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Chinese Pronunciation

Composition of the Chinese Alphabet (pinyin)

1. Syllable

A syllable is the basic unit in the sound structure of modern Chinese. A syllable is composed by an initial consonant, a simple or compound vowel and tone. Generally speaking, one Chinese character is composed of one syllable.

2. Initial consonant

An initial consonant is the beginning consonant of a syllable. There are 23 initial consonants in Chinese. They are:

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

3. Simple or compound vowel

Vowels after an initial consonant are called simple or compound vowels. There are 36 simple and compound vowels. They are:

 a  o  e  i  u  ü  ai   ei  ui   ao  ou   iu   ie  üe   an   en   in   un   ün   ang  eng  ing  ong  er   ia  iao   ian  iang  iong   ua   uo   uai   uan  uang  ueng   üan.

4. Whole syllables

Some syllables are pronounced as a whole, and are called "whole syllables". There are 16 such syllables. They are:

 zhi  chi  shi  ri  zi  ci  si  ye  yi  yin  ying  wu  yu  yue  yun  yuan.

5. Syllables with no initials

There are some syllables with no initials. Examples include:

 ān 安 (safe);  a 啊 (ah)

Rules of phonetic spelling

In Chinese, the initial consonant and simple or compound vowels are grouped together with a tone. The spelling rules go as follows:

1. Initial consonants "j q x" are only grouped together with the simple or compound vowels "i" and "ü". The two dots above the "ü" are omitted when the vowel is joined with a consonant. For example:

 ji, qi, xi

 jia, qia, xia

 ju, qu, xu

 jue, que, xue

 jun, qun, xun

2. When there is no initial consonant before the simple or compound vowels with "i" or "u", then "i" should be changed into "y", and "u" into "w". For example:

 ia→ya   uo→wo

3. When "ui, un, iu, ü" are alone, they become,

 ui→wei   un→wen   iu→you   ü→yu

4. Syllable Division Sign

Those syllables with "a, o, e" as initial vowels are formed with a syllable division sign, " ' ". For instance:

 jī'è 饥饿 (hunger);   míng'é 名额 (number of people allowed)

 jiè 借 (to borrow);   mín'gē 民歌 (folksong)

Pronunciation rules

1. Basic tones

There are four basic tones in spoken Chinese.

The first tone, The High-and-Level Tone

The second tone, The Rising Tone

The third tone, The Falling-and-Rising Tone

The fourth tone, The Falling Tone

These four tones are written as "ˉ, ˊ, ˇ,ˋ" and are written above the main vowel (the one that causes the mouth to open the widest.) For instance:

 qiāng, qiáng, qiǎng, qiàng

 tuī, tuí, tuǐ, tuì

As a general rule, the vowel that comes earlier in the alphabet is usually the main vowel, but there are exceptions.

2. Light tone syllable

A light tone syllable is the one that comes after another syllable and is pronounced in a short and soft way. You need not to mark it when writing. For instance:

 hǎo ma? 好吗 (Is that OK?)

 bō li 玻璃 (glass)

3. The Tone Changes

Tone changes occur when several syllables come together. Here are the three situations where tone changes happen.

When two the 3rd tones come together, the leading tone becomes a second tone. For instance, the pronunciation of 你好 "nǐ hǎo" becomes "ní hǎo".

When the third tone comes before the first tone, the second tone, the fourth tone and most of the light tones, it becomes half third tone. That is to say, you can just pronounce the first or falling part of the third tone. For example:

 lǎo shī 老师 (teacher)

 yǔ yán 语言 (language)

In Chinese "不" and "一" also have special tone changes. When "不" and "一" come before a Chinese character with fourth tone, or a light tone their pronunciations become "bú" and "yí" separately. For example:

 bú shì 不是;   yí gè 一个

 bù shuō 不说;   bù lái 不来;   bù hǎo 不好

 yì tiān 一天;   yì nián 一年;   yì qǐ 一起

4. Retroflexion with –r

When a vowel of a syllable comes with "er(-r)", it becomes r-ending retroflexion. There are many such words in Chinese. For instance:

 gēr 歌儿 (song);   huār 花儿 (flower)

If a vowel ends with "-i" or "-n", then "-i" or "-n" would not be pronounced. For example,

 xiǎo háir 小孩儿 (child);   wánr 玩儿 (to play)

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