, how important is it to pronounce Chinese terms while speaking English? This depends on many factors. Who your audience is, how they tend to understand these terms, and if the term is still only a source language word or it has been borrowed. In some cases, we aren’t code switching at all but using a borrowed term. 

As much in linguistics and language, it comes down to context. If you are not a Mandarin speaker and are taking Tai Chi, Kung Fu or some other form of Chinese practice, try to follow the teacher and/or the other students in pronunciation. Even if it is not correct, it forms a common understanding within the group. Many teachers understand that English speakers will refer to things with a “western” influence and all that I have known were tolerant of any attempt at correct pronunciation. As with anything, it will improve with time. Names and other such things will usually be agreed upon by the teacher. If your teacher is Chinese, simply follow their direction and preferences. 

For those who are learning or speak Mandarin and are in mixed company with non speakers, the are a few suggestions worth noting. First, don’t put so much overt emphasis on the correct way of saying a particular word or phrase. While it is often infuriating to one’s ear to hear particular mispronunciations, understand that in a class context communication is the most important thing. And that is true for language in general. The reason we can still understand each other when we mispronounce things is a feature, not a bug. Throwing too much detail for people who are not primarily concerned with such things can be a turn off for the whole experience. 

SNL sketch about the perils of too much code switching.

Anyone that speaks more than one language has their own pet peeves of mispronunciation. Even those of us as we are learning new languages can easily fall into such patterns. But language its self is not a system of perfection. The mistakes and miscues that we make while speaking, the changes to our words through the years, and the contact with other languages and different ways of stating things are all the main mechanism of language. It is one of the most amazing things about language, that it can be understood even when it is being approximated, twisted, mispronounced, and garbled. 

Language has one purpose; to communicate information between humans. As long as that is being accomplished, everything else is pretense. While we all must agree on certain rules for language to be effective, and our listener must understand our speech well enough to glean these things, there are no absolutes when it comes to how we speak to each other. It is natural for us to want to correct mistakes we see or hear, and it is also natural for us to wish to be pronouncing things correctly. Not just to be understood, but to be accepted by our listeners. 

Language is a form of communication. Communicate in anyway you are able. Most people will appreciate your attempt. But be patient with others and understand that this stuff is very fluid. What is right today, can be wrong tomorrow. So relax, and do what my teacher used to say; enjoy the confusion! 

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