Daoism–Taoism Romanization Issue - Phonology of 道 and Its English Approximations

Phonology of 道 and Its English Approximations

Disregarding tone, 道 is pronounced in Standard Chinese. This pronunciation cannot be correctly reproduced by most native English speakers who are unfamiliar with Chinese. The argument between the proponents of Dao and Tao hinges not on which of the two is correct, but which of the two spellings read aloud will better approximate the Chinese.

The initial of tao/dao 道 is a tenuis voiceless alveolar plosive, which is commonly transcribed with the IPA symbol, although some sinologists specify or with the voiceless under-ring diacritic. For example, Jerry Norman (1988:139) explains using for Pinyin d, "The stops and affricates fall into two contrasting series, one unaspirated, the other aspirated. The unaspirated series (b, d, z, etc.) is lenis, and often gives the impression of being voiced to the untrained ear. The second series (p, t, c, etc.) is strongly aspirated."

This tenuis voiceless sound exists in English—but never as an initial in a stressed syllable. It is found instead in words such as "stop" or "pat". An initial t in English, as in "tap", is pronounced —that is, an aspirated version of or, its complementary allophone. The natural English pronunciation of the word spelled Tao is therefore . In standard Mandarin phonology, however, and are not allophonic, but represent two distinct phonemes. In fact, does not merely sound wrong, it sounds like a different word—桃 (Pinyin táo, ) "peach", or 套 "cover" (distinguished by tone).

The alternative English spelling, Dao, results in another mispronunciation, /daʊ/. The initial consonant is, a voiced alveolar plosive. However, is not a phoneme in Mandarin, which has no voiced plosives, therefore the initial voicing of is not significant to the Chinese listener. What is significant is that, unlike the English, is not aspirated in word-initial position. Therefore the English-speaker's /daʊ/ seems more similar to the desired Chinese than the alternative . Only the aspiration is significant to the Chinese listener.

The linguist Michael Carr explains:

The provenance of the pronunciation with of Taoism is a gap in the English phonemic paradigm for the unvoiced unaspirated in dào 'way'. This Chinese /t̥/ phoneme is nearer to the pronunciation of English voiced unaspirated /d/ in Dow than the voiceless aspirated /t/ in Taos, but it is neither. The Chinese aspirated vs. non-aspirated phonemic contrast is almost the opposite of the English voiced vs. unvoiced contrast. In certain positions, English non-aspirated consonants can occur as variants of aspirated ones. Stops after initials in English *e.g., spy, sty, sky) are unvoiced unaspirated and close to the /t̥/ phoneme in 'way', but these are not highly voiced, and the English distinction can be analyzed as one of aspiration, with voicing redundant and predictable. (1990:60)

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