Derek, I am currently studying Tao philosophy under a Tai Chi instructor. I noticed he always pronounced "Tao" like the first sound of "dowel" instead of "towel," so I asked him why. He said that was how he learned it from his master in
The confusion started way back in the days when Europeans were trying to figure out Chinese. The year was 1842, and a young man by the name of Thomas Francis Wade found himself in
Wade had a gift for languages and it enabled him to pick up Cantonese quickly. No one knew much about Chinese at the time, so his talent elevated him through the ranks, and soon his role transitioned from soldier to interpreter, and then to diplomat.
Wade continued to learn Chinese while working in the British embassy in
Perhaps the worst was that he decided to reserve letters like d, b, j, and g for later use. He knew there were many dialects in
Although he meant well, this rule would cause endless confusion in later generations. Wade died in 1895 without ever finding a way to use d, b, j, and g. Reserving these letters turned out to be completely unnecessary, but by then it was too late. His provisional system had become the accepted standard, with its innovations as well as flaws.
Outside of the most specialized circles in academia, very few people understood that Wade's system mandated special pronunciations unlike any other usage in the English language. Thus, most people pronounced Tao like "towel" without realizing that it was originally meant to be like "dowel." Over time, the mistake became the accepted norm, so now both pronunciations appear in the dictionary.
We have an opportunity to set the record straight. We can continue to spell "Tao Te Ching" in its present form, because it is already part of the English language and thousands of books have been written about it. At the same time, we should also train ourselves to pronounce it like "Dao De Jing," in order to demonstrate the correct understanding of the actual sounds, and the subtleties of Chinese-to-English transliteration.
This extra bit of understanding can be useful. Next time you encounter people who claim to be experts in the Tao, listen carefully to how they sound out the word. Do they know how to say it correctly? If so, do they know the reason behind it? This can be a fun way to quickly assess how well they live up to their claims.