There are several ways of finding answers to questions about learning Chinese. Some of them promote discussion, others are more strictly trying to find the best answer to a specific question.
Chinese Language Stack Exchange falls into the latter category, which is why it’s one of the few platforms I actually use, both for asking and answering questions. If you want to read more about other ways of finding answer to your questions, check out my article 5 websites to help answer your questions about Chinese. You should also check 101 questions and answers about how to learn Chinese, where I go through the most common questions I get from students.
In this article, however, I’m going to focus on questions about pronunciation. In recent years, I’ve been fairly diligent when it comes to answering questions about Pinyin and pronunciation on Chinese Language Stack Exchange, so I thought I’d write about it here, both to spread the word about that site, but also to help you figure out how Mandarin pronunciation works and how it related to Pinyin spelling.
Below, I have selected nine of my answers to questions about Pinyin and pronunciation. I have included the question itself, a link to the question on Chinese Language Stack Exchange as well as my answer. I have edited some of the questions and answers to be a bit more succinct and consistent, but not in a way that changes anything substantial.
I have also included more links here, which were not included in the original answers because some people might regard it as spammy, even if the links are relevant.
If you like my answers, feel free to up-vote them. It has no practical function, but it feels good to know that people find the answers useful!
Overview of questions:
- Is the ”a” in ”ta” pronounced as the ”a” in ”tan” or the ”a” in ”tang”?
- Bù kèqi or bú kèqi: In Pinyin, do I write the fourth or second tone with 不客气?
- Is pinyin an accurate pronunciation guide?
- Why is the Pinyin for 波 bō not buō? And why is 多 duō instead of dō?
- How is the pinyin ‘iu’ pronounced?
- Why is “e” pronounced differently in de (的, 地) and ye (也,夜)?
- How is j/q/x/y + ün pronounced?
- What is the meaning of the tone numbers shown in Wiktionary’s Mandarin pronunciation?
- What are the advantages/disadvantages for learning tones with Pinyin vs with Gwoyeu Romatzyh?
1. Is the ”a” in ”ta” pronounced as the ”a” in ”tan” or the ”a” in ”tang”?
I’ve been pronouncing the ”a” in ba, da, fa, ga, ha, ka, la, ma, na, pa, sa, the same. But I’ve been pronouncing the ”a” in ta differently. Like the ”a” in ”ang”.
Think of the difference between the pronunciation of ”a” in man and mang, tan and tang, dan and dang.
I checked a few online dictionaries that provide pronunciation and to my surprise both pronunciations exist for ta. But not for the other ba, da, fa, etc. syllables.
Can anyone confirm this or add some info?
My answer (link)
Depending on the speaker, these spellings represent either two or three sounds. The short answer is that for standard pronunciation, you can treat the vowel sound in ta and tan the same way, but the a in tang is further back.
The a in tang is a back open vowel, written [ɑ] in IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet). That means that it’s the same as the normal a in ta, except further back. The difference is not very big, but shouldn’t be hard to hear. This sound is close to the a in Received Pronunciation, as in words like bath. This means that the word bang in English [bæŋ] is not very close to bang in Chinese [pɑŋ].
The -a in tan is trickier. There is some variation in how this is pronounced, varying from a normal [a] (i.e. the same as in ta) to [æ], which is less open, similar to the vowel sound in English bad [bæd]. The [a] pronunciation is more standard, but it’s common to hear sounds approaching [æ] as well. You can find both transcriptions depending on where you look, so either [tʰan] or [tʰæn].
If you listen to the top row (-a, -an and -ang) on the Chinese Pronunciation Wiki, you can clearly hear the three different pronunciations (including something between [æ] and [a] for -an).
So, to answer your question, you can pronounce the -a in ta and tan more or less the same, but you should make sure that the -a in tang is further back.
The same is true for the other initials, of course, not just for t-. It’s true that the initial (or any sound) influences the final (or any other sound), but I’ve never seen anyone claiming there’s a significant difference between similar initials that learners need to worry about. These influences are often the result of transitioning from one sound to another and will happen naturally. You can certainly treat the -a in ta, da, ba, pa, ma, na, etc. the same.
This is covered in my article A guide to Pinyin traps and pitfalls: Learn Mandarin pronunciation:
2. Bù kèqi or bú kèqi: In Pinyin, do I write the fourth or second tone with 不客气?
When writing 不客气 in (Pinyin):
不 = Bù
不客气 = Bù kèqi
Because of the fourth tone of kè the pronunciation is Bú kèqi. But do I write it down as Bù kèqi or Bú kèqi?
My answer (link)
That depends on why you are writing it. The standard, normal way of writing it is to disregard the changed tone and write the original tone, i.e. bù kèqi. The same goes for tone changes of 一 (yī). Not showing the tone change is not a problem in this context, because the rules governing how to change the tones are quite simple. Since most Pinyin is written for native speakers, there’s no need to include something which is obvious to the reader.
However, if your goal is to highlight this tone change, such as when teaching someone the language (someone for whom the tone changes are not obvious), it can sometimes make sense to write the actual tone for 不 and 一, so bú kèqi in your case, and yí yàng for 一样 or yì qǐ for 一起.
The third tone is (almost) always written as a third tone, though, as it would otherwise be impossible to know if a second tone is actually a second tone or a third tone that has changed. The only place where níhǎo would be acceptable for 你好 is in a discussion about third tone changes.
The problem of lost information does not apply to 不 and 一, so in teaching materials, changing the tone is usually a good idea (nothing lost; something gained). So, which one you choose depends on why you are writing it: If it’s to teach someone pronunciation, then change the tones; if it’s for something else, then leave the original tone!
Learn more in Obligatory and optional tone change rules in Mandarin:
3. Is pinyin an accurate pronunciation guide?
Pinyin seems to be an exact pronunciation guide to Chinese words, but is it exact? I am not a Chinese speaker so don’t know for sure. I would like to take the Pinyin transcription of Chinese words and convert it to a pronunciation guide using my own techniques, but I am not sure if I can properly do that because for all I know Pinyin might not accurately match real pronunciations in the real world. Are there cases where Pinyin doesn’t accurately reflect the pronunciation of words in Chinese? What are some examples if that is the case? If it does accurately reflect pronunciation, that’s great then and that answers the question.
By “exact” I mean, Pinyin at least has a seemingly 1-to-1 mapping of sounds to spellings, but perhaps one spelling might have multiple pronunciations in the real world. I am not talking about dialects really, assume I am talking about some hand-wavy notion of a “standard” pronunciation of a Chinese word. I am talking about one word say “zang” (just making this up) might be pronounced “zayng” but “zhang” might be pronounced “zhung”, so the “-ang” is pronounced “-ay” in one case but “uh” in another, sort of thing.
My answer (link)
Hanyu Pinyin does not have a 1:1 mapping between written symbols (letters) and pronunciation, and so can’t be said to be accurate in the sense that IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet) is meant to be accurate.
It is of course perfectly functional as a way of writing down Mandarin pronunciation, but only if you know how to pronounce the language first or learn the system properly.
However, you can not rely on letters representing the same sounds, or that the same sounds are written with the same letters! This is particularly true for vowels, while the consonants are more straightforward.
There are cases where many sounds are mapped to one single written symbol. Here are a few examples (the examples are from this article, that has both more examples and audio for some of them):
The letter “i” represents some very different sounds in Mandarin:
- It’s a front close vowel [i] and occurs in: mi, bi, ti etc.
- “i” represents the empty rhyme following z, c and s (this sound can be described in many ways, but it’s fairly close to English [z], but with more air allowed to pass).
- It also represents the sound following zh, ch, sh and r. This is the same as the previous sound, but pronounced close to the retroflex position (i.e., the tongue is retracted and raised as when producing the zh, ch, sh and r sounds, just not as close).
Other examples include many different sounds represented by the letters “e” and “a”. See the linked article above for more examples of these.
There are also cases where the opposite is true, i.e. that one sound is written in many different ways.
The example that best shows why you need to already speak the language for the system to make perfect sense is how [y] is treated. It has dots, written ü, when there is ambiguity, as in lü and nü, because we also have lu and nu, which are different sounds (which any native speaker knows intuitively, but beginner students don’t). But there are no dots when there’s no ambiguity, so even if it’s actually pronounced jü, qü and xü, it’s spelt ju, qu and xu. Same with jüe (jue) jün (jun), etc.. There is no syllable that start with j and ends with the u in e.g. lu: *[t͡ɕu]
Then we also have sounds that are there but simply left out, such as –ui actually being pronounced -uei (水, 对, 贵) and -iu actually being pronounced -iou (六，休，牛).
As Dan mentioned in a comment, tone changes can also be opaque unless you are familiar with the language. There’s no written indication that nǐhǎo is pronounced with a rising tone on the first syllable, or that the third tone is a low tone in front of all other tones except the third tone (e.g. měiguó, xiǎngyào etc.), or that 不 and 一 change tone depending on the following syllable.
So no, Pinyin is not exact in the way you imagine it to be. And if I may ask, if you’re working on a guide for how Mandarin is pronounced, wouldn’t it make more sense to just use IPA, which is designed specifically to describe how languages are pronounced?
Then you can rely on the works of countless other people who have tried to make similar guides and descriptions, and you can use what you’ve learnt to learn about pronunciation in other languages too! Maybe start with the Standard Chinese Phonology article on Wikipedia.
4. Why is the Pinyin for 波 bō not buō? And why is 多 duō instead of dō?
Recently I started to learn Pinyin. The system is relatively easy to follow but some ambiguity does exist. For example, I found the usage of finals o and uo confusing: why the Pinyin for 波 is bō not buō? and 多 is duō instead of dō? Would appreciate if someone could give the reason for such usage.
My answer (link)
For all practical purposes, you can think of this as a spelling convention. The finals are pronounced the same, even if all finals are to some extent influenced by the preceding initial.
In Pinyin, there is (almost) no overlap between these two spellings, so any given initial that can be followed by -uo can never be followed by -o and vice versa.
The actual pronunciation is arguably also identical, even though this always sparks emotional arguments when mentioned to native speakers with no training in phonetics (they typically claim that there’s an obvious difference).
This could be either because they are influenced by orthography (the way the word is spelt influences how they perceive it) or that the coarticulation going on with the preceding syllable in combination with the spelling makes them take note of the difference more than they otherwise would have. The phenomenon that spelling influences how native speakers pronounce words is not uncommon, see for example this list on Wikipedia for examples when this happens in English.
In many narrow transcriptions of Mandarin syllables (such as the one in Duanmu San’s The Phonology of Chinese (2007) or Lin Yen-Hwei’s The Sounds of Chinese (2007), the -uo and -o finals are transcribed exactly the same way: [ᵂoo], e.g. [pᵂoo] for bo and [tᵂoo] for duo.
This means that the sound is treated as a glide, which in one case gets its own letter in Pinyin, but in the other cases (after b, p, m and f) is merely implied.
I don’t know the historical reason for this, though. If you listen to the syllables spelt with only -o, there’s a clear glide in there, which is also easy to see if you look at spectrograms in e.g. Praat.
Finally, I said at the beginning that there is almost no overlap between these finals. That’s because we do have both wo (which could be thought of as uo) and o, which are clearly different sounds. Since none of these have a normal initial, maybe you could say there’s overlap, even though they are spelt differently.
However, while the first is very common (e.g. 我), the second is very rare and could be argued to not be a standard syllable at all. It’s normally only used for modal particles like 喔.
I have done several projects that involve recording native speaker audio for all possible syllables in Mandarin, and most recorders (educated native speakers) don’t know what to do with o or simply read it as wo, further hinting that this is not a normal syllable.
For a clear distinction, check the Pinyin chart over at Chinese Pronunciation Wiki.
Possibly, lo also follows this pattern, which would create an overlap with luo, but then again, lo is used in a similar way to o and not really as a full syllable. It should be abundantly clear that bo, po, mo, fo are not pronounced as lo or o, further indicating that it’s mostly about spelling.
I have answered several similar questions here and have collected other potential tricky Pinyin issues here: A guide to Pinyin traps and pitfalls: Learn Mandarin pronunciation.
5. How is the pinyin ‘iu’ pronounced?
How does one pronounce the iu sound (as in liù = six)?
I have always said it and heard it to end in an [joʊ] sound, as in ‘low’, ‘go’, and ‘sew’.
But once I was told that it should actually be a ‘u’ sound, perhaps something like [iu:] as in ‘few’. (And from the pinyin, I suppose it would make more sense.)
Is a ‘u’ sound the proper way to pronounce it? Or is this merely a regional difference in pronunciation (where both are acceptable)?
My answer (link)
The short version: I think English “go” is closer to the correct sound than English “few”. If you want a non-scientific description which is reasonably accurate, I would use “low” (let’s switch to the same consonant) with an added but not emphasised [i] between “l” and “ow”.
The slightly longer version: Pinyin -iu is short for -iou, which means that if you stress the syllable and pronounce it very clearly, it rhymes with Pinyin you. For example, listen to the liu (select the third tone, it’s longest and clearest) pronounced in a pronunciation chart.
However, note that the diacritic (tone mark) in liù is placed on the u and not the i, which means that u is emphasised and i reduced. This can be written in several ways, but in Duanmu’s The Phonology of Standard Chinese (2007), the broad transcription is [liəu] but in the narrow transcription, the [i] has been reduced to a superscript “j”, so [lʲəu]. This reduction is fairly obvious if you listen to natural, connected speech. It’s also common to further reduce the [əu]. If you listen to the same sources as above, but select the fourth tone for the same syllable liu, you will hear the difference.
6. Why is “e” pronounced differently in de (的, 地) and ye (也,夜)?
I got confused because sometimes “e” is pronounced differently in various words. For example: de (的, 地) and ye (也,夜)
Can you explain and give me some tricks to remember? Thank you!
My answer (link)
Systems designed to represent pronunciation and to be practical at the same time don’t have a 1:1 mapping between spoken sounds and written symbols. Or in other words, each sound can be represented using many symbols, or perhaps more commonly, each symbol is used to represent more than one sound. There are countless examples of this in other languages, of course.
An exception is the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), where the goal is to use one symbol to represent one sound, but this is hardly practical and would never be adopted as the standard way of writing a language for non-linguists.
Pinyin certainly does not have a 1:1 mapping between sounds and letters. Indeed, looking at the individual letters is the wrong way to approach the question, but more about that later. In Pinyin, there are plenty of examples where one letter can stand for numerous sounds, and you have identified one of them: “e”
“e” can be pronounced in three different ways (or four if you want to be picky):
- First, when it’s the only vowel, it is a close-mid back vowel [ɤ]. This is the sound in 饿 (hungry) or 哥 (older brother), for example. This is often realised as a diphthong [ɯɤ] (those are both unrounded back vowels)
- Second, following an i, such as in lie, die or xie, it becomes a close-mid front vowel [e] instead. This is the sound you’re asking about, e.g. 夜 (night). Note that the final -ie is spelt ye when there’s no initial.
- Third, before the nasals -n and -ng, it becomes central vowel [ə], for example in 冷 (cold). A short version of this is pretty close to the sound used when the syllable is reduced, which is the case in your 的 and 地.
- Fourth, in some analyses, the “e” in e.g. mei and mie are treated as different sounds, with the first using [e] as we have already discussed, and the second [ɛ].
Please note that the spoken sounds of course come first, and the writing of those sounds comes afterwards. Saying “‘e‘” is pronounced like this” is not really the right way to approach the problem; a better way of looking at it would be “this sound is written using the letter ‘e'”, which is simultaneously true for a number of sounds (four in this case).
I normally advise students to think of Mandarin pronunciation in terms of initials and finals, which is the traditional way of breaking down syllables in Mandarin. I don’t recommend this just because it’s traditional, though, but because it helps you stop thinking about how e is pronounced.
There are only roughly 40 finals in Mandarin. Learn that the final -ie is pronounced in one way, and that the finals -en and -eng are pronounced in other ways instead. Those are different finals and should be treated differently.
Yes, they all contain “e”, but that mostly leads to confusion, although it is very convenient to type. Yes, it will take you longer to learn, but it will lead to less confusion and hopefully better pronunciation.
7. How is j/q/x/y + ün pronounced?
Here in the south (mainland) ün has a similar pronunciation to the English -ean as in ‘wean’ or even the -een in ‘ween’, though it seems like northerners pronounce it more like -uin in ‘ruin’.
jün, qün, xün, yün like the chart above have completely different pronunciations from lun, dun, tun, kun, hun, zhun, chun, shun, run, zun, cun, sun.
Northern pronunciation doesn’t seem to differentiate very much between the two though – their pronunciations seem rather close.
Am I right in my theories?
Is there a reason for these differences?
Is one considered more standard than the other?!
My answer (link)
First and foremost, I think it’s very dangerous to try to approximate Mandarin sounds with parts of English words, partly because we all pronounce English slightly differently, and partly because some sounds just don’t exist in English. There is no “ü” [y] in English, so trying to use English here will just trap students and never really allow them to learn the sound. It also makes answering your question impossible, because no matter which English words you choose, none of them will contain [y].
Read more about this in Why learning Chinese pronunciation by using English words is a really bad idea:
In order to straighten out pronunciation in the case of “j/q/x + u”, we need to first look at basic spelling rules in Pinyin. There are two distinct vowel sounds in Mandarin, spelt “u” and “ü”. They are very different, although they look similar, and are mispronounced by a large number of English native speakers. The first is a close back rounded vowel, the second is close front rounded vowel. Don’t think of “ü” as being anywhere close to “u” because it isn’t; these are two very different sounds in Mandarin.
The problem (for learners) is that the dots are only written when there is ambiguity, which is only the case for “lü” and “nü”, because “lu” and “nu” also exist in Mandarin. In all other cases, the dots are left out, and we just write “u”. This happens for all syllables starting with j/q/x, so “ju” is really “jü”, “quan” is really “qüan” and “xue” is really “xüe”. There are no “lün”, “zhün” or “chüan” and any such pronunciation is definitely not standard.
So, to answer your question, the “u” after j/q/x (and in “yu”, “yun”) should be “ü” and is pronounced completely differently than a normal “u”. In IPA, this sound is written [y] or perhaps more accurately as [ɥ] in glides.
The other sound, Pinyin “u” (the one that never had any dots to start with), is written in many different ways in IPA depending whom you’re asking, but [u] and [ʊ] are the most common.
These two sounds never overlap (except after “n” and “l” as mentioned above), they are in what’s called complementary distribution. This means that deviating pronunciation is less problematic than it might seem at first, because if you get these finals right (i.e. the following vowel sounds), you can get away with other pronunciation oddities, such as mixing zh/ch/sh with j/q/x (which is common), since the former can only be followed by “u” and the latter only by “ü”, listeners will still know what you’re trying to say even if you pronounce e.g. “zh” and “j” the same way.
While I’m at it, I should also mention that all “un” that aren’t preceded by j/q/x are actually “uen”, which makes the pronunciation even more distinct from “jun/qun/xun” (which is just [yn]). How pronounced that “e” is depends on the syllable, the tone and the speaker. It seems to be most prominent for third tones where it’s very easy to hear and least prominent in fourth tones.
Regarding different dialects or regional accents, I’m afraid someone else will have to step in. What I have written above is the standard, but there might be places where people don’t pronounce things like that. However, I’ve lived in Taiwan for many years and have spoken with lots of people from Beijing, and I have not observed the north/south difference you mention. Take this as a personal observation; I haven’t done much research into locally accented Mandarin (except the Taiwanese variety, which isn’t relevant here).
8. What is the meaning of the tone numbers shown in Wiktionary’s Mandarin pronunciation?
According to Wiktionary, the word 游泳 is pronounced as /joʊ̯³⁵ jʊŋ²¹⁴⁻²¹⁽⁴⁾/. What exactly is the meaning of the numbers 214-21(4)? The first three numbers indicate the standard falling then rising pronunciation. What about 21(4)?
My answer (link)
They represent tone height on a scale from 1-5, with one being the lowest and 5 the highest. Thus, a full third tone would be transcribed as 214 (starting quite low, falling, then rising up again), but since the final rise is optional, it’s put in brackets. These are sometimes called Chao tone numerals, after 趙元任.
In the International Phonetic Alphabet, each number is replaced by a short bar at a certain height, then several of these are joined into a line that shows tone contour. So, the full third tone would be ˨+˩+˦=˨˩˦. Since this is sometimes hard to both type and display (depends on font), numbers might be easier.
Read more about tone representation with these symbols/numbers here: Tone Letter (Wikipedia)
9. What are the advantages/disadvantages for learning tones with Pinyin vs with Gwoyeu Romatzyh?
“If you go after Mandarin, choose the somewhat uncommon GR over pinyin romanization if at all possible. It’s harder to learn at first, but I’ve never met a pinyin learner with tones even half as accurate as a decent GR user. Long story short, this is because tones are indicated by spelling in GR, not by diacritical marks above the syllables.” http://fourhourworkweek.com/2007/11/07/how-to-learn-but-not-master-any-language-in-1-hour-plus-a-favor/
“Chao claimed that, because GR embeds the tone of each syllable in its spelling, it may help students to master Chinese tones. One study however, found the opposite to be true in a study of GR.” https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwoyeu_Romatzyh
In general, I think too much importance is ascribed to which transcription system is used. Students’ ability to distinguish, pronounce and remember tones depends on many factors and the way the tones are written is just a very small part of it. Even if there was a difference between systems, it would probably drown in other factors.
The question of tonal spelling (i.e. including the tonal information in the spelling of the word rather than using diacritics) has actually been researched experimentally. Scott McGinnis (1997) compared two classes taught with either Hanyu Pinyin or Gwoyeu Romatzyh. They were tested on reading tasks and the accuracy of their tonal production was assessed by native speakers. The study found that the Gwoyeu Romatzyh group actually performed worse than the Hanyu Pinyin group.
Personally, I think the problem is that tones are often treated as something extra, even optional. Not by all, but by far too many. Some teachers don’t grade an answer as wrong if the tone is wrong (or left out) but the initial and final are correct, or they don’t deduct as many points for tonal errors as they do for spelling errors. Students often ask “do we have to remember the tones too?” and at one point an intermediate student asked me if I was serious when I said that he had to learn all the tones (his tones were terrible and it turned out to be because he had just ignored them).
So, changing transcription system to Gwoyeu Romatzyh will not help. The little evidence we have suggests that it won’t and there’s nothing else that suggests that it will. Yes, it’s good to treat tone as an integral part of a word, but you can achieve that by consistent and persistent teaching or learning methods instead. Therefore, using Pinyin is the best option since it’s by far the most well-spread and accessible system.
Going off on a tangent, I do think that it’s worthwhile for students to learn more than one transcription system after they have already learnt their first. I think that this is good because it breaks the strong grip of orthography. Seeing the same sound written with different letters or symbols may lead to new insights into that sound. I have no research to support this, but it was like that for me and I know many others who have had similar experiences when learning a second transcription system, regardless of which one it is.
Conclusion and lessons learnt (or taught)
Some thing recur in these answers and are important for learning to pronounce Mandarin properly:
- Don’t learn pronunciation from writing, learn the sounds first and then learn how they are spelt in Pinyin
- Using English words to approximate Mandarin pronunciation is a really bad idea
- Asking how individual letters in Pinyin are pronounced is not fruitful; think in terms of bigger units: initials and finals
- Never guess how an initial or final is pronounced, because there’s a big risk that you’re wrong
- Which system you use is not very important, as long as you learn it properly
- Learning more than one system, preferably IPA, can be quite helpful, because it allows you to notice difference you might have overlooked
Do you have any questions about Pinyin or pronunciation?
As I mentioned in the introduction, I’m working on a pronunciation course that should be out in January, 2021. The contents in the course answers all of the questions above except the last one, and many more like them. If you’re curious, you can check out information about the course here:
If you have a specific question, feel free to leave a comment below! With enough questions, I’ll write a follow-up post!
Duanmu, S. (2007). The phonology of standard Chinese. Oxford University Press.
Lin, Y. H. (2007). The Sounds of Chinese. Cambridge University Press.
McGinnis, S. (1997). Tonal spelling versus diacritics for teaching pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese. The Modern Language Journal, 81(2), 228-236.
Further reading in Chinese
鄭靜宜. (2011). 語音聲學：說話聲音的科學. 心理出版社.
王理嘉、林燾. (2013). 語音學教程. 五南出版社.
曾金金. (2008). 華語語音資料庫及數位學習應用. 新學出版社林.
朱川. (2013). 外國學生漢語語音學習對策(增訂本). 新學林出版社.
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