This lesson shows the pronunciation of pinyin, the standard Romanization system used for Mandarin Chinese and the one that will be used throughout the textbook. While most of the letters are the same or very close to the English usage, there are some important differences.
Mandarin Chinese may sound strange, but is actually relatively easy for English-speakers to pick up—much easier than it is for Mandarin-speakers to learn English. A large part of the reason is that Chinese has a very limited sound inventory, meaning there are not many sounds in the language, and hardly any new ones if you already know English. On the other hand, that means Chinese-speakers trying to grasp English must learn to create dozens of entirely new sounds—remember that as you proceed through these first lessons on pronunciation!
One very different aspect of Chinese is its use of tones. Because of its limited inventory, pitches of voice are used to help differentiate words. While some dialects of Chinese have up to nine tones, Mandarin is comparatively easy with only four. It’s often difficult for beginners to distinguish the tone of a word, especially when not sure of the context. Even if you have perfect pitch, it may be hard to follow or reproduce what can seem like a rollercoaster ride of tonal transitions. Don’t worry though, as you’ll improve with practice. These lessons will describe how to understand and reproduce all the syllables and tones of Mandarin.
If you know another Romanization system or the IPA
If you are familiar with Zhuyin (bopomofo), Tongyong Pinyin, or the Wade-Giles system of Romanization, Wikipedia has an equivalency chart comparing the different systems. Learn to use Hanyu Pinyin—the most common Romanization system for Chinese, which will be used for the rest of the text.
The IPA, or International Phonetic Alphabet, is a standard set of symbols that can be used to write any sound from any human language. The sounds of pinyin are listed below in IPA.
The Mandarin syllable
The tone is represented by a tone mark placed on top of the syllable. There are exactly four tone marks: ˉ, ˊ, ˇ, and ˋ. The two dots on ü (like a German umlaut) do not have to do with the tone, so if you see ǖ, ǘ, ǚ, or ǜ, the symbol above the dots represents the tone.
The initial is:
- in the beginning of a syllable
- a consonant (not including y, or w)
- usually one letter, except for zh, ch, sh
The final is made up of the letter(s) after a syllable’s initial, not including the tone mark. A final:
- begins with a vowel
- can be made of 1-4 characters
- ends with a vowel, n, ng, or r
Exceptions to initial-final combinations in syllables
Some syllables have no initial or no final. In Pinyin, this is shown as follows:
- For syllables with no final:
- an unpronounced i is added to the end of the syllable
- Occurs only with the following initials:zh, ch, sh, r, z, c, s
- For syllables with no initial:
- if the final begins with an i, it is replaced with a y
- if the final begins with an u, it is replaced with a w
- if the final begins with an ü, it is replaced with yu
- Exceptions to the above:
- i alone is replaced by yi
- iu is replaced by you
- in is replaced by yin
- ing is replaced by ying
- u alone is replaced by wu
- ui is replaced by wei
- un is replaced by wen
- ueng is replaced by weng
One other exception:
- when combined with initials j, q, x; any ü in a final is changed to u.
Please note that the pronunciation of these syllables is not according to the English pronunciation of the letters. The next few pages give examples of how initials and finals are pronounced, put together, and how to use tones.