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About Jon
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1) using profanity or any euphemisms for profanity
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4) arguing for the sake of arguing
5) discussing politics
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Kuo vs. Guo
2008-04-16 14:09
by Ken Arneson

Ken Arneson jumps over from Catfish Stew to provide this linguistics lesson.

There is some debate in the comments on Dodger Thoughts about whether Hong-Chih Kuo's last name should be spelled/pronounced Kuo or Guo. For those who are interested, I believe I can shed some scientific light on the issue.

First of all, let us begin by stating that there are not two, but three different sounds involved in the discussion. Let us define those sounds using the terminology of linguistic science.

* * *


When linguists describe consonants, there are three primary attributes that they use to distinguish one consonant from another.

Voice: With some consonants, we vibrate our vocal cords, and others we do not. Compare the English sounds of f and v. The only difference between the two sounds is that f is voiceless and v is voiced.

Place: The place of articulation indicates where you restrict the airflow out of your mouth, using either your tongue, lips or teeth. Compare the English sounds of d and g. The sounds are identical except for the location of the tongue in the mouth.

Manner (airflow): The manner of articulation indicates what kind of restriction you are making on the airflow. Compare the English sounds of b and m. Both sounds are made by closing the lips together, but the former temporarily stops the airflow through the mouth, while the latter redirects the airflow through the nasal cavity.

Those are the primary attributes of consonants. There are others. For example, with the manner of articulation called a "stop", there is an additional attribute:

Aspiration: When pronouncing a "stop" consonant, the release of the stop may or may not be followed by a short puff of air. This puff is called "aspiration".

* * *

Now before we move on to the issue of Kuo/Guo, we need to understand one more concept: the difference between phonetics and phonemics.

Phonetics refers to the actual pronunciation of a word. Phonemics refers to our mental classifications of these sounds. Our mental classification affects how we hear a pronunciation.

In English, for example, we use two distinct "k" sounds, but we only hear one. The "k" in the word "kin" and the "k" in the word "skin" are physically different sounds. But we think of them as the same sound.

In other languages, such as Taiwanese, those two "k" sounds are mentally classified as two separate sounds, two different phonemes.

* * *

OK, now to the Kuo/Guo issue. As I said there are three sounds involved in this issue. Here they are, along with their International Phonetic Alphabet symbols:

IPA symbol kh k g
Voice voiceless voiceless voiced
Aspiration aspirated unaspirated unaspirated
Place velar velar velar
Airflow stop stop stop

As you can see, we're dealing with three velar stops. That means that each of these sounds are made by placing the tongue at the back of the mouth, and temporarily stopping the airflow out of the mouth. The differences are in voice and aspiration.

Kuo's name is pronounced with the sound in the middle of these three columns, a voiceless unaspirated velar stop.


English Phonemes

The English language has all three of these sounds. However, we mentally group the voiceless sounds together into one phoneme, spelled in our orthography with the letter "k". Here's a chart of how English speakers mentally organize these sounds:

IPA symbol kh k g
Voice voiceless voiceless voiced
Aspiration aspirated unaspirated unaspirated
Place velar velar velar
Airflow stop stop stop
roman symbol k g

So while the English language does have the sound used in the correct pronunciation of Kuo's name, that sound is never used in this context. English pronunciation "rules" state that when a "k" sound is the first sound in the word and is followed by a vowel, we always aspirate the "k". These rules get hardwired into our brains as we learn our native tongues, and are extremely difficult to override. That's why non-native speakers of languages nearly always speak with an accent.

This gives us hardwired English speakers a choice between two mistakes: we can can choose to incorrectly aspirate the sound (khuo), or we can choose to incorrectly voice the sound (guo). The natural thing for an English speaker to do is to choose aspiration, since we mentally classify the correct sound as a "k".



Mandarin Phonemes

Mandarin Chinese, which I believe is Kuo's native tongue, only has two of these three sounds. It lacks a voiced velar stop. It only has two voiceless ones: aspirated and unaspirated. If a Mandarin speaker hears a voiced unaspirated velar stop such as the English "g" sound, s/he will mentally classify it as being the same phoneme as the voiceless unaspirated velar stop.

And in fact, Pinyin, the most common roman orthography for writing Chinese, uses the letter "g" to symbolize the voiceless unaspirated velar stop.

IPA symbol kh k g
Voice voiceless voiceless voiced
Aspiration aspirated unaspirated unaspirated
Place velar velar velar
Airflow stop stop stop
roman symbol
k g

To a Mandarin ear, when given the choice to incorrectly aspirate the sound or incorrectly voice the sound, the choice is obvious: choose the voice. guo is closer to kuo than khuo, because voice is an irrelevant attribute in this context. Aspiration is the attribute that differentiates the sounds, so that's the most important element to get right.  Even if it's off phonetically, choosing "guo" is choosing the correct phoneme and the correct spelling.



Taiwanese Phonemes

The situation is further complicated, however, in that Kuo comes from Taiwan. 70% of Taiwan residents speak Taiwanese, which is a member of the Sino-Tibetan language family with Mandarin and other Chinese languages. Taiwanese has an important difference from most other members of this language family: unlike Mandarin, and like English, it does have a voiced velar stop.

Unlike English and Mandarin speakers, who mentally cluster these three sounds into two groups, Taiwanese speakers consider these three sounds as three separate phonemes. The most common Taiwanese orthography, POJ, uses "k" to symbolize the sound used in Kuo's name:

IPA symbol kh k g
Voice voiceless voiceless voiced
Aspiration aspirated unaspirated unaspirated
Place velar velar velar
Airflow stop stop stop
roman symbol kh k g

So here's the issue for Kuo/Guo. If he spells his name "Guo", his fellow Taiwanese-speaking, POJ-reading friends will go all up in arms because, well, his name is clearly spelled Kuo and pronounced Kuo. And if you were Kuo, who would you rather keep happy, your fellow Taiwanese, or those dumb Americans who can't say Kuo, only Khuo or Guo?

It may seem easy and obvious just to ask Kuo how he pronounces his name. But who's going to hear his response? If you just sent three reporters in, one English, one Mandarin, and one Taiwanese, to hear him say his name, unless they knew what to listen for, the three reporters are going to have three different interpretations of what they heard. That's how language and the brain works.

Without asking Kuo to settle the issue once and for all, perhaps the optimal solution for English-speaking media is this: spell it Kuo, but pronounce it Guo. Taiwanese ears will be unhappy no matter how we mispronounce it, but at least it'll keep the Mandarin ears happy. And we can make the Taiwanese eyes happy by getting the spelling right, if nothing else.

2008-04-16 14:18:20
1.   kinbote
2008-04-16 14:19:37
2.   JoeyP
Not that the Lakers will have much trouble with either Denver or Dallas, but hopefully they get Denver.

Denver I could see the Lakers sweeping.

With Dallas, it could be a 6-7 game series especially if Bynum doesnt play.

2008-04-16 14:20:02
3.   bhsportsguy
Can the media recognize Taiwanese eyes without some repercussion from the much larger Mandarin eyes contigent?
2008-04-16 14:23:05
4.   TellMeTheScoreRickMonday
Love the article and the dual-post. Thangs a lot!
2008-04-16 14:25:25
5.   Ken Arneson
4 The dual post was unintentional. I originally wrote it on Catfish Stew, but copied it over to DT, but forgot to erase one thing on CS.
2008-04-16 14:25:41
6.   trainwreck
Way to go brain. I always knew it was your fault. I like to try to pronounce names in the way they are supposed to sound, even though I am sure it sounds terrible to native speakers.

BTW, Ken clearly paid attention in college instead of just being intoxicated all the time like many of us. Good job!

2008-04-16 14:27:21
7.   trainwreck
From previous thread:

That is awesome you got to see Pelican. I am lucky enough to have seen them and it was amazing. It was in a large venue though, I would have preferred to see them in a smaller one.

Was it mostly stuff from City of Echoes?

2008-04-16 14:28:58
8.   Brent is a Dodger Fan
I can now say that I cannot pronounce anything, in any language, as this post tied my tongue.
2008-04-16 14:29:20
9.   jasbo
I'd say with Kuo, the more K's the better.
2008-04-16 14:31:09
10.   bryanf
Perhaps I'm opening a can of worms, but where does "Q" fit into this? Remember all the "status kuo" jokes right when he first came up? Maybe it's just me...
2008-04-16 14:31:43
11.   ROC
I'd rather just call him "our 5th starter" for a bit.

How in six degrees of the last thread did Dock Ellis not come up once Tim Leary was mentioned?

2008-04-16 14:33:59
12.   kinbote
DeJesus with three walks from the leadoff spot today for Jax:

2008-04-16 14:34:27
13.   underdog
So how do we pronounce "Hong Chi" for that matter? Xei was intonating that was being mispronounced as well.
2008-04-16 14:36:29
14.   Eric Stephen
Lakers should root for San Antonio to beat Utah tonight, and for Houston and Phoenix to win as well. That will mean Utah & Houston at 4-5, so the Lakers don't have to play both San Antonio and Pheonix (who would meet in round 1 as 3-6).
2008-04-16 14:42:53
15.   Cliff Corcoran
13 Now that we "have" the K/G part, how do you pronounce the "uo" part?

I dunno Gen lost me at "The "k" in the word "kin" and the "k" in the word "skin" are physically different sounds."

Easy for you to say . . .

2008-04-16 14:52:05
16.   Xeifrank
wow, a whole post from the Toaster god himself dedicated to "the cause". I assume I am allowed to post on this topic since the whole thread is dedicated to it. Perhaps the topic will leak it's way into a Dodger's broadcasters ears. Here is your correct pronounciation:
of his last name. I am not arguing that spelling it Kuo is wrong and you will burn in hell for doing so, just that his name is butchered. Actually, all three syllables are, but his last name is what gets mentions the most, so that's where my little battle starts. In Taiwan, when you are a small child you aren't expected to know how to read or write very many chinese characters (if any at all). Taiwan also uses the complex set of chinese characters that often add additional strokes to writing a chinese character. Children also aren't taught how to pronounce words with the english alphabet (Wade-Giles system), they use a system called "Zhuyin fuhao" (also called bopomofo). This zhuyin alphabet has all the Chinese sounds in it. Luckily for western speakers, Wade-Giles and complicated characters have been discontinued in mainland China. Wade-Giles was implemented orginally in China and not in Taiwan. The system was kept in place by the Nationalists after they lost the civil war to Mao. They keep it and the complicated characters mostly because they feel they are upholding the "true" chinese culture. Some differences between the two systems.

Beijing vs Peiking
Qingdao vs Tsingtao
Guo vs Kuo

Niether system is perfect for english speakers, but it isn't hard for a Dodger broadcaster to kindly ask Guo or a Chinese speaking member of the organization, or somebody who speaks a little Chinese, what is the correct way to pronounce his name. The incorrect thing to do imho, is to butcher his name for 2-3 years, then ask him if he minds the way it is pronounced. If you are going to approach him, the correct thing to do is to ask him what is the correct way to pronounce his name.

vr, Xeifrank

2008-04-16 14:53:18
17.   Bob Timmermann
It's scary that I still remember stuff like this from the two linguistics classes I took nearly 25 years ago.
2008-04-16 14:55:21
18.   Ken Arneson
15 In English, we don't aspirate any of our stops after the letter "s".

Kin and skin
Pan and span
Too and stew

In each pair, we let go a puff of air in the first case, and don't in the second case.

2008-04-16 14:57:19
19.   Xeifrank
13. I will try my best at this. I am no phonetics wiz, even in english.

Heck, I will just post how it sounds.


That's just to get the correct sound. Don't worry about the tone.

vr, Xei

2008-04-16 15:00:26
20.   Kayaker7
Very well written. The same sort of mispronunciations occur with Korean names as well. Even the name Korea comes from the Kingdom of Goryo, or Koryo.

While we're on the subject, in Korean, there are actually 4 phonemes in the k/g family. There is the aspirated k sound, and the g sound, but there are two sounds in the middle that are very difficult to describe. One sounds exactly like the Spanish pronunciation of "c," and in Cuba, but the other one has often been described as an unaspirated k sound...but that never was very satifactory for me, as a description. It is sort of a voiced k sound, but Koreans think of it as a g sound.

2008-04-16 15:00:43
21.   Sushirabbit
That was great!
2008-04-16 15:06:40
22.   Ken Arneson
16 All three syllables? I assume you mean sounds.

I could see interpreting the name as either being one or two syllables, but I can't imagine three.

Actually, in that link, it sounds like four sounds to me...there's a glottal stop at the end. We don't have that in English, which would add to the level of "butchery".

2008-04-16 15:13:09
23.   CodyS
Wow, that is quite thorough. Can we have examples of english words that exhibit the sounds mentioned?
2008-04-16 15:13:22
24.   Ken Arneson
20 Here's a chart of Korean phonology:

2008-04-16 15:15:04
25.   underdog
19 Thanks! Now send that to Jon Miller. ;-)

Don't think Rick Monday will care very much, but maybe Charlie Steiner.

I'm saying it like "Haung Zhi Guah," which is at least closer to "right." Just to feel cool.

Now back to editing something in English that needs even more help.

2008-04-16 15:16:41
26.   Ken Arneson
23 Here's a trio of English words with the three sounds:

cool (aspirated, unvoiced)
school (unaspirated, unvoiced)
ghoul (unaspirated, voiced)

2008-04-16 15:20:08
27.   Xeifrank
22. I am referring to his full name
HongZhi Guo

By three syllables, I broke them down by
1. Hong
2. Zhi
3. Guo

I am no phonetics wiz, so if that is more than three syllables then fine. But hopefully, you understand what I was referring to in 16. And yes I know that technically speaking, the last name is pronounced first "Guo HongZhi" :)

vr, Xei

2008-04-16 15:23:30
28.   Xeifrank
22. I'd just be happy with them pronouncing it "Gwo", that gets you 90% of the way there. At the moment they are pronouncing it: Hung Chee Ko
or something very close to that.
vr, Xei
2008-04-16 15:29:16
29.   Xeifrank
Also, the "K" in the Wade-Giles system is not there as a benefit to Taiwanese speakers. Wade-Giles was a mainland China system, developed for the mandarin used in Beijing. vr, Xei
2008-04-16 15:38:09
30.   Ken Arneson
27 Oh, OK, I thought you were just talking about "Guo".
2008-04-16 16:01:03
31.   Xeifrank
30. Sorry for the confusion. Thanks for the indepth and thoughtful post by the way.
vr, Xei
2008-04-16 16:23:01
32.   Andrew Shimmin
On the whole, this sounds like something Mr. Arneson picked up in his mother's basement.
2008-04-16 16:24:49
33.   Ken Arneson
32 It sounds like laundry?
2008-04-16 16:57:12
34.   dianagramr

better than many other things one could pick up in a basement ...

2008-04-16 16:58:19
35.   dianagramr
"You had me at Hong Kuo ..."
2008-04-16 17:41:18
36.   El Lay Dave
Linguistics Thoughts: Thorough, definitive, readable. Awesome. Thanks, I enjoyed the read.

O, Kuo/Gwo is me, To have heard what I have heard, hear what I hear!

2008-04-16 17:58:12
37.   ginocimoli
Coolest thread ever.
2008-04-16 18:19:55
38.   arborial
very informative discussion.

But it still doesn't explain why the heck Jones spells his first name with a "u".

2008-04-16 19:08:50
39.   Andrew Shimmin
33- You "bloggers" think you're so funny.
2008-04-17 11:58:31
40.   johnny24
I don't think the taiwanese language has much to do with the Kuo/Guo question. China and Taiwan just have seperate standards for romanization of their names. taiwan still uses the wade-giles system while china uses pinyin. Much like taiwan's traditional vs. china's simplified chinese or zhuyin vs. pinyin: they are just two different systems.

The romanization system taiwan uses (wade-giles) uses a lot less of letters such as Z and X and J's. For example the surname Xie = Hsieh in taiwan, or Zhang = Chiang. When Taiwanese apply for a passport to travel outside of taiwan, they are automatically given an english name based on the romanization of their chinese names - obviously using wade-giles. Just because China has opted to replace wade giles with pinyin after they won the war doesn't mean that one is superior to the other. Since Hong-chih Kuo is from Taiwan his name is spelled perfectly fine as it is, with the hyphen in between Hong and chih, and the c in chih being lower case as is the standard for most names that come out of Taiwan. His name is therefore not HongZhi Guo as Xeifrank tenaciously keeps on referring him to. Also when we read his last name in chinese (at least in taiwan) we actually do make a harder K sound rather than a softer g sound (in zhuyin/bopomofo this would be ㄍ which has more of a hard k sound than a soft g sound. This website has a table that explains how China and Taiwan romanize the phonetics of zhuyin) In the US this letter K in Kuo is pronounced as the C in candy (kh), as they don't have the same phonetic sound as the ㄍ in their alphabet but for us the k makes more sense as it is closer to ㄍ than g is to ㄍ.

For foreigners guo would be a closer pronunciation than kuo due to the inevitable (Kh) sound they would make by following the latter spelling. However both are not that close to the actual pronunciations at all, especially with regards to the O sounds. Nevertheless Kuo is from Taiwan and the spelling of his name is correct as it is (and not butchered). therefore Mr. Arneson's conclusion seems to be the most optimal one:

"Without asking Kuo to settle the issue once and for all, perhaps the optimal solution for English-speaking media is this: spell it Kuo, but pronounce it Guo. Taiwanese ears will be unhappy no matter how we mispronounce it, but at least it'll keep the Mandarin ears happy. And we can make the Taiwanese eyes happy by getting the spelling right, if nothing else.

Or you could also ask someone who speaks mandarin to read his name out and try your best to emulate it.

Lastly looking at their English surnames is one of the easy ways you can tell the difference between someone from Taiwan and someone from China. I get the impression that many people from China deliberately use their own pinyin spelling on Taiwanese names to make it look as local/same as possible, a psychological element to support their claim on Taiwan, whereas in Taiwan and the US most romanized names from China follow pinyin while those from taiwan follow wade-giles.


2008-08-13 16:17:35
41.   Xeifrank
it's complete b.s. to say that spelling his last name Guo instead of Kuo has something to do with mainland China trying to take over Taiwan. That is just ridiculous.
vr, Xei
2008-08-13 18:21:27
42.   Andrew Shimmin
41- That's not what it means when you do it. It's not impossible (or all that difficult) to interpret it that way if somebody doesn't know why you do it, which nobody who's new here would. It's what I assumed, when the whole thing started.

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