Learn Chinese 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:
- The letters b, d, and g are really the unaspirated versions of p, t, and k. This simply means that they are pronounced in the way the letters p, t, and k are pronounced after the letter s (as in spy, sty, and sky). The difference is subtle enough that, unfortunately, many Chinese phrasebooks do not bother to point out this crucial difference.
- The letters q, x, z, and c are pronounced more like the letters ch, sh, ds, and ts in cheap, she, suds, and cats, respectively.
- The letters zh, ch, sh, r are known as the retroflex initials, meaning that they should be pronounced with the tongue curled backwards.
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:
- The finals ui, un, and iu, are actually shortcut for uei, uen, and iou, respectively, so should always be pronounced as such.
- The letter ū is written simply as a u (no ūmlaut) when it follows the letters j, q, x, or y.
- The letter i represents three different sounds dependent on the initial that precedes it. When it follows the so-called sibilant initials (z, c, s), it sounds like "zz". When it follows the retroflex initials (zh, ch, sh, and r) it sounds like "rr". In all other cases, it sounds like the English "ee".
Click on any of the pinyin shown in blue to hear it pronounced.
|b||bù||不||not||Unaspirated p, like the p in spy, not the b in bye.|
|d||duì||对||correct||Unaspirated t, like the t in sty, not the d in dog.|
|g||gè||个||piece||Unaspirated k, like the k in sky, not the g in good.|
|q||qǐng||请||please||Like the ch in cheap|
|x||xià||下||below||Like the sh in she|
|z||zǎo||早||early||LIke the ds in suds|
|c||cuò||错||wrong||Like the ts in cats|
|zh||zhēn||真||real||These "retroflex" initials should be pronounced with the tongue curled backwards.|
|w||wǒ||我||I||Not a true initial. The letter u is written with a w when no initial is present.|
|y||yǒu||有||have||Not a true initial. The letter i is written with a y when no initial is present.|
|er||èr||二||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.|
|ui||duì||对||correct||ui is always pronounced as uei|
|un||zhǔn||准||standard||un is always pronounced as uen|
|i||yī||一||one||Like "ee in speech.|
|zǐ||子||child||When the final i follows one of the "sibilant" initials (z, c, s) it sounds more like "zz".|
|shì||是||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).|
|iu||jiǔ||久||long ago||iu is always pronounced as iou|
|ū||nǚ||女||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.|
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.
|1||mā||妈||mom||starts high and stays there|
|2||má||蔴||hemp||starts at mid-range and ends high|
|3||mǎ||马||horse||starts mid-range, dips low, ends mid-range|
|4||mà||骂||scold||starts high and ends low|
|Neutral||ma||吗||question particle||neutral tone|
- Pinyin Combination Table. The actual number of syllables in use is only about half the number of possible combinations of initials and finals.
- Zhuyin and Pinyin Conversion Table. If you learned Zhuyin, popularly known as Bopomofo, you can quickly learn the Pinyin system using this simple conversion table.
- Mandarin Phonetic Systems Conversion Table. Shows the corresponding representation among the four most popular phonetic schemes used in recent history: Pinyin, Wade-Giles, Yale, and Zhuyin.