1. Romanization of Chinese Sounds (Pinyin)

You may take it for granted that letters represent sounds and can be used to form words that can be “sounded out.” In elementary school, we learn the 26 letters of the alphabet and practice associating those letters with specific sounds. We then learn how to use letters to spell words and then learn a few spelling rules (and the exceptions to those rules). Chinese is written in characters, so there is no easy way for learners to figure out how to pronounce a character just by looking at it.

Western scholars visiting China started experimenting early on with romanization, that is with a system for conveying Chinese sounds through the Latin alphabet that English and most European languages use.  The Jesuit scholar Matteo Ricci, for example, developed a system of romanization for Chinese during the sixteenth century, and used it to create a Chinese-Portuguese dictionary. This romanization system allowed speakers of Portuguese to sound out Chinese characters in an alphabet that was intelligible to them.

During the past hundred years or so, both western and Chinese scholars have invented many systems for romanizing Chinese. A selection of these systems are included in the table below. Listen to the Chinese audio in the left column and then look at how the various romanization systems render the words in Latin letters.

The table below shows five Chinese words in different Romanization systems:

 YaleWade-GilesHanyu PinyinEnglish
nǐ hǎonǐ hǎonǐ hǎoHello
Syè syèHsièh hsièhXiè xièThank you
Jūng-gwó rénChūng-kuó jénZhōng guó rénChinese person
Měi-gwó rénMěi-kuó jenMěi guó rénAmerican person
lǎoshrLao shīhlǎoshīteacher

Pinyin (also known as Hanyu Pinyin) is a romanization system developed in the early 1950s by Chinese scholars on the basis of earlier work in the 1930s and 1940s. Unlike other romanization systems, however, Pinyin was not invented for teaching the Chinese language to foreigners. Its primary purpose was to teach standard pronunciation within China and to promote literacy by giving Chinese students a way to look up the pronunciation of unfamiliar characters in a dictionary.  As it was not developed for foreigners, Pinyin has a few quirks that make it more challenging than some other romanization systems.  But unlike those systems, Pinyin is widely used in China itself.

Street signs in China, for example, often include Pinyin to help you pronounce street names correctly.

street sign with Chinese characters and Pinyin equivalent (DONGDAQIAO LU)Public Domain

Hanyu Pinyin is also used for place names on Chinese maps. You can even see pinyin on Google maps of China. Explore the map below to see the Pinyin for various Chinese cities.

With Pinyin you will be able to pronounce the names of Chinese people and places in China mentioned in news articles.  You can look up words in an English-Chinese dictionary and know how to pronounce the Chinese translation.  You can also quickly learn the meaning of  new words that you hear by looking them up in Chinese-English dictionary, as most dictionaries are organized according to Pinyin.

written chinese website

Let’s give that a try.  Go to http://dictionary.writtenchinese.com and enter in each of the pinyin entries in the left-hand column below ignoring the marks over the vowels.  Or if you wish, you can copy and paste the pinyin from the quiz or enter the pinyin directly by clicking on the pinyin editor in the search bar.

Pinyin input is relatively easy to install on a computer (Windows or Mac) or mobile device (Android or iOS) to produce Chinese characters.  Over the course of these lessons you will learn to use these systems, but keep in mind that they (like the dictionary above) are designed to search based on word frequency and context for the syllable without any focus on its tone.

Spelling in Pinyin

So, what does it mean to “spell” a Chinese word in Pinyin?  First, let’s think about how we spell in English.   Spell out the word “shoelace”.

Did you read each letter out?  S – h – o – e – l – a  – c  – e.

Now think about the English alphabet.  How many letters are there? How many sounds do these letters represent? Is your answer the same number for both of these questions?

Can one letter represent more than one sound? What about the letter “g” in “gumball” as compared to the “g” in “germ”? Can a sound in English be represented by more than one letter? What about the letter “c” in “cat” as compared to the “k” in “kitten”?  Or the “c” in “cereal” as compared to the “s” in “serial”? How many sounds are there in consonant clusters like “th” or “sch”?  And what do you make of “silent letters” in words like “knight” and “cape”?

Put simply, spelling in English is complicated!  In most other languages spelling is simple enough that the idea of a contest to see which child can spell the most words correctly would seem rather pointless.

In Chinese, words are “spelled” in syllables, and each syllable is viewed as composed of three parts: an initial, a final, and a tone. In the Hanyu Pinyin Romanization system, the Latin alphabet and tone mark symbols (diacritics) are used to write out all of these elements of the syllable.

The initial is the beginning of the syllable. This is usually a consonant, but a syllable can also have a “null” initial, meaning that the syllable starts with a vowel.

The final is the rest of the syllable. Typically, this includes at least one vowel.

The tone is a pitch contour that is used to distinguish meaning among syllables.  We will examine this concept in more detail in the next lesson.

When speaker of Chinese “spells” a word, they would break each syllable down to reflect these three elements.

As you work through these lessons, you should get into the practice of sounding out syllables in this way much as you might have practiced spelling new words in English.  Although there will be some new sounds that you will need to master in Chinese, you will not have to worry about “silent letters” or consonants that can be pronounced multiple ways as we have in English.

Lesson Recap