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Pinyin and Pronunciation

Pinyin was originally invented for Chinese people, but is a godsend for learners of Chinese.

Pinyin (Pīnyīn – 拼音) is the Romanised system of representing Chinese pronunciation. There are a handful of new sounds to learn, but other than that it’s really very straightforward. Unlike in English, there is only one way to pronounce each word in pinyin.

Before the advent of pinyin the Wade-Giles system of Romanisation was used, and you still see it used sometimes in names and academia. Neither system is perfect, but pinyin now dominates the scene.

Words in pinyin are made up of ‘initials’ and ‘finals’, so for example, the word for hot, ‘rè’ is made up of the initial ‘r’ and the final ‘e’.

Although Chinese is a tonal language, there are actually only a small number of ‘pronunciations’ in the language, in other words, there are less new sounds to learn than with other languages.

Among the initials (ie, the starts of words), there are a few which are pronounced very differently from English:

Q – like the ‘ch’ in cheese Qing, qiao
C – like the ‘ts’ in rats Ci, cao
R – like the ‘s’ in leisure Ren, ri
X – like ‘sy’ Xing, xiao
Z – like the ‘ds’ in roads Zi, zong
Zh – like ‘j’ in jam, but with the tongue curled back slightly Zhong, zha

Vowels are pronounced as detailed below:

A like the a in rather in American English
Ai like the i in high
Ao like the o in cow
E like the e in errr…
Ei like the a in hay
I like the ee in Lee, or like the oo in took after c, ch, r, s, sh, z or zh
Ian like ‘Yen’
Ie like ‘Yeah’
O like the o in for
Ou like ‘Oh’
U like the u in flute
Ui like ‘way’
Uo runs u and o together, u-o, sounds like wo
Yu Pucker your lips as if to whistle and say ‘Yee’, sounds like Y and the German ‘ü’
Ü like the German ‘ü’

Most Chinese words end with a vowel sound. There are only two ‘vowel endings’ in standard Mandarin, they are ‘n’ and ‘ng’. They are the same as in English, eg ban and bang, but slightly more nasal.

A lot of people, (particularly Beijingers), add an ‘er’ sound to the end of certain words, for example ‘wán’ becomes ‘wánr’, and the ‘er’ is represented by the character ‘儿’.

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