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Chinese 101: Tones and Pronunciation

Manzai May 7, 2011 User blog:Manzai

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So here’s the first block of information about Mandarin Chinese, and I’m going to be talking about the 5 tones and pronunciation. My textbook talks a lot about how important it is (if you’re studying Chinese) to get these pronunciation aspects right early on, so you don’t practice them incorrectly. This is just to emphasize that, in Chinese, correct tone and pronunciation are actually part of the word.

This is the first of what will probably be many problems with trying to do this over the internet: it’s difficult if not impossible to learn the coreect pronunciation without hearing them over and over. I’ll try to explain the tones and prononciation as a system the way it was explained to me, and then I’ve put some links throughout this to audio files and such, so hopefully those work.

A given Chinese “word” (or really, a syllable) is made up of 3 things: the initial sound, the final sound, and the tone. First, the tones.

Mandarin Chinese only has about 400 possible syllables, where English has 12,000, so Chinese developed many more homophonic words, but also developed tones to distinguish them. Tones are the pitch of your voice as you pronounce the word. There are 4 pitched tones and a 5th “light” or “toneless” tone. In pinyin, tone marks are written over the final sound of the syllable. Consider the following 4 words

1. mā-“mother”

2. má- “marijuana”

3. mǎ- “horse”

4. mà-“to scold”

You can see why you want to be sure to pronounce the tones correctly.

The tone markers basically correspond to how you pitch your voice when using them. The first tone is high and level. It is pitched near the top of your vocal range and kept constant as you pronounce the word. Listen to it here: http://www.mandarintools.com/sounds/ma1.aif

The second tone starts at the middle of your range and rises (like the upward-sloping mark over the “a”. Get it?) My textbooks says, as a rule of thumb, it should sound like the tone you use when you say “What?!” in response to something unbelieveable. http://www.mandarintools.com/sounds/ma2.aif

The third tone starts near the middle of your range, drops to the bottom, then goes up a little past the middle. This may sound like the tone you use when you say “Yeah…” to concede a point you believe is true but not very relevant to the topic at hand. The third tone actually takes slightly longer to pronounce than the others. http://www.mandarintools.com/sounds/ma3.aif

The fourth tone begins near the top of your vocal range and drops to the bottom. You pronounce it rather quickly. My book says this tone is similar to “the emphatic ‘No!!’ you might use if someone were to urge you to jump of the Broklyn Bridge.” Apparently whoever wrote my textbook likes to think he’s funny, but again, not all this rules of thumb totally match how the real tone should sound so listen to all these links. http://www.mandarintools.com/sounds/ma4.aif

It’s important to realize that tones are not an “extra” or “optional” part of the word. They are part of the word as much as the actual letters are, and in pinyin they are considered part of the spelling of the word. Try listening to the tones for different initials and finals to get a better sense of them:


1st: http://www.mandarintools.com/sounds/zhu1.aif

http://www.mandarintools.com/sounds/tan1.aif

http://www.mandarintools.com/sounds/shi1.aif


2nd: http://www.mandarintools.com/sounds/zhu2.aif

http://www.mandarintools.com/sounds/tan2.aif

http://www.mandarintools.com/sounds/shi2.aif


3rd: http://www.mandarintools.com/sounds/zhu3.aif

http://www.mandarintools.com/sounds/tan3.aif

http://www.mandarintools.com/sounds/shi3.aif


4th: http://www.mandarintools.com/sounds/zhu4.aif

http://www.mandarintools.com/sounds/tan4.aif

http://www.mandarintools.com/sounds/shi4.aif


There are 20 sounds that can begin a Chinese syllable, which are summarized in the following table:


1

2

3

4

5

1

b

p

m

f

2

d

t

n

l

3

z

c

s

4

zh

ch

sh

r

5

j

q

x

6

g

k

h



These are the initials. I’ll describe how they’re supposed to sund first, so you can get a sense of them, but you can’t really tell how they’re supposed to sound without hearing them, so at the end I’ve put a link to site that has Flash sound clips of each one.

The first row are pronounced using mostly the lips, and the second row are pronounced with the top front teeth, but they’re both very similar to English so they don’t need a lot of explanation.

Sounds in the third row are pronounced by placing the tongue against the top front teeth and making a buzzing or hissing sound. The z and c are also not pronounced as in English. The z is pronounced like a dz or ds as in the end of “reads”, but is unvoiced (meaning it doesn’t use the vocal chords). The c is pronounced like a ts, as in the end of “rats.” (The s is the same as English).

Row 4 is pronounced with the tongue curled up until it touches the roof of the mouth. They all have sort of a buzzing sound. The zh is closer to an English ch or hard j than the way zh is usually pronounced in English (the way they pronounced Zhao’s name in the series, for example). The ch is pronounced the same way as the zh, but you puff more air out when you say it. the sh is similar to English, but keep your tongue in the correct position and use your lips less when you say it. The r sounds kind of like half way between a buzzing l and r sound as compared to the English r. You put your tongue in that position (although the tongue does not quite touch the roof of the mouth) and basically just vibrate it. It sounds a little like the second g in the French name “Georges”.

The fifth row is pronounced by placing the tip of the tongue againt the bottom front teeth and arching the middle section of the tongue up. If you keep your tongue in this position and pronounce an English j you’ll probably be able to get close to the sound of the pinyin j. The q sounds like the English ch, and the x sounds like English sh, but has a stronger exhalation (in Wade-Giles, another transliteration system, it’s written as hs). However, all the English sounds I just mentioned involve use of the lips, which are not used when pronouncing the Chinese sounds.

The last row are called “gutturals” and are pronounced at the back of the back of the mouth, but they all sound very similar to the English sounds, except that the Chinese h is a little bit rougher, meaning the exhalation is a little bit stronger than in English.

Finally, you may notice that w (as used in “Madame Wu”) is absent from this table. That’s because the sound of the English w is not used to begin Mandarin words. It is used for spelling in pinyin (for example, wūzi-“room”) but this is just a convention of spelling. When pronouncing a word like this the w is almost silent.

The best thing is obviously to listen to the sounds though. Here is a very easy-to-use site with sound clips for each initial. http://www.chineselearner.com/pinyin/pinyin-initials.htm

For the finals, below, I’ve done the same thing. I have the table of sounds up front and I’ve put some hints about how they’re supposed to be pronounced, but again if you really want to be able to pronounce these things you have to listen to them.

Consult this table for the sounds of the finals: http://www.chineselearner.com/pinyin/pinyin-finals.htm

a is pronounced as in “father”.

i is pronounced like a long e (ee).

e is very different from the English e. It sounds kind of like a cross between the eh sound and the uh sound, probably closer to the latter.

u is a long u that sounds a little like the English oo as in “zoo,” but not quite.

o also sounds realy different from an English o. It sounds close to a long o (oh), but also sounds a little like an aw sound, or at least an unannunciated long o.

ai is pronounced as in “aisle”.

ei is pronounced as in “eight”.

The pinyin ou is very close to the English long o as in “toe”.

The difference between finals that end in -n versus those that end in –ng is basically voicing (that is, vibrating your vocal chords). The g is not pronounced as hard as an English hard g.

ie is pronounced like the ye in “yet.” (Finals that begin with i- are usually pronounced with a beginning y sound).

English speakers usually pronounce the ao final like ow as in “cow” (again, this is how they pronounced Zhao’s name in the series), but that’s not quite correct. It’s more like halfway between aw as in “law” and ow as in “cow”.

So this pronunciation stuff is pretty substantial. I don’t think I should put any more in this post but next time I will post the first vocabulary and grammatical things.

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