Chapter 1:Overview of pronunciation and Pinyin romanization


Chinese Grammar  Updated: Sat, Oct 20, 2012 23:42 PM   By HugChina


The Chinese syllable can be made up of three parts: an initial consonant, a final, and a tone. This section presents a brief overview of the initials, finals, and tones of Mandarin Chinese. Initials and finals are presented in Pinyin romanization.

1. The Mandarin syllable

The syllable in Mandarin Chinese can be made up of three parts: an initial consonant, a final, and a tone. For example, the syllable má 麻 is made up of the intial m, the final a, and the rising tone [/]. Syllables need not have an initial consonant. The syllable è 饿 is made up of the final e and the falling tone [\]. In addition, a syllable may lack a tone. Syllables that do not have a tone are referred to as having neutral tone.

This section presents a brief overview of the initials, finals, and tones of Mandarin. Initials and finals are presented in Pinyin romanization. For a guide to their pronunciation, please consult a beginning level Mandarin textbook.

1.1 Initials

The Mandarin initials are presented here in the traditional recitation order:

Type of sound Initial

1 bilabial b p m f

2 alveolar d t n l

3 velar g k h

4 palatal j q x

5 retroflex zh ch sh r

6 alveolar affricate/fricatives z c s

1.2 Finals

Finals are listed by initial vowel.

a finals a an ang ai ao

o/e finals o e en eng ei ou ong er

u finals u ua uo uai ui uan un uang ueng

i finals i ia iao ie iu ian in iang ing iong

ü finals ü üe üan ün

1.3 Tones

Tone is the pitch contour of the syllable. Mandarin has four contour tones and a neutral tone. In most romanization systems of Mandarin, the tone is indicated by a diacritic over a vowel, or as a number following the syllable.

The following chart illustrates the contour of the four Mandarin tones when a syllable is spoken in isolation, that is, when it is neither preceded nor followed by another syllable.

1 level pitch ¯

2 rising pitch ´

3 falling-rising pitch ˇ

4 falling pitch `

Syllables whose isolation tone is the third tone change their contour in certain contexts as follows.

When a third tone occurs before another third tone, it is pronounced as a rising (second) tone.

3 + 3 -> 2 + 3

hěn hǎo -> hén hǎo 很好 very good

When a third tone occurs before any other tone, it is often pronounced as a low tone.

In this book, we indicate the change of a third tone to a second tone within a single

word. For example, we write 所以 as suóyǐ and not as suǒyǐ. We do not indicate tone changes that occur across words in the Pinyin spelling. For example, hěn hǎo will be written as hěn hǎo and not as hén hǎo.

Tone is an inherent part of the Mandarin syllable, and Mandarin uses tones to distinguish meaning in the same way that the choice of a consonant or a vowel distinguishes meaning. Notice how tone determines the meaning of the following syllable.


1 mā (ma1) 妈 mother

2 má (ma2) 麻 numb

3 mǎ (ma3) 马 horse

4 mà (ma4) 骂 scold

neutral ma (ma5) 吗 question particle

2. Pinyin romanization

Mandarin is written with Chinese characters, but characters do not provide consistent information about pronunciation. Therefore, Mandarin is typically studied via a transcription. Many transcription systems have been devised for Mandarin Chinese in China and in the West. Most of these are based on the Roman alphabet, and are therefore termed ‘romanization’ systems. In 1958, the People’s Republic of China established Hanyu Pinyin (usually referred to as Pinyin) as its standard Romanization system. Because of the widespread use of this system of Pinyin in Chinese language teaching around the world, it is used to transcribe the Chinese words in this book.

2.1 Placement of tone mark in Pinyin

If a final includes three vowels, or two vowels and a final consonant, the tone mark is written over the second vowel:

kuài huán biān qióng

If a final includes two vowels and no final consonant, the tone mark is placed over the first vowel, unless the first vowel is i or u:









2.2 Some additional Pinyin conventions

‘u’ after the initials j, q, and x is pronounced ü but is written as u.

When ‘i’ and ‘ü’ begin a syllable, they are written as yi, and yu.

When ‘u’ begins a syllable it is written as w.

In two syllable words, when the boundary between syllables is not clear from the Pinyin spelling and more than one interpretation of the boundary is possible, an apostrophe is used to separate the syllables. For example, if the second syllable begins with a vowel, an apostrophe is used: Xīān vs. xiān.

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