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Learn Pinyin: illustration of the Chinese Pinyin system

There have been many tips and articles on how and why you should learn Pinyin and how necessary it is to learn Chinese. To learn Pinyin is an unavoidable stage that cannot be skipped or ignored. For general learning of Chinese Pinyin, you can check out this  pronunciation guide. Below is a detailed illustration of the Chinese Pinyin system.

Overview

Pinyin is the system of symbols for the phonetic notation of all Chinese characters. Each Chinese character has its corresponding syllable, and each syllable is composed of three parts which are called the Initial, the Final, and the Tone. In the Chinese Pinyin system, there are 21 initials, 36 finals, 2 semi-vowels, 4 basic tones, and 1 light tone.

21 Pinyin Initials

(You can check the Pinyin Chart for the pronunciation of each initial.)

36 Pinyin Finals

(You can check the Pinyin Chart for the pronunciation of each final.)

There are 6 main finals in the table of finals: a, o, e, i, u, ü.

Others are called compound finals.

It`s said that the Final is the most important part in a pinyin syllable. We can`t compose a syllable without the final part. Sometimes, the final itself can be an independent syllable without the initial.

Rules about spelling:

1. The three compound finals, “uei”, “iou”, and“uen”, are composed of “u+ei”, “i+ou”, “u+en”,   We should compress the syllables as “ui”, “iu”, and“un” in writing.

e.g.

对 right, correct: [duì] ,  [duèi]

秋 autumn:[qiū] ,  [qiōu]

春 spring:[chūn] ,  [chuēn]

2. When the finals “i”, “in”, “ing”, and “u” form pinyin syllables by themselves without any other initials, “y” and “w” should be put before these finals respectively to make it as “yi”, “yin”, “ying”, and “wu”. For example:

一 one:[yī] ,  [ī]

音 sound:[yīn] ,  [īn]

应 should:[yīng],  [īng]

五 five:[wǔ] ,  [ǔ]

3. The compound finals with “i”or “u”as the beginning and which form syllables by themselves, the “i”and “u”should be changed as “y” and “w”in writing. For example:

爷 grandpa: [yé] ,  [ié]

我 I,me:[wǒ] ,  [uǒ]

4. Rules about “ü”

  • When a final that begins with “ü”meets “y” in one syllable, the two dots of “ü”should be omitted. For example:

鱼 fish: [yú] ,  [yǘ]

月 moon, month: [yuè] ,  [yüè]

  • The final “ü”cannot be spelled with the initial “j”“q” or“x”. Thus, when “ü”, or the finals that begin with “ü”, meets one of the three initials, the two dots above “ü”should be omitted. For example:

举 hold: [jǔ] ,  [jǚ]

去 go:[qù] ,  [qǜ]

学 study,learn:[xué] ,  [xüé]

5. When the second syllable begins with “a”, “o”, or“e”in a word, the two syllables should be separated by the mark (’). For example:

先 first [xiān]  VS 西安 Xi`an [xī’ān]

Tones

Tone is an aspect of learning Chinese which can be difficult for many learners. Many Chinese characters share the same Pinyin syllable but have different tones, and therefore have completely different meanings.

The basic tones:

  • The 1st tone: ()

It`s pronounced very high and level with a natural prolonging. For example:

ā, ō, ē, ī, ū, ǖ

  • The 2nd tone: (/)

It`s pronounced as a rising sound, from low to high, which sounds like asking a question. For example:

á, ó, é, í, ú, ǘ

  • The 3rd tone: ()

When pronouncing this tone, you should first fall down and then go up; it is a relatively long tone. For example:

ǎ, ǒ, ě, ǐ, ǔ, ǚ

  • The 4th tone: (\)

This tone is pronounced short and strong, and is a falling tone. For example:

à, ò, è, ì, ù, ǜ

  • Neutral tone

Besides the basic tone, there is another special tone which is called the light or neutral tone. It has no tone mark in writing and it`s pronounced very light and short. It`s usually used as the last syllable of a word or a phrase, such as 谢谢 [xiè xie] (thanks), 妈妈[mā ma] (mom).

Note:

The tone mark should be put above the finals. When the final is a compound one, the tone mark is usually put above the main vowel which is based on the following order: “a”-> “o”-> “e”-> “i” -> “u”-> “ü”.

The rules of tone changes

In a word or phrase, when a third tone is followed by another third tone immediately, it should be pronounced as a half rising tone. For example:

体检 physical examination

[tǐ jiǎn] -> [tí jiǎn]

我很好 I`m very good.

[wǒ hěn hǎo] -> [wó hén hǎo]

While a third tone is followed by a first, second, or third tone immediately, the third tone should be pronounced as a half falling tone. For example:

很新 very new:

[hěn xīn] ->[hèn xīn]

很强 very strong:

[hěn qiáng]-> [hèn qiáng]

很旧 very old:

[hěn jiù] -> [hèn jiù]

Note that the tone changes only orally, and the written version will keep the original tone marks.

Practice

After learning the rules of Pinyin above, it`s time to do some practice. Try to pronounce the following syllable:

JING CAO

Jing Cao is the chief editor at Dig Mandarin. She devotes herself to the research of Chinese langugage and how to teach Chinese as a second language better.

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