Chinese Alphabet: Pinyin Explained
If not the hardest aspect of learning Mandarin, the single most time-consuming aspect of the language is the character system. The fact that there is no common sense (I’m sorry Mandarin speakers, but it’s true) alphabet or script makes me wonder how Chinese children do it.
Luckily, some fellows a long time recognised this, and deigned to imperially introduce an alphabet system to the language. Thus, we have the makings of a Chinese alphabet. Obviously, it’s not an actual Chinese alphabet, but it’s an approximation. This particular approximation will shave off months of your language learning. Pinyin, as the Chinese Alphabet (or, latin alphabet approximation of what an alphabet would look like) is called, acts mostly phonetically, giving us letters for sounds. So breathe a sigh of relief.
Now, I’ve mentioned Pin-Yin before. I’ve also mentioned my reticence at using it. Two months into learning Mandarin, I realise the strength of the system. Also, now I’m writing to Chinese speakers, I need it anyway. My keyboard requires me to type in pin-yin and then select a character. (If the Ancient Chinese had have forseen the advent of the touch-screen PC, they’d certainly have used an alphabet.)
The Pinyin Chinese Alphabet: Consonants
As stated above, Pinyin is largely phonetic and common sense. We’ll go over it anyway, but you’ll probably pick it up if you sing-a-long Mandarin Disney as per this article.
The following are sounds that are exactly the same as their latin-alphabet counterparts:
l k g
And here are the consonants which are different, with a description of what they sound like:
c: this sounds like the last sound of a word ending in ts, so hats.
z: the same as above, except less aspirated.
sh: similar to English. Said sh as opposed to s h. ship.
ch: Again, similar to English. Said ch as opposed to c h. church.
zh: Like the English j. Jump.
x: Like the pinyin “sh” but with a “y” sound at the end.
q: Like the pinyin “ch” but with a “y” sound at the end.
j: Like the pinyin “zh” but with a “y” sound at the end.
h: like the Scottish word, “loch”.
That rounds out pinyin’s consonants.
Chinese Alphabet: The Vowels in Pinyin
Vowels are trickier to describe in terms of “same as English” and “different to English” on account of the fact that the English languages seems to randomly alter its use of vowels at every opportunity. As such, I’ve just provided an example word for the vowels.
a as in father.
e represents the schwa in IPA. In English, an example would be maker.
ai as in sly.
ei as in weigh.
ao as in cow.
ou as in no.
i as in keep.
u as in boot.
That is the basic overview of the consonants and vowels. Other aspects, such as the -ng ending, have been left out because they are the same as in English. Again, the Pinyin is an approximation, so Mandarin speakers will often have more than one way of spelling the same word. As a rule, it’s rather standardised though.
Still, you should learn the characters. The Chinese Alphabet is something for convenience, and not a magical key to understanding the language. Pinyin does make it easier to concentrate on the aspects of the language you’re targeting at that moment though. If you’re transcribing, listening, or practising speaking, using the pinyin as a prop is great. For writing practice, use characters.