When I started this site, there was already someone out there more deserving of the name "Pinyin Joe". I never met this great man myself, but I do know he was far more significant to the world than I. He would have been "Pinyin Zhou", to be more precise, although his nickname in China was actually "Encyclopedia Zhou" (百科周).
After leading the team that created Hanyu Pinyin in the 1950s, Zhou Youguang (周有光) went on to work on the Chinese translation of the Encyclopedia Britannica in the 1980s.
Born in 1906, Mr. Zhou continued to publish books and write research papers on linguistics until he passed away on January 14, 2017. The video link you see here, which accompanies a Guardian.co.uk article on "The Father of Pinyin" offers a nice friendly visit with Mr. Zhou at his home office in early 2009. Although very warm and fuzzy, the reporting trips over a few issues that drive linguists and Pinyin purists up the wall, starting with the opening title screen: "Pinyin" is parsed incorrectly and without capitalization, as "pin yin".
This is not just one of those old school rules: proper parsing of Pinyin is very important for your brain - and for Chinese computer input methods! More on getting the most out of your Pinyin IME keyboard in a moment.
Pinyin's Past, Present and Future
Hanyu Pinyin was never officially intended to replace Chinese characters, although fifty years later at least Mr. Zhou was able to say in a China Daily interview that hey, it could happen, someday ...maybe in a thousand years. I'm sure he said that in a tone of jest, with a smile on his face: for the sake of Pinyin's acceptance one must be careful, as this topic can stir up great passions. A thousand years is a long time, but I can't imagine Hanzi ever going away.
As Pinyin.Info demonstrates on a regular basis, it is possible to read modern Mandarin when written only in Pinyin - when properly parsed, and even without tone marks - but, to this gwai-loh anyway, Chinese characters are too much a part of Chinese history, culture and national pride. They may even be responsible for the above-average scores of most Chinese people in spatial-relationship aptitude tests...or is it the other way around? I have no idea. All I know for certain is, at least during my lifetime, Hanzi (Chinese characters) are here to stay.
Hanyu Pinyin was introduced as an aid to Chinese people learning Chinese characters, and as a bridge to foreigners everywhere. China was faced with a tough problem in the 1950s: 80 percent of the population was illiterate. That has fallen to less than 10% today, and Pinyin played a very important role in that accomplishment.
At the same time Mr. Zhou was asked to head up the Pinyin initiative, a separate committee began working on the simplification of Chinese characters, and another relaunched the effort to promote Mandarin as the national language of China. Mr. Zhou's committee began work in 1955. For three years he and his team of 20 analyzed linguistic issues, fielded about 4,000 suggestions from China and around the world, and worked diligently to create the best possible system for spelling out the sounds of Chinese in Roman letters.
Still controversial to this day, Hanyu Pinyin has nevertheless been successful. Hanyu Pinyin was recognized as the international standard for phonetic transcription of Chinese at the UN in 1977 and by the ISO in 1981. Most US universities were already transitioning to the system by the early 80s, and US news organizations standardized on it in 1984 during an official visit by then-Premier Zhao Ziyang. (While learning to pronounce the "Zh" in Zhao's name, most US newscasters somehow began mispronouncing "Beijing" as "Bay-zhing" and continued to do so for the next 24 years, until the 2008 Beijing Olympics got their attention.)
On January 1, 2009, Hanyu Pinyin even became the official standard on Taiwan(!), and continues to steamroll its way into history.
Mr. Zhou never claimed Hanyu Pinyin is perfect, only that it is the best system of pinyin (literally "spell-sounds") developed to-date. As a representation of standard Mandarin Chinese, it is I believe more accurate than any other system in wide use today - and certainly more approachable for foreigners than Zhuyin Fuhao (Bopomofo), a set of non-Roman phonetics adopted in the 1920s that have a few of their own problems I'll describe in a moment.
Although Hanyu Pinyin may seem strange at first glance to many native English speakers, with the "zh", "x" "q" and so on, these are necessary to meet linguistic standards that keep Pinyin approachable for speakers of all languages. If you want a Chinese romanization that is spelled as English speakers would pronounce it, try the Yale system, developed in 1943 to help the US military communicate with their Chinese allies.
In Yale romanization, "zi" is spelled "dz" and "nihao" is "nihau". Not bad, huh? The problem is that the Yale system is not useful for native speakers of languages other than English - including native Chinese speakers, of course - and there are a few areas that are still very confusing to English-speaking students anyway, like the using "j" for both "j" and "zh", and depending on the next letter in the word to decide whether to curl your tongue for perfect Beijing enunciation.
Another system, Gwoyeu Romatzyh (Guoyu Luomazi), was developed in the 1920s and was a valiant attempt to represent the tones without diacritics or numbers (as suggested by the author Lin Yutang, in fact), but in the end this causes more problems than it solves. Years ago I had many good perngyou (朋友)
who were learning beginning Chinese using this system, and yes many of them pronounced that darned "r" out loud. Then there's the 19th century Wade-Giles system, still found on signage all over Taiwan and in many dictionaries published there too. Wade-Giles was a good first attempt, long, long ago, but at this point it is far past its sell-by date.
Yes, Hanyu Pinyin at first glance may confuse non-Chinese speakers - and even speakers of other Chinese languages - but Mandarin has sounds that often do not exist in other languages, and as an international teaching and transcription standard Hanyu Pinyin still best meets our needs. Some have offered criticisms - of, for example, the slightly inconsistent use of the letter "u" in the word "liu" compared to the use of "u" elsewhere in Pinyin - but proposals for such minor adjustments have encountered major resistance, and of course as some criticisms come from those opposed to the adoption of Hanyu Pinyin in the first place, the discussion often goes nowhere.
At a certain point a writing system is good enough to meet the needs of the broadest number of people, is in wide use and has become the standard (just like certain video tape and disc standards that some might say were not the best technical solutions). At that point you cannot impose from above any further adjustments, much less an entirely new system, without encountering great resistance.
Having won over most of the world, despite the newly official status of Hanyu Pinyin in Taiwan the system still faces resistance from proponents of Tongyong Pinyin there, and good ol' Zhuyin Fuhao ("Bopomofo", or lately just "Bo Po Mo") has strong support not only in Taiwan but in many overseas Chinese communities around the world.
The case for Tongyong Pinyin, introduced in 1998 and the official government standard romanization in Taiwan from 2002 through 2008, involves more than just linguistics. The political aspects include not just the better-known tensions between Nationalists and Communists, Taiwan and mainland. The people of Taiwan are also in the process of working out longstanding issues between "mainlanders" (arrived circa 1947), Taiwan Chinese "natives" (arrived mostly during the Ming and Qing dynasties, mostly from Fujian) and other groups there.
One argument for Tongyong Pinyin is that it is better able to represent Hokkien ("Taiwanese") and other Chinese languages common on Taiwan. Of course it is. Hanyu Pinyin is only intended for Mandarin, and does not pretend to do anything else. Tongyong may also be a little easier for foreigners to pronounce, but this comes at the cost of linguistic consistency. Behind all this is more than just a discussion of the relative merits of Mandarin pinyins, and I have no business commenting on someone else's politics when they don't affect me. So, I'm just going to stop here.
Zhuyin Fuhao, developed in 1912-13 and officially adopted in 1928, remains well-established not just out of national pride and politics - all certainly understandable and in many ways admirable - but also from simple inertia. Many Chinese language teachers all over the world know only Zhuyin, entire forests have been felled in the production of posters, books and other Zhuyin-based teaching materials, and of course most teachers would prefer to stay with what they know and with materials they already own.
Like Hanyu Pinyin, Zhuyin Fuhao is apparently good enough to take the place of Chinese characters, and so as with Pinyin the authorities have always been very careful to position it as only a pronunciation aid. In fact, the second part of the name was changed from "Zimu" (letters) to "Fuhao" (symbols) to avoid that very source of resistance.
But Zhuyin is a serious barrier of entry to foreigners, international business and general interaction with the wider world. I think it is particularly ridiculous to claim that students in the USA should learn Chinese through Bopomofo just because this avoids any confusion that might be caused by the students' learning to pronounce the same Roman letters differently in their native language at the same time. If that is true, how do English speakers learn French, Spanish or German? Zhuyin as a solution to this problem is more than outweighed by the additional problems it creates in time and resources. For one thing, it prevents many parents from monitoring and assisting with their children's homework...even if they can read Chinese characters! As you can see, I have some strong opinions about this.
I'm told Zhuyin Fuhao has at least the same number of minor internal inconsistencies as Hanyu Pinyin, but it all being "Greek" to me I will avoid comment ...especially since this is yet another political hot potato and I've already blistered myself enough by handling it as much as I have here.
Proper Pinyin Parsing: Not Just for Purists
If you want to get the most out of your Pinyin input method, it pays to learn where to put the spaces: you can type "diannao shuru fangfa" (电脑输入方法) without stopping, but if you separate them into "dian nao shu ru fang fa" and convert each individually, you may be spending a lot of time getting to know the candidate list. Even if your input method automatically inserts spaces or apostrophes between each sound, only hit your conversion key (usually another space or the Enter key, depending on the input method) when actually required by the rules of Pinyin. And here's another tip: you can string that whole concept together with or without spaces ("diannaoshurufangfa") but you should have the input method convert to Hanzi at the end of a concept or it may get confused.
This is also how Hanyu Pinyin makes it possible for anyone to read Chinese accurately without characters: when logical "words", phrases and concepts are put together correctly, your brain processes it all just as if you are hearing it in verbal context. Similarly, the power of the best Chinese computer input methods relies upon lists of Hanzi and their "associations" (联想), a system of offering up the most likely candidates based on the context of what you are typing. These associations are word groups (词组, cizu), including words of two characters or more, plus longer phrases and even much longer concepts that are written together under the rules of Hanyu Pinyin.
Any properly designed Pinyin input method will sort its list to your frequency of usage over time, eventually achieving a very high degree of accuracy. The human brain does this much better of course, with far more complex associations. But you can coax a lot of power out of your computer's Pinyin input method just by understanding the rules of Hanyu Pinyin. In addition to the associations built into almost every Pinyin input method, and in addition to downloadable topic-specific dictionaries you can add to some input methods now, you yourself can improve accuracy by adding user-defined phrases. This can include specialized words used only in your own work, and - if your input method allows this - it is also useful to add capital letters at the beginnings of some words, following the Hanyu Pinyin rule proper nouns (like "Beijing", "Zhongguo" and of course "Pinyin") must be capitalized.
Like Hanyu Pinyin itself, computers have not yet achieved perfection, but with your help they're coming closer every day. I don't claim to have achieved perfect Pinyin parsing myself, and I highly recommend the Pinyin.Info summary of the rules of Pinyin if you'd like to learn more.