BY CchattyArticleComprehensive Chinese
Release time:2018-12-22
Tag: Chinese Language
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Pinyin - Phonology of Mandarin Chinese. Pinyin is a Romanized letter spelling system created with close reference to Western language, used for annotating the pronunciation of Chinese characters.
part 1

Classification and Representation of Pinyin Sounds

Initials and Finals

As mentioned in the introduction ( An overview of Chinese Language ), Pinyin is a Romanized letter spelling system created with close reference to Western languages like English, used for annotating the pronunciation of Chinese characters. And like English, Pinyin also uses 26 letters (as signs to represent pronunciation), but two points differ from the English alphabet: letter "v” does not exist, and there is an additional letter “ü”. A Chinese syllable -- the pronunciation of a Chinese character -- is usually composed of two parts, the initial sound, and the final sound, and so all Pinyin letters are largely classified into two major categories in accordance, although there are several special cases of the so-called "semi- initials” ("y", "w") and "semi-finals" ("i", "u"). 

That is to say; the initial and final letters are combined ("spelt") to form syllables (the sounds of characters in Mandarin Chinese). In both categories, there are some basic single-letter sounds and sounds of two or more letters. A larger part of the Pinyin letters is pronounced with great similarity to English. There are many possibilities of combinations, but not all are realized because some sounds that are possible in Pinyin spellings do not exist in Standard Mandarin although they may be used in one or other Chinese dialect. In the following, we will introduce the different categories, with some brief description in reference to English.

part 2

Simple Initials


This category refers to those single-letter initial sounds. There are 18 such letters for these sounds in the Pinyin system, listed in the following table according to their positions and features of articulation:

Special Notes: the letters with superscript indicate those with distinctively different pronunciations in contrast to the English.

Simple Initials

In comparison to the English consonant letters, this list has left out "w" and "y", because they are respectively pronounced in the same way as the final letters "u" and “I” (see below), and thus considered as "semi-initials" that are already contained in the latter two. The consonant letter "v" does not exist in Standard Mandarin Chinese, and so the key to this letter on the keyboard is used for the additional Pinyin letter "ü".

The articulations of these simple final sounds are explained in the following table, with reference to English:

Group 1 Labial: sounds made with the lips

Simple Initials - sounds made with the lips

Group 2 Alveolar: formed with the tip of the tongue against the bony ridge behind the upper front teeth.

Simple Initials- Alveolar

Group 3 Velar: formed with the back of the tongue close to or touching the soft part of the roof of the mouth.

Simple Initials - Velar

Group 4 Palatal: formed with the back and middle of the tongue close to or touching the roof of the mouth.

Simple Initials - Palatal

Group 5 Dental sibilant: formed with the tip of the tongue close to or touching the back of the upper front teeth.

Simple Initials - Dental sibilant

Group 6 Retroflex: formed with the tongue curled back so that it touches (or almost touches) the hard part of the roof of the mouth.

part 3

Compound Initials

Compound Initials 2

There are three Pinyin signs for the initial sound that are represented by combining two initial letters: “zh”, “ch”, and “sh”. Although there is another compound Pinyin sign made up of two initial letters, namely "n+g", but it is a nasal ending of final sounds and not a compound initial sign, with exactly the same function as in English (like "sing" and "wrong"). While "n" attached to a syllable changes it to a front nasal sound, "ng〃 makes a back nasal sound.

Compound Initials

part 4

Simple Finals

Simple Finals

The remaining Pinyin letters are all for final sounds. One letter is a simple final and a combination of two or more letters is a compound final. In contrast to the English vowel letters, there is a new one "ü" in Pinyin. So there are 6 simple final letters in Pinyin: a, o, e, i, u, ü.

a: Similar to the vowel "a" in "far" and "father" in British English.

o: Similar to the vowel in "saw" and "more" in British English.

e: Similar to the vowel in "bird" and "sir" in British.

The position of articulation of "e" is more to the middle in the mouth, as in American English.


i / yi: Similar to the vowel in "eat" and "east", but it begins by the consonant "y" as in "yes". "Yi" is used when there is no other initial letter before "i". However, it is not pronounced when preceded by "c", "s", or "ch", "sh", "zh" and "r". The pronunciation of these initials remains unchanged either with "i" or without, all with harsh vibration of the vocal cord as if there were a vowel ending.


u / wu: As the English word "woo" or the vowel in "too". It contains both the English consonant /w/ and vowel /u:/. However, the combination in "ju", "qu", "xu" is misleading, for the "u" in them is, in fact, simplified writing of "ü", given that the combinations of the three initials and "u" do not exist in Mandarin Chinese.


ü / yu: Similar to the German "ü" or the French "u". Sliding from "y" as in English "yes" to "you" and stopping just before "ou" will produce this sound.


In the above, "y" and "i" in fact have exactly the same pronunciation, with "y" treated as a "semi-initial" and "i" is treated as a "semi-final". And as "w" is treated as a "semi-initial", "u" is treated as a "semi-final". When there is no initial letter preceding, it is written as "yu" to stand as a syllable.

part 5

Compound Finals


There are quite many combinations of two or three final sound letters in Pinyin, and they can largely be classified into two types, namely "nasal finals" and "oral finals'


1), Compound Oral Finals

There are 13 final sounds in this group: ai, ao, ei, ia, iao, ie, iou, ou, ua, uai, üe, uei, uo. And their articulations are explained below.

ai: Similar to the vowel in "high" and "bike".

ao: Similar to the vowel in "how" and "now".

ei: Similar to the vowel in “may” and "say".

ia / ya: Begin by pronouncing "y” as in "yes” and slide to "a" as in British "are", without retroflex "r". The spelling "ya" is used when it stands as an independent syllable.

iao / yao: The combination of the beginning consonant in "yes" and the vowel in "how". The spelling "yao" is used when it stands as an independent syllable.

ie / ye: Similar to the English "ye”,as in "yes". The spelling "ye" is used when it stands as an independent syllable.

iu / you: It might be represented as "iou" or "yiou" but these are not used. It is a slide from "y" as in "yes" to the "o" in "go". The Pinyin spelling "you" is used when it stands as an independent syllable.

ou: As the vowel in "go" and "so".

ua / wa: Similar to the American "what" without "h" and "t", but more like the French vowel in "quoi". The English spelling of this sound might be "wah". The spelling “wa" is used it when stands as an independent syllable.

uai / wai: Similar to the English word "why". The spelling "wai” is used when it stands as an independent syllable.

ue / üe / yue: It is a slide from Pinyin "ü" (German “ü" or the French "u") to the vowel "e". In the syllables "jue", "que", "xue" and "yue", this "ü" is written as "u". The spelling "yue” is used when it stands as an independent syllable.

ui / wei: It might be represented as "uei" or "wuei" but they are not used. Similar to the sound in "wait". It is spelt as “wei" when it stands as an independent syllable.

uo / wo: Similar to the British English "war" (without retroflex). The spelling "wo” is used when it stands as an independent syllable.


2). Compound Nasal Finals

When a single final or any one of the above compound finals is followed by "n" or "ng", the sound becomes nasal, that is, pronounced through the nose as well as with the mouth. Those ending with "n" are referred to as "front nasal finals", and those ending with "ng" are "back nasal finals". There are many possible combinations in this category, but Standard Mandarin doesn't have all the possibilities realized. That is to say, some combinations don't exist. There are all together 16 compound nasal finals in Pinyin, with 8 as front nasal finials and the other 8 as back nasal finals.

Front nasal sounds (as the coda in the English words "son" and "sin") include 8 compound finals: an, en, ian, in, un, uan, ün, üan.

an: This ‘a is as described above (pronounced like the British "are", without retroflex "r"). To pronounce "an" you just let air out through the nose. Keep your mouth open as big as when you pronounce "are" to avoid confusing it with the English article "an".

en: Similar to the pronunciation of "earn" in British English, but its position of articulation is more to the front in the mouth as in American English. Don’t pronounce the retroflex "r".


ian / yan: Pinyin "y"' + "an". It is a slide from the consonant "y" as in "yes" to Pinyin "an" as described above. The spelling "yan” is used when there is no initial sound in the beginning.


in / yin: Similar to the English preposition "in" but begin with "y" as in "yes". The spelling "yin" is used when it stands as an independent a syllable.


uan / wan: Pinyin "u" + "an" (might be written as "wuan" although it is not used). In "juan", "quart", "xuan" and "yuan", the "u" is pronounced as "ü". The spelling "wan" is used when it stands as an independent a syllable.


üan / yuan: Pinyin "ü" + "an". However, "an" is affected by "ü" and thus is more like the vowel in "man" and ”ban”. It occurs only in the syllables "juan", "quan", "xuan" and "yuan", and in other combinations the sound is "u" ("wu") but not really "ü".


un / wen: Pinyin "w + en", as described above. The writing "un" is used if the syllable begins with a different initial than "w". It might be written as "wuen" but this is not used. When there is no initial consonant, this sound is spelled "wen" as one syllable.


ün / yun: Pinyin "ü" + "n". It occurs only in the syllables "jun", "qun", "xun" and "yun". In other combinations, the sound is "u" ("wu") but not really "ü". When there is no other preceding initial, it is written as "yun" as an independent syllable.


Back nasals (as in the English words “song” and "sing") include 8 compound finals: ang, ong, eng, iang, iong, ing, uang, ueng.


ang: This "a" is as described above, followed by a "ng" sound. It sounds like the preposition "on" in American English, or "song" without "s".

eng: This "e” is as described above, followed by the nasal "ng” sound. When you let air out through the back of your nose as you pronounce the vowel in British "urb" or "work" you get it the right Pinyin "eng".

iang / yang: Pinyin "y" + "ang", similar to the American pronunciation of "young". The spelling "yang" is used when it stands as an independent a syllable.


ing / ying: As in English ("sing"). The spelling "ying" is used when there is no consonant in the beginning of a syllable.


iong / yong: Pinyin “y" + "u" + "ng". The "o" is affected by "y"⑴ and so sounds similar to the vowel in "too". The spelling "yong" is used when there is no consonant in the beginning.


ong: Pinyin "o +ng", pronounced by letting air out through the back of your nose as you pronounce "o" as described above (Similar to the vowel in "saw" and "more" in British English).


uang / wang: English "w" + Pinyin "ang". The spelling "wang" is used when it stands as an independent a syllable.


ueng / weng: The writing "ueng" is not used but it might indicate the pronunciation. This sound is pronounced as English "w" + Pinyin "eng".

part 6

Summary: All Pinyin Sounds

Summary All Pinyin Sounds

To make a summary of all the initial and final Pinyin sounds we have so far described, we can say that many Pinyin representations are similar to those spellings in English, and some others are not hard to infer because the rules by which they are formed are similar. We only need to pay special attention to those sounds that are distinctively different from English. The special points to bear in mind are as above.


1, The Pinyin system uses largely the same letters of the English alphabet to represent sounds of Chinese characters, as English and many other languages use IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) to annotate the pronunciation of words. Although IPA may also be used by Chinese scholars and language teachers in their work, it is nevertheless not commonly used in Chinese dictionaries. So the function of Pinyin system in teaching and learning Chinese is similar to that of IPA in teaching and learning English.

2, Pinyin system is strictly rule-governed, for the word "Pinyin" itself literally means "spelling sounds", or "putting sounds together". The general principle guiding Pinyin is, to begin with the initial sounds and naturally slide to the final sounds. So theoretically each initial sound might be combined with each final sound, and this would make the possibilities of Chinese pronunciation very great. However, many such possibilities are not realized in Standard Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua) even though they may be heard in one or other Chinese dialect.

3, In nature, Pinyin initial sounds are like English consonants, while final sounds have the similar function as the English vowels. However, the two should not be simply taken as exact equivalents, for the status of Mandarin Chinese as an open-syllable language determines that its consonants are not used at the end of words (characters). The two categories of "initials" and “finals” are generally clear-cut. But there are five sounds that are somewhat ambivalent, "y", "w”, "i", "u" and "ü", of which the first two might be classified in the group of initials but they are pronounced exactly the same with the finals (or "semi-finals") "i" and "u" respectively, and the last one "ü” contains the sound of "y" (i) in the beginning of its articulation although it is classified as a final. These special points lead to the rule that any Pinyin syllable (for a character ) that begins with "i" or "u" or "ii" is to be written with additional "y" or "w" in front, with "y" to lead "I” or "ü” and "w” to lead "u", just to make them look right.

4, With the above rule, most Pinyin syllables are written in the form of "initial + final". But there are also syllables that begin with final sounds, and these mainly include those using "a", "o", and "e". However, the number of such syllables in Chinese is limited to just a few.

5, To people who speak or have learned English, the Pinyin system is not difficult to command because a well over half of the letters are pronounced similarly, and one only has to remember the rather limited number of letters that are pronounced with drastic differences. There are merely 7 of such letters and another one that is not used in English but in German: j, q, x, z, c, i, zh, ü.

6, The last point to note is that all initial signs (letters) are in fact pronounced differently when they stand just as names of Pinyin signs, different from when they are used in combinations. That is, each of them is attached a coda. For the first 11 initials (b, p, m, f, d, t, n, l, g, k, h), the sound of Pinyin "e" (pronounced as the vowel in the British "worker") is added. For "j, q, x", Pinyin "i" is used as a coda (pronounced similarly as the English "ea" in "eat" but begins by "y" as in "yes"). And for "r, zh, ch, sh", a nondescript buzzing ending sound produced by hard vibration of the vocal cord follows. And this is also one point that makes Pinyin initials differ from the English consonants.

To conclude, we can say that Pinyin has in its system 21 initials, 6 simple finals, 13 oral compound finals, and 16 nasal finals, all listed in the following table.

All syllables in Standard Mandarin can be represented by these sounds or their combinations, but not all possible combinations are actually used. Now we can make a complete table of the used syllables that can be "spelt" from the above table. Listen to the recording as you read the table.

part 7

Special Cases: Sound Change (Sandhi)

Pinyin sheet all

"Sandhi", a word from Sanskrit, originally means "join". In the analysis of spoken language, it refers to the change in pronunciation of some sounds that occurs when spoken in connection with other sounds. In Mandarin Chinese, a language with tones, this kind of change can be observed in both pronunciation and tones. Here we will first introduce the change of pronunciation and leave the tonal change in the next chapter that exclusively and systematically deals with the tones.

There are mainly two categories of sound sandhi in the pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese, namely the change of "a"(啊) and the so-called Er-Hua change. The first occurs when "啊" is preceded by a syllable with an ending that can influence its pronunciation. And the second emerges in syllables followed by and thus influenced by the retroflex (written as "er” in full, which indicates the pronunciation of the character "儿"). Such changes are seen bellow, with the four tones of syllables marked with superscript numbers and the light tone left unmarked.


1, Change of "a” (啊)

The exclamatory “阿" (represented in Pinyin as the final sound sign "a") has no substantial meaning except showing a strong emotion. It is subject to influences of certain other preceding sounds, particularly the nasal sound and a few final sounds that may merge with it.

The Nasal Change of “a” (啊)

A.      From “a (啊)” to “na (哪)”

“啊" is naturally changed into “哪 (na)" when following a syllable ending with the nasal sound "n”.

天啊 Tian1 a à 天哪 tian na: Heaven

山啊 Shan1 a à 山哪 shan na: Mountain

神啊 Shen2 a à 神哪 shen na: God/Angel

心啊 Xin1 a à 心哪 xin na: Heart

云啊 Yun1 a à 云哪 yunna: cloud


B.      From “a (啊)” to “ga (噶)”

As in English, Mandarin Chinese not only has the nasal ending "n" but also "ng”. For instance, there are "chan" and "chang", "shen" and "sheng", etc. which may be representations of different homophonic characters or characters of same pronunciations but different tones. While "n" is called "the front nasal sound", "ng" is called "back nasal sound", which can also influence the immediately following "啊”, such as the following:

唱啊 Chang4 a à 唱啊 / 噶 changa/changnga: Sing

听啊 Ting1 a à 听啊 / 噶ting a/ting (n) ga: Listen

冲啊 Chong a à chong a / chong (n) ga  (冲啊 / 噶): Charge/Attack

想啊 Xiang3 a à xiang a / xiang (n) ga (想啊 / 噶): Think

升啊 Sheng1 a à sheng a/sheng (n) ga (升啊 / 噶): Raise

However, it should be specially noted that the Pinyin representation of "ng" does not exist as an initial sign and the pronunciation of "噶" is always written as "ga" in Chinese dictionaries. In written text, the character "啊" usually remains unchanged even if there is a sound sandhi that actually changes it into "nga".


The Non-Nasal Sound Sandhi of "a”

This category includes the cases in which the exclamatory word "a" is influenced by other preceding sounds than the nasal ones and thus changed to other non-nasal sounds. There are two cases as such in Mandarin Chinese, namely the “ya” (呀) and "wa" (哇).

A.     From "a (啊)” to "ya (呀)"

When a sound preceding the exclamation word "a” is ended with a coda of "i", it influences "a" and changes it to "ya"(呀). For example:

谁啊 Shui2 a à 谁呀 shui ya: Who (is it?)

你啊 Ni3 a à 你呀 ni ya: you

来啊 Lai2 a à 来呀 lai ya: come (on)

对啊 Dui4 a à 对呀 dui ya: correct


B.     From "a (啊)” to "wa (哇)”

When a sound preceding the exclamation word "a" is ended with a coda of "u" or "o", it influences "a" and changes it to "wa” (哇).

好啊 Hao3 a à 好唾 haowa: Good

走啊 Zou3 a à 走哇 zouwa: Go

However, with the influence of the preceding "u” or "o”,the following "a” can also be changed to "ya" (呀).In this case, the sound "y" serves to separate the two syllables, or rather to avoid sound change as a direct result of sandhi.


2, "Er-Hua" Sound Sandhi

In the analysis of Chinese Mandarin pronunciation, the term "er-hua" refers to the phenomenon or process in which an ordinary final sound comes

to merge with a directly succeeding "er (儿)" and is changed into a sound with retroflex ending. This may be simply considered as a process of "retroflexation", comparable to the case when the word "worker" in British English is changed to American English pronunciation. However, the Mandarin Chinese Er-Hua phenomenon is more complicated than the English retroflexation, because many more sounds can go through this process and result in greater changes, including even some words with nasal ending "n" and "ng".

"Er"(儿) is usually spelt in short as "r” after the preceding final sound, and then the two syllables are changed into one with a retroflex ending "r".

The meaning of "er" is hard to define but may function to make the speech colloquial, informal, or it may mean something small and / or lovable. For example, there may be cases in which we can choose to use "erhua" or not, as in "men"(门). But then there may also be a subtle difference: when "erhua" is used (with "门" changed to "门儿", it usually refers to a small door and not the door of a big gate.

In the following we provide a list of such examples (the superscript numbers indicate the tones, which will be introduced in the next chapter).

1.      a/an/ai + er à a’ r

When a syllable ending with the final sound "a", "an", "ai" is followed by "er" (儿),the two merge and become one sound that is pronounced like the American English "are". In the latter two cases, the nasal "n” or “I” is lost.

那儿:na4 + er à na'r (there)

法儿:fa3 + er à fa'r (way, method)

花儿:hua3 + er à hua'r (flower)

马儿:ma3 + er à ma'r (hourse)

半儿:ban4 + er à ba'r (half)

点儿:dian3 + er à dian'r (dot, small point, a little)

官儿:guan1 + er à guan'r (official position or title in the government)

袋儿:gai4 + er à gai'r (a pouch or bag)

孩儿:hai2+er à hai'r (child)

块儿:kuai4+er à kuai’r (a block, a cubic piece, quarter)


2.      o/uo +er à o'r

朵儿 duo3 à duo'r ([MW] of a flower)

活儿 huo2 à huo'r (chore, a piece of work)

末儿 mo4 à mo'r (powder)

窝儿 wo1 à wo'r (den, [MW] a den (of), a sunk in part in a surface)


3.      e/en/eng/ei+er e'r

车儿 che1 + er à che'r (vehicle)

本儿 ben3 + er à be'r (a copy of a book, a stack of paper)

乐儿 le4 + er à le'r (a fun, something interesting)

哥儿 ge1 + er à ge’r (a brother or a good fellow)

盒儿 he2 + er à he'r (a case or small box)

这儿 zhe4 + er à zhe'r (here)

被儿 bei4 + er à be'r (quilt, cover of the bed)

分儿 fen1 + er à fe'r (point(s) on a scale or as a measure)

灯儿 deng1 + er à de'r (lamp)

声儿 sheng1 + er à she'r (sound, voice)


4.      u/ui/un/ü/ün + er à u'r

忽儿 hu1 + er à hu'r (a wink of time, suddenly)

兔儿 tu4 + er à tu'r (rabbit, hare)

腿儿 tui3 + er à tui’r (leg)

穗儿 sui4 + er à sui’r (ear of a plant such as that of wheat)

会儿 hui4 + er à hui'r (a while, a moment)

棍儿 gun4 + er à gu'r (a stick)

鱼儿 yü2 + er à yu'r (fish)

曲儿 qü3 + er à qu'r (a tune or a piece of music)

群儿 qü2 + er à qu'r (a group)

(Note: the italicized "i" in the above is almost lost but can still be felt.)


5.      i/in/ing + er à i'r

鼻儿 bi2 + er à bi'r (nose)

皮儿 pi2 + er à pi'r (skin, surface)

词儿 ci2 + fer à ci'r (word)

侄儿 zhi2 + er à zhi'r (nephew on father's side)

瓶儿 ping2 + er à pi'r (bottle, flask)

丁儿 dingi + er à di'r (a nail)

信儿 xin4 + er à xi'r (message)

影儿 ying3 + er à yi'r (shadow)     i

As can be observed, some sounds are lost naturally in the process of Er-Hua, such as the nasal coda and those sounds indicated by the italics in the above.

It should be particularly noted that the use of Erhua sound in informal speech is on the whole highly arbitrary and hard to systematize. Therefore, learners of Mandarin may run a high risk if taking it as a fast rule and adding "er" at the end of any character. Even for the items listed in the above table, it may only be applied to one particular meaning of the character if it has more than one interpretation. For example, the character "活"(huo) can only have Erhua when it means "a piece of work", and not when it means "(to) live"; “对" (dui) can have Erhua ending only when it means "a pair", and not when it means "correct"; "眼" usually does not have Erhua when it means the eye of a person or any animal. However, learners should not be disencouraged by this, for the phenomenon of Erhua is, in spite of the arbitrary choices, is still a natural process for ease and speed, and so one will learn it as a matter of course when he comes to read or speak Chinese more fluently.