Chinese phonetics - 注音 (zhùyīn) and 拼音 (pīnyīn)
As you may know, Chinese uses a character-based writing system, and thus may seem to have no apparent alphabet. However, Chinese has something similar to Japanese hiragana, called 注音 (zhùyīn), literally “phonetic”, or “note”+“sound”, which is a set of symbols representing phonetics. There is also a corresponding westernized equivalent called 拼音 (pīnyīn), literally “alphabetic”, or “spell”+“sound”. The bolded letters, “pīnyīn” is already an example of how pīnyīn is used and looks like .
Note however that these are only used as pronunciation guides, and are never used to replace formal characters in writing. As such, there is generally no need to learn zhùyīn, since pīnyīn was created as a one-is-to-one replacement for zhùyīn to make it easier for westerners to learn Mandarin. Most online sites, including Google translate also use pīnyīn to show the pronunciation.
The Chinese “alphabet” has 21 consonants (initials) and 16 vowels (finals). There are also 4(+1) tones, which will be discussed later.
Below are the 注音 zhùyīn symbols with their corresponding 拼音 pīnyīn equivalents.
Consonants or Initials
Except for ㄐㄑㄒ (which are pronounced with a long “ee” sound), all other consonants are pronounced by themselves with a very short “uh” sound, as if just sounding out the consonant sound in English.
Note also that there are many pairs of unaspirated and aspirated consonants. When pronouncing unaspirated consonants, you should feel no air coming from your mouth if you hold your palm in front of it, while the opposite is true for aspirated consonants. Chinese actually has no “b”, “d” and “g” sounds, however these letters are used in pīnyīn to represent the unaspirated “p”, “t” and “k” sounds respectively.
Finally, there are three sets of consonants with similar initial sounds: ㄐㄑㄒ, pronounced with an “ee” sound; ㄓㄔㄕ, pronounced with an “h” consonant cluster; and ㄗㄘㄙ, with the plain consonant sounds.
ㄅ = b (unaspirated “p” sound)
ㄆ = p (aspirated “p” sound)
ㄇ = m
ㄈ = f
ㄉ = d (unaspirated “t” sound)
ㄊ = t (aspirated “t” sound)
ㄋ = n
ㄌ = l
ㄍ = g (unaspirated “k” sound)
ㄎ = k (aspirated “k” sound)
ㄏ = h
ㄐ = j (unaspirated “tsee” sound, similar to a “dzee” sound)
ㄑ = q (aspirated “tsee” sound)
ㄒ = x (“see” sound, but with more air)
ㄓ = zh (unaspirated “ch” sound, similar to a “dzh” sound)
ㄔ = ch (aspirated “ch” sound)
ㄕ = sh (“sh” sound, but with more air)
ㄖ = r
ㄗ = z (unaspirated “ts” sound, similar to a “dz” sound)
ㄘ = c (aspirated “ts” sound)
ㄙ = s (“s” sound, but with more air)
Vowels or Finals
As with the consonants, there are also three sets of vowels with similar vowel sounds: ㄚㄜ, which are the plain vowel sounds; ㄢㄣ, pronounced with a final “n” sound; and ㄤㄥ, prnounced with a final “ng” sound.
ㄚ = a (short “a” sound as in “far”)
ㄛ = o (short “o” sound, as in somewhat in between “awe” and “oh”; lips are more rounded)
ㄜ = e (short “uh” sound; always used alone or directly after a consonant phonetic)
ㄝ = (i)e (short “e” sound as in “bed”; there is no confusion with ㄜ because ㄝ always comes after the ㄧ (yi) phonetic, to form the “ie” combination when spelled out in pīnyīn)
ㄞ = ai (long “i” sound as in “hi”)
ㄟ = ei (long “a” sound as in “hay”)
ㄠ = ao (“ow” sound as in “how”)
ㄡ = ou (long “o” sound as in “hoe”)
ㄢ = an (short “an” sound as in “can”)
ㄣ = en (short “un” sound as in "fun)
ㄤ = ang (short “ang” sound as in “hang”)
ㄥ = eng (short “ung” sound as in “hung”)
ㄦ = er (short “er” sound as in “her”)
ㄧ = yi (long “ee” sound as in “see”; the “y” is not sounded if pronounced alone or following a consonant; when spelled in pīnyīn following a consonant, the “y” is dropped.)
ㄨ = wu (long “oo” sound as in “soon”; the “w” is not sounded when pronounced alone or following a consonant; when spelled in pīnyīn following a consonant, the “w” is dropped.)
ㄩ = yü (“yuee” sound, similar to the ㄧ(yi) phonetic, but the “y” is sounded, and lips are more rounded; when spelled in pīnyīn following a consonant, the “y” is dropped.)
Chinese has four tones, plus a fifth neutral tone, which is usually used for sentence-final particles like 嗎 Simplified: 吗 (ma), 吧 (ba) and 呢 (ne), or repeated characters like 爸爸 (bàba) or 媽媽 Simplified: 妈妈 (māma) Since it’s a neutral tone, there is no tonal mark used in pīnyīn. However, in zhùyīn, the fifth tone is represented by a dot above the consonant.
- 第一聲 Simplified: 第一声 (dì yī shēng) First tone: This is pronounced like a monotone sound. No tonal mark is used for zhùyīn, while a horizontal line is used in pīnyīn, such as in 巴 (bā).
- 第二聲 Simplified: 第二声 (dì èr shēng) Second tone: This is pronounced with a short upward inflection, somewhat like when asking “huh?” The tonal symbol for both for zhùyīn and pīnyīn is an upward flick, such as in 拔 (bá).
- 第三聲 Simplified: 第三声 (dì sān shēng) Third tone: This is pronounced with a deep and gentle downward dip followed by a very subtle upward inflection, which is often dropped. The tonal symbol for both zhùyīn and pīnyīn is a checkmark, such as in 把 (bǎ).
- 第四聲 Simplified: 第四声 (dì sì shēng) Fourth tone: This is pronounced with a quicker downward tone, as if angry. The tonal symbol for both zhùyīn and pīnyīn is a downward mark, such as in 爸 (bà).
Tones are often practiced by repeating the same syllable in each of the four tones : bā bá bǎ bà. pā pá pǎ pà. mā má mǎ mà. fā fá fǎ fà.
- Each Chinese character is composed of exactly one syllable.
- Some words are composed of two or more characters, and in pīnyīn, all syllables of the word are written together with no space. There is no confusion where each syllable begins and ends because of the specific combinations of phonetics allowed.
- Each syllable is composed of 0 or 1 consonant followed by 0-2 vowels, with at least one zhùyīn. The corresponding pīnyīn is always spelled with at least one English vowel.
- Zhùyīn is written vertically with the consonant on top and the vowel/s at the bottom, usually on the right of the character it represents. Pīnyīn is written from left to right, usually below or next to the character.
- Each syllable has a tone. In zhùyīn, the tone symbol is always written at the upper right of the last vowel of the syllable, or above the consonant if there are no vowels. For pīnyīn, the tone symbol is written above the first English vowel of the last phonetic part of the syllable (For example, in the syllable ㄐㄧㄠ (jiāo), the tonal symbol is written above the “a”, which is the first English vowel of the last phonetic sound ㄠ (ao).
For a full list of phonetic combinations, along with the pronunciations in different tones, here is a source at echineselearning.com.
- Most of the consonants must be paired with at least one vowel to form the phonetics of an actual word. Only the last 7 consonants can stand alone in a syllable. When spelled alone in pīnyīn, the letter “i” is added to the end of the syllable: ㄓ(zhi) jㄔ(chi) ㄕ(shi) ㄖ(ri) ㄗ(zi) ㄘ(ci) ㄙ(si), and the tonal mark is above the “i”. The pronunciation remains the same with the super short “uh” sound. There is no confusion since these consonants never appear before the ㄧ(yi) phonetic.
- ㄐ(j) ㄑ(q) ㄒ(x), the only consonants pronounced with a long “ee” sound, can only be used directly before the ㄧ(yi) or ㄩ (yü) phonetics
- All vowels can stand alone, except for ㄝ and ㄟ.
- Vowels may also come in pairs, but only ㄧ(yi) ㄨ(wu) ㄩ(yü) can be the first in a two-vowel combination. When this happens, the pronunciation may change accordingly. For example, the syllable ㄅㄧㄢ(b + yi + an = bian) is pronounced with a short “ie” sound, like in the Spanish “bien”, but quicker as one syllable. On the other hand, the syllable ㄅㄧㄣ(b + yi + en = bin) is pronounced with a short “i” as “pin”.
Special rules in pīnyīn for vowel combinations: (These are only rules for spelling, but pronunciation is not affected.)
- In the above example, the pīnyīn of ㄅㄧㄣ is spelled as “bin” instead of “bien”. This is a special rule for the combinations ㄧㄣ(yi + en = yin) and ㄧㄥ(yi + eng = ying). In this case, the final “e” is dropped, and the “i” remains.
- A similar rule applies with the ㄨㄣ combination, unless there is no consonant in the syllable. That is, ㄨㄣ(wu + en = wen), but ㄉㄨㄣ(du + en = dun). The ㄨㄥ(wu + eng = weng) combination is never found after a consonant.
- When the syllable has no consonant and ㄧ(yi) or ㄨ(wu) are combined with another vowel (with the exceptions of ㄧㄣ, ㄧㄥ, and consonant+ㄨㄣ special cases above), the “i” or “u” is dropped. For example, ㄧㄢ (yi + an = yan), and ㄨㄛ(wu + o = wo).
- For vowel combinations ㄧㄡ (yi + ou = you) and ㄨㄟ (wu + ei = wei) when followed by a consonant, the first letter of the last phonetic is dropped instead. For example, ㄉㄧㄡ (d + yi + ou = diu) and ㄉㄨㄟ (d + wu + ei = dui).
- When not preceded by a consonant, or when ㄩ(yü) comes after ㄐ(j) ㄑ(q) or ㄒ(x), the dots above the “ü” are dropped. This is because ㄜ(u) and ㄨ(wu) can never come after ㄧ(yi), ㄐ(j) ㄑ(q) or ㄒ(x), so there will be no confusion.
So I think I’ve covered most of it. If I missed anything, or if you have better examples or questions, feel free to add or ask!
- Corrected and added some notes for the pronunciation of the last three vowels ㄧㄨㄩ, and corrected all the misspellings of “pronounciation”
- Added pīnyīn rule for ㄧㄡ and ㄨㄟ combinations when follwed by a consonant in the syllable, and added change log.
- Edited with dreamtimer.sourceforge.io/endecoder/
- Formatting edits