Hanyu Pinyin, or simply Pinyin, is the the standard way of Romanising Chinese, or simply put, allows Chinese words to be written with the standard Latin Alphabet, A though to Z. Pinyin also uses tone markers (accents) to denote the four Mandarin tones. Pinyin provides a uniform way of documenting and thus standardising Chinese pronunciation. Pinyin is commonly used to to both teach children and adults Chinese pronunciation of words, but is not a replacement for Chinese characters.
I’m going to assume that you have an understanding of the basics of Chinese language and as such I will not be going in to the details of what a tone is or how characters are comprised. If you want a brief introduction please refer to my previous post .
Table of Contents
How to write sentences in Pinyin
An example is probably the best way to demonstrate how Pinyin is used:
If you were to write this without separating out the words in a table, it would look like this:
tā shì hěn cōngmíng
Referring to the Pinyin Sentence (not the table), note that:
- There are no spaces between characters in Chinese
- Chinese words are written in Pinyin without spaces, however spaces are shown between words.
- Each character sound in a word is not capitalised, so “smart” is written as cōngmíng and not CōngMíng
- Each word has a vowel, making it easy to pronounce
- All characters in Pinyin are standard English with the exception of
ǜ which has two dots above it. For convenience, when entering in Pinyin to a smart phone or computer, the letter v is used a substitute for ǜ (as there is no “v” in Pinyin)
Because they were scared of flying, Tom and Mary drove from Xian to Beijing
Yīnwèi tāmen duì fēixíng kǒngpà, tāngmǔ hé mǎlì cóng xī’ān dào běijīng kāichēle
A few things to note:
- Names such as Tom and Mary use are use characters that sound similar to the English word, that is phonetically similar.
- Proper nouns, that is place and people’s names are capitalised as in English. In this example Beijing, Xian, Tom and Mary are capitalised
- Pinyin words do not nicely line up with Chinese characters. For this reason books that show Pinyin are sometimes formatted to align the Chinese characters and Pinyin, leading to more blank spaces that wouldn’t normally be present between Chinese words. This also makes it for a learner to know which characters belong to which word.
- You should also note that Xian is written as Xi’an to clarify that it is not the word 先 (xian, first).
- Commas and full stops are used in both Pinyin and Chinese, which Chinese punctuation being a full character width, unlike English where punctuation is half width. To demonstrate – note that the square brackets are to demonstrate the width of the character and can otherwise be ignored:
- [。] in Chinese versus [.] in English
- [，] in Chinese versus [,] in English
- [？] in Chinese versus [?] in English
- [！] in Chinese versus [!] in English
Pinyin is not an alternative to using Chinese characters
As useful as Pinyin is, it is not a replacement for Chinese characters. This is because any number of Chinese characters have the same pronunciation and as such the Pinyin for all these characters is identical
I will demonstrate with an example:
wǒ de chē hěn màn
My car is slow
wǒ de chē hěn màn
My car is full
As you can see, both full and slow have the same pronunciation. While you would no doubt understand the meaning based on context, this really prevents Pinyin from being a replacement for Chinese characters.
Chinese Initials, Finals and Tones
How are words comprised in Pinyin? What is the formula? Actually it’s very easy: Each syllable in Chinese is made up of one character and each character is made up of one initial, one final and a tone. So let me reiterate to be clear:
- Chinese words are made up of one or more characters
- Each character is the equivalent of a syllable
- Each character is made up of
- One initial (one or more English consonants but not vowels)
- One final (containing a vowel – a,e,i,o,u – and other consonants)
- One tone (high, rising, inflected, falling or neutral)
This is different to the English language whereby each word is made up of consonants and vowels. With Pinyin each character is very similar as a syllable in that each character has its own pronunciation and spoken together form a word
Take for example the word for “boss”, 老板 (lǎobǎn). In this case “boss” is made up of the characters 老 (lǎo) and 板 (bǎn), thus the word is pronounced by saying the characters one by one “lǎo – bǎn”. Note that when Mandarin is spoken by a native speaker the characters are pronounced in quick succession, similar to the way that in English we don’t pronounce the vowels individually unless we are perhaps teaching a child to sound out a word.
So what is an initial and final? An initial forms the first half of the word and the final the second half. A few examples will possibly help:
As you can see from the above table, each word is made up of an initial and a final.
How to learn Chinese Pinyin pronunciations
It should be noted that Pinyin was designed for Chinese speakers, not non-native speakers. For this reason the pronunciation of Pinyin is not the same as English; essentially Pinyin uses the Latin alphabet, but does not necessarily attribute the English sounds to those letters. Unless you are living amongst Chinese speakers and intend on learning the language essentially via osmosis, it is important to take the time to learn Pinyin and most importantly Pinyin pronunciations. One of the largest difficulties of Chinese is ensuring you can be understood, which means pronouncing words correctly and with the right tone.
So how do you learn Chinese pronunciation? Practice. Practice. Practice.
There are really only two ways to learn Chinese pronunciation:
- One by one learn the Pinyin initial and final sounds. This can be done by running through a table of initials and finals (see below). There are many Chinese Songs which runs you through pronunciations, which may be of great use.
- Learning through osmosis. By listening to Chinese audio with accompanying Pinyin Chinese pronunciation can be learned indirectly. This is the approach that I took when learning Mandarin and it has served me well.
My recommendation is to learn Pinyin pronunciation as you progress your Chinese. Drilling yourself on the Pinyin initials + finals table is good practice, but I would not recommend letting yourself become bogged down with this as that can lead to fatigue. Spending 5 minutes a day running through the initials + finals table in combination with practising your pronunciation as you listen to Chinese audio is the best approach.
What I’ve said here applies equally for tones. You will need to practice your tones, however it will take time to improve and you will ideally need feedback on your pronunciation from a native speaker. If you do not have a native speaker record yourself and compare your spoken Chinese with another Chinese audio source.
It is very important not to become despondent with your pronunciation. I have seen more than once people giving up on Chinese due to poor pronunciation. Although most native speakers are overly generous with complimenting you on your Chinese, even when your pronunciation may be atrocious, you will come across native speaker who criticise learners of Chinese; sometimes all it can take in the early stages of learning is a little negative criticism to derail your endeavours. Good pronunciation of Chinese characters and words takes time, you won’t learn it over night, it may take a long time – years – to perfect. Moreover, when you begin to try and speak sentences in Chinese it can feel like running through an obstacle course with your mouth and tongue. Don’t be disillusioned, you are improving, but remember: practice, practice, practice.
Aspirated and unaspirated sounds
Before I provide a list of all the initials and finals, we need to cover what is meant by aspirated versus unaspirated sounds
- “Aspirated” refers to a sound that is accompanied by a burst of breath, think of the way you pronounce “bit”, “cat” and “pin” in English; in all of these examples you are forcing air through your mouth when you pronounce the word.
- “Unaspirated” refers to a sound that isn’t accompanied by a burst of breath, in English this includes words such as “mouse”, “lie”, “wine” or “night”; in all of these examples you are not forcing air through your mouth when you pronounce the word.
Complete list of all Chinese Pinyin initials
Below is a complete list of all the initials that make up Chinese words:
|Pinyin||Example pronunciation||Description / other examples||Difficulty Level|
|b||bit||Unaspirated b, as in “that dog bit me!”||Moderate|
|p||pip||Aspirated as in “this apple has a pip!”||Easy|
|m||many||The same as English||Easy|
|f||fig||The same as English||Easy|
|d||dead||Unaspirated as in “dead”. Almost the same as English||Moderate|
|n||nice||The same as English, other examples: nit||
|l||lawn||The same as English, other examples: lake, love||Easy|
|k||kill||aspirated k, the same as English||Easy|
|h||hay||The same as English. There is some variation with pronunciation, however an English ‘h’ sound is acceptable.||Moderate|
|j||churchyard||No equivalent in English, but similar to an unaspirated “chy” as in “churchyard”.||Difficult|
|q||lunch||There is no equivalent in English. Make an English ‘ch” sound as in “lunch”, while keeping the tip of your tongue stuck to the back of your teeth.
For a learner I suggest using the English “ch’ sound and slowly tune it as you get more familiar with the sound.
|x-||push||There is no equivalent in English. Make an English “sh” sound, while keeping the tip of your tongue stuck to the back of your teeth and pushing the middle of your tongue upwards.
For a learner I suggest using the English “sh’ sound and slowly tune it as you get more familiar with the sound.
|zh-||june||Pronunciation is not the same as English, it is closer to the “j” sound in the word “june”, however your tongue should be further back.||Difficult|
|ch-||church||Similar to English, however your tongue should be further back compared to the English. You can get away with the English “ch” sound.||Moderate|
|sh-||shoe||Similar to English, however your tongue should be further back compared to the English. You can get away with the English “sh” sound.||Moderate|
|r||ray||Similar to the English “r” in “reduce”.||Easy|
|z-||floats||unaspirated c, similar “s” in “floats”||Easy|
|c-||cats||Similar to the “ts” in “cats”||Easy|
|s-||say||The same as English||Easy|
|w-||why||The same as English||Easy|
|y-||yes||The same as English||Moderate|
Complete list of all Chinese Pinyin finals
Below is a complete list of all the finals that make up Chinese words:
|Pinyin||Example pronunciation||Description / other examples||
|-a||ha||Similar to English||Easy|
|-ai||Thailand||Similar to English||Easy|
|-ao||Ouch||Similar to the start of the word “Ouch” in English||Moderate|
|-an||“arn”||This doesn’t have an exact pronunciation in English, however “arn” without the “r” sound is a an approximation.
If you are familiar with the Jamaican accent, this is very similar to the “an” in the way a Jamaican would pronounce “yes man”.
|-ang||A + the ng sound in “gong”||There is no close English approximation, however the “ng” in gong has the required nasal sound – as opposed to English words like “long” where there is no nasal sound. This is best pronounced by combining the English “a” sound with the nasal sound from “gong’||Moderate|
|-e||ahh, duh, done||The “u” sound in “ah”, “duh” or “done”, is the best approximation of this sound|
||he “un” in “bun” and “fun” are close to the pronunciation, however it has more of an “e” sound.
An alternative approximation of the sound is to pronounce the word “earn” without “r”
|-eng||Hung, lung||The “ung” in “hung” and “lung” are a close approximation of the sound, but not entirely the same||
|-ei||eight||The “ei’ in “eight”||Easy|
|-i||see||The same as the “ee” in “see”||Moderate|
|-ia||ee + a||This is pronounced as the -i (above) combined with an “a” ending.||Moderate|
|-iao||ee+ouch||This is a combination of the -i pronunciation (above) “ee” combined with the “ou” sound in the word ‘ouch”: ee-ou||Difficult|
|-ie||yeah||Pronounced as the “eah” in “Yeah”||Moderate|
|-iou-io-iu||leo||Pronounced like the “eo” lin the name “Leo”. It doesn’t matter if you see this written as “iou”, “io” or “iu”, they are all pronounced as if they were written “iou”.||Difficult|
|-ian||ee + en||Pronounced as a combination of the “-i” sound with “en” as in the name “ben”||Moderate|
|-iang||ee + ung||Pronounced as a combination of the “-i” sound with “ung” (as in “sung”)||Moderate|
|-in||ee + n||Pronounced as a combination of the “-i” sound with “n” at the end.||Moderate|
||Very similar to the “ing” in the word “bing”, however with the “i” pronounced as an “ee’ sound||Moderate|
|-iong||song||Pronounced as the “ong” in the English word “song”||Moderate|
|-ou||oh||This is the same as “oh” in English, which is somewhat counter-intuitive as -o carries a different sound||Easy|
|-o||or||The English word “or” is a reasonable representation of the sound of -o||Moderate|
|-ü||ew||This is not the same sound as “u”. To make this sound round your lips and keep your tongue straight. “Ew” as in “Ew yuck” is a close approximation, however keep your lips rounded.||Difficult|
Special character ü
ü is a special character that does not exist in English. The sound that ü makes is not a sound you will hear in English, however it is not very difficult.
ü is not the same sound as “u”. To make this sound round your lips and keep your tongue straight. “Ew” as in “Ew yuck” is a close approximation, however keep your lips rounded. As an example a common word you will come across that uses ü is the colour green: lü (绿).
The character sounds where you will see the ü character written are:
To add confusion, ü is written without the dots as a standard “u” when the initial cannot be combined with both u and ü. Below are character sounds that use ü, but are written without the dots.
|yu||ew||This is the “ü” sound as previous described. The dots are not written.||3|
|yue||ew-eh||This is the “ü” sound, but finishes “an”. You should pronounce this as a single syllable, so not “ew-eh” but “eweh”.
The dots are not written.
|yuan||ew-an||This is the “ü” sound, but finishes “an”. You should pronounce this as a single syllable, so not “ew-an” but “ewan” – think of the name ‘Ewan McGregor”
The dots are not written.
|yun||ew-n||This is the “ü” sound, but finishes “n”. You should pronounce this as a single syllable, so not “ew-n” but “ewn”||3|
Where are Pinyin Tone Marks placed?
Pinyin characters use accents to mark the tone of a character, for example: mǎ, má, mǎ, mà, ma. Note that not tone marker denotes a neutral tone.
Pinyin tone marks are always place on the vowel of the word. Where a word has more than one vowel, such as shou (手, hand) or gei (给, to give), the tone mark is placed on the second vowel.
If there is more than one vowel (a,e,i,o or u) in a characters Pinyin and the first first vowel is “u”, “ü” (sometimes written as “v”) or “i” then the tone mark is placed above the second vowel.
So what if a tone occurs above the letter i, which already has a dot? In this case you do not write the dot, just the tone. This avoids clutter.
Words without initials
Just when you thought it all made sense, there are also words without initials. Specifically, characters starting with “e”, “o” and “a”. To be clear, not all characters with “e”, “o” and “a’ don’t have an initial, as plenty do, however there are some that do not. Examples of these are in the table below:
|Gull (bird) 鸥||ou||–||ou|
Northern dialect – erhua – 儿化
The “Erhua” ( 儿化 ) is a feature of the northern dialect in China in places such as Beijing. So what is “erhua”? It is where “er” is added to the ends of some words, for example:
- 那 (nà) becomes 那儿 (nà’er)
- 玩 (wán) becomes 玩儿 (wán er)
I would suggest that a learners efforts on replicating the erhua pronunciation are misplaced. It is far better that time be spent on learning and practising your Mandarin. Put another way, if you were learning English, you wouldn’t try to learn an American, Scottish or Australian accent without first being reasonably fluent in the language; I feel learning erhua is the same – it’s important to be able to understand speaks who use erhua, but it is not important to be able to replicate it.
Pinyin in a nutshell
To wrap this up, Chinese words are comprised of one or more characters, each of which forms a syllable that is comprised of two parts, the first part of the word, called the initial and the second half of the word, called the final. Each word has one of the four Chinese tone marker placed above the vowel, or where it is neutral no tone marker is used.
I strongly recommend picking up Pinyin as you go and not spending time drilling initials and finals. You will find that exposure to example words and sentences with the character and pinyin is more than enough to get a grasp for Pinyin and chinese pronunciation.