As mentioned in our post Survival Mandarin – Getting Started, Hanyu Pinyin (or Pinyin for short) is the most widely-used romanization system for Standard (or Mandarin) Chinese today. It is the official transliteration system in the People’s Republic of China, in Malaysia, in Singapore and in Taiwan. Most learners today use Pinyin to aid them in taking their first steps to Chinese literacy.
Chinese school children reciting Pinyin
Hanyu Pinyin was developed to help literacy in China and facilitate Chinese learning, and adopted by the Chinese government in 1958. In 1982, it was accepted as an international standard for the transliteration of the Chinese language, and in 1986, it was recognized by the United Nations. Taiwan – which formerly used the Wade-Giles system for transcribing Chinese characters – started using Pinyin in 2008, after the Kuomintang (or Guomindang in Pinyin) came back into power.
Pinyin is split into initials (at the beginning of syllables) and finals. Many initials are pronounced the same as in English, but find in the table below the ones that are different from how someone who speaks English would read them.
The second part of a Pinyin syllable is the final. They are mostly pronounced by applying the rules for the initials and adding some “normal” English pronunciation – with some exceptions (are you sensing a pattern here?). We’ve listed the exceptions for you in the table below.
Since Mandarin is a tonal language (meaning that the same transliteration can have different meanings depending on how it is pronounced), Pinyin uses four diacritics on top of vowels to show the four tones. Diacritics are little marks above letters, like the accents in French or the ñ in Spanish.
Pinyin uses the following four diacritics:
The first one looks like this ¯ and goes over vowels to denote the first tone:
To pronounce it, think of a constant high pitch, like an upbeat “Hi!”
The second one looks like this ´ and goes over vowels to denote the second tone:
To pronounce it, think of a mid-level pitch rising to a high pitch; similar to the pitch change in English making a question from a statement as in “He ate dog?”
The third one looks like this ˇ and goes over vowels to denote the third tone:
To pronounce it, think of a somewhat low pitch, which gets even lower, then rises to a somewhat high pitch. Imagine saying “Really?” in an exaggerated way and tilt your head along with the pitch.
The fourth one looks like this ` and goes over vowels to denote the fourth tone:
To pronounce it, think of a high pitch dropping to a low pitch. Imagine you dropped or spilled something all over the floor and are now using your favorite four-letter word – that is what the fourth tone should sound like.
In general, when learning how to pronounce the tones, it helps to stand up and move your hand while you are saying the word. It might be humiliating at first, but it generally really helps with getting them right. Check yourself in the mirror – if your hand movement is off, your pronunciation most likely is as well. Funnily enough, there are quite some Chinese learners who use their head movement to control they are pronouncing their tones right. While helpful, this makes for a strange sight when these foreigners then have conversations with locals while bobbing all over the place.
If we have not scared you off and you are still reading this – while it sounds very very confusing, you get used to reading Pinyin fairly quickly, actually. Lucky for us Chinese learners, not all possible combinations of initials and finals actually exist and of those that exist, not every tone is used. But it is still quite a large number. If you are overwhelmed, you might want to check out a table of Pinyin syllables (such as this one) that gives you the pronunciation of all possible syllables with all the possible tones that are used in Mandarin Chinese today.
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written by Julie Marx