The Saga of the U-less Q

It never fails. If I give a non-qigong-doer one of my “Qi Frontier” business cards, he or she will peer at the card, begin to say “kw”—and then stop.

The “q” in qi should be followed by a “u,” but it is not, and u-less q’s simply cannot be pronounced within the rules of the English language.

I’m learning to point and say “Qi Frontier” as I present my card, but there’s no getting around the fact that a “q” followed by an “i” is a real stopper—and not just for people trying to decipher my business card.

Why, then, did I choose “qi” and “qigong” over “chi” and “chi-gung,” which are obsolete but easier-to-pronounce spellings of the Chinese words for “life energy” and “life energy cultivation”?

A number of well-known writers have stuck with “chi” and “chi-gung”; one prominent writer has adopted “qigong” but refers to that which is being cultivated as “chi.” These practices may seem to serve readers, but I believe they’re a mistake; it’s time to move on.

“Qi” and “qigong” are the correct spellings, according to the pinyin system of writing Chinese words using Latin letters. Pinyin was adopted by the Chinese government in 1958 and was subsequently endorsed by the United Nations, the Library of Congress and other eminent organizations—which made Wade-Giles and other systems of romanization obsolete.

I used to think that pinyin was a really poor attempt at making the Chinese language accessible to westerners; the letters were the same, but many of them, like q, made different sounds. (In truth, what I really thought, without thinking enough to step out of my English-centrism, was that pinyin was a poor attempt at making Chinese accessible to people who spoke English.)

However, when it adopted pinyin, the Chinese government wasn’t trying to make Chinese easy for English-speakers or even for westerners in general; it adopted pinyin because it was striving to improve literacy and because it wanted to teach standard Chinese pronunciation to the millions of Chinese who spoke mutually unintelligible dialects.

Unlike the letters of our Latin-based alphabet, the components of Chinese characters are not phonetic: You can’t “sound out” a character; you just have to know what it means. Two people who spoke different dialects might recognize a character and agree on its meaning—but they might pronounce it completely differently.

It’s also worth noting that English-language letters like c, q, x and z may have very different sounds in pinyin—but they may also have different sounds in other western languages. And for whatever comfort this may bring, according to Wikipedia, “q” sounds the same in pinyin and Albanian.

Ultimately, it seems to me that if the Chinese government says the word for life energy should be spelled “qi,” and the United Nations, the Library of Congress and others agree, it is not only wrong but disrespectful to spell it “chi”—just as it would be disrespectful to spell Barbra Streisand’s name “Barbara” just because, in your opinion, that’s how it should be spelled.

What’s more—I’m getting on my soapbox here!—I believe that the words “qi” and “qigong” are significant enough for English-speakers to bite the bullet and learn how to pronounce them from their proper spellings. No one would suggest writing the French expression “c’est la vie” as “say lah vee.”

There is a fringe benefit for us English-speakers in learning the proper spellings of “qi” and “qigong”: Once you really get that the letter “q” says “ch” in Chinese words, it becomes easier to read books, newspaper articles and movie subtitles with names of Chinese people and places.

Now we need to find ways to learn c, x and z….


Filed under About this blog, Cultural Qi

3 responses to “The Saga of the U-less Q

  1. Dave Sinclair

    Thanks Barbara. This piece clears up some use of language I’ve long been curious about.

    Also, as I’m sure we are all aware, Pinyin and/or Tea Party’ers not withstanding, languages evolve over time. The English language for example has a rich history of evolution….driven by everyday popular usage!

  2. So….if the Tea Party seizes control of Congress and passes a law that says, “The language spoken in America shall be known henceforth as ‘American,'” you would defend that for the sole reason that the American government “said so”? 😉

    • If the law had been in effect for 50-plus years, as pinyin has been, I think so. (I’d use an emoticon here, only darned if I know where you get them in WordPress. I don’t even know if I should sign my name now, since yours is the first comment I’ve replied to, but this is Barbara.)

      PS Of note, or perhaps not: I will not be mounting a campaign to get restaurants to refer to “Peking Duck” as “Beijing Duck.”

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