Pinyin Cheatsheet for (Mostly American) English Speakers
Pinyin (Chinese: 拼音, lit. “spelling sounds”) is one of the most commonly used method for romanizing Chinese characters from Mandarin Chinese, and is used for names for the majority of the Chinese community.1 As many find difficulty pronouncing Chinese names written in Pinyin (esp in academic conferences), I put together this cheatsheet in hope of helping (mostly American) English speakers pronounce them correctly with as little effort as possible.2 No training in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is required.
Bottomline: Pinyin is a romanization method for denoting Chinese characters and providing largely approximations to the actual sounds made to pronounce the characters. There is not a one-to-one mapping between each Latin letter (or small group of letters) and the corresponding sound, and I will not pretend that that is the case. Nevertheless, we can focus on the most challenging ones first, and strive for a better and better sound approximation.
I will organize this cheatsheet in a hierarchical manner, focusing on the first-order approximations before offering more details and exceptions.
- a sounds like a in car or spa, without the r sound in the tail.
- Except in an, where you might be better off approximating it with ban or cat (the vowel sounds a bit more closed than the open-mouth a).
- e sounds like e in the (when it’s not pronounced like thee) or a in again in most places.
- Except in diphthongs or double vowels like ei, ie, ue (actually üe, see u), where it sounds like e in bet.
- i sounds like tea or sheep. It almost never sounds like bit or ship as rendered in most American accents (which drifts closer to bet).
- When i appears before another vowel, it can usually be well approximated as yes.
- In zhi, chi, shi, ri, zi, ci, and si, i actually doesn’t sound like sheep and doesn’t have an equivalent in English. A rough approximation is a voiced version of the consonant (i.e. hold your mouth they way you’d pronounce the consonant, and make a voice). If you speak Japanese, there are some rough correspondence: zi <=> ず (zu) and si <=> す (su), where the correspondence is more pronounced when these syllables are at the end of a word in Japanese.
- o sounds like short or boy, again without the trailing r sound.
- u is usually the romanization for two different vowels in Mandarin, u and ü. The former sounds like food or pool, and the later doesn’t exist in English. A good way to approximate ü is you or pronouncing the letter u in English).
- u is actually ü if it comes after j, q, x, or y.
- When u is not ü and comes before other vowels, it can usually be well approximated as wait.
- Except for j, q, x, and y, ü can only follow n and l. To disambiguate with u in the latter cases (following n and l), it is sometimes romanized as v, and more recently, it is starting to be romanized as yu on Chinese passports.3
Some Less Compositional Diphthongs and Special Vowels
- ao sounds like about or mountain with a more closed ending than the normal o.
- iu sounds like trio or grandiose.
- er sounds like bird or spur, with the trailing r sound in American English.
- j is similar to zh and both sound like John or dream, q is similar to ch and both sound like cheese or chowder, and x is similar to sh and both sound like sheep or shop.
- One good approximation for j, q, and x is actually appending a y sound to zh, ch, and sh, because Mandarin pronunciation rules mandate a y sound after these most of the time and it’s not always marked explicitly (think xia vs sha, and xu vs shu).
- c sounds like pants or boots.
- All other consonants sound very much like their English counterparts, but note that h is never silent (in fact no consonant is silent in Pinyin).
- To be more precise, r actually sounds more like vision than root, basically the latter but with the tongue curled upward against the top of the mouth.
- A very subtle difference I realized while compiling this cheatsheet is that most leading consonants in Mandarin are voiceless but some of their counterparts in English are voiced. This distinction probably makes very little difference to the untrained ear, but might be of interest to the IPA inducted.
Segmentation and Sandhi
The Pinyin corresponding to each Chinese character is usually of the form CVC, where one or more vowels are surrounded by a leading consonant and a trailing one. Either or both consonants can be missing in some cases, and when that results in ambiguation in pronunciation, an apostrophe or a hyphen is usually used to delimit character boundaries (e.g., Tian’anmen). The trailing consonant can only be either n or ng.
Although there is tone sandhi in Chinese, there isn’t as much sandhi of other sorts in Chinese, meaning boundaries between Chinese characters are clearly reflected in speech. Take Tian’anmen for an example, while the first instinct of most English speakers might be to say tian-<short pause>-na-men, a native speaker would say tian-an-men without mushing character boundaries.4
There are four tones (plus a neutral tone) in Mandarin, and I believe Wikipedia is truly the best material on this one. Most Chinese speakers can recognize your speech without perfect tones, given that you map sounds roughly correctly and are careful with segmentation and sandhi, though.
Other Useful Resources
This Wikipedia page is also a good reference with quick examples for pronunciation.
- Various Wikipedia pages linked throughout this cheatsheet.
- David Chiang‘s Mandarin Chinese Pronunciation. [pdf] [GitHub]
Others, like Tongyong Pinyin and Wade-Giles are still in use for historical reasons. Also, note that not all Chinese names were romanized from Mandarin (which Pinyin is for) — some names come from Cantonese and other Chinese languages and it’s not always easy to tell. ↩
Focusing more on the “standard” American accent here because this is the accent that I personally get the most samples for (and thus am more confident about vowel/consonant mappings and common mistakes in). However, much of this is applicable to other accents as well, especially for consonant mapping. ↩
Interestingly, sandhi is actually one of the more challenging parts for many English learners whose first language is like Mandarin in this way. ↩
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