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There are several major dialects of Chinese: Cantonese, Mandarin, Hokkien, and Shanghainese, to name four. The official national language of China is a standardized variant of the Mandarin dialect, based on Beijing speech, and most Chinese terms used in English books are borrowed from Mandarin. (Occasional writers focusing exclusively on Hong Kong or Taiwan may use Cantonese or Hokkien, respectively. A separate "Slightly Geek Guide" is provided for Hokkien. Link)
In Chinese this standardized, official dialect is called:
All four Chinese terms are sometimes borrowed into English.
Chinese is written with a distinctive, non-alphabetic orthography, the famous "Chinese characters." When Chinese words are represented in English books, they are "Romanized," that is, transcribed into Latin letters. There have been several systems for doing this. For most English books published since about 1975, all you need to know about is the official system, which is called Pinyin ("phonetics"), or Hanyu Pinyin ("Chinese phonetics"). This page describes some of the ways in which Latin letters used in Pinyin differ from the way they are used in English. (Older publications use other systems.)
On other pages of this web site you can find considerable further discussion. Click here for the entry page. A separate page of this web site provides sound files with specimen pronunciations of selected romanized syllables. Some browsers will and some will not play sound files, and some require user approval to play them. Link
The least you need to know: For Mandarin transcribed in Hanyu Pinyin, the single most important points to remember are that
If you get those five letters right right, people will forgive most other missteps.
More broadly, the following spellings are the ones that an English speaker probably needs to pay special attention to.
There are two special challenges with vowels.
Challenge 1: The Letter I. First, the letter I is sometimes a vowel and sometimes merely a dummy letter to show that the preceding consonant is a full syllable by itself. And if it is followed by another vowel, it functions as a consonental Y, but flavors the following vowel. There are only a couple of possibilities here, so they are separately listed below.
Challenge 2: The Letters Ü and U. In principle the letter U corresponds to the OO in English "boot," and the letter Ü corresponds to the fronted form of this that one hears in French or German. (Arrange your lips to say OO as in "boot" and then try to say EE as in "seek" and you will have the sound.)
HOWEVER, in spelling, the letter Ü can be written without the two dots wherever the normal letter U cannot occur. It turns out that such situations occur most of the time. The only consonants that can actually be followed either by U or by Ü turn out to be L and N, so most of the time you need to know the rule (below) in order to know whether a written U should be pronounced Ü or like our OO.
When a syllable begins with a vowel, it must be preceded by an apostrophe if it is neither free-standing nor the first syllable in a compound. For example, the word xian "county" is a single syllable (pronounced shyen). The city of Xi'an is two (shee-ahn), and must not be written without the apostrophe. (It is a sign of an ignorant author or a bad editor to ignore this rule.)
Tones are pitch patterns. Standard Mandarin has four tones (plus a "neutral" or "negated" tone), and they are just as important as consonants and vowels in telling Chinese syllables apart, but very few authors or editors mark them in Romanized words. Unless you actually take up the study of Chinese, you will be forced to ignore them. However, it is important to realize that some spellings may look alike but not actually be pronounced the same way, since they may vary in tone. (Occasionally confusion results, but few editors make any attempt to avoid it.) (Tone is not the same thing as intonation. Click here for More About Tone & Intonation.)
When indicated, tones are traditionally represented in Romanized text by diacritical marks (as on this web site) or (in older texts or Email) by numbers:
The tones are actually categories, not absolute sounds. In some dialects of Mandarin, the actual pitch patterns of these tones may vary, but the contrasts between one tone category and another remain intact.
Now you know.
For more detail, see:
- JORDAN, David K.
- 1971 Guide to the romanization of Chinese. Taipei: Mei Ya Publications.
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