Flat Pinyin

I am currently reading Thomas Friedman's Hot Flat and Crowded. Among many of his arguments, one of them is that the world is flat. By this, he means that, internationally, people's livlihood internationally are beginning to level out, and the playing field for international competition is much more equalized than it ever has been before. This phenomenon is occurring because more and more people are connected through technology, allowing more flowing ideas, more opportunity, and more global competition. Basically, historically, one needed to have the right birthrite to be wealthy and prosperous (or be insanely lucky). These days, with a basic level of comfort and the right technology, the American dream is becoming more of an international reality, and more and more people are hopping up to a global middle class.

A friend of mine and I recently were talking about pinyin, or the romanized version of Chinese. Today, more and more Chinese people are becoming literate; but these days, literate in Chinese characters is not enough, as literacy in pinyin and the Roman alphabet are becoming more and more necessary in today's world. She pointed out to me that nearly everyone in China owns a cell phone (which is true) and that nearly everyone sends text messages. In order to send text messages, one needs to use pinyin, thus necessitating the use of a romanized alphabet just to connect in the Chinese world.

What does this have to do with the flattening of the world? The harsh truth is that, in a global context, in order to compete globally, a basic knowledge of English is required, as English is a highly imperialistic language. (And China knows this. As a small side note, the Chinese government actually wants to outlaw some of China's minority language, such as Uigher, because its use of Romanized alphabet actually makes it easier for minorities to learn English than Han Chinese). And the ability to pronounce words written in a Roman script puts someone on a much higher global playing field than one who cannot. And these days in China, everything from seeing a movie at the theater to going shopping at a department store assumes that people can use a Roman script (for instance, subtitles for English movies often include English words that cannot translate well).

Proponents of pinyin in the 1950s had argued this, claiming that pinyin would essentially help Chinese to be competitive in an increasingly global world. And while characters aren't going anywhere anytime soon, most Chinese who want competitive jobs need to be fluent in the Roman alphabet, not only to communicate but also to effectively use technology.

So even if you don't agree with Friedman's other arguments, this small phenomenon shows how technology is starting to flatten the world.


  1. But many Chinese--especially in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the diaspora--continue to use input methods like wubi, which avoid romanization entirely.

    This could arguably still be included under the rubric of "flattening," but it's a slightly less linguistically-imperial point of view.

  2. You are right, and a lot of people in Hong Kong who can speak Mandarin and English can't use pinyin. However, in places like Hong Kong (I'm not sure about Taiwan) they can still use a Roman alphabet, much better than most people in mainland China.

    I think what is interesting about pinyin is how it has allowed use of a Roman alphabet to spread, via technology, to people can't use English as a language at all.