Hacking Chinese

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Review: The Phonology of Standard Chinese

Title in English: The Phonology of Standard Chinese
Author: Duanmu, San (端木三)
Year: 2007
Pages: 361
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-0-19-921579-9
Buy: Amazon

Tags: Standard Chinese, Phonology, Pronunciation, Theory
Level: Advanced students, anyone interested in linguistics

Taking the step from practical understanding of Chinese pronunciation to a more theoretical approach can either be hard and boring or challenging but entertaining, depending on who you are and how you go about taking the step. If you have a background in linguistics and read articles about phonology for fun, you only need an good introduction to Chinese phonology and you’ll be fine. However, if you’re not an expert in a related field already, understanding Chinese phonology might be very hard indeed. There are many descriptions about Chinese pronunciation for beginners and much more about phonology for those who are already experts, but there is little in between. If we want to bridge this gap, what should we do?

I think The Phonology of Standard Chinese by Duanmu San is the perfect choice for anyone who wants to add a theoretical edge to their knowledge about Chinese phonology, almost regardless what background you have. If you have some linguistics under your belt already, this book will take you into the fascinating world of Chinese phonology, but even if you have no knowledge at all, you will still be able to learn a lot, albeit with slightly more effort required (remember that Wikipedia is your friend).

Before I list the reasons why I think this book is excellent, I will say a few words about for whom it’s excellent. This book is for advanced students and/or anyone who is interested in linguistics. This book will teach you very few things that are of immediate practical use, so if you’re an intermediate student who want to polish your pronunciation, this is not the book for your. If you’re interested in understanding the sounds of Mandarin from a theoretical point of view, then read on.

I have many reason for liking this book.

  1. It’s a brilliant introduction. I’ve read this book twice already, the first time being roughly a year ago when I wrote my bachelor thesis about tone instruction. At that time, I had read little theoretical literature about Mandarin and jumping straight into doctoral theses and scientific articles is quite difficult. I survived partly because of The Phonology of Standard Chinese since it helped me sort out the basic concepts.
  2. It’s well written, well researched and well presented. Put briefly, this book contains so much information that it’s extremely hard to summarise. As a starting point for further reading, I can’t imagine a better option. The author gives us a comprehensive overview of the topic and does so in a clear, eloquent way. The bibliography spans roughly twenty pages and there should be more to read than anyone could possibly desire.
  3. The author tells a story. In this book, Duanmu doesn’t merely present the current research and his own development of those ideas, he tells a story of how the understanding of the phonology of Standard Chinese has evolved. Of course, he puts the main emphasis on current theories, but he still enables the reader to follow along and understand why certain theories were abandoned or why the way linguists regard a certain concept has changed.
  4. It’s about more than just Chinese. I’ve always been a little bit interested in linguistics, but not very much. This is probably because I haven’t had teachers who were able to present the subject well enough to attract my attention. This book does so, however. Reading this book makes me think that generative linguistics is pretty cool and something I would like to read more about. Also, the ideas in this book covers more than just Chinese. The author makes frequent references to English and other languages.

I think I’ve made my point. This book belongs in the bookshelf of any serious, advanced learner or anyone who is interested in phonology. It is a gateway to much, much more and possible the best introduction you can find. If you want to read more, you can always check the author’s bibliography, which contains many articles and book chapters in PDF format, free for download. That’s no substitute for reading The Phonology of Standard Chinese, however. The ideas in this book might be available elsewhere, but it’s hard to imagine that so many ideas can be summarised on so few pages in a better way than this.


If you want to know more about what this book is actually about, I’ve provided the chapter titles below. You can also check the book on Amazon, which offers a preview.

Chapter 1 – Introduction
Chapter 2 – The sound inventory
Chapter 3 – Combinations and variations
Chapter 4 – The syllable
Chapter 5 – Words and compounds
Chapter 6 – Stress
Chapter 7 – The word-length problem
Chapter 8 – The word-order problem
Chapter 9 – the -er suffix
Chapter 10 – Tone: Basic properties
Chapter 11 – Tone 3 sandhi (T3S)
Chapter 12 – Rhythm in poetry
Chapter 13 – Connected speech and other dialects
Chapter 14 – Theoretical implications

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  1. I’m not sure if I would be interested enough to read the whole book, but it probably would be useful and helpful to read about Chinese phonology in English too. I have a 现代汉语 course where we learned the basics of phonology in Modern Chinese. Those 106 pages in the book (and rest of it too) isn’t that easy for me because I have never studied linguistics.

    By reading the book you recommended I could make sure that I understood what I read in Chinese and find out a lot more.

    If I later have interest and time to read this kind of book, I’ll keep your recommendation in mind. Thank you!

  2. Harry says:

    I almost didn’t continue reading the book until I saw this review. So, thanks!

    Section 1.1 was a huge turn-off. It’s such a weak introduction that tries to depict ‘reality’ from the Chinese perspective. It’s sad that someone like SanDuanMu, who knows so much about linguistics continues to subscribe to the party-line of ‘dialect families’ based on weak evidence like “same writing system” and the supposed ability to adapt quickly to other “dialects”.

    Adapting within months or years does not prove speakers are speaking dialects. As someone living in China, I know poeple who have lived in an area other than their home town, and they could understand the local ‘hua’ well after a year or two but still do not speak it. If an Italian moved to Spain, how long would it take them to understand? speak? If less than a year, would SanDuanMu say Italian and Spanish are in the same “dialect family”? What about an Englishman moving to Germany? How far do we go with SanDuanMu’s rule being “they can move there and adapt after a certain amount of time?” Comparing English and Pig Latin with the language situation in China is absurd.

    Politically dialects; linguistically languages. That’s what my Chinese professor always told me. Just wish great linguists like SanDuanMu could get past the political BS and talk about LANGUAGES in China like the rest of the linguistic world does when Chinese linguists aren’t around.

  3. vermillon says:

    Thanks Harry for that comment. Indeed, anyone belonging to a closely related language family like the Romance knows that the “dialect” thing is bullshit. It’s indeed a shame that even linguists would follow this line.

    @Olle: I’m sorry, but I’m not sure I get why this book is interesting, from your review. Surely not for the beginner, but then, what does the more advanced learner gets from it? From the table of content I can only see “Stress”, “Rhythm in Poetry” and “Connected Speech” which seem interesting (just from the table of contents). Could you say more about why you think it’s an interesting read, what it brought you etc. If my question makes sense at all…

    1. Olle Linge says:

      @Vermillion: It’s a fairly complete and connected explanations of the topics listen in the article. When I say “connected”, I mean that the arguments aren’t disparate, but rather fit together into some kind of larger whole. This book has taught me very much, so listing it would be a bit time-consuming. Generally speaking, though, it’s theoretical understanding of all sounds, tones, word/compound/phrase distinctions, stress and so on. Basically, he argues that stress is the key to almost everything and uses this to propose a solution to T3S, word/compound/phrase distinctions and some other things. I’m not sure this answer helps you, but you’ll have to ask a more specific question if you want a better answer. 🙂

      1. vermillon says:

        I think it’s clearer. A sentence like “This book has taught me very much, so listing it would be a bit time-consuming.” is almost enough to buy it.
        I’ve noticed I understood Korean grammar much better after reading an “essential grammar”, so this may make my understanding of Mandarin better with this book.

  4. Sara K. says:

    Theory has certainly helped me improve my English pronunciation, and English is my native language. I would say that I speak English much better than the native English speaker – though I generally pronounce things in a less crisp manner in casual conversation than in formal situations (for example, except in formal situations, I tend to say ‘flaer’ and ‘jror’ instead of ‘flower’ and ‘drawer’). I would also say that the work I’ve done to improve my English pronunciation also made it easier to pick up Chinese pronunciation – I already came into Chinese study with a higher-than-average awareness of phonetic issues.

  5. Ivan says:

    Dear Olle

    This is a really excellent review. You really make it seem like an enjoyable book.

    I wonder, have you had a chance to compare this book with “The Sounds of Chinese” by Yen-Hwei Lin (Cambridge University Press, 2007)?

    I think I’m going to buy one or the other, perhaps both.

    Searching for reviews of these books led me to this website! Happy!

    With thanks and best wishes


    1. Olle Linge says:

      Hi Ivan,

      No, I haven’t read that book, so I can’t compare. In fact, the other books I’ve read about the subject have been in Chinese, although I have of course read chapters on phonology in other books. I can’t say if this book is better than the book you refer to, but I can say that this book is worth reading regardless of how good the other one is. Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll see if I can get hold of it.



      1. Ivan says:

        Dear Olle

        Thanks for your reply.

        I’ll get the Yen-Hwei Lin first, and perhaps write a review like yours, then get the San Duanmu.

        I’m just starting Chinese — planning on taking the lowest level HSK and a GCSE (an entry-level British exam) — this summer, but my background is in linguistics and inappropriate questions (about phonology, syntax, …) keep occurring to me.

        I’ll report back in a few months 🙂

        Best wishes


        1. Olle Linge says:

          Great! Be sure to let me know when you’ve read the book, I’m curious about it, too.

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