A letter in the Independent newspaper last week (Wednesday 21 November), from Shirin Tata of London, explained the spelling and pronunciation of Peking as ‘a close approximation to the Cantonese name for the city (“puck-ing” with a hard “p”)’. This came about, the writer says, because early contacts between Europe and China were with traders and seamen from the south of China, and the Europeans copied their pronunciation for place names. This explanation is similar to that for the origin of the English name for Livorno in Italy: Leghorn (now obsolete), which is a close approximation to the local dialectal form for the name: Ligorno.
However, I have a different explanation for Peking: some of the earliest European travellers to China were Jesuit priests – the first dictionary of Chinese for Europeans was written by Jesuits – and as these would mainly be from southern European countries and speaking Romance languages, they would have transcribed what they heard in terms of their own languages, whether French, Spanish, Italian or Portuguese. In all these languages, the voiceless plosives (/p. t. k/) are unaspirated, unlike the English equivalents. As the initial consonant of the Mandarin name for Peking is also unaspirated, the priests will have written down a ‘p’. The following vowel (or diphthong) is, or at least starts as, a half close front vowel, and the spelling convention for this in all the Western Romance languages is ‘e’ (or ‘é’ in French). The next consonant is also unaspirated, but pronounced in the palatal area, auditorily closest to the sound represented in European languages by a ‘k’ when it occurs before a front vowel, as in this case. The final velar nasal is a sound that occurs only allophonically in French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, so again, the nearest sound was used: [n]. This gives us the French version of the name Pékin, borrowed into English (the spelling ‘Pekin’ was common at one time).
I find this more satisfactory as an explanation than that of Shirin Tata, as it accounts for the initial ‘p’ in the English – and general European – spelling. Both the Cantonese and Mandarin pronunciations have what Shirin describes as a ‘hard’ p – in other words, an unaspirated sound, which is far more similar to English /b/ than it is to English /p/.