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Pinyin - Mandarin Chinese Romanization

Formally called Hanyu Pinyin (汉语拼音) which means "Chinese language phonetics". The system was created by a Chinese government committee in 1958 using as a base other previous Romanization systems, called  Gwoyeu Romatzyh and Latinxua Sin Wenz, and using the tone marks from zhuyin (see Pronunciation). There was another system very common in the western hemisphere called Wade-Giles, but it was rapidly replaced with pinyin, and now Wade-Giles is outdated.

Its main reason was to simplify the phonetic writing of the language to increase literacy rates, teach schoolchildren and learners of Chinese as a second language. The PRC quickly implemented it, but Taiwan continued to use zhuyin. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) adopted pinyin as the official standard in 1982, followed by the United Nations in 1986. Taiwan made it official in February, 2009 (however both systems coexist, since the change is very recent).

The system makes it easy to read new characters and learn the language, but the roman letters might cause some confusion in native speakers of other languages that actually use these letters to write it. There are certain rules in pinyin that have to be followed, and it is necessary to keep in mind that the Chinese sounds are not exactly the roman letters themselves. For instance, the pinyin letter h represents the same sound in Chinese as it does in English (the h in the word hat), but the pinyin letter z is used to represent a ts sound in Chinese. The expression "Morning!" in pinyin is written "Zǎo!" but pronounced tsao. Also, pinyin has some new combinations, like the sound zh, which sounds like a soft ch in English word change. The complete list of pinyin sounds and rules is the following:

Initials

Unaspirated

Aspirated

Nasal

Voiceless fricative

Voiced fricative

Labial

b

p

m

f

 

Alveolar

d

t

n

 

l

Velar

g

k

 

h

 

Palatal

j

q

 

x

 

Retroflex

zh

ch

 

sh

r

Dental sibilant

z

c

 

s

 

All the initials in the "Unaspirated" column are pronounced softly. All of the "Aspirated" column are similar to the unaspirated ones but pronounced releasing a puff of air. In English, the pinyin g would be a soft k sound, and the pinyin k would sound a bit like k-h. The pinyin x sounds like a mixture of the English sounds s and sh.

Some initials deserve special attention. The pinyin q sounds like the j, but exhaling. The Chinese word (to go) sounds somewhat like "jù", with air. In the same way, the pinyin zh sounds like ch, but soft, without air. As we mentioned before, z sounds like ts, therefore the aspirated c sounds like a strong exhaling tz.

The basic finals are similar to the English.

There are 6 simple finals - a, e, i, o, u, ü. The pinyin e sounds like eh in English, and i sounds like ee. The last final ü sounds like the French vocal. You round your lips, as if to say "oo" but you actually say "ee". The sound is a mixture of oo and ee.

There are some finals that are a combination of the basic finals:

Basic Final

a

e

i

o

u

ü

Combined

ai, ao, an, ang

e, ei, en, eng

ia, iao, ian, iang, ie,  iu,  in, ing

ou

ua,             uai,          uan,      uang,         uo,             wei (-ui), wen (-un), weng (-ong)

üan, üe,  ün, iong

The first rule of pinyin is that when a word starts with a u sound, it should be written as w, and the i sound as y. Therefore the word wǒ in pinyin sounds uo. The starting ü sound is written as yu.

And that is why wei, wen and weng start with a w instead of a u. The second rule says that when there is an initial before this sound, it is actually written as -ui. The word shuí (water) is pronounced in Chinese as shuei. The word fēng (wind) is pronounced as fong.

The third rule is about the last final iong. It is in the ü column because it is actually pronounced as –üong, but written -iong1.

The tone diacritics should be placed over the finals, never on the initials. They can also be replaced with the number of the corresponding tone,

五 means five and can be written in pinyin as wǔ or also wu3.

1. These are not the only pinyin rules.

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