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Chinese Language Study Aids

Pinyin Rules: Initials, Finals, and Tones

A Mandarin syllable consists of three components: an initial, a final and a tone.

Pinyin uses the same letters as the English alphabet except for the letter v plus the addition of ū. All of the consonants represent basically the same sound that they have in English with the following exceptions:

Since pinyin was designed to represent phonetics, it is entirely consistent on how combination s or initials and finals should be pronounced. There are, however, a few conventions and shortcuts that you should be aware of:

Click on any of the pinyin shown in blue to hear it pronounced.

Initials

  As in Note
b bù not Unaspirated p, like the p in spy, not the b in bye.
p péng friend  
m mā mom  
f fēn cent  
d d correct Unaspirated t, like the t in sty, not the d in dog.
t tiān sky  
n nǐ you  
l l six  
g gè piece Unaspirated k, like the k in sky, not the g in good.
k kè guest  
h hěn very  
j jiàn see  
q qǐng please Like the ch in cheap
x x below Like the sh in she
z zǎo early LIke the ds in suds
c c wrong Like the ts in cats
s sān three  
zh zhēn real These "retroflex" initials should be pronounced with the tongue curled backwards.
ch chī eat
sh sh say
r rè hot
w wǒ I Not a true initial. The letter u is written with a w when no initial is present.
y yǒu have Not a true initial. The letter i is written with a y when no initial is present.

Finals

  As in Note
a mā mom  
o wǒ I  
e kè guest  
ai lái come  
ei měi beau­tiful  
ao hǎo good  
ou yǒu have  
an ān peace  
ang shàng above  
en hěn very  
eng péng friend  
ong dǒng under­stand  
er èr two Some Northeners, especially around Beijing, add an er sound to certain words (for example: na becomes nar and bian becomes bianr). However, unless you know that that particular word is used in that manner, do not indiscriminately add an ending er to try to sound more Northern.
u bù not  
ua h flower  
uo sh say  
uai kuài fast  
ui d correct ui is always pronounced as uei
uan huān happy  
uang huáng yellow  
un zhǔn stand­ard un is always pronounced as uen
i yī one Like "ee in speech.
zǐ child When the final i follows one of the "sibilant" initials (z, c, s) it sounds more like "zz".
shì to be When the final i follows one of the "retroflex" initials (zh, ch, sh, r) is sounds more like a "rr" (hence zhi, chi, shi, ri should be pronounced like zhrr, chrr, shr, rrr).
ia x below  
ie x thanks  
iao xiǎo small  
iu j long ago iu is always pronounced as iou
ian tiān sky  
iang liǎng two  
in xīn heart  
ing míng bright  
iong qióng poor  
ū nǚ woman The letter ū is simply written with a u when the initial is j,x,q, or y but it should still pronounced with the ū sound.
ūe y month
ūan yuán dollar
ūn jūn army

Tones

Chinese is a tonal language, i.e., a tones change the meanings of words. Since Mandarin has a limited number of syllables, there are a lot of homophones whose meaning varies with the tone. In the table shown to the right, the syllable is ma but the tone is different. In fact, we can assemble the following sentence:

妈妈骂马吗 - māma mà mǎ ma?
Properly pronounced, the sentence translates into "Does Mamma scold the horse?"

Mandarin is normally said to have just four tones. However, there is also a neutral tone which does not occur very often but is just as important. The tone is indicated by a tone mark placed on top the vowel. It should be placed on the letter a or e is present, on the letter o in the ou final, and on the last vowel in all other cases. The neutral tone is indicated by the lack of tone mark.

Tone As in Note
1 mom starts high and stays there
2 hemp starts at mid-range and ends high
3 horse starts mid-range, dips low, ends mid-range
4 scold starts high and ends low
Neutral ma question particle neutral tone

See also

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