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Home >Language > Chinese

  Chinese
   

Chinese

ChineseAs the most widely spoken language on earth, Chinese is, strictly speaking, a series of dialects spoken by the dominant ethnic group within China, the Han. Indeed, the term most commonly used by the Chinese themselves to refer to the language is Hanyu, meaning "Han-language", though zhongyu, zhongwen, and zhongguohua are frequently used as well. However, non-Han peoples such as Uigurs and Tibetans speak languages which have little or nothing to do with Chinese.

Pronunciation and Pinyin

Back in the 1950s it was hoped eventually to replace Chinese characters altogether with a regular alphabet of Roman letters,and to this end the pinyin system was devised. Basically,pinyin is a way of using the Roman alphabet(except the letter"v") to write out the sounds of Mandarin Chinese,with Mandarin's four tones represented by accents above each syllable. Other dialects of Chiese, such as Cantonese - having nine tones-cannot be written in pinyin.

The aim of replacing Chiese characters with pinyin was abandoned long ago, but in the meantime pinyin has one very important function,that of helping foreigners to pronounce Chiese words.However,in pinyin the letters do not all have the sounds you would expect, and you'll need to spend an hour or two learning these. You'll often see pinyin in China, on street signs and shop displays,but only well-educated locals know the system well.Occasionally,you will come across other systems of rendering Mandatin into Roman letters, such as Wade-Giles,which writs Mao Tse-teng,and Deng Xiaoping as Teng Hsiao-p'ing.These forms ate no longer used in mainland China,but you may see them in Western books about China,or in Taiwanese publications.

The Chinese terms in this book have been given both in characters and in pinyin; the pronunciation guide below is your first step to making yourself comprehensible. Don't get overly paramoid about your tones;with the help of context,intelligent listeners should be able to work out what you are trying to say.If you're just uttering a single word,however,for example a place name-without a context-you need to hit exactly the right tone,otherwise don't be surprised if nobody understands you.

The Tones

There are four tones in Mandarin Chinese,and every syllable of every word is characterized by one of them,except for a few syllables which are considered toneless.This emphasis on tones does not make Chinese a particularly musical languge-English,for example,uses tone for effect-exclaiming, questioning listing, rebuking and so on. In English, to change the tone is to change the mood or the emphasis,in Chinese.to change the tone is to change the word itself.

  • First or 'High' . In English this level tone is used when mimicking robotic or very boring, flat vioces.
  • Second or 'Rising' . Used in English when asking a question showing surpise, for example 'eh?'
  • Third or 'Falling-rising' . Used in English when echoing someone's words with a measure of incredulity. For example, 'John's dead.' 'De-sd?!'.
  • Fourth or 'Falling'. Often used in English when counting in a brusque manner-'One! Two! Three! Four! '.
  • Toneless A few syllables do net have a tone accent.These are pronounced without emphasis, such as in the English upon.

Note that if there are two consecutive characters with the third tone,the firsrt charater is proniynced as though it carries the second tone.

Pinyin Spelling

The chinese language in this book is rendered in characters as well as in a romanized system called pinyin. The characters themselves give little or no phonetic information,and their pronunciation must normally be learned by rote.You won't be expected to learn characters to use this book effectively; we include them primarilt to facilitate your communication with Chinese people when phonics fail.Most Chinese can't read pinyin very well,even though many used it when learning Chinese in primary school.
Pinyin is the offical romanization system of the People's Republic of China.It was adopted in the 1950s and has gained wide acceptance in China and abroad in recent years. Because pinyin is commonly used on street signs and storefronts in large cities, a knowledge of it can aid you as you make your way in China.
The traditional spellings if many names,such as Peking, Tientsin, Canton, and Mao Tse-tung,have been replaced with their less familiar but more phonetic pinyin forms:Beijing,Tianjin,Guangzhou and Mao Zedong. Though based on the Cyrillic alphabet,the pinyin system is still fairly accessible to native speakers of English.There are, however,a handful of notable exceptions. The table on page 3 explaims pinyin pronunciation in detail.
Don't skip this section; you need to master pinyin for this book to be really useful to you.However,to help jog your memory, we include a summary of the bugbears-the hardest pinyin sounds to remember-both on page 12 and at the end of the book.And as an added convenience we have reprinted someof the most troublesome pinyin initials and their phonetic equivalents on the bottom of each left-hand page in the body of the book.

Syllables

Syllables are the building blocks of Chinese words and phrases.In the written language,each syllable can be rendered as a distinct character.The syllable consists of three components:the initial,the final,and the tone.For example,in the word , which means 'sugar,' the initial is the t sound at the beginning of the syllable;the final is the ang sound at the end;and the tone,represented by the ( ' ) mark,is the rising tone of voice in which the word os pronounced.All three components must generally be present for the word to be completely understandable in Chinses,though some syllables don' t require initial.

Initials

Initials are always consonants,and in pinyin most of the pronunciations are fairly intuitive to native speakers of English.Below is a table of initials with an explanation if how to pronounce them.

Pinyin
Initial
English
Equivalent
Examples Approximate Pronunciation
b, p, m, f, d, t, n, l, g, k, j, s, w, y, ch, sh approximately the same as in English
neng
ton
gan
c like the ts in rats
can
cu
h more guttural than the English h.More like the German ch as in ach
hen
hao
q like the ch in cheap
qin
qu
r a cross between a j and an r. No English equivalent; something like the z in azure
ren
ru
x like the sh in sheen
xiao
xin
z like dz to sound like the ds in kids
zai
zu
zh like the hard j in jack
zhang
zhou

Finals

Finals always begin with vowels. They may end in vowels also or else in consonants or diphthongs.Study the list of finals below. In many cases they can be pronounced accurately by using your intuiton as a native English speaker-but there are a few surprises.

Pinyin
Initial
English
Equivalent
Examples Approximate Pronunciation
a ah as in rah
ha
na
bah
nah
ai like the y in rye or my
tai
lai
tie
lye
an ahn, to rhyme with John
ban
can
bahn
tsahn
ang ahng, as in angst
tang
chang
tahng
chahng
ao like the ow in cow chao chow
ar as in are nar nar
e like the u sound in bush
de
le
duh
luh
ei like the a in pay or play
fei
shei
fay
shay
en like the un in pun men mun
eng like the ung in hung deng dung
er like the ur in cur mer mur
i like the ee in flee when following b, p, m, d, t, n, l, j, q and x
ji
xi
jee
shee
like a zz after z, c and s
zi
si
dz
sz
like an r after zh, ch, sh and r
zhi
shi
jr
shr
ia ya, like the ia in the name Mia, but said in one syllable
lia
xia
lya
shya
ian yen pian pyen
iang yahng, with the same vowel as in the word angst
liang
jiang
lyahng
jyahng
iao ee-yow, to rhyme with the cat's meow,but said in one syllable
biao
liao
bee-yow
lee-yow
ie yeh bie byeh
in een as in green
qin
xin
cheen
sheen
ing as in sing bing bing
iong yawng to rhyme with strong
qiong
xiong
chyawng
shyawng
iu like the eo in the name Leo,pronounced in one syllable
qiu
liu
cheo
leo
o like the aw sound in awe, to rhyme with saw
mo
po
maw
paw
ong like the ong in wrong,but with a rounder o sound
long
zhong
long
jawng
ou like the o in toe or ho
mou
zhou
moe
joe
u oo as in boo after most letters
mu
du
moo
doo
pronounced as (see below) after j, q, x or y
qu
xu
no English equivalent; like the German or the French eu. Used only after n and l
ua wah, like the ua in guava
zhua
gua
jwah
gwah
uai wye ,to rhyme with rye guai ywen
uan wahn to rhyme with swan after most letters
tuan
duan
twahn
dwahn
wen to rhyme with when after j, q, x or y
yuan
juan
ywen
jwen
uang wahng ,with the same vowel as the word angst
zhuang
kuang
jwahng
kwahng
ue or oo-eh,to rhyme with moo and yeh,merged into one syllable.Written with ( ) symbol after n and l
xue
l e
shooeh
looeh
ui way dui dway
un one is the closest sound in English,though the vowel is actually closer to the oo sound in book. After j, q and x pronounced like the English win
dun
sun
jun
xun
dwun
swun
jwin
shwin
uo waw to rhyme with thaw
duo
cuo
dwaw
tswaw

 

The Bugbears Of Pinyin
Intials
c = ts, as in rats q = ch z = dz, like the ds sound in kids
x = sh zh = j  
FINALS
ai rhymes with rye an = ahn, rhymes with John ang = ahng as in angst
ao rhymes with cow e = u as in bush ei rhymes with pay
en rhymes with pun eng rhymes with hung ia = ya
i sounds like ee after most letters, but like zz after z, c, and s, and like an r after zh, ch, sh, and r ian = yen
iao = ee-yow
iong = yawng
iang = yahng
ie = yeh in rhymes with green
iu rhymes with Leo o = aw ou rhymes with toe
u rhymes with boo in most cases,but becomes the German after j, q, x and y ua = wah
uan = wahn; but wen after j, q, x and y
uang = wahag; vowel as in angst
un = one, but the vowel is as in book ue = oo-eh
n rhymes with win
ui rhymes with way
uo = waw

Chinese Dialects

There are many different dialects of Chinese.Although the written language is the same throughout China,the pronunciation of the characters varies tremen-dously in different regions.Speaking their native dialect,people from the north of China can communicate.verbally with southerners about as easily as Frenchmen can speak with Italians.
It was in order to facilitate cimmunication that the Chinese decided ti hace a standard language.The dialect they chose as the standard is called Mandarin(or in Chinese),and it is native to the Beijing (Peking) area.Mandarin is now taught in schools throughout the People's Republic of China (PRC), as well as in Taiwan province ,where it is called . It is also widely spoken in Singapore, Hong Kong, and other parts of Southeast Asia where there are large numbers of Chinese.

Mandarin isn' t the only dialect you'll come across on a tour of China.Among the dozens of other widely spoken dialects are: Cantonese the ( heard in and around Guangzhou,or Canton, the capital of Guangdong province,as well as in Hong Kong); Shanghainese ( spoken in the greater Shanghai area); Hunan dialect; and Sichuan (Szechuan) dialect.For taking a tour of China, though, Mandarin is by far the best dialect to learn. You'll find plenty of Mandarin speakers no matter where you go in the PRC.

Speaking Chinese

The Chinese are delighted when foreigners try to speak their language. They will forgive you a multitude of sins, try their best to understand you even if your pronuciation is close it unintelligible, and probably even compliment you on your excellent command of Chinese, to boot. You needn't take such flattering compliments too seriously; they are simply the Chinese way of expressing appreciation for your efforts.
In general, you' ll have the best chance of being understood by Chinese who have had frequent contact with foreigners.They are more accustomed to and better able to make sense of the predictable mispronunciations. But don't let this stop you from speaking to anyone and everyone you meet. If all else fails, simply show the Chinese character in this book for the phrase you wish to convey.

 

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