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Pinyin Guide

The pronunciation guide below uses Hanyu pinyin, the official romanization of the People’s Republic of China. Until recently, Taiwan used the Wade-Giles system, which is quite different, then switched to Tongyong pinyin, only slightly different from Hanyu pinyin, and now officially uses Hanyu pinyin just like the People’s Republic, however based on experience, many Taiwanese still use these other variants of pinyin.

Pinyin allows very accurate pronunciation of Chinese if you understand how it works, but the way that it uses letters like q, x, c,z and even i is not at all intuitive to the English speaker. Studying the pronunciation guide below carefully is thus essential. After you master the pronunciation you still may not be understood, its time to move on to the next challenge, speaking the accurate tones.

Some pinyin vowels (especially “e”, “i”, “ü”) can be tricky, so it is best to get a native speaker to demonstrate. Also, beware of the spelling rules listed in the exceptions below.

a
as in father; otherwise, pronounced as in “awesome”
a in an
as “a” in “cat” or “back” (just the English short “a” sound)
e
unrounded back vowel (IPA [ɤ]), similar to duh; in unstressed syllables becames a schwa (IPA [ə]), like idea
i
as in see or key;
after sh, zh, s, z or r, not really a vowel at all but just a stretched-out consonant sound
o
as in more
u
as in soon; but read ü in ju, qu, yu and xu
ü
as in French lune or German grün

Diphthongs

These are the diphthongs in Chinese:

ai
as in pie
ao
as in pouch
ei
as in pay
ia
as in ya
ia in ‘ ian’
as in yes
iao
as in meow
ie
as in yes
iong
as in Pyongyang
ou
as in mow
ua
as in what
uo
as in war

Consonants

Chinese stops distinguish between aspirated and unaspirated, not voiceless and voiced as in English. Aspirated sounds are pronounced with a distinctive puff of air as they are pronounced in English when at the beginning of a word, while unaspirated sounds are pronounced without the puff, as in English when found in clusters.

Place a hand in front of your mouth and compare pit (aspirated) with spit (unaspirated) to see the difference.

Unaspirated Aspirated
b as in spot p as in pit
d as in do t as in tongue
g as in skin k as in king
j as in jeer q as in cheap
zh as in jungle ch as in chore
z as in zebra c as in rats

Here are the other consonants in Chinese:

m
as in mow
f
as in fun
n
as in none or none
l
as in lease but pronounced like a Spanish “r” in “rojo”
h
as in her
x
as in sheep
sh
as in shoot
r
as in fair, but can be “zh” as in “pleasure”
s
as in sag
ng
as in sing
w
as in wing but silent in wu. Before a, ai, ang, eng, and/or o, this may sound like the English v/ German w.
y
as in yet but silent in yi, yu

If you think that is a fairly intimidating repertoire, rest assured that many Chinese people, particularly those who are not native Mandarin speakers, will merge many of the sounds above (especially q with ch and j with zh).

Exceptions

There is a fairly large number of niggling exceptions to the basic rules above, based on the position of the sound:

wu-
as u-, so 五百 wubai is pronounced “ubai”
yi-
as i-, so 一个 yige is pronounced “ige”
yü-
as ü-, so 豫园 Yuyuan is pronounced “ü-üan”

Tones

There are four tones in Mandarin that must be followed for proper pronunciation. If you are not used to tonal languages, never underestimate the importance of these tones. Consider a vowel with a different tone as simply a different vowel altogether, and you will realize why Chinese will not understand you if you use the wrong tone — is to as “I want a cake” is to “I want a coke”. Be especially wary of questions that have a falling tone, or conversely exclamations that have an “asking” tone (eg jǐngchá, police). In other words, pronounced like does not imply meaning. While Mandarin speakers also vary their tone just like English speakers do to differentiate a statement from a question and convey emotion, this is much more subtle than in English. Do not try it until you have mastered the basic tones.

1. first tone ( ā )
flat, high pitch that is more sung instead of spoken.
2. second tone ( á )
low to middle, rising pitch that is pronounced like the end of a question phrase (Whát?).
3. third tone ( ǎ )
middle to low to high, dipping pitch: for two consecutive words in the third tone, the first word is pronounced as if it is in the second tone. For example, 打扰 dǎrǎo is pronounced as dárǎo.
4. fourth tone ( à )
high to low, rapidly falling pitch that is pronounced like a command (Stop!).
5. fifth tone
neutral pitch that is rarely used by itself (except for phrase particles) but frequently occurring as the second part of a phrase.

Example of Standard Mandarin tones

Hanzi Pinyin Pitch contour Meaning
high level "mother"
high rising "hemp"
low falling-rising "horse"
high falling "scold"
ma neutral question particle

Listen to the four main tones of Standard Mandarin, pronounced with the syllable ma.   

Where do I put my tone marks?

If you are confused by how to put tone marks above the Hanyu Pinyin, follow the steps below:Always insert tone marks above the vowels. If there is more than one vowel letter, follow the steps below:
  1. Insert it above the ‘a’ if that letter is present. For example, it is rǎoand not raǒ
  2. If not, insert it above ‘o’. For example, guó and not gúo
  3. Insert it above the letter ‘e’ if the letters ‘a’ and ‘o’ are not present. For example, jué and not júe
  4. If only ‘i’, ‘u’ and ‘ü’ are the only present letters, insert it in the letter that occurs last. For example, jiù and not jìu, chuí and not chúi. Note, if the vowel present is ü, the tone mark is put in addition to the umlaut. For example, lǜ