Chinese Pronunciation

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In general, pronunciation cannot be derived from looking at Chinese characters, although sometimes characters with common parts have similar pronunciation. Unlike other current written languages, Chinese characters are not primarily phonetic, and certainly not alphabetic, but pictographic or ideographic (displaying combinations of pictures or symbols to convey meaning) like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Hence there has needed to be a way of representing in writing the pronunciation of each character when teaching the language. Several systems have been used, but pinyin is the current standard way of writing Chinese pronunciation.

Alternative Pronunciation Systems
Before pinyin was developed there were other systems for writing the pronunciation of Chinese words using the English alphabet. The most notable is the Wade-Giles system, settled in 1892. However, since the standardization of the Chinese language in the latter half of last century, many of the pronunciations that these old systems represent are no longer valid in China (though there are many Wade-Giles names still in common use in Taiwan). For example Peking used to be a way to pronounce China’s capital, but now in China it is pronounced Beijing. Likewise Canton used to be a way to pronounce Guangdong, a province in the southeast of China. While superseded in China, some of these old pronunciations are still in common use around the world.

An English Speakers Chinese Pronunciation System
In the tables below is a pronunciation system that is (roughly) true to standard Chinese pronunciation (without tones), but uses the letters of the English alphabet in an intuitive way, instead of assigning new sounds to the alphabet. This system uses the alphabet to represent Chinese sounds in a way that English speakers are familiar with. The system takes no time at all to use, and could be used as a quick guide to pronunciation for those unfamiliar with Chinese. It is sometimes used to show pronunciation on the China Highlights China Guide pages.

According to this system Beijing would be written Bayjing and Guangdong would be written Gwungdong. Although the pronunciation is instantly recognizable, in cases like the Chinese word yue, written youair for ease of pronunciation recognition, the system is not as efficient as pinyin in the number of letters used. There is also the conundrum of how to represent the ow in cow, without it being mistaken for the ow in low. Pinyin is a more efficient system. It only takes a few hours to learn, and is well worth it.

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)
The International Phonetic Alphabet could also be used to represent Chinese pronunciation (see the pinyin pronunciation tables below), but it requires a ready knowledge of the symbols. Though more efficient and foolproof than trying to mimic Chinese sounds with an intuitive combination of English letters, it is not as easy to write, either by hand or typing. Therefore pinyin is a better system.

Pinyin
Pinyin means to join together, or spell out, sounds. Pinyin was developed for Chinese speakers and those learning standard Chinese pronunciation, and is an efficient way of representing Chinese sounds with the Roman alphabet. It serves the same purpose as the international phonetic symbols used in dictionaries to show how English words are pronounced.

Pinyin was developed during the People’s Republic of China era (from 1949). It was first approved by the Chinese government in 1958, and the International Organization for Standardization adopted it as a world standard in 1982.

It is obvious that pinyin wasn’t developed for, and is often misunderstood by, the English-speaking world. This is in evidence whenever English speakers try to pronounce pinyin words without any previous study. About half the time letters in pinyin represent different sounds from what they would in a typical English word, and most of the time the vowels have peculiar sounds.

Pinyin is a very useful tool to learn to get around China. The Chinese view their characters as the true Chinese written language, but pinyin can be seen on many maps, road signs, and other notices. Pinyin is much easier to learn, use and remember than characters, particularly if tones are ignored. Pinyin notation can be thoroughly learnt in a few hours (though the tongue may not be fully trained in that time—that takes days or weeks of practice), but a working knowledge of Chinese characters (3,000 characters for basic literacy) takes years of hard study.

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