Pinyin is the name of the official romanization system for Mandarin Chinese adopted by the People’s Republic of China. It is not the only system in use for writing Chinese using the Roman alphabet, but it is now the most widespread. Pinyin will be used throughout this article when referring to the pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese.
Foremost, the reader needs to be completely aware that the sounds which the letters of pinyin represent do not correspond exactly to the sounds that the letters of English represent. Just as the Roman alphabet can be used to write Spanish, German, and French — all of which contain certain sounds not present in the English language — the Roman alphabet is also used via pinyin to represent the sounds in Mandarin Chinese which are not present in English.
What does that mean? It means you can’t take for granted that you know how to pronounce pinyin just because it looks pronounceable to you as a native speaker of English.
- “c” is not the “c” you know
- “j” is not the “j” you know
- “q” is not the “q” you know
- “x” is not the “x” you know
- “z” is not the “z” you know
And that’s not all. There are a lot of other small differences as well. These will be noted in the most detail in the How To section.
In addition, it’s very important to keep in mind that while pinyin is a logical system of romanization, it does not seem consistent to the beginner. Most notably, vowel letters do not consistently represent the same sounds in all contexts, so the learner needs to be well aware of this. Reasonable assumptions of consistency on the learner’s part will often result in incorrect pronunciation. (There is actually a logic to it, and reasons for the inconsistencies, but it’s not readily apparent at all to the beginner.)
Below I offer a rough guide to the pronunciation of pinyin’s vowel sounds (although there is certainly no substitution for a native speaker’s pronunciation model). This rough guide is designed mostly to help beginners avoid certain common pronunciation mistakes, not as the eternal definitive guide for the pronunciation of Mandarin. My pronunciation models below involve some judgment calls that some people may not agree with, and may even be partly influenced by accent (my English is standard American English, from Florida, with no Southern accent, and the pronunciation guide I present follows this model). Again, the point here is to help beginners avoid making certain pronunciation mistakes, and to give them a starting point from which they can modify their pronunciation based on a native speaker‘s model. Those areas which I feel beginners should pay special attention to are noted below in bold. Beginners: if nothing else, look at the notes in bold. Notes on pinyin’s structure have been added in red.
- A -
- [The pinyin a represents three distinct vowel sounds in Mandarin]
- a [#1] – like “father”
- ai [#1 + i] – like “Thai“
- ao [#1 + o#2] – like “Tao” (the excessive American “w” sound at the end like in “wow” or “now” is absent)
- an [#2 + n] – similar to “on” (the excessive American “aw” sound like in “lawn” is absent) but there is some of the vowel sound in the English word “can” as well
- yan [i + #2 + n] – similar to “yen,” the Japanese currency (not just like “yawn”!)
- ang [#3 + ng] – similar to pinyin an but nasalized with the “ng“
- E -
- [The pinyin e represents two distinct vowel sounds in Mandarin]
- e [#1] – somewhere between “put” and “uh“
- ye [i + #2] – like yes
- ei [#2 + i] – like “vein”
- en [#1 + n] – like “sun“
- eng [#1 + ng] – like “hung“
- I -
- [The pinyin i represents three distinct vowel sounds in Mandarin]
- i [#1] – like “tee“
- ci, si, zi [#2] – like “sit” but with some of the “put” sound in it
- chi, shi, zhi, ri [#3] – somewhere between “it” and “put” (A good way to learn to say the very important Chinese word shi is to start to say the English word “shirt” but stop right as the “r” sound is beginning. Once you can say shi, apply that vowel sound also to pinyin si, ci, chi, zi, zhi, ri.)
- ia [#1 + a] – like “hi-ya” of martial arts fame
- ian [#1 + an] – like “yen,” the Japanese currency (not at all like “yawn”!)
- iang [#1 + ang] – like pinyin ang above, with a “y” sound on the front
- iao [#1 + ao] – like “yeow” of comic book fame (but pronounced as one syllable, not at all drawn out)
- ie [#1 + e#2] – like “yes”
- in [#1 + n] – somewhere between “in” and “seen“
- ing [#1 + ng] – like “seen” but with an “ng” sound at the end instead of “n”
- iong [#1 + ong] – like pinyin “yong“
- iu [#1 + ou] – like “yo” with just a touch of “oo” sound on the end (not just like “spew“)
- O -
- [The pinyin o represents two distinct vowel sounds in Mandarin]
- o [#1] – like you started to say “war” but switched to “uh” before the “r” sound began
- ou [#2 + u] – like “oh” with a hint of “oo” sound on the end
- ong [#2 + ng] – like “lone” but with a nasalized “ng” sound on the end instead of just “n”
- U -
- [The pinyin u represents two distinct vowel sounds in Mandarin, the second being the ü sound -- the umlaut is not always written in pinyin!]
- u [#1] – like “rude”
- uai [#1 + ai] – like “why” without any airy “h” sound
- uan [#1 + an] – like the English word “wan“
- juan, quan, xuan, yuan, [#2 + an] – similar to “when” without any airy “h” sound (not like the English word “wan”!)
- uang [#1 + ang] – like pinyin ang with a “w” sound on the front
- ue [#2 + e#2] – like “wet”
- ui [#1 + ei] – like “way” (not like “we”!)
- un [#1 + en] – like “would” but substitute the “ld” sound for an “n” sound
- jun, qun, xun, yun [#2 + in] – see pinyin yun below
- uo [#1 + o#1] – same as pinyin o, above
- *ü [#2] – make the “ee” sound (as in see) and then round your lips as if saying “oo” (as in “boo“)
- *yu [#2] – like ü with a faint “y” sound at the beginning (not like “you”)
- *yun [#2 + in] – start out like yu above and end like “between” (not like “soon“!)
- * Expect to spend a lot of time and practice mastering these sounds.
For more explanation as to why pinyin seems inconsistent, see Harvard’s Supplemental Pinyin Conventions page. You’ll see that many pinyin syllables are actually abbreviations of longer originals. It is from those abbreviations that confusion arises.
Note also that not all consonant-vowel(-consonant) combinations exist in Mandarin. Taking the time to learn which do not exist can be a great asset to you. Harvard’s Chinese Pronunciation Guide has 2 Pinyin Tables which can help you with that. You can also listen to the pronunciation of the sounds if you have RealAudio Player. China-on-site has samples in MP3 format.
You may also find these excerpts from the Introduction of Integrated Chinese (Yao, 1997) helpful:
The finals that can be combined with j, q, and x are limitd to i and ü and the compound finals which start with [i or ü]. When j, q, and x are combined with ü or a compound starting with ü, the umlaut in ü is omitted and the ü appears as u. Spelling Rules:
- If there is no initial before i, i is a semi-vowel. In the following combinations ia, ie, iao, iu, ian, iang, i is written as y: ya, ye, yao, you (note that the o cannot be omitted here), yan, yang; Before in, ing, and o, add y, e.g., yin, ying, yo.
- If there is no initial before ü, add a y, and drop the umlaut: yu, yuan, yue, yun.
- u becomes w if not preceded by an initial, e.g., wa, wai, wan, wang, wei, wen, weng, wo. u by itself becomes wu.
- ueng is written as ong, if preceded by an initial, e.g., tong, dong, nong, long.
- In order to avoid confusion, an apostrophe is used to separate two syllables with connecting vowels, e.g., shi’er and the city Xi’an (xi and an are two separate syllables).