A new phonetic writing system

Written by Julen Madariaga on September 26th, 2009

The other day I saw a tourist bus from Nanjing that caught my eye. On one side the name of the travel company was written in Chinese characters, and below it there was a text written in a mysterious language:


Initially I thought it must be Uyghur, but then I realized the combination of letters was bizarre even for that language, and it led to some diabolical phonetics. A satanic chant? A magic formula? After a while I was too curious to leave, so I had to ask the tour guide who was sitting inside.

Can you guess the language before you continue?


It is easier to see with the picture. Simple: it is just a new brand of phonetic writing called reverse pinyin. It is used with characters when they are written right to left, usually for coolness, or else for easy reading when on the side of a public transport. In the boring, out-dated pinyin that they teach in school, it looks something like this:

“Nanjing hengtian lvyou youxian gongsi”

(Nanjing Hengtian travel Co. Ltd.)

What I found most interesting is that to the guide, and also to my Chinese friend, it didn’t look weird at all. It was unusual perhaps, like right to left characters, but not striking to the eye.

Which made me think that people brought up in Chinese characters must read letters in a different way than us. We see “Ehciq” and picture it as a whole, very weird word that is even scary to pronounce. The Chinese read that rather as 5 separate characters E-H-C-I-Q, which can be mentally processed without difficulty no matter the direction of the text…

Any ideas?

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Sep

    You are reading too much into this. This reversed pinyin is supposed to go with the Chinese text which in this case runs from right to left. Whoever put the pinyin in this way must have thought that alphabet speaking people are also used to reading from right to left, letter by letter! This says a lot about their ignorance, rather than a new phonetic writing system.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Sep

    Haha, yes, of course it is ignorance. The rules of pinyin clearly state that it should be written left to write, and Chinese learn this at school.

    Still, I find it interesting that when most Westerners see the “Isgnog naixuoy …” message above, they find it very strange and cannot understand what it is, whereas Chinese people get it almost immediately.

    I guess Chinese instinctively turn the letters around in their head, because they are used to interpreting characters in any direction. We tend to see the whole word “Isgnog” as a word, and unless we think of it, we do not naturally turn it around into “gongsi”

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Sep


    This may not be the same thing you are talking about. But try reading this:

    “Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm.”

    Source: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2591/is-it-possible-to-be-dyslexic-in-chinese

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Sep

    Yeah, I was actually thinking of that kind of tests. There are many similar ones, proving that we read by looking at the whole shape of a word, and not each of the separate letters. So, for example “Uinervsty” looks almost like “University”, but “Ehciq” does not look at all like “Qiche”, it looks just weird and we start thinking this must be a very strange language.

    Unless, of course, you read it looking at the letters one by one, as if they were Chinese characters. Which would explain why non-educated Chinese understand the message
    “ISGNOG NAIXUOY EHCIQ UOYVL NAITGNEH GNIJ NAN” immediately, whereas educated Chinese or foreigners tend to have more trouble.

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Sep
    Fons Tuinstra

    You would see a variation of this in traffic, where those letters are focusing on car drivers who would see it through their rear mirrors. For example, ambulances have it on the front of their car. But then, you would also have to mirror the letters itself and putting it on the side would be very weird.
    Looks like somebody who must have seen that system, but did not really get it.

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. Sep

    I immediately realised this is reversed pinyin, but I doubt there is difference between Chinese and Westerners though. I got it because the Chinese characters are also written from right to left.

    Actually I didn’t notice “isgnog” bit at all. My attention was drawn to “naixuoy” as it looks more like a system I’m familiar with.

    It’s more of a force of habit, as a Chinese educated in mainland China, I usually find it very difficult to read materials written from right to left. A single line like the picture above should be alright, but reading a whole book written in “reversed” direction is a nightmare for me.

    [Reply to this comment]

  7. Oct

    My greatest problem with Chinese has been and probably always will be this: reading and writing are much moredifferent things in Chinese than they are in a language which uses a phonetic script. I can recognise plenty of characters and can read newspapers etc. with on;y a bit of difficulty, but when it comes to picking up a pen I find myself hopelessly lost. It doesn’t help that I do all my writing on a computer, and type Chinese using 全拼.

    [Reply to this comment]

  8. Oct
  9. Oct

    I think it is an example of WTF chinglish:)

    This reminds me of Carl Crow, in his books he tells how the Chinese used to count the number of letters in the brand of the cigarette boxes, to make sure that they had the real brand, as counterfeits were already rampant in the early 20th c. It seems that as long as there were Latin letters, in the right size and quantity, the brand retained its prestige… :)

    There is nothing surprising in this anyway. What do you think Western people do when they add Chinese characters for “coolness”, without knowing what they mean or even if the exist at all! Some tatoos I have seen in the West would make very funny examples in China :)

    [Reply to this comment]

  10. Oct

    By the way this reminds me that there is a massive Inverted Pinyin Sign in that MaoZeDong bar in Luwan area, I forget the name now. I took a picture of it the other day when we went for a walk.

    [Reply to this comment]

  11. Nov

    I agree, character tatoos can be quite horrible… But I think finding old wisdom in character combinations is even worse, like the example of 危机. I sometimes make a joke with this example and says that it really means “dangerous machine,” and that the explanation for this is so far ahead of crude Western thinking that we just can’t get it. :)

    [Reply to this comment]

  12. Nov
    Geoff Gibson

    I noticed a similar thing on a bus in Nanjing on the weekend and thought it odd at the time. I’m sure you’re onto something with your suggestion that it must be a different way of mental processing. As we know, the Chinese can read phrases any which way with no difficulty whatsoever, something about which I’ve long puzzled.

    [Reply to this comment]

  13. Nov

    Another thing to note is that the way Pinyin is input on computers have affected people’s way of using it. Even on signs on bus stops, that are pretty official, you can see spellings like “Lvdao” instead of “Lüdao”.

    [Reply to this comment]

  14. May

    Hi, interesting observation. Just did the experiment with my (Chinese) wife. She also didn’t have much trouble reading out the mirrored sentence I wrote. So, I kind of buy in to your character processing theory. We learn single characters in primary school but are soon programmed to recognize complete words. Schooling in Chinese probably disposes people to process single characters and they can easily apply the same method for reading latin script. This form of processing should slow their latin script reading speed down quite a bit I suppose.

    Oh and props on your blog and your advances in Chinese language. I largely abstained from China blogs recently but will continue to tune into this one from time to time. Liked your post conservatives/progressives in the Chinese political landscape too.

    [Reply to this comment]

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