Report from Nassau

Click on any of these photos for a larger version...

Seeking refuge from the December chill for a few days. This place is well worth the visit. Bahamians are very friendly—several times a day I was greeted by passing strangers on the street. Interesting fact: the Bahamas have the third largest per-capita income in the Americas, after the USA and Canada.

If you come here, be prepared to enjoy one other aspect of the Bahamian character. I had a general feeling that many things are improvised—even the most routine of daily tasks. We've eaten three breakfasts so far in the hotel and the procedure changed from day to day.

If you've seen Thunderball, you probably recall a tense foot-chase set against the backdrop of the local Junkanoo festival. This festival has the damnedest scheduling of any event I've heard of. It starts at 2:30 in the morning and runs until 12:30 the following afternoon.

And now, for the part of the festival they never show in the movies...

...the aftermath. Exhausted revelers stagger through the streets, dragging their busted costumes, like some kind of ostrich-plume-and-papier-maché zombie apocalypse.

And speaking of James Bond...

...herewith a panorama of the back lawn of the One and Only Ocean Club, which figures prominently as a location in Casino Royale. If you look really carefully in the distance of one shot, you might see:

... the "Cloister", which overlooks the bay and is a popular site for weddings.

A touristy activity which I recommend, the misnamed "glass-bottomed boat":

As you can see, it is more of a "glass-walled" boat. The entirety of the windows you see are below water level.

And finally, proof that Bahamians have a sense of humor. First, read the plaque describing the "Royal Victoria Gardens":

And now check out the "gardens":

...And Learn the Thai Vowels

Photo by Songkran

(This is a continuation of my previous post on learning the Thai consonants. I recommend reading that before reading this.)

Even more than the Thai consonants, the vowels present a generous supply of opportunities for confusion. Let me point out that the term "vowel" can have at least three different meanings. For example, with respect to the English word "loud", we could use the word vowel to refer to each of the two symbols "o" and "u" that appear in the word; or to the single vowel sound that appears in the middle of the word, or even to the pair of letters "ou" as a unit that represent this single vowel sound. So if you go looking for a list of Thai "vowels", one person's list may be much longer than another's, depending on the meaning they have in mind. Thai, like English, combines vowels, or even vowels and consonants, to represent other varieties of vowel soundsin fact, Thai goes way beyond English in the number and variety of combinations.

My own intention is to focus on the individual written symbols. There are a few cases (like Gypsy) where I have assigned a name to a symbol that the Thais themselves regard as a combination of simpler symbols, but in such cases I followed the example of the Unicode coding for Thai.

The following no-nonsense video gives pronunciations for all the single vowels (as well as some of the combinations). I suggest referring to it while reading what follows.

First of all, I chose to start all vowel names with the letter "G". Because Thai lacks a "G" consonant, there is thus no chance of confusing a vowel name with a consonant name.

The first three rules account for almost all the vowel names. (I started numbering with VII because the consonants have six rules.)

VII. Short vowels have names starting with "G" followed directly by a vowel.

VIII. Long vowels have names starting with "Gl" followed by a vowel. Whether the vowel of the name is itself "long" or "short" is irrelevant.

IX. The leading vowel of the name indicates the base pronunciation, as per the International Phonetic Alphabet.

These first three rules are illustrated by the first three vowels:
According to Rules VII-IX, Gas and Gate are pronounced /a/, which is to say like a short "a" in "father", or like a Spanish "a" (NOT like "a" in "gas" or "gate"). Glass is pronounced /a:/, which is just like /a/ but prolonged.
Note that the  symbol here (and below) is not part of the vowel, but is the consonant I call Ace. One characteristic of the Thai script is that vowels are not free-standing but attached to the preceding consonantabove, below, left, or right (something like this is true in many non-European scripts). Ace is a consonant which basically has no sound of its own but provides a place to anchor a vowel at the beginning of a word, for example. Here it is irrelevantfocus all your attention on the vowel attached.

The same three rules suffice to explain the next four:

Gill and Glitter are both pronounced like the "i" in "machine" (again, not like "i" in "gill" or "glitter"); Gill is a short version of this sound and Glitter a long version. Gun and Gluteus are both pronounced like the "u" in "rule"; Gun is a short version of this sound and Gluteus a long version.

Rule X governs the next pair of vowels:

X. Leading vowel "y" indicates the IPA sound /ɯ/, long or short depending on whether preceded by "l".

The vowel denoted by /ɯ/ does not exist in English, something like /u/ but without rounding the lips. The closest sound in English might be the "oo" in "good." You can hear it both short and long starting at about the 0:12 point in the video above.

Three morecompletely in line with the foregoing rules:
All three are long vowels. Thai does have short versions of these vowels, but all are written with combinations of symbols, so you won't find them on this list. Gloss sounds much like the "o" in "gloss". Glee sounds like a stretched-out version of the "e" in "bed". Globe is the hardest to explain in English terms, like a stretched-out version of the "o" in Spanish "dos".

All the vowels listed to this point are "pure" in the sense that the sound is essentially uniform from beginning to endthe tongue and other parts of the mouth don't change position. Examples in English would be the "ee" in "keen" and the "oo" in "moon".  The next couple are diphthongs, meaning a shading from one vowel sound to another. English has lots of these: the "oy" in "boy", the "ow" in "cow". Or the "i" in "kite", which is much like the sound of the next two vowels (pronounced identically, so far as I can tell):
The last three symbols are "honorary" vowels: to us they seem like vowel/consonant combinations, but they function as vowels. I think their existence can be explained as a legacy from the Indian scripts from which the Thai script originated. These names are distinguished by an initial "Gr".

Also note: the final two vowel symbols are free-standingexceptions to the general rule that Thai vowels are written as appendages to the preceding consonant.
Griffin/rɯ/, /ri/
Grill /lɯ/
These can be codified with three special-purpose rules:

XI. Gram is pronounced /am/.

XII. Griffin is pronounced /rɯ/ or /ri/.

XIII. Grill is pronounced /lɯ/.

And that's all I have to say about that. Good luck, students of Thai.

Learn the Thai Alphabet in One Hour

Photo by Dada Clone Fly

Learning a language in a non-Roman script should be on everyone's bucket list. (Please disregard this statement if your own native language is in a non-Roman script.) It seems to me that people who haven't done this tend to see non-Roman scripts the way a non-swimmer looks at water—as a murky, alien environment with who-knows-what lurking beneath the surface. Take the plunge, though, and you may come to see every new script as a playground waiting to be explored.

I haven't "officially" started to study Thai as yet—it's still on my "someday" list. But I've noticed that students of Thai frequently complain about the time required to learn the alphabet. A particular stumbling block seems to be remembering the tone class for each consonant. See, Thai is a tonal language (like Chinese). The writing of a word makes the tone explicit (which is a good thing), by assigning one of three tone classes (high, mid, or low) to every consonant. Thus it happens that Thai may have a multiplicity of symbols roughly corresponding to a single English consonant—for example, T.

Another issue is that, even aside from tone, Thai makes some meaningful distinctions between consonants that English doesn't. Wikipedia puts it well: "Where English has only a distinction between the voiced, unaspirated /b/ and the unvoiced, aspirated /pʰ/, Thai distinguishes a third sound that is neither voiced nor aspirated, which occurs in English only as an allophone of /p/, approximately the sound of the p in 'spin'." "Aspirated" means followed by a strong puff of breath; "unaspirated" therefore means not so. Remember that remark about 'spin'—it will be significant later.

Thai consonants have interesting vivid Thai names. For example,  is called cho chang 'elephant.' This is excellent from the standpoint of cognitive efficiency. But it helps if one already understands the names, which doesn't apply to most foreign students (like me). I decided, as the first step in learning the Thai alphabet, to make up my own English names for each letter. The name for each letter shall be readily visualizable and shall encode the pronunciation, including the tone class.

(A caveat on what follows: don't take this as a general guide to Thai pronunciation, which I'm not qualified to explain anyway. For example, some consonants have altered [but predictable] pronunciation at the end of a syllable. Other complexities may pertain. This system is for the first pass of fixing the letters in the mind. Get a real Thai textbook for the rest.)

In this post I give the system (and the names) for the Thai consonants. Vowels will follow in the next post. There are seven rules covering the consonants. Most of them are based on common sense. Only Rules II and III are really non-obvious (and thus embody the creative aspects of the system), but both II and III are nevertheless simple and easily committed to memory.

The first few letters illustrate the basic principles:
All of the foregoing sound more like K than anything else in English but have three distinct values in Thai. Rules of the system are:

I. The first letter of the name indicates the sound of the consonant, with exceptions as noted in Rules III and IV below. Thus Kidney, King, and Kowtow are all pronounced like 'K'. (So, too, is Skate, as explained by Rule III.)

II. The first vowel of the word indicates the tone class: 'a' indicates 'mid' class, 'i' or 'e' indicate 'high' class, and 'o' or 'u' indicate 'low' class. Thus Skate is mid-class, Kidney and King are high-class, and Kowtow is low-class.

III. If the name starts with 'S' followed by 'k', 't', or 'p', the sound is an unaspirated version of the consonant following the 'S'. Thus Skate is pronounced as an unaspirated 'k'.

(As was mentioned above with regard to the word 'spin', Rule III reflects English phonology, but that's not really critical. Just remember that preceding 's' indicates lack of aspiration.) So Kidney and King are both aspirated high-class 'K', Kowtow is aspirated low-class 'K', but Skate is unaspirated mid-class 'K'.
Ungulate is a special case because no English word begins with the appropriate sound:

IV. Ungulate is pronounced like 'ng' in 'sing'.

The 'u' vowel indicates that Ungulate is a low-class consonant, in accordance with Rule II.
Jackknife is another special case, because no English word starts with 'S' followed by a 'ch' sound (although several words do begin with the letters 'sch'):

V. Jackknife is pronounced with an unaspirated 'ch' sound.

There is no potential for conflict here because Thai lacks the voiced 'j' sound. The 'a' as usual indicates a mid-class consonant. Chess, on the other hand, indicates a high-class aspirated 'chsound.
VI. If the name starts with 'S' followed directly by a vowel rather than another consonant, the sound is 's'.

As usual, the 'o' vowel indicates that Sorceror is a low-class consonant.

The next several consonants present no surprises.
By now I probably need not explain this, but Yolk is pronounced with a 'y' sound and Dart with a 'd' sound. Yolk is low-class and Dart is mid-class.
The foregoing are all entirely in line with the system. Star is an unaspirated 't' sound, mid-class. Telephone and the other consonants beginning with 'T' are all aspirated 't' sounds, with tone classes as specified by the following vowel. Nose and Noose, are both 'n' sounds, low-class.
You may have noticed a tendency for the order of the consonants to move from sounds produced in the back of the mouth to those produced in the front of the mouth. This is an venerable custom inherited from the Sanskrit grammarians (who were exceedingly systematic). The Thai script is an evolved form of the Devanagari script used for Sanskrit. 
Siamese cat  (no way I could pass this name up!)
Ace is an interesting letter, sort of like the "zero" of the consonant world. Thai vowels are always attached to the previous consonant—on top, below, left or right. (This might strike you as odd, but a lot of scripts, from Arabic to Tibetan, treat vowels similarly.) But what if a word begins with a vowel? Thai solves this problem by using the letter Ace, which essentially has no sound of it own, but provides a place to anchor a freestanding vowel. Ace does have a tone class of its own, namely mid-class (as the "A" shows).

And finally:
I created an Anki deck consisting of the 60-odd letters of the Thai alphabet, consonants and vowels both; and then at the easy pace of one new letter per day, spending an average of one minute per day reviewing, I memorized the entire alphabettone classes includedin about sixty days (and there's the "One Hour" of the post title). My next post will give the system, and the letter names, for the Thai vowels, after which I will upload my Anki deck for sharing (I want to get all the rules down so I can add them to the deck description).

A helpful hint: You will notice that even with the distinctions of aspirated versus non-aspirated, and three different tone classes, Thai still contains sometimes more than one letter with exactly the same sound, for example Kowtow and Koala. Thus you can not predict 100% the spelling of a word from the pronunciation (although the reverse is probably true). In such cases, the visual aspect of the name can help you recall which letter of the available options is used in a given word.

Another hint: The lexicographic order given here is not necessarily the most efficient order for learning the consonants. For example, if I had it to do over again, I would have learned Teabag and Potato earlier in the sequence, since they form components of some of the other symbols.

Yet another hint: Some creative visual association can help fix each symbol in the mind. For example, Skate resembles the tip of an ice-skate blade, Kidney is the bottom and right edge of an X-ray frame, showing the kidney with the ureter attached, and Kowtow is a front view of a bowing person, with the crown of the head and the shoulders visible. Good luck.

Product Review: Anki

Many, many years ago, when I was first trying to master a series of foreign languages, it didn't take me long to notice that you never really own the things you study. Set it aside for awhile, and it fades away.

So Version 2 of my method was based on constant review. The drawback to this approach is that if you commit, for example, to spending 15 minutes a day on review of each language you study, by the time you get up to four languages you are looking at a pretty serious ongoing time commitment. And as for eight, or twenty languages....

So with Version 3 I was driven to discover the principle of spaced repetition (though I was by no means the first to do so). To wit, if you want to commit to remembering a given fact in perpetuity, you indeed have to be prepared to review it infinitely many times, but each after each successive review it sticks in the mind a little more firmly, and you can let a longer interval go by before reviewing it the next time. Thus on average, you spend less and less time each day maintaining your memory of a given fact.

My implementation of this system consisted of a series of stacks of index cards ("flash cards") for each subject. (This was in the days before you would think of having a computer in your house.) The first stack of cards was reviewed every day. Once I felt pretty good about a card, I would move it to the second stack, of which only half was reviewed every day (so that on average I looked at each card with a one-day delay). If I got a card in the second stack right, I moved it to the third stack, of which I reviewed only one-fourth of the cards each day. Otherwise, it bounced back to the first stack. And so on the fourth stack, the fifth stack, etc. In some cases I had up to nine stacks, Once a card made it to the ninth stack, it would take 512 days before I saw it again. (Update: I have learned that this is called the Leitner system.)

This principle of reviewing over and over and successively increasing intervals is known as spaced repetition.

I despoiled thousands of index cards. I had boxes and boxes full of them. Once I got my own computer it didn't take long to see the advantage of going paperless (or cardless), so I wrote my own simple spaced-repetition program (nowadays people use "SRS" to refer to spaced-repetition software). My program had no editingI used a separate text editor with a text-based file format of my own devisingand could only handle content in the Roman alphabet. So Chinese, Arabic, etc. were still based on hardcopy index cards. I did use my program for Sanskrit, but only in transliteration.

Which brings me to the subject of this post, which is a little program called Anki. "Anki" is the Japanese word for "commit to heart." I have been using Anki for almost a year now, and have found it extremely useful.

Truth be told, I had heard of Anki for some time before I got around to trying it. I think I had low expectations because I was projecting the limitations of my own little program onto it. But where my little program was a slingshot, Anki is a multi-warhead smart missile. It uses a sophisticated formula to decide when to present review material, based on your level of confidence when you review a given fact. It handles any kind of text that your computer will handle: Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Arabic, Tibetan. It handles pictures and sounds if that's what you want. And the price is rightfree.

More features of interest: if you have a smart phone (I don't, but that's a topic for another post) there are versions of Anki that run on the popular smart phone models. There is also a Web interface. So you can sync your review materials to the Web and then use the Web interface to run Anki from any Web browser (I do this on my Nook). You have to go back to the client application for most options, though, and to do serious editing of your database.

A button brings up a set of graphs showing how much time you spent studying per day for the last month, or last year, or whatever; how many cards; success rates; etc. I find this very useful for managing my studying. I have found that carrying out a spaced-repetition study program is like piloting an ocean linertakes time to get moving and takes time to slow down. Of course you could just drop it and go back to watching Real Housewives, but the whole point is to avoid doing that. So use caution in ramping up too quicklyeach new card is a lifetime commitment.

Another valuable aspect of Anki is the ability to share decks (a single study cue is called a "card" and a collection of such is called a "deck"the analog roots of this method are obvious) on-line. So there is a sizeable library of source material out there that you can download for free. You can then edit it to suit your own predilections. The selection is impressiveI found decks for such relatively obscure subjects as Tibetan and Akkadian.

Recently Version 2 of Anki was released and I made the transition to the new version. It was the usual story with software updatesa lot of things fixed that didn't need fixingbut I found one new feature that justified the growing pains. The new version offers native support for images and sounds on the Web platform. In other words, if you want to include pictures and sounds in your flashcards, you can upload them to your Web account and then access these as well using any Web browser. With the previous version, you could do this only by employing a third-party service. This is important to me because the ability to use pictures means that no script is too exotic to interface with. Just scan a page from your book and (digitally) clip out the parts you need (or you can find plenty of already-scanned books for free on-line). This is the approach I use for Sumerian, for example, or in working through Piggott's 1912 book on Japanese calligraphy. In the latter case, my cards consist entirely of images--a cursive written character on the front and a more prosaically written version of the same character on the back (as in the picture above).

I've been using Anki now for almost a year, and I can't imagine that I would undertake the study of any academic subject (not just foreign languages) without creating or downloading an Anki deck to help through the memorization part of the task. Do yourself a favor and try it out. Anki is available here.

Life Lessons from Mitt Romney

When your opponent tells you, "Please proceed." shouldn't you at least suspect you're walking into a trap?

This is what "Too clever" looks like

As a rule I don't use this blog to comment on politics. Not because I don't find politics fascinating, but because there are so many people out there who are both better informed and have more time on their hands than I. But once in a while I notice something that everyone else seems to have missedand then I break my rule.

At the time I write this, we are five weeks out from the U.S. presidential election Obama vs. Romney. Romney's latest in his series of unforced errors are the comments he made to a private fundraiser back in May about the so-called parasitic 47% of the U.S. population. Certainly Romney has done about as much as a candidate could to lose this election. (And five weeks from now, we'll see whether this statement look stupid in hindsight.)

And yeta significant problem for Romney has been created by Congressional Republicans. When Obama took office, Congressional Republicans announced that their number-one priority was making him a one-term president. In their wisdom, they decided that the way to accomplish this was implacable opposition to anything that the Democrats proposed.

And the worst of the worst (from the Republican standpoint) was health-care reform. Never mind that the essence of the proposal (the individual mandate) had originally been proposed by Republicans. Never mind that the closest model for the bill was Romney's health-care reform law as Massachusetts governor. Goal Number One required that health-care reform be painted as the work of Satan.

And so what is arguably candidate Romney's most worthwhile achievement—the Massachusetts health-care reform law—is off limits to his campaign. One of the more entertaining sideshows of the many that this campaign offers has been his excruciating efforts to avoid taking credit for it. If Congressional Republicans had instead adopted a strategy of participate-so-we-can-claim-credit-for-it-later, the nation's poorest rich presidential candidate would have one thing less to worry about. 

Practical Joke #12

(For college students and others sharing living quarters with a roommate:)

1. Go to the drugstore. Buy a bottle of wart remover.

2. Every night, after your roommate goes to sleep, paint wart remover in a circle around his or her neck.

3. In two to four weeks, your roommate's head will pop off like an oversized wart.

Trust me, you'll become a legend if you can pull this one off.

Postcards from Japan

A fun little street in the Kichioji district of Tokyo. Some of the back alleys in this area have a real Blade Runner vibe--especially when it rains.

The view from my hotel room in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. This is the view looking away from the center of Tokyo. Naturally the city extends even further in the opposite direction.

An interesting menu item in an Okinawan restaurant. I hear they spend years training the fish to face all in the same direction.

The sign on the right, loosely translated, says "Do not urinate here." I am intrigued by the implication that it is OK to urinate in other places. This reminds me of Jack Seward's anecdote about a similar sign that he saw. After some weeks it was joined by another sign saying, "Or defecate either." The sign on the left, by the way, says "Under camera surveillance."

Panorama of Zenkoji temple in Nagano (click for a big view). Wikipedia tells me they have a sacred statue here that nobody, nobody is allowed to look at, although there is a replica that they display for one day every six years. There indeed seems something one-hand-clapping about this invisible statue. My favorite theory is that the high priest lost the statue some hundreds of of years ago and came up with the nobody-allowed-to-look-at-it idea to save embarrassment.

Window shutters on an old storehouse in Nagano. Look at the thickness and the design. These people do not like drafts.

This little restaurant belongs in the dictionary under "hole in the wall." The big signs say "Ramen."

Another thing you would never see in the U.S.: this guy is neatly raking the gravel on a park path.

Offerings of sake at the Meiji shrine.

Where I had dinner tonight. Oddly, this reminded me of Chick and Ruth's deli in Annapolis. Brightly lit, rambunctious, and a large menu, most of which is listed on the walls. The only things missing were the testimonials from local politicians.

Practical Joke #11

1. Go to the store. Buy an iPod or similar portable device with earbuds.

2. Wait a few days.

3. Go back to the store where you bought the iPod. Before entering, firmly insert one earbud into each nostril.

4. Tell them you want your money back because the scent-recording feature doesn't work.

Dispatch from the Ends of the Earth

It was about two and a half years ago that I first resolved to visit Svalbard. (Go check a globe if you don't know where this is. Hint: start looking at the North Pole.) I put that resolution into action this month. It took somewhat more effort and money that the typical overseas trip, but was well worth it. All the time I was there I had a sense that everyone should see this. Herewith an assortment of images from the trip.

This is the view from our room at the Radisson Blu in Longyearbyen, Svalbard's largest settlement.  (Click this image and others for a wide view.) I guess this might be the northernmost hotel in the world, since it is located at the north end of town. I found 24-hour sunshine together with jet lag pretty disorienting.

Beautiful vistas in every direction.


As soon as you step off the plane, you know you've stepped out of the ordinary. The (mounted) polar bear on top of the baggage claim doesn't hurt either.

A road runs from Longyearbyen for about ten miles in either direction before dead-ending in the wilderness. At one end is this mountaintop installation. Our guide claimed it was for studying solar plasma. 

Although the community of Longyearbyen is surprisingly commonplace in many ways, special engineering adaptations to the environment are needed. Coal mining is one of the local industries. They also burn coal for to generate the town's electricity. The heat from the coal is used to boil water, and the steam powers turbines. The hot water from the turbines is pumped throughout the town, as a bonus utility service. This is the middle pipe. Cold-water and sewage pipes run along either side of the hot-water pipes, to keep from freezing. 

We took a day cruise to Barentsburg, the nearby Russian settlement. Svalbard is administered by Norway but is an international territory, maybe something like Antarctica. Barentsburg is rather run-down-looking compared to Longyearbyen (although perhaps the buildings are nicer on the inside). This might say something about Russian versus Norwegian attitudes, or it might be a reflection of different standards and arrangements for living in the two communities.  

Our Russian guide in Barentsburg seemed rather peeved when I asked him about this sign, which says "Our goal is Communism!" According to him, it dates from the 50's and is kept around purely for sentimental reasons.

A spooky location: the entrance to the doomsday seed vault, down the road from Longyearbyen. Here are kept samples of seeds from the world's crops against the possibility of a disaster that would wipes out entire strains or species. It is placed high above the water to protect against rising sea levels, but embedded down below the permafrost to maintain cold in case of power failure. 

One last vista of Longyearbyen. The white animal is a reindeer, which is about the size and proportions of a really big dog.

Mnemonics for Pronouncing Chinese Characters (the Marilyn Method)

Update: This is the Marilyn Method for memorizing the pronunciation of Chinese characters. The method has generated enough interest that I decided it needs a name of its own.

Update update: The method has now been adapted to Polish and German, as well as adapting the target language to Cantonese.

Photo by Felix_Nine

For me a new mental gimmick is the best kind of toy there isbetter than a new electronic gadget. My latest toy is a technique for memorizing the pronunciation of Chinese charactersmy own invention, I am proud to say. This might end up being my greatest contribution to civilization, even better than my killer nacho recipe.

Lots of attention has been given to the problem of remembering how to write Chinese characters (see, for example, my review of Heisig and Richardson's book). By comparison, remembering how to pronounce the characters has been the neglected well-behaved sibling. But pronouncing the characters is by no means trivialespecially since the Chinese (Mandarin) language uses important sound contrasts that just don't exist in English, including of course tone of voice.

With my system I can link just two concepts (as is done in most memory systems) to represent the pronunciation of any Chinese character, including the tone. If you are using Heisig and Richardson or something similar to remember how to write characters, this is the perfect companion. You can also use the system to memorize spoken Mandarin words even if you don't care about writing them (not what I would recommend, but some people like it). It will take a bit of time and effort up front to memorize the basic correspondences, but this will be paid back with interest pretty quickly (within a matter of days in my own case). This post gives a complete description of the methodso bear with the length. You might also learn a little about Mandarin phonology.

The fact that this is possible at all is thanks to the Chinese "one character = one syllable" principle and also thanks to the rather constrained Chinese sound system, which makes it possible to list all Mandarin syllables in a rather modest table. My system uses a similar table, but pushed and pulled around a bit. It also has much in common with the "Bopomofo" system, which represents every possible Chinese syllable with one to three symbols taken from an alphabet of 37 symbols. I won't use the rather exotic-looking symbols themselves here, but their pinyin equivalents.

21 out of the 37 symbols can appear only at the beginning of a syllable:

b-, p-, m-, f-, d-, t-, n-, l-, g-, k-, h-, j-, q-, x-, zh-, ch-, sh-, r-, z-, c-, s-

Another 12 can appear only at the end of a syllable:

-a, -o, -e, , -ai, -ei, -ao, -ou, -an, -(e)n, -ang, -(e)ng

(...although certain syllables in both cases consist of a single symbol such as s ["si" in Pinyin] or ai, so that the beginning of the syllable is also the end.)

Three more symbols, representing -i-, -u-, or -ü-, can appear at the beginning, middle, or end. The -i- and -u- sound essentially like they would in Spanish, whereas -ü- sounds like a French "u" or a German "ü".


zh+ang = zhang in Pinyin
u + ang = wang in Pinyin
zh + u + ang = zhuang in Pinyin
zh + (e)n = zhen in Pinyin
i = yi in Pinyin
j + i + (e)n = jin in Pinyin

If you have been paying attention, you should have noticed I have only listed 36 of the 37 symbols. The remaining symbol, representing er, never combines with another and represents a syllable in itself.

All Mandarin syllables are made up of a limited number of such combinations. (Compare this with the rough-and-ready situation in English, where a single syllable might be "strength" or "boxed" or "splashed". Good luck finding a table of English syllables.)

The Basic Approach

The first step in the method is to use a mental picture of a given individual (real or fictional) to represent each of the initial symbols. We're going to call these representatives personages. I have made the following assignments, but you can use others if you like them better:

Babe (Ruth) for b-
Peter (Pan) for p-
Mark (Twain) for m-
Frazier (Crane) for f-
Darth (Vader) for d-
Tarzan for t-
Noriyuki (Morita) for n-
Leonardo (da Vinci) for l-
Groucho (Marx) for g-
Karl (Marx) for k-
Herman (Munster) for h-
George (Washington) for zh-
Charlie (Chaplin) for ch-
Sherlock (Holmes) for sh-
Ringo (Starr) for r-
Zach (Galafianakis) for z-
(Christopher) Columbus for c-
Sam (Spade) for s-

I tried to pick these to be as visually distinctive as possible. I put the last names in parentheses because I recommend you get on a first-name basis with your personages. You'll be spending a lot of time with them. Notice everyone on the list is male; also I left out j-, q-, and x-. The reasons for this will become apparent in due time. The names are a clue to the associated sound: Babe for b-, Groucho for g-, and so on. This "clue" will actually be important only in the early stages of useeventually (pretty soon, really) you will learn the correspondences by heart anyway.

We also need to introduce a new "null" initial symbol, which I will denote Ø-. So, for example (b- + -ao) gives you bao but (Ø- + -ao) gives you plain ao. This null symbol also gets an associated individual:

Ø- Albert (Einstein)

We might as well go ahead and introduce the "null" final symbol, denoted -Ø. So (s- + -ao) gives you sao but (s- + -Ø) gives you plain s (which is, however, written "si" in Pinyin).

(Now I have to interrupt myself to emphasize an important point: the "i" in Pinyin "si" is nothing like the "i" in "yi" or "ji". "Si" is pronounced more like "sz" than English "sea". Same for "zhi", "chi", "shi", "ri", "ci", "zi". If you don't understand this point then go back and ask your Chinese teacher about it, because it will wreak havoc with your Chinese pronunciation. The Pinyin symbol "si" is written with just the "s-" symbol in Bopomofo. To help keep this point in mind, I'm going to use parentheses to write it like this: "s(i)", "zh(i)", etc.)

Now the do-it-yourself part: for each of the twelve final symbols -a-o-e-ai-ei-ao-ou-an-(e)n-ang-(e)ng, and  -Ø, choose a familiar placea house, a restaurant, or a hotel. You will have to exert the modest effort to remember which places go with which symbols. I can't do this part for you because they need to be places familiar to you. (This is a point about the "memory palace" that many people seem to miss.) But for the sake of explanation we're going to pretend with a few examples:

-Ø your own house
-a the Plaza hotel in New York City
-e Maxim's restaurant in Paris
and so on....

(We lump -e and  together because these just happen never to appear in the same situation.) Now each syllable can be visualized as an image of a particular personage in a particular place. For example:

ba = b- + -a = Babe Ruth at the Plaza Hotel.
zha = zh- + -a = George Washington at the Plaza Hotel.
zh(i) = zh--Ø = George Washington at your house.
zhe = zh- + -e = George Washington at Maxim's.
ta = t- + -a = Tarzan at the Plaza Hotel.
a-Ø + a = Albert Einstein at the Plaza Hotel.

We can summarize all the combinations (so far) of initials and finals in a table:

-a -o -e -ai -ei -ao -ou -an -(e)n -ang -(e)ng
AlbertØ- er a o e ai ei ao ou an en ang eng
Babe b- ba bo bai bei bao ban ben bang beng
Peter p- pa po pai pei pao pou pan pen pang peng
Mark m- ma mo me mai mei mao mou man men mang meng
Frazier f- fa fo fei fou fan fen fang feng
Darth d- da de dai dei dao dou dan den dang deng
Tarzan t- ta te tai tei tao tou tan tang teng
Noriyuki n- na ne nai nei nao nou nan nen nang neng
Leonardo l- la lo le lai lei lao lou lan lang leng
Groucho g- ga ge gai gei gao gou gan gen gang geng
Karl k- ka ke kai kao kou kan ken kang keng
Herman h- ha he hai hei hao hou han hen hang heng
George zh- zhi zha zhe zhai zhei zhao zhou zhan zhen zhang zheng
Charlie ch- chi cha che chai chao chou chan chen chang cheng
Sherlock sh- shi sha she shai shei shao shou shan shen shang sheng
Ringo r- ri re rao rou ran ren rang reng
Zach z- zi za ze zai zei zao zou zan zen zang zeng
Columbus c- ci ca ce cai cao cou can cen cang ceng
Sam s- si sa se sai sao sou san sen sang seng

Notice that certain of the possible combinations, for example *be, just don't occur. This would mean, for example that Babe Ruth will never visit Maxim's. Notice also that we have handled the oddball syllable er by arbitrarily representing it as (Ø- + -Ø), or Albert Einstein at your house. This saves us from having to create an entire new column of the table just to handle this one case.  

This is the basic idea of the system. We still have some unanswered questions, though:

(1) What about those pesky tones?
(2) What about the intermediate symbols  -i--u-, and -ü-?
(3) What about the initials j-q-x-?

All to be answered in the fullness of time.

Handling Tones

First, question (1): we're going to expand the image to include the tone for the syllable by refining the location:

1st tone: In front,
2nd tone: Just inside the entrance,
3rd tone: Any other location inside,
4th tone: In the bathroom.

So, for example George Washington at the reception desk of Maxim's is zhe (2nd tone) whereas George Washington sitting at a table in Maxim's is zhe (3rd tone).

More Enhancements

Now, question (2), but first we focus just on the intermediate -i-. Standard Bopomofo practice would be to represent the syllable liao, for example, as l- + -i- + -ao. But we don't want to juggle three parts for the syllable, so our approach is to merge l- and -i- into a new initial li-. And since we need to distinguish li- from l-, we introduce a new personage Lauren (Bacall) to represent li- as opposed to Leonardo (l-). Similarly, we introduce:

Indira (Gandhi) for y- 
Brigitte (Bardot) for bi-
Paris (Hilton) for pi- 
Marilyn (Monroe) for mi-
Dorothy (Gale) for di-
(Mother) Teresa for ti-
Nancy (Pelosi) for ni-
Lauren (Bacall) for li-

Some points worth noticing: (i) This list is much shorter than the first, because f-, for example, never appears before -i-; (ii) These personages are all female, which will help you keep track of which initials have -i- and which don't.

And now we can introduce the remaining initials:

Gidget for ji-
Katharine (Hepburn) for qi-
Hattie (McDaniel) for xi-

There was no point in introducing these earlier because (just as f- never appears before -i-) j-, q-, and x- never appear except before -i- (or -ü-).

You may wonder why I chose Gidget to represent ji- instead of someone whose name begins with "J". This is to avoid confusion between zh- and j-, which are quite distinct in Chinese, although both come close to "j" than any other English sound. Confusing j- with g- is not really an issue because g- never appears before -i- or -ü-, exactly the opposite of j-.

(Representing j- by "G", q- by "K", etc. also has a solid historical basis, because Mandarin used to have a *gi syllable, but the g- took on a softer sound before -i [thus becoming ji], just as the English "g" in "giraffe" did, or the Italian "c" in "ciao". Likewise for *ki and *hi. Why do you think "Beijing" used to be spelled "Peking"? But once you learn the system by heart it won't matter anyway.)

So we can update our table with the new syllables (we're not finished yet, though):



The columns of the table are represented with the same places you already identified (all though you won't need all of them for this table).

Final Pieces of the Puzzle

Next step is to handle -u-. Just as with -i-, we fold this into the various initial sounds to make a new series of initials bu-, pu-, mu-, etc. And just as before, we assign personages for each of the new initial symbols:

Wonder (Woman) for w-
Bugs (Bunny) for bu-
Popeye for pu-
Mickey (Mouse) for mu-
Fred (Flintstone) for fu-
Dick (Tracy) for du-
Totoro for tu-
Ninja (Turtles) for nu-
Lisa (Simpson) for lu-
Garfield for gu-
Kang (& Kotos) for ku-
Huey (Donald Duck's nephew) for hu-
the Joker for zhu-
Charlie (Brown) for chu-
Shrek for shu-
Richie (Rich) for ru-
Ziggy for zu-
Casper (the ghost) for cu-
Superman for su-

This time I used characters from either comics or cartoons, to help keep this group distinct from the others. And here is the corresponding part of the table:

-a-o-ai-ei-an-(e)n -ang-(e)ng 



Charlie (Brown)chu-chuchuachuochuaichuichuanchunchuangchong

You will need to keep Charlie Brown distinct from Charlie Chaplin, but if you think this is going to be a problem for you, you can always change one name or the other. You will notice some spelling oddities: for example, zhu- + (e)ng becomes zhong instead of *zhung, but these merely reflect the way Pinyin works.

And then, finally, we create a series of initials with -ü- and their associated representatives:

Aphrodite for yu-
Neptune for nü-
Luna for lü-
Geryon for ju-
Cupid for qu-
Hermes for xu-

This time we use names from Greco-Roman mythology, to distinguish this series from the preceding three. You will notice that the Pinyin system drops the little dots over the -ü- in most cases. Once again, this is done only when there is no possibility of confusion. We keep the dots in nü-, because n- can precede both -u- and -ü-. We drop the dots in ju-, because j- can precede -ü- but not -u- (so you know the dots should be there even when not written). And Pinyin uses yu- to represent initial -ü- by itself.

Here is the final part of the syllable table:


The final column of this table (yong, jiong, qiong, xiong) springs one last gimmick. The combination (ju- + -(e)ng) does not represent *jung (that doesn't exist) but rather jiong. Strictly speaking, jiong would be composed of (j- + -i- + -u- + -(e)ng). For our purposes, this gimmick saves us from having to come up with another four personages to represent, for example, (j- + -i- + -u-). I wish I could take credit (or blame) for this idea, but it comes from the Bopomofo system. My guess is the creators of Bopomofo did not want to deal with sequences as long as four symbols.

Putting it all together

Let's close with an example. I'm going to take the case of this character:

Heisig and Richardson assign this character the keyword "seedling". It is composed of two simpler characters:  ("flower") and  ("rice field"). To memorize the writing of the character, the normal approach would be to make up a little story combining the elements of "seedling", "flower", and "rice field". But we're going to go one better, by working the pronunciation of the character into the same story. This is pronounced miao with a 2nd tone. (Note  is pronounced hua and  is pronounced tian, so there's no help there.) We break miao up into mi- and -ao. The personage for mi- is Marilyn (Monroe) and my location for -ao is the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku (you would of course pick your own location). So we could imagine something like this:

The lobby (2nd tone) of the Keio Plaza hotel (-ao) has inexplicably been converted into a rice field (). Strange seedlings sprout and rapidly grow to a great height, developing large flowers (). Each flower blooms to reveal a figure of Marilyn Monroe (mi-). It's important to visualize this, like a movie, rather than just read the words. This image will stick with you, and it contains all the basic facts about .