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.
|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|