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  5. how accurate is pinyin?


how accurate is pinyin?

I'm under the impression that if one understands how pinyin works, it is a quite precise phonetic rendering of Mandarin (at least before application of tone sandhi rules). Is that pretty much right?

March 5, 2018



Yah, at least if you understand the system specifically, (for example the fundmental difference between zh and j, sh and x, ch and q), then it's precise. There's a few random quirks to it that make it seem less precise, but it just follows certain rules. For example, nü and qu actually use the same ü sound, but after j, x, and q, it's always technically the ü sound, it's just not spelled that way. It was designed by the Chinese government, so it's a pretty good system.


There are still a few imprecisions (e.g., no-one pronounces the 'n' in 'shénme', but it's still there in the pinyin).

it is a quite precise phonetic rendering of Mandarin

Not really truly 'phonetic' due to the inbuilt arbitrary irregularities and re-use of letters for different sounds; however, it's pretty accurate if you learn all the rules (but, then again, so is Wade-Giles, albeit with different rules).


Wade-Giles had the city name of Beijing as Peking, so I think that it was less accurate or did both systems of letters make the same sounds? Which one looks most like it sounds? I think there was good reason to use pinyin instead. https://forvo.com/word/%E5%8C%97%E4%BA%AC/#zh


No. You can't use English pronunciation rules with either Wade-Giles or Pinyin. There is no "inherent sound" to any of the letters of the Latin Alphabet. There is just the sound that languages ascribe to them. When using a romanization system like Wade-Giles or Pinyin you have to use the pronunciations of the letters ascribed by the system. Yes, the pronunciations ascribed by Pinyin are close to those that are ascribed by English. But that doesn't make it any more or less accurate.


The b/p thing is the English ear playing tricks I think. The first consonant sound in 北京 is unvoiced, so representing it with a "p" is more than reasonable (that's what it would be in IPA). It's just that it's not aspirated, so the English ear has a way of hearing it as a "b" sound even when it's not because we mistake the lack of aspiration for a lack of voicing.


Wade-Giles had the city name of Beijing as Peking

No, it doesn't; 北京 in Wade-Giles is 'Pei-ching'. 'Peking' is an older romanisation that was based on Southern Chinese pronunciations in the 17th and 18th centuries and was later incorporated into the Postal Romanisation standard.
Wade-Giles, like Pinyin, was based on the speech in the Capital, and both transcribe this equally accurately. Neither really looks how it sounds: Pinyin uses plenty of misleading letters and has vowels that change according to the preceding consonant, whereas Wade-Giles has essential apostrophes that often get left out and consonants that change according to the following vowels. Neither system was designed to allow accurate pronunciation by English-speakers who hadn't previously learnt all the associated rules.
One system that was designed to best approximate Mandarin pronunciation for English-speakers without any previous knowledge is Yale; this is less accurate, but a far better system for general, non-specialised use (and would save having to listen to newsreaders, etc. butcher names in pinyin ).


I think the Yale system was created during World War II in order to help American airmen communicate easier and quicker with locals in the event that their airplanes were downed in China. I think they use it in this guide they gave to GIs stationed at Chinese airbases during World War II which you can find here: https://archive.org/details/PocketGuideToChina. Turn to page 50 and it will give you the phrase book. Fascinating stuff.


Interesting thing. The term Peking was developed as part of the Chinese postal system in the late Qing Dynasty. It is the same place we get "Chungking" for 重庆. It was ordered in 1896 so that China could become a part of the international maritime post. It was influential on Wade, but it was also much simpler than the system that he eventually developed. A lot of the most strange readings actually come from Japanese, since at that point most Chinese wishing to learn western languages, and most westerners wishing to learn Chinese did so by going to Japan.

At the time, Beijing wasn't even called 北京. Starting in the Ming Dynasty, the city was known as 北平, until the Yongle Emperor rebuilt the capital there in 1400, renaming the city 京市. The term 北京 was used to refer to the region around the capital that was under direct imperial control, which roughly corresponds to Hebei province today. After the fall of the Qing, the capital was eventually renamed 北平 again, which is what you'll see in most early 20th century documents, and only became known as Beijing in 1949, in a move to rectify the difference between the city's name and its international postal name.


Nope! A few (of many) examples: the pīnyīn letter "i" stands for three different sounds, written [i], [ɹ̩] and [ɻ̩] in the International Phonetic Alphabet (for actual examples, see https://app.chinese-me.com/study/season/0/episode/3#pronunciation-18). A syllable like "jiǔ" is not pronounced as the sum of the pīnyīn letters "j-i-ǔ" but in fact "j-i-ǒ-u". There are many, many more examples like this.

Because of this, I strongly suggest that you learn pīnyīn "backwards". Most people try to read from pīnyīn: I have found it much better to LISTEN and MIMIC first, in other words, practice writing what you hear instead of reading. After all, you want to learn to SPEAK the language, not to read a phonetic alphabet that native speakers hardly use at all. Pīnyīn is just a necessary "crutch" for learning the pronunciation of new words.

Olle Linge has lots of examples, on his blog (http://www.hackingchinese.com/a-guide-to-pinyin-traps-and-pitfalls/).


Thank you for the links. They look very useful, and I think your proposed learning method makes plenty of sense. I think understanding these things falls under the rubric of "if one understands how pinyin works." For instance, Italian is viewed as highly phonetic, but what letters come after a letter can still influence its pronunciation. There might be imprecision in my word choice of "phonetic rendering"; I didn't mean a precise one letter to one sound bijection (I think that's called "phonemic," not "phonetic" generally).

I don't know how reasonable it is to say that native speaker hardly use pinyin at all, when it's the way that most of them type Chinese.


That's a good point. I am just starting to use pin yin - and it can be confusing when the sounds don't match the letters - and can be misleading - I am a visual learner however, so I don't think I could do without it. I once did a year's Berlitz course in Cantonese when I lived in Hong Kong, and failed to pick it up miserably using their direct method - all pictures and conversation...the pin yin can help you to remember. The IPA is not practical as a quick teaching method.


IPA isn't quick, but having an understanding of it (as it applies to one's target language) certainly helps one render the sounds in a way more closely resembling that of a native speaker, and will help one understand distinctions that the ear is not used to detecting.


Thanks piguy - you are obviously a multi-talented linguist - I know the basics of IPA - having a Master Degree in TESOL - but with 409 sounds to master it is certainly not easy. My hearing isn't as good as it was either!


Luckily for any given language, there probably aren't all that many new sounds. And sometimes it's just a matter of learning that the distinction between one phoneme or another is just a matter of mixing together sound characteristics (voicing, aspiration, etc) that don't happen to come together that way in English. Differences like that actually account for a number of the unfamiliar phonemes of Chinese, for example. I like these Wikipedia charts because they give you links the articles that tell you what these sounds are: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_Chinese_phonology#Consonants And if you have enough background in IPA to know some of the basic categories, it's probably enough to figure out what you need to know. I don't have any formal linguistics background, myself. I just learned that these sounds in other languages aren't nearly so mysterious as years of foreign language instruction left them seeming :)


Listen and repeat is the only way to get familiar to pinyin. But be careful, there are some misspronunciations specially for those characters each of which has two different sounds. For example, the character 术 is pronounced shu with the 2nd tone but is written is shu with the 4th tone. It is pronounced shu with the 2nd tone when it is the word 白术 a herb name and it is pronounced most time shu with the 4th tone like in the word 技术. There are many character pronunciations which do not match those pinyin given. By the way, I am Chinese.


Another example character 好 in 爱好word hobby is pronounced hào which is different from 你好 hǎo. Luckily, there are not many. In Chinese, one character has only one syllable and one character can be a word. If there are more than one character in a word, it has to be considered to be one unit.


I would say that Pinyin is a coherent, consistent, and logical system from the point of view of Chinese linguistics. This internal consistency does not always translate into externally obvious consistency. For example, some vowels in Pinyin are used multiple ways depending on the consonant with which they are paired. This is because in Chinese the pronunciation is linked to the pairing, not to the individual components. Thus "pao" is one sound, while "pei" is another sound. Though they use the letter e in "pei" you shouldn't be confused into thinking it is related to "pe" or that "pei" is some sort of hybrid of the vowels in "pe" and "pi." They all represent distinct pairings.

On the other hand, there are certain pronunciations that are simplified without much explanation. For example, the sounds "hou" and "huo" are different, so they use a u to differentiate them. Sometimes this differentiation is simplified, where "fo" means "fou" but "fuo" is still written out with the u.

Wade Giles was a system invented in the west to attempt to reconstruct a singular proto phonetic root system that united all the dialects of China with classical Chinese. Unfortunately, it was working with somewhat incomplete data, and it made certain faulty assumptions typical of its time (the late 19th and early 20th century). For example, it presumed that aspirated and vocalized versions of consonants were derived from a common root, thus it felt that "Zhang" and "Chang" were derived from a common root, and thus wrote them "Chang" and "Ch'ang" using the apostrophe to mark aspiration in a way similar to how we use that notation in Attic Greek to mark a breathy initial H in words starting with vowels.

The problem with this is that it isn't really how Chinese evolved, and it doesn't really speak to the diversity of dialects. From the Chinese dialects I've learned, Pinyin is pretty reasonable, in that you have to learn a new phoneme associated with the pinyin symbols, but the system remains largely intact.


Excellent explanation. Thank you!


By the way, piguy3, I'm not sure that tone sandhi rules really make that much of a difference in pinyin. Sandhi in Chinese, unlike Sanskrit, is purely tonal. It doesn't involve shifts between consonants, in no small part because there is no elision in Chinese. Each syllable is followed by a full stop rather than running together with the next. This is what creates the uniquely percussive sound of spoken Chinese. The shifts you see in consonant morphology in spoken Chinese that contrast with standard readings of Pinyin aren't a result of sandhi, but instead, are a result of regional accents or speech mannerisms. That is to say, they are not dependent on the phoneme that precedes them, but are universal shifts. A person who pronunces "nan" as "lan" will pronounce it "lan" in all cases. This is what makes pinyin so reliable - not that it always corresponds to the same sounds, but instead that any individual will always use the same sound for a particular pinyin syllable. (It is also worth noting that some characters have more than one pinyin reading, though this is not sandhi either, because the readings are differentiated based on syntax, not phonetic context).

Tones are honestly way less consistent, and Chinese people themselves often struggle to properly differentiate them unless they have had extensive formal education. Often times people who are not formally practiced in standard Putonghua will use tones based on how they feel fits the flow of the language. The tone sandhi rules are a concession to this reality, where practically speaking nobody is interested in engaging in the vocal acrobatics of pronouncing several third tone syllables in a row.


That's interesting, and what I suspected...


Thank you - your explanation is very thorough, although you assume I have a better knowledge of linguistics and Chinese than I (or most people) do! My question was on a pretty basic level from the viewpoint of a beginner learning Mandarin Chinese,


Oh, the detail was in response to piguy3's original question. I only just now saw your question. Ultimately, if you need a simpler explanation, think of Pinyin as code. Each combination of letters represents a single sound. Although it can be broken down into an "initial" and a "final" (roughly corresponding to consonants and vowels) it is important to remember that when Chinese people think of their own language, they don't see the two sounds as separable.

This means that ultimately Pinyin will make the most sense once you already know the range and patterns of sounds in the Chinese language. This is why I think it's a great tool for learning Chinese, but not in a vacuum. IPA is a more specific phonetic alphabet, and so it can be used to describe the sounds that different pinyin syllables represent. However, if you link pinyin to IPA in your mind, you will be learning only one particular interpretation of Pinyin, and you should understand that there are different, though predictable shifts in morphology in different accents and dialects.

For example, a standard way of understanding pinyin would be that "Nan" corresponds roughly to the English word "non" this is the Putonghua reading. However, in certain dialects of Chinese, "Nan" is read in a way that sounds more like "Lan" (for example, in Hunan). It would be wrong to say that these people pronounce "n" as "l" because clearly they pronounce the final n just fine, but instead that the pinyin combinations of "nan" simply represents something different to them. This is why pinyin may not seem entirely consistent from an outside perspective, but from the Chinese perspective, it is very consistent, even when people pronounce things differently.


The Roman letters that are used by Chinese to show the sounds of Chinese characters: pinyin. These letters should not be confused with our English alphabet letters, as some of the letters have different sounds than they would in English. So, you are still learning a different language when you learn pinyin. I know that when I was younger that I thought pinyin was the translation to English sounds which it most certainly is not.

You also still need to learn the different tones, since the same two letters, ma for example, can have totally different meanings with different tones.
Scroll down at this page for the tips and notes about tones: https://www.duolingo.com/skill/zs/Greeting

This chart is fun, because you can hear the same sounds in different tones: https://chinese.yabla.com/chinese-pinyin-chart.php When the chart said there was audio, I did not anticipate so much. There are even links to videos teaching the differences between certain sounds.


Thanks - yes I do know about the tones, but they are not easy


I do not know how to express my thoughts in English, but you are right


IMHO it is as accurate as French or English orthography. I find it misleading and confusing, but without it I would not know at all what sound is behind an ideogram.


Yep. Though on a occasion I have found that the audio used the wrong tone.

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