Pinyin (拼音, pīnyīn) literally means "join (together) sounds" (a less literal translation being "phoneticize", "spell" or "transcription") in Chinese and usually refers to Hànyǔ Pīnyīn (汉语拼音, literal meaning: "Han language pinyin"), which is a system of romanization (phonetic notation and transliteration to roman script) for Standard Mandarin used in the People's Republic of China. Pinyin was approved in 1958 and adopted in 1979 by its government. It superseded older transcriptions like the Wade-Giles system (1859; modified 1912) or Bopomofo. Similar systems have been designed for Chinese dialects and non-Han minority languages in the PRC.
Since then, pinyin has been accepted by the Library of Congress, The American Library Association, and most international institutions as the transcription system for Mandarin. In 1979 the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) adopted pinyin as the standard romanization for Modern Chinese.
It is important to maintain the distinction that pinyin is a romanization and not an anglicization; that is, it is equally applicable for transliteration into any language that uses a roman alphabet. Indeed some of the transliterations in pinyin such as the ang ending, do not correspond to English pronunciations. Pinyin has also become a useful tool for entering Chinese language text into computers.
The primary purpose of pinyin in Chinese schools is to teach Mandarin pronunciation. Many in the West are under the mistaken belief that pinyin is used to help children associate characters with spoken words which they already know, but this is incorrect as many Chinese do not use Mandarin at home, and therefore do not know the Mandarin pronunciation of words until they learn them in elementary school through the use of pinyin.
Pinyin uses the Roman alphabet, hence the pronunciation is relatively straightforward for Westerners. A pitfall for English-speaking novices is, however, the unusual pronunciation x, q, c and z and the unvoiced pronunciation of d, b, g, j. More information on the pronunciation of all pinyin letters in terms of English approximations is given further below.
The combined initials and finals represent the segmental phonemic portion of the language.
In each cell below, the first line indicates IPA, the second indicates pinyin.
* [ʐ] and [ɻ] are interchangeable.
Conventional order: b p m f d t n l g k (ng) h j q x zh ch sh r z c s.
In each cell below, the first line indicates IPA, the second indicates pinyin for a standalone (no-initial) form, and the third indicates pinyin for a combination with an initial. Finals modified by an -r are omitted. 1
1 /ər/ (而, 二, etc.) is written as er. For other finals formed by the suffix -r, pinyin does not use special orthography; one simply appends -r to the final that it is added to, without regard for any sound changes that may take place along the way.
2 "ü" is written as "u" after j, q, or x.
3 "uo" is written as "o" after b, p, m, or f.
4 It is pronounced [ʊŋ] when it follows an initial, and pinyin reflects this difference.
Rules given in terms of English pronunciation
All rules given here in terms of English pronunciation are approximate.
Pronunciation of initials
||as in English
||as in English
||as in English
||unaspirated p, as in spit
||unaspirated t, as in stand
||unaspirated k, as in skill
||as in sun
||like ts, aspirated
||unaspirated c (halfway between beds and bets)
||like sh, but take the sound and pass it backwards along the tongue until it is clear of the tongue tip; very similar to huge or Hugh in some English dialects, or the final sound in German ich
||like church; pass it backwards along the tongue until it is free of the tongue tip
||like q, but unaspirated. (To get this sound, first take the sound halfway between joke and check, and then slowly pass it backwards along the tongue until it is entirely clear of the tongue tip.) While this exact sound is not used in English, the closest match is the j in ajar, not the s in Asia; this means that "Beijing" is pronounced like "bay-jing", not like "beige-ing".
||as in shinbone, but with the tongue curled upwards; very similar to undershirt in American English
||as in chin, but with the tongue curled upwards; very similar to nurture in American English, but strongly aspirated
||ch with no aspiration (take the sound halfway between joke and church and curl it upwards); very similar to merger in American English, but not voiced
||as in English
like the English h if followed by "a"; otherwise it is pronounced more roughly (not unlike the Scots ch)
||as in English
||[ʐ] or [ɻ]
||similar to the English r in rank, but with the lips spread and with the tongue curled upwards
||as in English, but many people pronounce it as in German w; not pronounced at all if followed by u
||as in English; not pronounced at all if followed by "i" or "ü"
||as in English
||as in English
Pronunciation of finals
||if ending a syllable, then as in "father"
||like English "eye", but a bit lighter
as in fan in British Received Pronunciation or as in consequence in the American Great Lakes region. If occurring in the combinations ian, üan, juan, quan, xuan, yuan, then like pen in British RP, again in American English.
||as in German Angst, including the English loan word angst
|ar, anr, air
like a, but pronounced with the tongue curled up against the palate; like rhotic are in North American English
||same as ar but nasalized (i.e., the sound goes through the nose as well)
||approximately as in "cow"; the a is much more audible than the o
||like ao but with an -r added to the back; comparable to American tower (but much more compact)
when occurring at the end of a syllable and not in the combinations of ie, üe, ue, then a backward, unrounded vowel, which can be formed by first pronouncing a plain continental "o" (British RP law) and then spreading the lips without changing the position of the tongue. That same sound is also similar to English "duh", but not as open. Many unstressed syllables in Chinese use the schwa (idea), and this is also written as e.
||as in "bet"
||as in "hey"
||as in "taken"
||like e, but pronounced with the tongue curled up against the palate; similar to the vowel in rhotic her in English
||like e above but with ng added to it at the back
||if occurring not as a result of the suffix -r (e.g. 而, 二), then like ar; if occurring as a result of the suffix -r (e.g. 歌儿, 车儿), then like e but with an -r added at the end. see also ier, uer, üer
||like er but nasalized
||like English "ee", except when preceded by "c", "ch", "r", "s", "sh", "z" or "zh"; in these cases it should be pronounced as a natural extension of those sounds in the same position, but slightly more open to allow for a clear-sounding vowel to pass through
||like English "yard"
||the initial i sounds like English "ee", but is very short; e (pronounced like ê) is pronounced longer and carries the main stress (similar to the initial sound in yet)
||"ie" with -r added
||here, the u is pronounced like ou
||if occurring in the combinations bo, po, mo, fo, wo, then it is the same as uo. See also ou
||here, o is a sound somewhere in between English "o" as in "song" and English "u" as in "bush"
||The same vowel as ong, but with an -r added and nasalized.
||as in "so"
||take ou and add -r. The sound should be compact.
||like English "oo", except when preceded by y, x, j or q; in this case it is pronounced like ü
||here, the i is pronounced like ei
||pronounced as u + en, except after j, q, x, and y, in which case it is pronounced as ün
||starts with English "oo" and ends with the sound in law. The u is pronounced shorter and lighter than the o
||as in German "üben" or French "lune" (To get this sound, say "ee" with rounded lips)
||e is pronounced like ê, the ü is short and light
||"üe" with -r added
||ü (given above) plus final n
Pinyin differs from other Romanizations in several aspects, such as:
- w is placed before syllables starting with u.
- y is placed before syllables starting with i and ü.
- ü is written as u when there is no ambiguity (such as ju, qu, and xu), but written as ü when there are corresponding u syllables (such as lü and nü)
- When preceded by a consonant, iou, uei, and uen are simplified as iu, ui, and un (which do not represent the actual pronunciation).
- Like zhuyin, what are actually pronounced as buo, puo, muo, and fuo are given a separate representation: bo, po, mo, and fo.
- The apostrophe (') is used before a, o, and e to separate syllables in a word where ambiguity could arise, e.g., pi'ao (皮襖) vs. piao (票), and Xi'an (西安) vs. xian (先).
Eh! alone is written as ê; elsewere as e. Schwa is always written as e.
zh, ch, and sh can be abbreviated as ẑ (), ĉ, and ŝ. But the shorthands are rarely used due to difficulty of entering them on computers.
- ng has the uncommon shorthand of ŋ.
The Pinyin system also incorporates suprasegmental phonemes to represent the four tones of Mandarin. Each tone is indicated by a diacritical mark above a non-medial vowel. Note that the lower-case letter "a" in pinyin is supposed to be of the handwritten type with no curl over the top. This can be achieved by using a font in which the letter happens to look like this, or alternatively by specifying it using Unicode as we have done in the bracketed example. Note that tones marks can also appear on consonants in certain vowelless exclamations.
- The first tone is represented by a macron (ˉ) added to the pinyin vowel:
(ɑ̄) ā ē ī ō ū ǖ Ā Ē Ī Ō Ū Ǖ
- The second tone is denoted by an acute accent (ˊ):
(ɑ́) á é í ó ú ǘ Á É Í Ó Ú Ǘ
- The third tone is symbolized by a caron (ˇ, also known as a reverse circumflex). Note, it is officially not a breve (˘, lacking a downward angle), although this misuse is somewhat common on the Internet.
(ɑ̌) ǎ ě ǐ ǒ ǔ ǚ Ǎ Ě Ǐ Ǒ Ǔ Ǚ
- The fourth tone is represented by a grave accent (ˋ):
(ɑ̀) à è ì ò ù ǜ À È Ì Ò Ù Ǜ
- The fifth or neutral tone is represented by a normal vowel without any accent mark:
(ɑ) a e i o u ü A E I O U Ü
- (In some cases, this is also written with a dot before the syllable; for example, ·ma.)
Since most computer fonts do not contain the macron or caron accents, a common convention is to postfix the individual syllables with a digit representing their tone (e.g., "tóng" (tong with the rising tone) is written "tong2"). The digit is numbered as the order listed above, except the "fifth tone", which, in addition to being numbered 5, is also either not numbered or numbered zero, as in ma0 (吗/嗎, an interrogative marker).
These tone marks normally are only used in Mandarin textbooks or in foreign learning texts, but they are essential for correct pronunciation of Mandarin syllables, as exemplified by the following classical example of five characters whose pronunciations differ only in their tones:
妈 麻 马 骂 吗
(Being "mother", "hemp", "horse", "insult" and a question particle, respectively.)
Rules for placing the tone mark
The rules for determining on which vowel the tone mark appears are as follows:
- If there is more than one vowel and the first vowel is i, u, or ü, then the tone mark appears on the second vowel.
- In all other cases, the tone mark appears on the first vowel
(y and w are not considered vowels for these rules.)
The reasoning behind these rules is in the case of diphthongs and triphthongs, i, u, and ü (and their orthographic equivalents y and w when there is no initial consonant) are considered medial glides rather than part of the syllable nucleus in Chinese phonology. The rules ensure that the tone mark always appears on the nucleus of a syllable.
A dieresis or an umlaut is placed over the letter u when it occurs after the initials l and n. This is necessary in order to distinguish the front high rounded vowel in lü (e.g. 驴/驢 donkey) from the back high rounded vowel in lu (e.g. 炉/爐 oven). Tonal markers are added on top of the umlaut, as in lǘ.
However, the umlaut-u is not used in other contexts where it represents a front high rounded vowel, namely after the letters j, q, x and y. For example, the sound of the word 鱼/魚 (fish) is transcribed in pinyin simply as yú, not as yǘ. This practice is opposed to Wade-Giles, which always uses ü, and Tongyong Pinyin, which always uses yu. Whereas Wade-Giles needs to use the umlaut to distinguish between chü (pinyin ju) and chu (pinyin zhu), this ambiguity cannot arise with pinyin, so the more convenient form ju is used instead of jü. Genuine ambiguities only happen with nu/nü and lu/lü, which are then distinguished by an umlaut diacritic.
Many fonts or output methods do not support a diaeresis (umlaut) for ü or cannot place tone marks on top of ü. Likewise, using ü in input methods is difficult because it is not present as a simple key on many keyboard layouts. For these reasons v is sometimes used instead by convention. Occasionally, uu (double u) or U (capital u) is used in its place.
Pinyin in Taiwan
The Republic of China on Taiwan is in the process of adopting a modified version of pinyin (currently Tongyong Pinyin). For elementary education it has used zhuyin, and for romanization there is no standard system in general use in Taiwan despite many efforts to standardize on one system. In the late-1990s, the government of Taiwan formally decided to move from zhuyin to pinyin. This has triggered a very heated discussion of which pinyin system to use: hanyu pinyin of People's Republic of China or some other system.
Much of the controversy centers on issues of national identity because of political interests. Proponents for adopting pinyin maintain that it is an international standard that is already used throughout the world. Proponents for adopting a new system maintain that Taiwan should have its own identity and culture separate from the People's Republic of China.
A new system Tongyong Pinyin was created in Taiwan in 1998. Tongyong Pinyin is mostly similar to Hanyu Pinyin with a number of changes in the letters and digraphs representing certain sounds.
In October 2002, the ROC government adopted Tongyong Pinyin through an administrative order that local governments can override. Localities with governments controlled by the Kuomintang, most notably Taipei City, have overridden the order and converted to Hanyu Pinyin (although with a slightly different capitialization convention than the Mainland). As a result, English signs have inconsistent romanization in Taiwan, with many places using Tongyong Pinyin but some using Hanyu Pinyin, and still others not yet having had the resources to replace older Wade-Giles or MPS2 signage. This has resulted in the odd situation in Taipei City in which inconsistent pinyin are shown in freeway directions, with freeway signs, which are under the control of the national government, using one pinyin, but surface street signs, which are under the control of the city government, using the other.
As of 2003, no form of pinyin is used in elementary education on Taiwan to teach pronunciation. Although the ROC government has stated the desire to use romanization rather than bopomofo in education, the lack of agreement on which form of pinyin to use and the huge logistical challenge of teacher training has stalled these efforts.
Pinyin has officially been adopted in Taiwan in 2004. However, most international locations still use older systems, most notably Wade-Giles.
Debate continues about the actual suitability of pinyin as a Chinese romanization method. This argument revolves around pinyin's unconventional use of Roman letters, of which the phonological values of some phonemes are quite different from that of most languages utilizing the Roman alphabet. Some sinologists praise this as pinyin's flexibility in that it allows the entire Roman alphabet to be adapted to the Chinese sound system (compared to Wade-Giles, which leaves out or underuses many letters). Others point out that pinyin letter values are so unconventional that for a person unfamiliar with Chinese, they result in a larger number of mispronunciations when compared to Wade-Giles. However, as not only the PRC but by now most institutions and publications have adopted it, the debate seems increasingly obsolete.
Pinyin, like all systems of romanization, has certain limitations that users should be aware of:
- Like the spelling systems of any other language, pinyin does not represent English pronunciation and should not be pronounced according to English conventions. Readers are advised to learn pinyin phonetic conventions, bearing in mind that many sounds have no equivalents in English.
- Chinese characters can indicate semantic cues. But since pinyin is based on the sounds of Mandarin alone, these semantic cues are no longer preserved. For speakers of other Chinese dialects, it becomes unsuitable for use in reading and writing because these sounds do not necessarily correspond to their speech.
- The phonotactics of spoken Mandarin dictate a relatively small set of possible syllables and there is a potential for homonyms. Because of this, pinyin can be ambiguous, especially when transcribing Standard Written Chinese, which uses formal constructions not often found in speech. However, this should not be an issue in the transcription of normal spoken Mandarin conversation since speakers would not use such ambiguous constructions in speech.
Computer systems long provided the most convincing argument in favor of pinyin; early computers were able to display nothing but 7-bit ASCII (essentially the 26 letters, the 10 digits, and a handful of punctuation marks). Most contemporary computer systems are now able to readily display characters from not only Chinese, but from many other writing systems as well. In addition, multiple input method editors exist that use standard keyboards to type them (pinyin being one such method). Now, PDAs and digitizing tablets allow users to write characters with a stylus, which can then be stored and edited like any text. Thus, this justification is no longer as strong as it used to be.
Nonetheless, pinyin has gained wide acceptance, and supporters believe it is useful for students of Chinese as a second language.
Yin Binyong 尹斌庸, Mary Felley: Chinese Romanization. Pronunciation and Orthography (Hanyu pinyin he zhengcifa 汉语拼音和正词法; Sinolingua, Beijing 1990), ISBN 7-80052-148-6 / ISBN 0-8351-1930-0.