English Elocution in the West
In the West, little attention had been paid to pronunciation until the rise of England as a global colonial power. By the mid 1800s England wanted to assert a single standard for spoken English across the Empire. How could a single version of vernacular English rise above all others?
The English Elocution Movement chose one form of spoken English to become the standard for all and invented teaching methods and tools to teach this form of English pronunciation in schools, churches, and universities. New scholarly fields such as Orthoepy, Elocution, Phonetics, and Phonology developed in order to lend authority to the industry.
English spelling is not phonetic, and is pronounced in various ways across classes and regions. How can a single standard for the pronunciation of English be taught when regional speech habits and spelling vary so widely?
In the West, the sound structure of words had to be performed with the body and tested through spoken accent. In both cases, a phonetic script was necessary. Like the rime table tradition of China, phonetic writing systems like the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) assigned one symbol to each speech sound.
By the end of the nineteenth century, social distinction in China was achieved through written, not spoken, means. Therefore, the rime table tradition was never used to phoneticize spoken languages like Mandarin or English. When in the nineteenth century merchants and those traveling to California for the Gold Rush found a need to learn spoken English, they invented a much simpler system of transcription. The common practice was to use Chinese characters so that each symbol stood for a whole syllable. In this system, the monosyllabic English word “please” became three syllables: “pu-lee-suh.” The result of this method was the creation of the so-called Pidgin English in the nineteenth century. This method led to the various forms of Chinese-English today and accounts for the difficulties most Chinese speakers face when learning Standard British or American pronunciation.
If Chinese scholars had converted the rime table tradition into a phonetic transcription system for spoken Mandarin and English, the sophisticated system used for over 1,000 years for regulating poetic composition could have served as a phonetic script for teaching English pronunciation. This is what the Pinying program does.