What is the Bopomofo Chinese Alphabet?
The Bopomofo Chinese alphabet is a phonetic
alphabet used to write standard Mandarin Chinese.
It can be correctly called an “alphabet”,
unlike Chinese characters, because each symbol
represents a sound. The Bopomofo alphabet is
more formally called Zhuyin Fuhao. The nickname
“Bo-po-mo-fo” refers to the first
four sounds of the Chinese phonetic alphabet.
The Bopomofo alphabet consists of thirty-seven
symbols. The symbols are simplified variants
of ancient Chinese characters. There are twenty-one
symbols used to represent consonant sounds and
sixteen symbols used for vowel sounds.
The Bopomofo alphabet was first released in
1913. It is based upon shorthand created by
Zhang Binglin. In 1930 it was renamed Zhuyin
Fuaho. Today it is mostly referred to as Bopomofo
or simply Zhuyin.
The Bopomofo alphabet is used mainly in Taiwan.
Before language reform in China, Bopomofo was
also used there. Since 1949, however, the use
of the Pinyin alphabet has superseded the use
of the Bopomofo alphabet in China.
The main purpose of the Bopomofo alphabet in
Taiwan is educational. It is used to teach standard
Mandarin pronunciation to elementary school
students. Texts in all subjects, including Mandarin,
are entirely in Bopomofo for the first few school
years. Bopomofo is then replaced by the Traditional
Chinese characters. Bopomofo is also a useful
alphabet for entering information into computers
and cellular phones.
There have been many different alphabets devised
over the years to phonetically write Chinese.
The Bopomofo alphabet does a very good job to
accurately and efficiently accomplish this.
For that reason it could be a worthwhile alphabet
to know for anyone wishing to study Chinese.
Bearing no resemblance to Roman letters, the
symbols can subconsciously minimize the tendency
to compare Chinese sounds with English sounds.
Naturally, this tendency depends on the individual,
and this is, perhaps, a minor argument in support
of learning the Bopomofo alphabet.
The Bopomofo alphabet does not offer some of
the advantages that the Pinyin alphabet does.
Many more products and learning materials are
available in Pinyin in China and on the internet.
In Taiwan there has been discussion about replacing
the Bopomofo alphabet with a pinyin alphabet.
The biggest obstacle to this transition has
been the teachers’ own lack of familiarity
with any pinyin writing system. In general,
if you hope to use a phonetic alphabet for writing
Chinese in Taiwan, you will need to learn the
Bopomofo alphabet, as the majority of Taiwanese
people will not know Pinyin. The opposite is
true in China.