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The Chinese Phonetic Alphabet

April 8, 2012

There have been many different systems of transcription used for learning to pronounce Chinese. Today the official transcription accepted on an international basis is the Pinyin alphabet, developed in China at the end of the 1950’s.

A syllable in Chinese is composed of an initial, which is a consonant that begins the syllable, and a final, wich covers the rest of the syllable.

b p m f
d t n l
g k h
j q x
z c s
zh ch sh r

* m, f, n, l, h and sh are pronounced as in English.
* d like “d” in “bed” (unaspirated)
j like “g” in “genius” (unaspirated)
z like “ds” in “beds”
zh like “j” in “job”
b like “p” in “spin” (unaspirated)
g a soft unaspirated “k” sound
x like “sh” in “sheep” but with the corners of the lips drawn back
r somewhat like “r” in “rain”
* Particular attention should be paid to the pronunciation of the so-called “aspirated” consonants. It is necessary to breath heavily after the consonant is pronounced.
p like “p” in “pope”
t like “t” in “tap”
k like “k” in “kangaroo”
q harder than “ch” in “cheap”
c like “ts” in “cats”
ch (tongue curled back, aspirated)
* Distinction between certain initials:
b / p d / t g / k j / q z / c zh / ch

In modern Chinese, there are 38 finals besides the above-represented 21 initials.

i u ü
a ia ua
o uo üe
e ie
er
ai uai
ei uei (ui)
ao iao
ou iou (iu)
an ian uan üan
en in uen (un) üen
ang iang uang
eng ieng ueng
ong iong

* ie like “ye” in “yes”
* e like “e” in “her”
* er like “er” in “sister” (american pronounciation)
* ai like “y” in “by” (light)
* ei like “ay” in “bay”
* ou like “o” in “go”
* an like “an” in “can” (without stressing the “n”)
* -ng (final) a nasalized soung like the “ng” in “bang” without pronouncing the “g”
* uei, uen and iou when preceded by an initial, are written as ui, un and iu respectivly.

Tones
Mandarin Chinese has four pitched tones and a “toneless” tone.

Tone Mark Description
1st dā High and level
2nd dá Starts medium in tone, then rises to the top
3rd dǎ Starts low, dips to the bottom, then rises toward the top
4th dà Starts at the top, then falls sharp and strong to the bottom
Neutral da Flat, with no emphasis

Tones Changes
A 3rd tone, when immediatlely followed by another 3rd tone, should pe pronounced in the 2nd tone.

Nǐ hǎo = Ní hǎo

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