Library- Pronunciation


Chinese Pinyin is the romanization of the Chinese "written sound". Romanization approximates Mandarin pronunciation with Western spellings and includes a tone mark to signify the pitch of a word.

Just like alphabet A - Z to English, Pinyin provides a phonetic alphabet for Chinese and is taught from Grade 1 in Chinese elementary schools. It is a fundamental tool used for learning the spelling of Chinese characters throughout Chinese language study.

Pinyin is used by most modern Chinese dictionaries to denote pronunciation of characters. It is also an efficient input method in Chinese computer software, which is natively supported by Microsoft Windows OS.

After mastering Pinyin, you can easily read Chinese books with Pinyin marked, learn Chinese characters by looking in the dictionary, or input Chinese characters into your computer, it will take your Chinese study to a higher level.

25 out of 26 English alphabet letters are used in Pinyin. Letter 'v' is not used, while letter ' ü' is added to represent the vowel sound of 'yu'.

Pinyin includes consonants and vowel letters.

1. Consonant letters

There are 20 consonant letters use in Mandarin (three consonants are represented by combinations of two letters - 'zh', 'ch' and 'sh'), they are:
b, p, m, f, d, t, n, l, g, k, h, j, q, x, z, c, s, zh, ch, sh, r, y, w

2. Vowel letters

There are 6 vowel letters used in Mandarin:
a, o, e, i, u, ü

3. Syllables

Syllables are composed by consonants, vowels and tone.

The consonant that begins a syllable is an Initial, they can be:

b, p, m, f, d, t, n, l, g, k, h, j, q, x, z, c, s, zh, ch, sh, r, y, w

The rest after the initial are finals. A Final can be a single vowel, a combination of vowels, or combination of vowels and nasals 'n' or 'ng':

There are 6 simple finals which are single vowels, they are: a, o, e, i, u, ü.

The others are compound finals, they are:
ai, ao, ou, ei, ia, ie, iao, iou, ua, uo, uai, uei, üe, an, ang, ong, en, eng, in, ing, ian, iang, iong, uen, ueng, uan, uang, ün, üan

The combination of 21 initials and 33 finals in Mandarin romanization (there are five more finals, but they share the same symbols as other finals) form about 420 different sounds.

A word pronunciation consists of initial and final with its tone. In some cases, the initial can be omitted.

Although most of the sounds are generally close to how they are used and pronounced in English, some don't follow English letters exactly and are pronounced differently.

Pay extra attention to the differences and listen closely to each Chinese sound, it takes practices to pronounce correctly.

The Tones of Mandarin Chinese

"Chinese is a tonal language."

This sentence has confounded millions of you, no doubt. To clarify, we don't mean that pronouncing the same word, or character, in different tones affects its meaning. Instead, we mean that the tone for each Chinese character is, for lack of a better word, assigned.

Mandarin has four tones - five if you count the "neutral" tone - and as you'll see below, pronouncing the tone just right is very important.

Written characters don't reveal their initials and finals, nor do they indicate which tones they are to be pronounced in.

Tones also have nothing to do with parts of speech or any other variable. Each character's "assigned" tone is simply learned when you study or "acquire" Chinese.

The four tones are usually depicted graphically with the accompanying chart, to show "where" each one occurs in tonal space.

The following table illustrates tone markings above the sound ma and describes how each tone is vocalized:

Tone Mark 汉字 Description
1st High and level.
2nd Starts medium in tone, then rises to the top.
3rd Starts low, dips to the bottom, and then rises toward the top.

Starts at the top, and then falls sharp and strong to the bottom.

neutral Flat, with no emphasis.

Here are a couple points to keep in mind as you soak in the table just above:

The four tone markings used in Pinyin were borrowed from the Yale system. The Wade-Giles system places a 1, 2, 3, or 4 after each syllable to indicate its tone. And this is very important: If you use the wrong tones, your listeners may not be able to understand you. Those of us who studied Chinese in Chinese-speaking regions remember quite well the frustration of not being understood early on simply because our tones were a little off.

Everyone seems to know this one: Yes, just by saying "ma" in different tones, you can ask, "Did mother scold the horse?"
(mā mā mà mă ma?)

Tones: essential to meaning

In spoken Mandarin Chinese, a word has one of four tones, or inflections. The tone distinguishes the word from other similar-sounding words (homonyms). When a Chinese word is written in the Roman alphabet (such as in pinyin, the official romanization system in the PRC), the tone is indicated either with an accent mark (diacritical mark) or with a numeral, 1 - 4.

And context has a big role...

In spoken Chinese, in addition to a word's tone, context plays a large part in conveying meaning. While context serves the same purpose in English (think of "bat," or "do, dew, due"), there are many fewer problem cases because English has fewer monosyllable words, while Chinese is a monosyllabic language.

There are not enough single-syllable sounds to have a rich vocabulary without repeated use of some. In fact, many must be reused, even in the same tone, making context very important in conveying meaning in spoken Chinese. In one medium-sized Chinese-English dictionary, I find six words pronounced da (first tone), seven pronounced da2, one pronounced da3, and one pronounced da4. In written Chinese (characters), the problems are reduced since, although some Chinese characters do stand for more than one word, most stands for only a single word.

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