Chinese Alphabet

It may come as a surprise to you, but there is in fact no such thing as a Chinese alphabet in the Chinese language! So what is this lesson about?

Well, Chinese is made up with characters -- to be exact, 47,000+ of them according to the encompassing Kangxi Dictionary, and 10,000 are used daily as traditional Chinese in Taiwan. Luckily, the official language of today's China is 普通话 pǔtōnghuà, or simplified Chinese (literally: 简体中文 jiǎntǐ zhōngwén), and it only employs about 5,000 characters. This lesson is going to help you identify the pronunciation of those characters via a unique system called pinyin, which is 拼音 in Hanzi, and is pronounced pīnyīn.

So, pinyin is a phonetic system that uses Latin alphabets to help draw out an older version called 注音 zhùyīn, which contains 37 symbols. Through different combinations, all of the characters' pronunciations are marked with different pinyin. For example, the character in the word 普通话 is pronounced ; is tōng; and would be......that's correct, huà! So when you can't recognize the complex characters in written Chinese, pinyin helps you to be able to still speak the language.

Learning and remembering pinyin may seem like a bit of heavy lifting work, but it is totally worth doing as all you need are some rules and tips to master the pronunciation of all the Chinese characters out there! Be sure to practice saying them until you are comfortable playing around with different combinations. Without further ado, let's get started!

Pronouncing Chinese pinyin, pt. 1: initials

Just as Latin alphabets can be divided into vowels and consonants, there are different categories of Chinese pinyin. Let's dig right in to the first group, 声母 shēngmǔ. Simply put, they are sounds that initiate a character, and are therefore known as initials. There are 21+2 of them in total.

You must be wondering what those "+2" meant from above......well, here they are! As it turns out, two finals (this will be elaborated further down) sometimes can also serve as initials, and they are & . In the 注音 zhùyīn phonetic system, both their finals and initials come in the same form; however, the pinyin system already uses i and u for other finals, so y and w come in for the rescue.

This means that whenever a character's pronunciation starts with y or w, you can treat it as how you would pronounce i or u. That is to say, the y and w are just there to help you distinguish whether it's a complete character (e.g. , meaning "easy" and , meaning "none") or a vowel sound that follow another initial (e.g. 气 qì, which means "air", or 福 fú, which means "luck").

Let's hear what they sound like!

Pronouncing Chinese pinyin, pt. 2: finals

Congratulations on completing the first half of pinyin, now we are covering the finals, or 韵母 yùnmǔ, which follow any given 声母 shēngmǔ to form a character's pronunciation. Linguistically, finals occupy a spectrum from close, middle to open differentiating in tongue positions, but we'll make it less complicated for you by categorizing them into easy-to-remember groups.

While there are 60 finals in total, why don't we start with basics? These guys are very much like the vowels found in Latin alphabets with just a tiny twist. Here we go!

Next up, let's combine those vowels to make some plural finals. In this section we have finals that begin with a, e and o. Listen carefully as some of them include nasal sounds!

And now, it's time for those that begin with i and u. Small recap - if you still remember from above, their initials counterparts are yi and wu.

Excellent job getting thus far! For the last group of all finals, we have a pretty special situation where the smiley face lookalike ü is in session. Somewhat similar to the yi/i wu/u situation, ü can be an independent character (e.g. 玉 yǜ, or "jade"); a beginning pinyin (e.g. 云 yǘn, or "clouds"); or serve as a final (e.g. 旅 lǚ, which means "to travel"). Here, we are listing pinyin's that begin with ü.

A small tip for Chinese learners out there - when
ü is followed by another final, we skip the eyes and just keep the u, for example, we write yuè instead of yüè for "the Moon", which is . Furthermore, sometimes we substitute ü to v in the third scenario mentioned above, where it follows another initial. For example, you would see lv instead of , and nv instead of .

To spice things up......the tones!

Just when you think pinyin couldn't get any further, we have yet another element that concerns the pronunciation of each and every single Chinese character, and that is the tones. Again, we are extremely lucky to be living in an era where there are only 5 tones, because in both ancient China and today's Chinese dialects, there are 7 to 8 tones!

To give you an idea, here's a chart containing different tones -- therefore different characters -- for da.
 

ENG 1st tone 2nd tone 3rd tone 4th tone neutral
PINYIN da
HANZI

Or, take ma for example,
 
ENG 1st tone 2nd tone 3rd tone 4th tone neutral
PINYIN ma
HANZI

As you can see, we assign different accent marks for each tones. They are ¯´ˇ and ` for tones number one to four, respectively. As for the neutral tone, there is no extra mark. Bear in mind that each corresponding tone can produce more than one, sometimes tens of, characters. After all, we do have a handsome 47,000+ in total!

We have prepared a sample with those tones for you to get acquainted with how each tone sounds like. Listen carefully and practice the tones on as many pinyin combinations as possible!

Ummm, you must be all fueled up after this lesson. Remember to practice and memorize how each initial and final is pronounced as well as how each tone sounds like, and your spoken Chinese will be invincible anywhere in China! To go even further, here are a few recommended Chinese lessons to try next:

Huí tóu jiàn (回头见!)

P.s. That was a 2nd tone - 2nd tone - 4th tone sequence, did you get that right?

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Lin Ping
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