What is pinyin?
Pinyin is a standardized transcription of Mandarin to Latin alphabet, meanwhile Mandarin is the official language of the People’s Republic of China. It is certain that you have seen pinyin in your life, especially if you started learning Chinese: it is an extremely useful tool for Chinese learners.
Many new students of Mandarin Chinese are surprised to learn that before they can begin to delve into the mysteries of Chinese characters, they must first learn a completely different writing system, called pinyin. The Chinese language has an incredibly long history, dating back approximately 5,000 years. In fact, archaeologists have discovered Chinese writing from the late Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC). That means the Chinese character system is at least 3,000 years old. But Chinese characters are very difficult to learn, even for native speakers. This is way developing pinyin was so important in the modern world.
Chinese Pinyin, the official romanization system of Standard Chinese in mainland China, is the most widely used phonetic system for writing Mandarin using the Latin alphabet. Chinese is difficult, but learning pinyin early in Chinese studies dramatically accelerates the speed at which a typical learner acquires the language. Pinyin, for our purposes, is a language tool that aids in the language learning process and allows you to write Chinese on your computer or smartphone.
How was pinyin developed?
When did scholars first transcribe Chinese using Western alphabets? In 1605, the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci published the first known Chinese-to-Western text, entitled Xizi Qiji. This system used the Roman alphabet to transcribe the Chinese language. Different competing romanization systems have developed afterwards. The early 20th century saw creation of Wade-Giles system, Chinese postal romanization and Gwoyeu Romatzyh. For instance, the traditional Western name for Beijing – Pekin – was a fruit of the Chinese postal romanization. The Wide-Giles system, on the other hand, is still commonly found in Western history books, as well as its used for official names in Taiwan. Taiwanese cities like Kaohsiung or Taipei are in fact written in Wide-Giles romanization.
In the 1950s, a group of Chinese linguists began working on a new romanisation system to increase literacy. Soon, linguist and sinologist Zhou Youguang (周有光) (on the photo) produced a breakthrough: Hanyu Pinyin (汉语拼音). Many people consider Zhou to be “the father of pinyin”, but he humbly declared that “I am not the father of pinyin, I am the son of pinyin. It is [the result of] a long tradition from the late Qing dynasty until today. But we re-studied the problem, revised it and perfected it”. In other words, Zhou felt that his written system was simply the product of centuries of transliteration from Chinese into Romanised orthography. On 11 February 1958, Pinyin officially replaced all other methods of romanization in China. “Peking” would henceforth be “Beijing”, while “Canton” became “Guangzhou” and “Tientsin” became “Tianjin”.
The importance of pinyin today
Chinese language learners often believe that only non-native speakers use pinyin. In fact, however, native Chinese also learn the system along with Chinese characters from kindergarten onwards. Although pinyin disappears from textbooks after primary school, it is still useful for learning the pronunciation and tones of new characters.
However, pinyin can’t replace Chinese characters: the characters are extremely important in Chinese learning and pinyin only helps us with learning their pronunciation. Actually, pinyin would not be able to replace the characters, because almost all pinyin sounds have several commonly used Chinese characters that they represent. For example, take the pinyin sound “guo”. This phonetic combination can mean fruit (果 guǒ), country (国 guó), cross (a road) (过 guò, as in 过 马路 guò mǎlù), cooking pot (锅) and a variety of other words. “Guo” is even one of the 100 most common Chinese surnames (郭 Guō). As you progress in your studies, trying to remember all these different words as a single pinyin combination will become inefficient and unnecessarily difficult. Learning the Chinese characters will allow you to more easily associate the meaning with the pronunciation.
Chinese characters are beautiful, intriguing and meaningful. They are living pieces of Chinese history that are deeply rooted in Chinese culture. The characters make learning Chinese feel exciting and adventurous as you discover the “hidden meaning” behind radicals, characters and phrases. Pinyin is just a way to unlock this wonderful universe. Therefore, if you decide to focus on learning Chinese, it is essential to understand both the importance and limitations of pinyin, as well as the cultural significance and history of Chinese characters.
The structure of pinyin
The phonetic system by Zhou Youguang uses 25 of the 26 letters that make up the Latin alphabet. The letter “v” is the only one that was linguistically abandoned. Mandarin Chinese is much simpler thanks to pinyin, although this official transcription is neither read nor pronounced like English.
Pinyin has four tones and one neutral tone, represented by strokes above the vowels:
1st tone: the accent is represented by a mark on the vowel “-” as in “bā”, eight in English.
2nd tone: the accent resting on the vowel is the rising accent “/” as in “chá” or té.
3rd tone: the accent is represented by a falling-rising stroke as in mǎ, horse.
4th tone: the accent is represented by a falling accent “\” found in pà, to fear.
5th tone: it is represented by a normal vowel as in ma 吗, it is the neutral tone, and it is not represented by graphic accents.
Chinese consonants are not pronounced in the same way as English consonants. It may be that some of them have certain similarities, but what must be clear is that in Chinese the syllables and words will be pronounced with different tones (mentioned above) depending on what you want to express.
Here is a summary of the pronunciation of the consonants in Chinese:
m, f, n, g and l are pronounced as in English.
d is pronounced between “d” and “t”.
b is pronounced between “p” and “b”.
g is pronounced between “k” and “g”.
x is pronounced like “sh” in English, but softer
sh is pronounced like the “sh” in “shower”.
Attention must be paid to the pronunciation of the so-called “aspirated” consonants. The air must be exhaled forcefully just after the consonant has been pronounced:
p is pronounced “p”,
t is pronounced “t”,
k is pronounced “k”.
As you can see, pinyin is not that hard, but one needs to pay special attention to the tones.
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