4. Initials (b, p, d, t) and Finals (o, ou, ong, uo)

This lesson introduces the initials b, p, d, and t as well as the finals o, ou, ong, and uo. These initials sound very similar to equivalent phonemes in English, with some subtle differences. The vowel o does not correspond exactly to sounds in American English, but the finals containing o are generally not difficult for English speakers to pronounce.

Look carefully at the following table. Note the cells marked by a dash. These are combinations of initials and finals that do not exist in Standard Chinese.

 ouoouong
bbo
ppopou
dduodoudong
ttuotoutong

As described in the previous lesson, not all of the possible combinations of initials and finals actually form syllables for real words (or morphemes).  And some combinations of initials and finals are not used with all of the tones; the syllable dou, for example, does not occur with the second tone in Standard Chinese.  You do not need to worry about memorizing which combinations of initials, finals and tones are possible.  Just pay attention when tables have cells that are empty.

Now, let’s listen to some exemplars of real words.  Let’s start with a few of the new initials, paired with the finals from the previous lesson.

Character and PinyinEnglish equivalent
father
afraid
big
she
newspaper
to run
rice plants
peach
to help
fat
political party
soup

What do you hear when you listen to the consonants at the beginnings of these words? Do they sound exactly like the sounds these letters represent in English or are they a little different?

In English, the difference between the letters b and p is due to voicing. Try placing your fingers on your voice box (midway down your neck, under your chin) and saying the following English words ban and pan. Can you feel the vibration in your throat? When you say the word ban, when does the vibration begin? How about when you say pan? The English letter b is voiced, whereas the letter p is not.

You may also have noticed that when you say the English word pan, a puff of air comes out with the  letter p. This is called aspiration. Although this aspiration is typical for speakers of English it is not the critical difference, or phonemic contrast, that English speakers use to distinguish between the letters b and p. You will notice, for example, that a p following an s in a word like span is not aspirated, but it is still recognized by English speakers as the letter p.

Now listen to the pronunciation of these two words in Chinese:

If you pay careful attention, you will note that the voicing in these words starts with the vowel and not with the initial. Now hold a piece of paper in front of your mouth. When you say the Chinese word ban, the paper should not move (much). When you say the Chinese word pan, try to make the paper jump! The difference here is aspiration. When you pronounce a Chinese p properly, a little puff of air should come out, but the sounds for both b and p are unvoiced. The phonemic difference between these two sounds in Chinese is aspiration, not voicing.

Now let’s look at the English letters d and t.  Try saying the following sentence out loud:  Mr. Dan got a tan. Which initial sounds are voiced? Are any aspirated?

Listen to the word for egg drop soup in Chinese for comparison:

Can you hear that neither the d nor the t are voiced but that the t is aspirated?  Go back and listen one more time. The phonemic difference here is also aspiration, not voicing, just as it is with the Chinese sounds for b and p.

As a learner of Chinese, you may find these subtle differences hard to distinguish at first, but it should not interfere with your ability to comprehend or to produce understandable language. As you get more practice in listening and speaking, you will be able to recognize and reproduce these sounds more accurately.

Listening Quiz 1

Listen to the audio below and select the Pinyin equivalents of what you hear.

Next we will look at syllables with the finals o and uo in the table below.  In some cases, the example is a two-syllable word. In those cases, you should focus on the syllable containing the final o or uo.

Character and PinyinEnglish equivalent
broad
to broadcast
glass
neck
mint
slope
mother-in-law
to break, broken
splash
many
to stomp
ostrich
oval
mop
to move something over
promise
stick rice
turnip
screw
camel
Buddha
ink
to obliterate
mushroom

As you listened to the audio above, did you notice that the finals o and uo seem to sound the same?

Now look back at the table again and pay careful attention to the places where the table has empty cells. Do you detect a pattern? Can you explain this pattern in terms of the way the initials are formed with your mouth?

As you have noticed, the main vowel in both finals is an o, which is a bit like the o in the English word dog.

This main vowel is actually preceded by a short w sound that serves as a glide between the initial consonant and the main vowel. In most cases, this combination is spelled uo in Pinyin. When this final occurs after the sounds b, p, m, or f, however, the u is dropped from the spelling. This is probably because when you pronounce these labial initials, your lips already tend to be rounded as you make a transition to the “o” sound.

Dictation Exercise 1

Listen to the audio and write down the Pinyin you hear, including the tone. You can type in your answer with a diacritic mark (mā) or with the tone as the number (ma1).

Now let’s look at the other two finals in this lesson: ou and ong. Here are some examples:

Character and PinyinEnglish equivalent
to analyze, dissect
pocket
bean
funnel
to throw
to steal
transparent
East
to freeze
hurt
bucket

Did you notice that the final ou sounds something like the English word oh? The u after the o sound is actually a reminder that the lips stay rounded through the end of the syllable. The o in the final ong sounds similar to the vowel sound in the English word moon, but also requires that the lips remain rounded until the end of the syllable.

Listening Quiz 2

Listen to the audio below and select the Pinyin equivalents of what you hear.

Applying your Knowledge

Look up the English words below using an online dictionary and then provide their Pinyin equivalents using either diacritics (tone marks) or by typing the tone after the final.  Try to get into the habit of reading the syllables aloud as you type them.