Pronunciation - Pinyin / Overview
Pinyin (Chinese: 拼音; pinyin: pīnyīn) is the official system to transcribe Chinese characters to teach Mandarin Chinese in mainland China, Macau, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore.
It is also often used to spell Chinese names in foreign publications and used as an input method to enter Chinese characters (hanzi) into computers.
The romanization system was developed by a government committee in the People's Republic of China (PRC) and published by the Chinese government in 1958. The International Organization for Standardization adopted pinyin as the international standard in 1982.
This romanization system also became the national standard in the Republic of China (ROC, commonly known as Taiwan) on January 1, 2009.
In Chinese language education, pinyin is the common name to refer to the system. The more official name Hanyu Pinyin (汉语拼音 / 漢語拼音) is sometimes used, where Hànyǔ means the oral language of Han (putonghua) and pinyin literally means "spelled sound" (phonetics).
Pinyin superseded older romanization systems such as Wade-Giles (1859; modified 1892) and Chinese Postal Map Romanization, and replaced zhuyin as the method of Chinese phonetic instruction in mainland China. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) adopted pinyin as the standard romanization for modern Chinese in 1982 (ISO 7098:1982, superseded by ISO 7098:1991); the United Nations followed suit in 1986. It has also been accepted by the government of Singapore, the United States' Library of Congress, the American Library Association, and many other international institutions.
The spelling of Chinese geographical or personal names in pinyin has become the most common way to transcribe them in English. Pinyin has also become a useful tool for entering Chinese text into computers.
A school slogan to ask elementary students to speak Putonghua is annotated with Pinyin, but it does not contain tonal marks whose input method is not widely used.
Chinese families who speak Mandarin as a mother tongue use pinyin to help children associate characters with spoken words which they already know. Chinese families who speak some other language as their mother tongue use the system to teach children Mandarin pronunciation when they learn vocabulary in elementary school.
Since 1958, Pinyin has been actively used in adult education as well, making it easier for formerly illiterate people to continue with self-study after a short period of Pinyin literacy instruction.
Pinyin has become a tool for many foreigners to learn the Mandarin pronunciation, and is used to explain the grammar and spoken Mandarin together with hanzi. Books containing both Chinese characters and pinyin are often used by foreign learners of Chinese; pinyin's role in teaching pronunciation to foreigners and children is similar in some respects to furigana-based books (with hiragana letters written above or next to kanji) in Japanese or fully vocalised texts in Arabic ("vocalised Arabic").
The tone-marking diacritics are commonly omitted in popular news stories and even in scholarly works. An unfortunate effect of this is the increased ambiguity that results about which Chinese characters are being represented.
The correspondence between Roman letter and sound in the system is sometimes idiosyncratic, though not necessarily more so than the way the Roman alphabet is employed in other languages. For example, the aspiration distinction between b, d, g and p, t, k is similar to that of English (in which the two sets are however also differentiated by voicing), but not to that of French. Z and c also have that distinction; however, they are pronounced as [ts], as in German and Italian, which do not have that distinction. From s, z, c come the digraphs sh, zh, ch by analogy with English sh, ch. Although this introduces the novel combination zh, it is internally consistent in how the two series are related, and reminds the trained reader that many Chinese pronounce sh, zh, ch as s, z, c. In the x, j, q series, the Pinyin use of x is similar to its use in Portuguese, Galician, Catalan, Basque and Maltese; and the Pinyin q is akin to its value in Albanian; both Pinyin and Albanian pronunciations may sound similar to the ch to the untrained ear. Pinyin vowels are pronounced in a similar way to vowels in Romance languages. More information on the pronunciation of all pinyin letters in terms of English approximations is given further below.
The pronunciation and spelling of Chinese words are generally given in terms of initials and finals, which represent the segmental phonemic portion of the language, rather than letter by letter. Initials are initial consonants, while finals are all possible combinations of medials (semivowels coming before the vowel), the nucleus vowel, and coda (final vowel or consonant).
Initials and finals
Unlike in European languages, initials (simplified Chinese: 声母; traditional Chinese: 聲母; pinyin: shēngmǔ) and finals (simplified Chinese: 韵母; traditional Chinese: 韻母; pinyin: yùnmǔ)—and not consonants and vowels—are the fundamental elements in pinyin (and most other phonetic systems used to describe the Han language). Nearly each Mandarin syllable can be spelled with exactly one initial followed by one final, except in the special syllable er and when a trailing -r is considered part of a syllable (see below). The latter case, though a common practice in some sub-dialects, is rarely used in official publications. One exception is the city Harbin (simplified Chinese: 哈尔滨; traditional Chinese: 哈爾濱), which is from the Manchu language originally.
Even though most initials contain a consonant, finals are not simple vowels, especially in compound finals (simplified Chinese: 复韵母; traditional Chinese: 複韻母; pinyin: fuyunmu), i.e., when one "final" is placed in front of another one. For example, [i] and [u] are pronounced with such tight openings that some native Chinese speakers (especially when singing or on stage) pronounce yī (simplified Chinese: 衣; traditional Chinese: 衣, clothes, officially pronounced /i/) as /ji/, wéi (simplified Chinese: 围; traditional Chinese: 圍, to enclose, officially as /uei/) as /wei/ or /wuei/. The concepts of consonant and vowel are not incorporated in pinyin or its predecessors; there is no list of consonants or vowels.