CHARACTERS Up until this century, the Chinese had only ever used characters to write their language. With such unparalleled continuity in their writing system, it is not surprising to learn that they don't want to give it up or something.
For millennia, Chinese has been written in characters. Beautiful and beguiling in their complexity, the characters convey little or no phonetic information at all, rendering written Chinese utterly incomprehensible to the untrained.
Their main advantage is that, while the Chinese actually speak several different languages and dialects (1), they read and write using the same script.
PROBLEMS Several transliteration schemes have been used for Mandarin Chinese over the years, notably the somewhat inaccurate Wade-Giles system, invented over a century ago and still in use in Taiwan and by overseas Chinese communities. But the first scheme to be devised by the Chinese for the Chinese is Pinyin.
TRANSLIT SCHEMES Obviously the burden this placed on children learning to write was phenomenal, and literacy rates were very low. So, in an effort to make Chinese legible to more than a handful of people, the government firstly simplified over 2,000 characters, later commissioning the creation of pinyin (literally meaning 'spell-sound'), officially adopted in 1958 and taught in Chinese schools since then.
PINYIN The total number of people who can read pinyin is difficult to ascertain. In an increasing number of places, such as on road signs, pinyin appears below the Chinese characters.
Pinyin is supposedly based on the Mandarin spoken by educated Beijingers.
Chinese syllable structure is very simple: a single initial consonant (almost always, though a handful of syllables start with a vowel) followed by a vowel, and sometimes followed by another consonant, which can be one of only three kinds (n, ng or r – see below)
Given this predictable structure, it is not surprising that pinyin sounds are grouped into ‘initial’ and ‘final’, rather than consonants and vowels. Here the finals have been divided into three categories, see below.
Understanding this Entry
This entry aims to provide a firm grounding in Mandarin pronunciation, but if you concentrate on the tables, you should be able to get the gist of things. However, the entry is more of use as a reference for those who are learning Chinese and have access to a native speaker or tapes.
The tables break down as follows:
Column One gives the pinyin letter.
Column Two gives a representation of the sound of the letter using English-style spelling.
Column Three has an example English word containing this sound.
Column Four contains an example Mandarin word.
Column Five is a notes column containing mostly positional rules and pronunciation tips.
Some of the sounds can only be approximated in English. These appear in bold, and there is more information about them in the notes column or below the main table. Approximations are made mostly using British accents, with American equivalents included where necessary.
Features of Chinese Pronunciation
The basic unit of meaning in Chinese is the syllable. Each syllable is represented by one character.
Chiefly about I and y, u and w. Also u and ü.
Nearly all syllables in Mandarin start with a consonant. Most of the consonant sounds are represented by one letter – note that even those that use two letters are all single sounds.
|h||h||h||hao||good; often pronounced more harshly in Chinese|
The following sounds call all end a syllable in Mandarin. In addition, an 'r' is added to the end of some syllables.
|i||uh||about||si||after c, s, and z,|
|i||ur||burn||zhi||after r, ch, sh and zh|
|u||ew||qu||after j, q, x or y|
|ü||ew||nü||only appears after l or n|
a - like RP u in butter; like Northern English and US a in father.
i - like Scots 'eh', a longer version of short 'e' but tighter.
i - the lips should be spread wide, and the sound kept distinct.
o - like Northern English or Scots 'oh': lips should be quite tightly pursed.
u - put your lips in a small circle.
There are several diphthongs in Mandarin.
The following vowel plus consonant combinations are used in pinyin. As noted above, only n, ng and r can end a syllable in Mandarin.