Pinyin (拼音, pīnyīn) literally means "join together sounds" (a less literal translation being "phoneticize", "spell" or "transcription") in Chinese and usually refers to Hànyǔ pīnyīn (汉语拼音, literal meaning: "Han language pinyin"), which is a system of romanization (phonetic notation and transliteration to roman script) for Standard Mandarin used in the People's Republic of China. Pinyin was approved in 1958 and adopted in 1979 by its government. It superseded older transcriptions like the Wade-Giles system (1859; modified 1912) or Bopomofo. Similar systems have been designed for Chinese dialects and non-Han minority languages in the PRC. Cantonese also has a pinyin-type system called Penkyamp, whose name derives from the same word as pinyin, with the characters pronounced using their respective Cantonese pronunciations.
Since then, pinyin has been accepted by the Library of Congress, The American Library Association, and most international institutions as the transcription system for Mandarin. In 1979 the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) adopted pinyin as the standard romanization for Modern Chinese.
It is important to maintain the distinction that pinyin is a romanization and not an anglicization; that is, it is equally applicable for transliteration into any language that uses a roman alphabet. Indeed some of the transliterations in pinyin such as the "ang" ending, do not correspond to English pronunciations. Pinyin has also become a useful tool for entering Chinese language text into computers.
The primary purpose of pinyin in Chinese schools is to teach Mandarin pronunciation. Many in the West are under the mistaken belief that pinyin is used to help children associate characters with spoken words which they already know, but this is incorrect as many Chinese do not use Mandarin at home, and therefore do not know the Mandarin pronunciation of words until they learn them in elementary school through the use of pinyin.
Pinyin uses the Roman alphabet, hence the pronunciation is relatively straightforward for Westerners. A pitfall for English-speaking novices is, however, the unusual pronunciation of "x", "q", "c" and "z". More information on the pronunciation of all pinyin letters in terms of English approximations is given further below.
The combined initials, vowels, and finals represent the segmental phonemic portion of the language.
Conventional order: b p m f d t n l g k h j q x zh ch sh r z c s
-r rhymes omitted. 2
In combination with an initial:
In standalone (no initials) form:
1 /ʊŋ/ can only occur with an initial, so it has no standalone form; /uɤŋ/ can only occur without an initial, so it only has a standalone form.
2 /ər/ (而,二, etc.) is written as er. For other -r rhymes formed by the suffix -r, pinyin does not use special orthography; one simply appends -r to the rhyme that it is added to without regard for any sound changes that may take place along the way.
3 "ü" is written as "u" after j q x.
4 "o" is written after b p m f, "uo" everywhere else.
Rules given in terms of English pronunciation
All rules given here in terms of English pronunciation are approximate.
- a: IPA [ɑ] if ending a syllable, then as in "father"
- ai: IPA [aɪ], like English "eye", but a bit lighter
- an: IPA [an], [ən] as in fan in British Received Pronunciation or as in ton as in the American Midwest. If occurring in the combinations ian, üan, juan, quan, xuan, yuan, then like pen in British RP, fan in the American Midwest.
- ar, anr, air: IPA [aɹ], like a, but pronounced with the tongue curled up against the palate; like rhotic are in North American English
- angr: same as ar but nasalized (i.e., the sound goes through the nose as well)
- ao: IPA [aʊ], approximately as in "cow"; the a is much more audible than the o
- aor: like ao but with an -r added to the back; comparable to American tower (but much more compact)
- b: IPA [p], unaspirated "p", as in spit
- c: IPA [tsʰ], like "ts", aspirated
- ch: IPA [tʂʰ], as in "chin", but with the tongue curled upwards; very similar to "nurture" in American English, but strongly aspirated
- d: IPA [t], unaspirated "t", as in stand
- e: IPA [ɤ], when occurring at the end of a syllable and not in the combinations of ie, üe, ue, then a backward, unrounded vowel, which can be formed by first pronouncing a plain continental "o" (British RP law) and then spreading the lips without changing the position of the tongue. That same sound is also similar to English "duh", but not as open. Many unstressed syllables in Chinese use the schwa (idea), and this is also written as e.
- ê: IPA [ɛ], as in French "école"
- ei: IPA [ei], as in "hey"
- en: IPA [ən], as in taken
- eir, enr: IPA [ɝ], like e, but pronounced with the tongue curled up against the palate; similar to the vowel in rhotic her in English
- eng, like e above but with ng added to it at the back
- er, if occurring not as a result of the suffix -r (e.g. 而, 二), then like ar; if occurring as a result of the suffix -r (e.g. 歌儿, 车儿), then like e but with an -r added at the end. see also ier, uer, üer:
- engr, like er but nasalized
- f: IPA [f], as in English
- g: IPA [k], unaspirated "k", as in skill
- h: IPA [x], like the English "h" if followed by "a"; otherwise it is pronounced more roughly (not unlike the Scots "ch")
- i: IPA [i], like English "ee", except when preceded by "c", "ch", "r", "s", "sh", "z" or "zh"; in these cases it should be pronounced as a natural extension of those sounds in the same position, but slightly more open to allow for a clear-sounding vowel to pass through
- ie: IPA [iɛ], the initial i sounds like English "ee", but is very short; e (pronounced like ê) is pronounced longer and carries the main stress
- ier: "ie" with -r added
- iu: IPA [iou̯], pronounced like iou
- j: IPA [tɕ], like q, but unaspirated. (To get this sound, first take the sound halfway between joke and check, and then slowly pass it backwards along the tongue until it is entirely clear of the tongue tip.) While this exact sound is not used in English, the closest match is the "j" in "ajar", not the "s" in "Asia"; this means that "Beijing" is pronounced like "bay-jing", not like "beige-ing".
- k: IPA [kʰ], as in English
- l: IPA [l], as in English
- m: IPA [m], as in English
- n: IPA [n], as in English
- o: IPA [u̯], if occurring in the combinations bo, po, mo, fo, wo, then it is the same as uo. See also ou
- ong: IPA [ʊŋ], here, o is a sound somewhere in between English "o" as in "song" and English "u" as in "bush"
- ongr: The same vowel as ong, but with an -r added and nasalized.
- ou: as in so
- our: take ou and add -r. The sound should be compact.
- p: IPA [pʰ], as in English
- q: IPA [tɕʰ] like church; pass it backwards along the tongue until it is free of the tongue tip
- r: IPA [ɻ], similar to the English "r" in "rank", but with the lips spread and with the tongue curled upwards
- s: IPA [s], as in "sun"
- sh: IPA [ʂ], as in "shinbone", but with the tongue curled upwards; very similar to "undershirt" in American English
- t: IPA [tʰ,] as in English
- u: IPA [u], [y], like English "oo", except when preceded by y, x, j or q; in this case it is pronounced like ü
- ue, uer: see "üe"
- uo: IPA [uo], starts with English "oo" and ends with the sound in law. The u is pronounced shorter and lighter than the o
- ü: IPA [y], as in German "üben" or French "lune"
- üe: IPA [yɛ], e is pronounced like ê, the ü is short and light
- üer: "üe" with -r added
- w: IPA [w], as in English, but many people pronounce it as in German w; not pronounced at all if followed by u
- x: IPA [ɕ], like sh, but take the sound and pass it backwards along the tongue until it's clear of the tongue tip; very similar to "huge" or "Hugh" in some English dialects, or the final sound in German "ich"
- y: IPA [j], as in English; not pronounced at all if followed by i or ü
- z: IPA [ts], halfway between beds and bets
- zh: IPA [tʂ], ch with no aspiration (take the sound halfway between joke and church and curl it upwards); very similar to "merger" in American English, but not voiced
Pinyin differs from other Romanizations in several aspects, such as:
- W is placed before syllables starting with u.
- Y is placed before syllables starting with i and ü.
- Ü is written as u when there is no ambiguity (such as ju, qu and xu), but written as ü when there are corresponding u syllables (such as lü and nü)
- When preceded by a consonant, iou, uei, and uen are simplified as iu, ui, un (which do not represent the actual pronunciation).
- Like zhuyin, what are actually pronounced as buo puo muo fuo are given a separate representation: bo po mo fo.
- The apostrophe (') is used before a, o and e to separate syllables in a word where ambiguity could arise, e.g., pi'ao (皮襖) vs. piao (票), and Xi'an (西安) vs. xian (先).
- Eh! alone is written as ê; elsewere as e. Schwa is always written as e.
- zh, ch, and sh can be abbreviated as ẑ (
Hatted z for 'zh'
), ĉ, ŝ . But the shorthands are rarely used due to difficulty to entering in computer.
- ng has the uncommon shorthand of ŋ.
The Pinyin system also incorporates suprasegmental phonemes to represent the four tones of Mandarin. Each tone is indicated by a diacritical mark above a non-medial vowel. Note that the lower-case letter "a" in pinyin is supposed to be of the handwritten type with no curl over the top. This can be achieved by using a font in which the letter happens to look like this, or alternatively by specifying it using Unicode as we have done in the bracketed example. Note that tones marks can also appear on consonants in certain vowelless exclamations.
- The first tone is represented by a macron (ˉ) added to the pinyin vowel:
(ɑ̄) ā ē ī ō ū ǖ Ā Ē Ī Ō Ū Ǖ
- The second tone is denoted by an acute accent (ˊ):
(ɑ́) á é í ó ú ǘ Á É Í Ó Ú Ǘ
- The third tone is symbolized by a caron (ˇ, also known as a reverse circumflex). Note, it is officially not a breve (˘, lacking a downward angle), although this misuse is somewhat common on the Internet.
(ɑ̌) ǎ ě ǐ ǒ ǔ ǚ Ǎ Ě Ǐ Ǒ Ǔ Ǚ
- The fourth tone is represented by a grave accent (ˋ):
(ɑ̀) à è ì ò ù ǜ À È Ì Ò Ù Ǜ
- The fifth or neutral tone is represented by a normal vowel without any accent mark:
(ɑ) a e i o u ü A E I O U Ü
- (In some cases, this is also written with a dot before the syllable; for example, ·ma.)
Since most computer fonts do not contain the macron or caron accents, a common convention is to postfix the individual syllables with a digit representing their tone (e.g., "tóng" (tong with the rising tone) is written "tong2"). The digit is numbered as the order listed above, except the "fifth tone", which, in addition to being numbered 5, is also either not numbered or numbered zero, as in ma0 (吗/嗎, an interrogative marker).
The pinyin vowels are ordered as a, o, e, i, u, and ü. Generally, the tone mark is placed on the vowel that first appears in the order mentioned. Liú is a superficial exception whose true pronunciation is lióu. And since o precedes i, óu (contracted to ú) is marked.
These tone marks normally are only used in Mandarin textbooks or in foreign learning texts, but they are essential for correct pronunciation of Mandarin syllables, as exemplified by the following classical example of five characters whose pronunciations differ only in their tones:
妈 麻 马 骂 吗
(Being "mother", "hemp", "horse", "insult" and a question particle, respectively.)
A dieresis or an umlaut is placed over the letter u when it occurs after the initials l and n. This is necessary in order to distinguish the front high rounded vowel in lü (e.g. 驴/驢 donkey) from the back high rounded vowel in lu (e.g. 炉/爐 oven). Tonal markers are added on top of the umlaut, as in lǘ.
However, the umlaut-u is not used in other contexts where it represents a front high rounded vowel, namely after the letters j, q, x and y. For example, the sound of the word 鱼/魚 (fish) is transcribed in pinyin simply as yú, not as yǘ. This practice is opposed to Wade-Giles, which always uses ü, and Tongyong Pinyin, which always uses yu. Whereas Wade-Giles needs to use the umlaut to distinguish between chü (pinyin ju) and chu (pinyin zhu), this ambiguity cannot arise with pinyin, so the more convenient form ju is used instead of jü. Genuine ambiguities only happen with nu/nü and lu/lü, which are then distinguished by an umlaut diacritic.
Many fonts or output methods do not support a diaeresis (umlaut) for ü or cannot place tone marks on top of ü. Likewise, using ü in input methods is difficult because it is not present as a simple key on many keyboard layouts. For these reasons v is sometimes used instead by convention. Occasionally, uu (double u) or U (capital u) is used in its place.
Algorithm for determining location of tone mark
A simple algorithm for determining the vowel on which the tone mark appears is as follows:
- First, look for an "a" or an "e". If either vowel appears, it takes the tone mark. There are no possible pinyin syllables that contain both an "a" and an "e".
- If there is no "a" or "e", look for an "ou". If "ou" appears, then the "o" takes the tone mark.
- If none of the above cases hold, then the last vowel in the syllable takes the tone mark.
Pinyin in Taiwan
The Republic of China on Taiwan is in the process of adopting a modified version of pinyin (currently Tongyong Pinyin). For elementary education it has used zhuyin, and for romanization there is no standard system in general use on Taiwan despite many efforts to standardize on one system. In the late-1990s, the government of Taiwan formally decided to move from zhuyin to pinyin. This has triggered a very heated discussion of which pinyin system to use, hanyu pinyin of People's Republic of China or some other systems.
Much of the controversy centered on issues of national identity because of political interests. Proponents for adopting pinyin maintained that it is an international standard that is already used throughout the world. Proponents for adopting a new system maintain that Taiwan should have its own identity and culture apart from People's Republic of China.
A new system Tongyong Pinyin was created in Taiwan in 1998. Tongyong pinyin is mostly similar to Hanyu pinyin with a few changes for the letters of certain sounds.
On October 2002, the ROC government has adopted tongyong pinyin but through an administrative order which local governments can override. Localities with governments controlled by the Kuomintang, most notably Taipei City, have overridden the order and converted to hanyu pinyin (although with a slightly different capitialization convention than the Mainland). As a result, English signs have inconsistent romanization in Taiwan with most places using Tongyong Pinyin but some using Hanyu Pinyin. This has resulted in the odd situation in Taipei City in which inconsistent pinyin are shown in freeway directions, with freeway signs, which are under the control of the national government, using one pinyin, but surface street signs, which are under the control of the city government, using the other.
As of 2003, no form of pinyin is used in elementary education on Taiwan to teach pronunciation. Although the ROC government has stated the desire to use romanization rather than bopomofo in education, the lack of agreement on which form of pinyin to use and the huge logistical challenge of teacher training has stalled these efforts.
Debate continues about the actual suitability of pinyin as a Chinese romanization method. This argument revolves around pinyin's unconventional use of Roman letters, of which the phonological values of some phonemes are quite different than that of most languages utilizing the Roman alphabet. Some sinologists praise this as pinyin's flexibility in that it allows the entire Roman alphabet to be adapted to the Chinese sound system (compared to Wade-Giles, which leaves out or underuses many letters); others, however, point out that pinyin letter values are hence so unconventional that they guarantee a very large number of mispronunciations in a non-Chinese reading the romanized text, again, in contrast with Wade-Giles. However, as not only the PRC but by now most institutions and publications have adopted it, the debate seems increasingly obsolete.
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