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Guide to Pronouncing Mandarin
in Romanized Transcription
(Beginners' Page)

Mandarin and Taiwanese Hokkien are among the languages included in a yet simpler series of "Slightly Geeky Beginners' Guides for Pronouncing " accessible from the main student resources page (link).

Table of Contents:

  1. Material for Beginners (this page)
    1. Introduction (for beginners)
    2. Pinyin Romanization: The Short Story (for beginners)
  2. Advanced Material (next pages)
    1. Introduction (long version)
    2. Pinyin Romanization: The Long Story (for people who know some Chinese)
    3. Wade-Giles Romanization (for people who know some Chinese)
    4. Gwoyeu Romatzyh Romanization (for people who know some Chinese)
  3. Sound Files of Specimen Syllables
  4. Complete Reference Table of Pinyin, WG, and GR Spellings
  5. Interactive Romanization Data Base of Pinyin, WG, and GR Spellings
  6. Related Material on Other Pages
    1. The Chinese Language(s): An Overview for Beginners
    2. More Than You Want To Know About Simplified Characters
    3. More Than You Want To Know About Chinese Tone

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Part A: Introduction

Chinese is written with a distinctive orthography that has nothing to do with Latin letters. So when Chinese words are represented in English books, they are transcribed into Latin letters. There are several systems (called "Romanization" systems) for doing this. For most purposes all you should need is the most common one, 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.)

In order to keep this discussion as simple as possible. I have divided it into a Beginning and an Advanced page. If you have never studied any Chinese, the beginning page is all you need to worry about. If you want to know more, either about Pinyin and Mandarin phonology or about other Romanization systems used to represent Mandarin, then that is the time to look at page 2.

On a separate page I have included (surprisngly slow loading) small sound files (in .au format) so that you can get a sample of Chinese syllables read out loud as you look at their Pinyin spellings.

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Part B: Pinyin Romanization (PY): The Short Story

The following spellings are the ones that an English speaker needs to pay special attention to. Click here for a printable one-page pdf file (17K) of this information.

Consonants: c = English ts (as in "hats")
q = English ch (as in "cheat")
r = something between American r and French j)
x = English sh (as in "sheet")
z = English ds (as in "fads")
zh = English j (as in "Joe"; not like French j!)

i after h or r = English r (as in "grr")
i after s, c, z = English z (as in "bzzzz")
i elsewhere = English ee (as in "beet")
ian or yan = English yen (as in ¥)
ui = English way (as in "lost his way")
u after q, j, x, or y = French u or German ü (Arrange your lips to say oo as in “goo” and then try to say ee as in “see.”)
u elsewhere = English oo (as in "pooh")
ü or yu = French u or German ü (place your lips to say oo and try to say ee)

Tones Tones are pitch patterns. Standard Mandarin has four tones, which can be represented in Romanized text by diacritical marks or (in older texts or Email) by numbers:

  1. Macron ("long mark") (ā or a1) = high, even pitch (first tone)
  2. Acute accent (á or a2) = rising pitch (second tone)
  3. Caron or breve accent (ǎ or ă or a3) = pitch that falls then rises (third tone)
  4. Grave accent (à or a4) = dropping pitch (fourth tone)

Editors traditionally suppress indications of tone for Chinese words included in English running text, so unless you actually take up the study of Chinese you will be forced to ignore them, except to realize that some spellings may look alike but not actually be pronounced the same way because they vary in tone. (Occasionally confusion results, but little attempt is made to avoid it.)

Click here for a page of illustrative sound files

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