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What is Bopomofo?

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  • Written By: Diane Goettel
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 02 November 2016
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Bopomofo or Zhùyi-n fúhào is a very important part of the Chinese language and has an interesting, and somewhat complicated, history. Bopomofo is simply a phonetic and alphabetic way to simplify the Chinese language, which is made up of thousands of characters.

In 1913, the government of China sponsored the Conference in Unification of Pronunciation during which delegates worked toward developing a new, simplified version of Chinese script. This new alphabet was originally called the Zhùyin Zìmu, or “phonetic alphabet.” It was later renamed Gúoyin Zìmu, or “national phonetic alphabet. In 1930, the alphabet was given yet another name, Zhùyin Fúhào. This official name, which has not been altered since 1930, translates to mean “phonetic symbols.”

Despite the many name changes and altered definitions of this set of Chinese symbols, it is most popularly known as bopomofo. This name is simply a composite of the first four symbols; bo, po, mo, and fo. It is much as if English speakers called the alphabet "ABCD" instead of simply "the alphabet". Bopomofo is often used in Chinese dictionaries in order to explain the pronunciation of a word. It is also used in some magazines and textbooks. In some ways, Bopomofo is much like the phonetic system that English speakers use in dictionaries and other grammatical texts.

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Bopomofo includes 37 different symbols that have each been derived from traditional Chinese characters. The fact that the Chinese language has been condensed into this 37-character short hand language is an incredible feat. In its simplified form, the Chinese language includes over 6,000 characters. During the Quing Dynasty (1662-1723) a massive dictionary of Chinese characters was compiled. It included over 45,000 characters.

Bopomofo is an incredibly helpful tool for individuals who are learning Chinese and need help with pronunciation. Furthermore, Bopomofo is very useful in the world of technology. Bopomofo allows Chinese-speaking people to input text into their cell phones. For example, Bopomofo is used in phone contact lists, web browsing, and text messaging.

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