The following description applies to modern standard Peking Mandarin, the official version of modern Chinese, and the one which is conventionally used for scholarly citations of Classical Chinese words.
We represent the sounds of Peking Mandarin according to the Common Alphabetic convention.
Note that "g" is "hard g" as in "get," not the j-like sound of "genuine." It is a standard American English "g," which compared to Spanish is an unvoiced unaspirated stop. So also in the other consonant series.Labial: b-, p-, m-, f- w-, hw-
Dental: d-, t-, n-, l-, s-
Palatalized [before medial -y-]: jy-, chy-, sy-, y- [no "hy-" parallel to "hw-" above]
Retroflex [backed; no medial -y-]: j-, ch-, sh-, r-
Velar: g-, k-, ng- [does not occur initially], h- [fricative rather than purely oral]
There is also a glottal stop, in syllables beginning with a pure vowel, such as an. It is usually taken for granted (as in English, where the same situation exists). If we wanted to write it, we could use an asterisk (*-, thus "an" would be *an) and we have the rule that all Chinese syllables begin with a consonant. Strictly speaking, this is correct. For nonlinguistic purposes, "an" is perfectly satisfactory.
These are consonant sounds occurring between the initial consonant and the main vowel. For the nature of medial -y-, contrast English "moon" (no medial, "mu") and "music" (medial -y-, "myu"). The others are analogous: -w- is familiar, and -yw- is the medial counterpart of the "umlaut u" vowel.Medials: -y-, -yw-, -w-
It should be emphasized that the "medials" are consonantal rather than vocalic in nature, though they are almost always transcribed as vowels, even in linguistic fieldwork. That is misleading. Each Chinese syllable has only one syllabic nucleus.
Most values are "as in Italian."High: i, u, w ["umlaut u;" usually after y-]
allophones: i (as in "pit") and u (as in "put") are not phonemically contrastive
Mid: e, v [sound of "uh" or Sanskrit "short a"), o [in American English "gonna"]
Low: ae ["cat"], a [the symmetrical oe "ought" is not present in the system]
Anomalous: -ar (in certain tones, close to "vr")
Glides: ei, ai, ou, au [the first element has the accent, and carries the tone]
The actual height of a vowel can be influenced by the tone of the syllable. Thus, high tone tends to raise the position of the vowel, and low tone tends to lower it. The transcriptions given here are a compromise between those variants. For a vowel chart, complete with Chinese character keywords, click here.
The "final" of a Chinese syllable is the main vowel plus any second element, either the second part of a vowel glide or a nasal consonant. Here is the complete inventory of second elements in finals:Vowel Elements: -i, -u (as vowel glides)
examples: [with -i] ai, ei; [with -u] au, ou
Nasals: -n, -ng [-m once existed, but was was lost in Mandarin; it is retained in Cantonese]
examples: [with -i-] in, ing; [with -a-] an, ang
special cases: yen [there is no "yan" sound"], ywæn [there is no "ywan" or "ywen"]
Other syllabic finals used to exist, notably the consonants -p, -t, -k. These are still present in Cantonese, though one of them is weakening in actual usage, and all may eventually be lost. (The loss of Cantonese finals is due to constant contact with school Mandarin; the loss of those finals in Mandarin, in turn, was due to contact with the non-Chinese languages along the northern border with Inner Asia).
Not all possible combinations of initial and final sounds occur. Thus, except in the argot of drummers, there is no syllable "tei." There are, in all, 401 different syllables in Standard Dictionary Mandarin. All are included in our Romanization Conversion Tables
Despite what you may have heard, this is no big deal. There are four tones:high
low [actually low falling followed by low rising]
plus a neutral tone on unstressed syllables. Tones are not normally transcribed on these pages, since the needed diacritics are not available; we give a few exceptional examples below. In E-mail usage, and occasionally here, a postposed conventional numeral replaces the tonemark. If we suggest contours by referring to an imaginary system of 5 pitches, 5 being the highest, the conventional tone-indication numerals and their actual countours are:an1 = "an" in the high level tone (55)
an2 = "an" in the high rising tone (45); Hán "Korean"
an3 = "an" in the low tone (213)
an4 = "an" in the high falling tone (52); Hàn "Chinese"
Tones can change on syllables in conjunction; this is called tone sandhi. Details are not given here. Sandhi rules are simple for Mandarin, but much more complex in the modern Wu and Min dialects. Sentence intonation also exists. Sentence intonation contours are superimposed on the intrinsic word tone contours. Part of the linguistic work done in English by intonation contours is carried out in Chinese by neutral-tone sentence-final particles which indicate such nuances as hesitation, inquiry, or impatience.
Some English intonation contours resemble Chinese tones:"well . . . " (hesitation: "well55;" high level tone)
"me??" (inquiry: "me45;" high rising tone)
"now!!" (impatience: "now52;" high falling tone)
Which can occasionally lead to humorous misunderstandings. There is no commonly occuring English intonation counterpart to the Chinese low tone. (To put it technically, all English intonation contours are in a single register). That contour can occur with a strenuously emphasized question, but it is not part of the usual intonation repertoire.
A defect of most published descriptions of Chinese pronunciations is that they attempt to justify a particular spelling or romanization system rather than describing the sound. The above descriptions, to the best of our ability, are reasonably neutral.
26 Feb 2002 / Contact The Project / Exit to Reference Page