2007-11-19

Zhuyin or Hanyu Pinyin IME?

"This is Taiwan, we use Zhuyin input. So you should learn it too." This is something I have heard numerous times, but so far it was not very convincing. Why?

Well, first of all, the "we use Zhuyin" part is not quite correct. In the years I had been working at our school's computer centre I saw plenty of requests to get this or that IME installed, because "I can only use this one." If Taiwanese may be "picky", why not me?

Another reason against Zhuyin and for Hanyu Pinyin is of course the fact that I can get along with Latin script very well. My native language is using it, and also many others I encountered. So, for Hanyu Pinyin, one only needs to learn which letters are assigned to which sounds.

For Zhuyin, I would also need to learn the characters themselves. For a Taiwanese, Zhuyin makes sense because the characters are much simpler than most Hanzi. But for someone used to alphabets in Roman letters, this is an entirely new set to learn.

But when it comes to computer input methods, there are more important arguments. Zhuyin consists of 37 characters. When this script was created in 1913, people could hardly imagine computers. And when computers were created, people did not think of Zhuyin when they designed the first keyboard layouts.

The result? Zhuyin occupies not just 37 keys, there are four more for tone marks, so altogether 41 keys. The keyboard layout common in Taiwan is based on the standard English US layout. English operates with just 26 letters. That means, some more, usually differently assigned keys will be needed to input Zhuyin.

Did you ever notice that most Taiwanese will switch to the number keypad on the right when they have to key in numbers? There are numbers in the top row of the main key block, but... Those numbers are also used for Zhuyin characters. You want to key in Zhuyin? No numbers from there...

This is still a somehow acceptable workaround. Strange, but understandable. Much "funnier" are sentence marks. Just look at the layout: You need a period, a comma, a semicolon? Forget it! Did you ever notice how people write texts with Zhuyin? They write on the keyboard, sending the right hand to the keypad from time to time, and when they need a sentence mark, they will grab the mouse and click on a toolbar.

Without that special toolbar, the only other way available seems to be to call up a program displaying a character map, and to click on the sentence mark in question on that map. Microsoft has added such a toolbar to their office products, and the lack of such toolbar was an important reason why people in Taiwan did not want to use OpenOffice in the beginning. (problem solved some time ago)

Imagine this: You need a special toolbar, assigned to a certain application, to be able to finish a sentence with a period. That also means, you can not write correct Chinese sentences in a mail (at least not without trouble) if the mail program does not sport a sentence mark toolbar!

All these problems are hard to understand for someone used to Hanyu Pinyin input. Hanyu Pinyin is based on regular Latin script. It uses just one letter for a sound that is not in use in the English language: ü. This one has been replaced by "v" on English keyboard layouts.

But I really only need the letter keys to input language. The number keys are still giving me numbers when I press them, and the same original functionality applies to sentence marks. I can input ,。、 right from the keyboard, as long as I use the Hanyu Pinyin IME.

All these are pretty good arguments in favour of Hanyu Pinyin. And there is one more: You can use it basically everywhere on this planet, with almost any keyboard layout. Did you notice that quite a few Taiwanese living abroad bring a keyboard from Taiwan, so they can look up the keys they need for Zhuyin?

So, you want me to learn Zhuyin so I can use that IME? No... The Hanyu Pinyin IME may not always be easily set up on Windows, but it is very easy to use on Linux thanks to scim and Smart Pinyin, and it is very convenient on OS X now thanks to Fun Input Toy. If you ever wanted to know how an IME should behave, try FIT and enjoy...

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