October 21, 2011

Be Careful with Phonetic Names

Recently Shawn Blanc (and John Gruber) noted that adding phonetic name fields to your contacts made it easier for Siri to understand and say their names.

What they didn’t mention is that adding information to these fields will almost certainly mess up the sorting of your contact list.

To understand why, you need to understand their intended function.

They are there to aid with the sorting of Japanese and Chinese names. That’s why they don’t show up by default when using English as the system language. (Oddly, they can’t even be added if you’re using British English.)

I don’t know much about Chinese, but most Japanese names are made up of two or more kanji characters. Each of these characters can be read in a number of ways. Just looking at the name does not tell you how to read it. There are a few names that use the same kanji but are pronounced very differently. Your computer or phone uses the information in the phonetic name fields to work out what the names sound like and how to sort them. They are usually written in hiragana or katakana, the two phonetic Japanese scripts. When your iPhone sorts your contact list, information in these fields will override the information in the regular name fields.

A messed up contact list may be a reasonable price to pay for a smoother Siri experience but you should be aware of it before you go adding phonetic information to all your contacts.