Inter-area/Border Crossing

Organized Panel Session

4 - Writing Sound in Modern China

Thursday, March 22
7:30 PM - 9:30 PM
Location: Maryland Suite C, Lobby Level

The invention and negotiation of the modern Chinese national language(s) was closely tied to a series of technologies that attempted to write sound, from phonographs to the phonetic alphabet, from musical notation to the speech spectrograph. In this paper, I focus on Chao Yuen Ren—the father of modern Chinese linguistics—and trace his fascination with and journey through sound writing. I explore how phonocentrism brought about the beginning and end of alphabetic universalism and posed serious questions for the modern imagination of linguistic evolution in and outside of China. I first examine two different modern Chinese national languages, for both of which Chao produced phonographs. I then unravel the circumstances surrounding the birth of the Chinese alphabet (Gwoyeu Romatzyh), credited to Chao. A close reading of one of the first primers written in the Chinese alphabet further illustrates how the new Chinese alphabet claims its hold on alphabetic universalism. Finally, I explicate how the international collaboration in search of a universal alphabet moves forward as Chao endorsed the speech spectrograph as a viable path toward “Visible Speech.”

Yurou Zhong

University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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