Posted by Grace Feng on May 23, 2015
This is a guest post by Joe Paterson from Keats School. He did an excellent job in explaining Hanyu Pinyin from multiple angles. I especially like his interesting experience with Chinese dialects. For those who don’t know yet, Keats School is a very popular Chinese Language school in Kunming, China.
Anyone, who is planning to learn Chinese in China or overseas, should be very grateful for the current pinyin system that is in use. In theory you can reach a high level of fluency without ever learning Chinese characters. I attempted this and gave in to characters after a year but pinyin can always provide the learner a phonetic backbone to the pictorial characters.
Romanisation of the Chinese language began back in the 1600s through the Jesuit missionaries but the works were solely for a western audience. Likewise, the Wade-Giles system of phonetics was generally used only by foreigners. Initially developed by A British ambassador to China in 1867, the system was refined by Herbet Allen Giles and his son in 1912. Compared to the logic of the modern system of pinyin there are clear flaws. It is common to come across the Wade-Giles pinyin system in history text books or hearing people talk about China who haven’t learned modern pinyin. Chongqing is written as Chungking (the Wade-Giles system failed to express the ‘q’ initial adequately) and Mao Zedong was written as Mao Tse-tung. The ‘tung’ phonetic for 东 is not accurate standard pronunciation and so the Wade-Giles system would always be lacking.
Modern hanyu pinyin was a project pushed by the newly instated Communist Party in 1950. Led by Zhou Youguang, the team’s aim was to create an all-encompassing phonetic system without the inaccuracies of previous systems. They came up with the system we now use to study Chinese. However, unlike previous systems, hanyu pinyin became integrated with Chinese as a language, allowing school children to learn standard Mandarin pronunciation and to improve literacy in adults.
Hanyu pinyin is made up of initials and finals. The initials are b, p, m, f, d, t, n, l, g, k, h, j, q, x, zh, ch, sh, r, z, c, s. These initials are combined with one of the following finals to produce any odd in the Chinese language: a, e, ai, ei, ao, ou, an, ang, en, eng, i, ia, ie, iao, iu, ian, in, ing, iang, u, ua, uo, uai, uang, ong, un, ü, üe, uan, un, iong, ê, o, io.
This seemingly exhaustive list provides the all the phonetic possibilities in the language.
The tones are signified by markers, known as diacritics, above the key syllable of the final. I will use the pronunciation most beginners start with when learning pinyin to demonstrate this. The first tone is mā, the second má, third tone, mǎ and the fourth by a grave accent, má. Neutral tone sounds are represented by a lack of diacritic: ma.
Excepting Chinese teachers or academics it is often a surprise to find that foreigners, despite generally having greatly inferior character writing skills, have quite accurate pinyin whereas Chinese people often enter incorrect pinyin on computers or phones. This isn’t surprising considering China’s vast array of dialects that lead Chinese off the straight path of putonghua and the fact that most Chinese people learn hanyu pinyin in primary school before they begin learning characters. But as they study more and more characters they neglect the previously learned pinyin.
Pinyin can be important for Chinese adults as well as foreigners and schoolchildren as it reminds people of the standard pronunciation opposed to their local dialect. An example of this would be people in Hunan and Hubei mixing their ’n’ and ‘l’ sounds. I remember one tourist telling me she was from Hulan (sic). I assumed it was a small province in the North I was unaware of until I realized she was pronouncing the ’n’ incorrectly as ‘l’. Many people from this region pronounce words this way. People in Kunming also struggle particularly with adding an extra ‘g’ to a ‘in’ final or missing one out on a ‘ing’ final. I remember having an argument with a student who claimed Kunming should be written as Kunmin until I looked it up in the dictionary to prove him wrong.
It’s possible, and realistic, that in the near future school children all over the world will be learning Chinese as part of their syllabus, but knowing the duration and difficulty of learning characters hanyu pinyin will become increasingly important. This will also be reflected in daily life, watching more news reports about China where Chinese names, terms and issues need to be read or pronounced, and football commentators will have to improve their pronunciation if the China national team ever makes it to the World Cup.
Category: Learn Chinese tips and strategies
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