How to Say Xi JINping? Think Bobby JINdal

By James Fallows

[Please see UPDATE below.] If you're anything like me, you were certainly glued to CCTV late last night -- mid-day Thursday Beijing time -- to see the exciting unveiling of the seven members of the new Standing Committee of the Politburo:

communist-party-china-congress-xi-jinping.jpg

And I'm sure that, like me, you're hoping that when it comes to the name of the new paramount Chinese leader, Xi Jinping (习近平), we can avoid the unfortunate mistake many Americans have made with the name of his capital city.

As I have pointed out, oh, a time or few (here, here, here, here) the jing in "Beijing" is pronounced essentially like the jing in "Jingle Bells." As opposed to the Frenchified zh- sound, as in "leisure" or "beige," that many American announcers prefer, perhaps on the theory that all foreign languages really should sound like French.

The Xi- sound in the new president's family name doesn't really exist in English, so for us it's worth sticking with the closest approximation: simply she, as in "he and she."* But we can avoid the zh- trap with his personal name. It's Jinping, as in Bobby Jindal, not some fancy Zhinping exoticism. I mention it because the last half-dozen TV and radio mentions I've heard of his name all went down the lamentable Gallic zh- road.

See, wasn't that easy?
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* Or, according to some Chinese people who have written in, more like see. The pronunciation of these initial q- x- sh- s- sounds varies in different parts of China. And in any case -- trust me -- English speakers are going to have a very hard time hearing the distinctions or reproducing them, since these are phonemic differences that don't match those in English. She, see -- whatever, the point is to say JIN.

UPDATE. A reader sends this message:

I'm In Beijing right now and while taking the subway yesterday I noticed that the English announcement of 北京站 on the subway pronounced 京 as zhing. [ 北京站 is "Beijing Station" and 京 is "Jing."]

Maybe it's time to admit defeat on this one. :-)

Probably true. I should save my energy for boiled frogs.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/11/how-to-say-xi-jinping-think-bobby-jindal/265271/