Dueling Lăowài is a new feature on Toshuo.com. Each “duel” will consist of four pieces by two writers: each writer will write one opening argument and one rebuttal.

Mark’s Opening Argument:

As any student of Chinese knows, learning enough characters to really become literate is no small task. For some, such as myself, it’s proving to be a sisyphean ordeal. Fortunately for me, and everyone else who isn’t fully literate in Chinese characters yet, street signs and subway signs are often romanized. Operating under the assumption that signs are indeed romanized for the benefit of the people who need them, as opposed to purely for political ends, and drawing on my own experiences, I’ll explain why it would serve the best interest of the most people to include tone marks on the signs.

Like many westerners, I arrived in Taiwan knowing a only a little bit of Mandarin. Communication of any sort was difficult. At the beginning, I had to stay close to other foreigners, my English speaking co-teachers, and I had to approach things with quite a bit of patience. After a while, though, my spoken Chinese improved and I was able to do things like ask people for directions and take taxis with confidence. Now, I very rarely have any serious communication difficulties, but my reading is still pretty weak.

I know I’m not alone in this. I know many, many westerners here who can speak well enough, but only read 1000-2000 characters. That’s enough to get by in day to day, life, but there are many, many street signs that my western friends mentioned above can’t read. We can all read pinyin, though. In fact, just about anybody who’s taken even a single semester of Chinese can read pinyin and at least sound it out. Unfortunately, we don’t get nearly the mileage out of this pinyin ability that we could.

As we all know, the state of romanization in Taiwan is less than ideal. I remember wasting an hour once asking people where “tingshi” MRT station was before realizing that what I was really looking for was dĭngxī (頂溪). In the end, I was frustrated, I was pissed off, and I’d missed an interview as a result of getting lost. A few months later, I found Mark S.’s useful site, Romanization.com, and never had a problem with saying the names of MRT stations again.

In the three years that have gone by since then, most of Taibei city’s street signs and MRT stations have adopted standard (i.e. hanyu pinyin) spellings, and the whole nightmare of newcomers not knowing if they’re looking for “kuting”, “guting”, “kuding”, or “guding” MRT are over. However, I feel that there’s one more step to be taken that’s both inexpensive and useful to a large number of people for whom the romanized signs are intended, i.e., the people who can’t read Chinese characters with full literacy- street signs should have tone marks above the pinyin.

Even with the current, standardized pinyin, there’s no way for a person who reads “Guting” to know if the word is gŭtíng”, gūtìng, gùtíng, or one of thirteen other possible tone combinations. In the case of the Guting MRT, this isn’t a big problem. Even though character-illiterate foreigners will have no way of knowing how to pronounce the stop, there aren’t any other stops with ambiguous names. Sometimes, though, we aren’t so lucky. There are many streets, such as TóngĀn Jiē and TōngĀn Jiē[1], which share identical romaniations unless tone marks are used. In fact, I’ve personally wasted cab fares as a result of not being quite sure of the tone of a street name. While I haven’t had this problem in quite a while, I don’t have any sort of desire to see every new crop of beginning Chinese students here suffer all the same misfortunes I did.

The Costs of Adding Tone Marks

  • Remaking road signs would be expensive. However, for new signs being made, adding tone marks would incur very few additional costs. The government is already paying consultants to romanize the signs to begin with. For anybody qualified to work as a “pinyin consultant”, converting characters into romanized text with tone marks should be no difficulty at all.
  • Adding tone marks above each syllable could increase paint costs by a small amount.
  • People who don’t know any Chinese whatsoever could just ignore the tone marks. However some may find the tone marks visually unappealing. Conversely, those who didn’t ignore the tones might even pick up a little bit more Chinese through regularly seeing romanized Chinese words that they hear frequently.

The Benefits of Adding Tone Marks

  • With tone marks, pinyin is a fully-functional writing system. Anybody who has learned pinyin, which takes orders of magnitude less effort than becoming character-literate, can read any Mandarin word written in pinyin.
  • Many, many foreigners here would have a smoother time asking for directions and getting around the city.
  • Tone marks on street signs would be a boon to students hoping to learn Chinese from the living environment here.
  • Identical street names would be disambiguated.


In my opinion, writing Chinese words with the Latin character set and neglecting tone marks is the equivalent of writing English words with dots in place of the vowels. Yes, it’s possible to guess the missing information from context, but it’s not a very complete writing system.

Be sure to read Prince Roy argument in favor of not putting tone marks on road signs!

Tone Marks on Roadsigns Part IIPrince Roy’s opening argument.

[1]ICompletelyAgreeWithMarkSThatInnerCapItalizationIsAVeryVeryBadThing. CursesUponJavaForEverPopularizingSuchAnAbomination.