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I am working on an art project that I would like to collect the hundreds of different transliterations of 「中文」 zhōng wén in Mandarin Chinese. (Pronunciation available here: https://translate.google.com/#zh-CN/de/中文)

How can I transliterate zhōng wén in Latin? (For example, "zhong wen" would be the closest pronunciation in English.)

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  • Something to consider: Latin doesn't have just "wen" pronunciation. As Latin is an international language, every nation/language has its own pronunciation of Latin; and there is also a reconstructed classical pronunciation—a scholarly guess about Ancient Roman pronunciation. The pronunciations are not very different, though, as you can see here.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Jun 11, 2017 at 11:59

3 Answers 3

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Chinese contains many sounds without Latin equivalents. These include (Pinyin) zh and ng, and the tones. So it comes down to how you'll approximate those.

  • zh is /ʈʂ/, a retroflex affricate. Latin didn't have any affricates at all pronounced in that area of the mouth; while /ks/ and /ps/ were allowed, */ts/ couldn't occur in Classical Latin. So a Roman might have transcribed it as TS, or possibly as D, T, or simply S.
  • ong is /ʊŋ/. While /ŋ/ doesn't occur on its own in Classical Latin, /ʊ/ does: a short U.
    • The closest equivalent for /ŋ/ is probably a simple N.
  • wen is /wən/. The closest thing to a schwa in Latin was probably the unstressed I/U in OPT[I/U]MUS, which Claudius tried to add a new letter for.

So a Roman might transcribe this as TSUN VIN, SUN VUN, TUN VIN, etc.

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    "A Roman might transcribe this as...." - but only if this old Roman miraculously foresaw how it would be pronounced in 2000 years' time. But what if he was transcribing the then current Old Chinese pronunciation?
    – fdb
    Mar 30, 2017 at 22:54
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    @fdb A very good point. I figured Lun was working from present Chinese pronunciation since 2000 years ago they might be considered different words. (And also since I have no idea how to pronounce Old Chinese.)
    – Draconis
    Mar 30, 2017 at 22:55
  • +1 good points! Two ideas: 1) ung is not too far from nasalised u, which is (probably) -um (!) 2) since the question doesn't specify, I feel urged to say that c before e and i had a sound pretty close to zh in early medieval and maybe even post classical times
    – Rafael
    Mar 31, 2017 at 0:33
  • I thought ŋ was clear from -ng-, such as angelos for the Greek ἄγγελος? And listening to the pronunciation of 中文, to me the vowel in 文 was clearly an E, less so a schwa, but maybe the person pronouncing it really emphasized the vowel.
    – cmw
    Mar 31, 2017 at 0:49
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    @Rafael Excellent points! Would you like to write that as another answer? I'd be interested in seeing how a Mediaeval traveller might have transcribed this, as opposed to an Augustan-age Roman.
    – Draconis
    Mar 31, 2017 at 1:57
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Actually zhong wen isn't the closest in English. Though that is the official transliteration, Pinyin wasn't created solely from English pronunciation. In English, it would be something like "jong wen."

Unfortunately, Classical Latin does not have the zh (ch in Wade-Giles, the j I listed above) sound, nor the ʃ (sh) sound, so any attempts would be an approximate.

Without trying to "Latinize" it, just pure representation, I'd offer: ZONGVEN.

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    It might be worth looking at how medieval travelers represented Chinese names and sounds.
    – brianpck
    Mar 30, 2017 at 20:16
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    @brianpck Medieval Latin definitely had the appropriate sounds, but the texts aren't very accessible. I've seen China and Sina both in Matthew Ricci's book on China, so I assume you could probably find something more comparable. My answer was strictly for Classical Latin, though I see now I should make that clear.
    – cmw
    Mar 30, 2017 at 21:03
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    @brianpck or for anyone else: De christiana expeditione apud Sinas
    – cmw
    Mar 30, 2017 at 21:07
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I think cmw's answer above is on the right track, but Draconis is right about the -ong, so I would consider ZVNGVEN the closest that can be expressed in Latin.

Of course, this is based on the modern pronunciation. The transcription of the corresponding Old Chinese words are given as *trjuwngH *mjun by Baxter & Sagart in "Old Chinese - a New Reconstruction". (Try pronouncing that!) OK, I'll take a stab - TRVGMIVN

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