Hi all!

We've returned from our three week stint in China. If any of 
you are interested, you can follow our route on an atlas: we
landed in Beijing; after a few days there, we flew south to 
Nanjing, thence (after a day or so) by bullet train to 
Souzhou, then after sampling the gardens there, by bullet 
train to Shanghai. After our visit to Shanghai, we flew to 
Yichang to board a cruiser for our visit to the Yangtze dam 
project and cruise through the three gorges till we
disembarked at Chongqing. From thee we flew to Xi'an to see
the terra cotta warriors and eventually back to Beijing for 
one more night before flying to Hohhot, capital of the 
autonomous region of Inner Mongolia; there we had
one in night in Hohhot, before driving two & half hours to
the Mongolian grasslands to spend a night in yurt at the
Gegentala resort. The next day we returned to Hohhot for our
last night in China.

Sunday was an tedious & exhausting day of travel from 
Hohhot, via Beijing & London Heathrow to our home in leafy 
Surrey, UK. I've spent the last three days on backlog of 
emails, and local matters. I think all is now in order and I 
can return to Conlang   ;)

We couldn't help, of course, noticing all those hanzi 
characters around us. But we also saw plenty of Pinyin on 
signs over over the place (except in Inner Mongolia, where 
all official signs have to be written in Chinese hanzi and 
in Mongolian - there Pinyin was much more sparingly used). 
One thing was strikingly obvious: *diacritics _never_ 
appeared on any of the Pinyin we saw.*

Many examples were place-names written in block capitals 
(all upper case) and there is good & ancient European 
precedence for omitting diacritics on block capitals; but we 
also saw plenty of lower case stuff. There was not a single 
diacritic in sight - not one!

Nor was it only the tone marks that were omitted; the trema 
(umlaut) was also dropped over the _u_ when it represented 
[y] after _l_ or _n_. (I recall reading somewhere that _lü_ 
and _nü_ could be written as _lyu_ and _nyu_; if this so, it 
seems some one forgot to tell the Chinese!).

For some reason on some toilet doors, instead of translating 
the hanzi symbols as 'man' & 'woman' or 'male' & 'female', 
sometimes just the Pinyin _nan ren_ and _nu ren_ was given 
(obviously they thought the accompanying glyph was clear 
enough for foreigners). Never, never did I ever see _nüren_.

Thus while _nan_ could represent any of four different 
syllables, _nu_ could represent any one of eight!

At one point one of our guides mentioned the enormous burden 
hanzi places on primary school kids - but they seemingly 
cope in the end. When my wife asked if the Roman script 
would ever replace hanzi, she replied they would not and 
could not. She explained about the four different tones (and 
gave various examples) and said that if they used the Roman 
script they wouldn't know how to pronounce words! I.e. as 
far as she was concerned, 'real' Pinyin doesn't used diacritics.

I get the impression that diacritics are seen very much as 
secondary things to be used to teach the standard national 
pronunciation of hanzi in primary schools and in text books 
aimed at foreign learners (a bit like the use of the acute 
accent and the trema in Russian).

Of course, the Chinese guide was wrong. Vietnamese is a 
clear example that the Roman script can successfully be used 
to write a tonal language. But the Vietnamese have a 
distinct fondness for diacritics (even more than, I think, 
any European nation has)!

But even without diacritics, the syllables of Mandarin can 
be unambiguously written in Roman script in a system such 
the Gwoyeu Romatzyh, developed by Yuen Ren Chao (Pinyin: 
Zhao Yuanren) and other Chinese linguists in 1925/26. But I 
suspect it's unlikely that GR itself will make a comeback.

BJP has often accused us anglophones of "terror 
diacriticorum" [^1]; it would seem from what I could see 
that sinophones suffer from the same affliction      :)

[^1] I have also argued more than once that it's not a 
_terror_ for diacritics that we suffer from, but rather an 
over-riding indifference. After all, we happily employ them 
for effect, e.g. Häagen-Dazs, Motörhead and other examples 
of the "heavy metal umlaut." It's that anglophones just 
treat them as 'adornments'. The many years when my taught 
French, she had to work hard to make pupils realize that é 
and è actually denotes _different_ sounds.

Nid rhy hen neb i ddysgu.
There's none too old to learn.