In online communities where either multi-byte encodings cannot be used, or where the general populace does not use a Chinese character input system, pinyin is often used as a way of communicating in Mandarin.

This is especially common in chat systems such as IRC or ICQ; however, it is only used sparingly and hardly ever will you find a long conversation taking place purely in pinyin.

The reasons for this are two-fold. Firstly, most people do not know how to accent characters, and thus are unable to write proper pinyin, where the "vowels" should have their tones indicated (see above writeup).

Of course, some people solve this problem by adding a number at the end of each word to indicate the tone. For example, bao4 is "bao" in the fourth tone, which means "hug", while bao3 is in the third tone, which means "full". Reading an entire paragraph of text written in this way is not easy, however.

This leads to the next point. Pinyin is extremely difficult to read in large portions, because it is essentially meant more as a pronounciation guide (kind of like phonetics) than an actual way of writing. In Mandarin, there are quite a few words which sound exactly the same but have different meanings. In written form, this causes no confusion because each character looks different. In spoken form, it can be derived from the context.

But for some reason, when written in pinyin, it is hard to determine the context of the word. The reader will often need to read out the pinyin and hear it being spoken before he/she can understand it. This is more time-consuming as it requires an extra machine cycle to render the word in audial format before interpreting it. sorry, bad joke

This may be more common for native speakers of Mandarin than foreigners, however, mainly because in Mandarin, each tone is very distinct. A person who has been speaking Mandarin for a long time will tend to pronounce a word in a certain way (and pitch) all the time, so the process of first constructing a sound through a set of phonetical characters and then varying the tone feels strange and unnatural. This is also why native speakers find the way foreigners speak in Mandarin quite funny; in languages like English the tone is allowed to vary, but in Mandarin that makes for a very peculiar-sounding pronounciation.

Here are what the non-ascii pinyin characters look like, and the character entities that can be used for each:
Untoned u with Dieresis:                      Ü Ü   ü ü
                                              Ü     ü
Tone 1 Vowels:
  Ā Ā   Ē Ē   Ī Ī   Ō Ō   Ū Ū   Ǖ Ǖ
  ā ā   ē ē   ī ī   ō ō   ū ū   ǖ ǖ
Tone 2 Vowels:
  Á Á   É É   Í Í   Ó Ó   Ú Ú   Ǘ Ǘ
  Á   É   Í   Ó   Ú

  á á   é é   í í   ó ó   ú ú   ǘ ǘ
  á   é   í   ó   ú
Tone 3 Vowels:
  Ǎ Ǎ   Ě Ě   Ǐ Ǐ   Ǒ Ǒ   Ǔ Ǔ   Ǚ Ǚ
  ǎ ǎ   ě ě   ǐ ǐ   ǒ ǒ   ǔ ǔ   ǚ ǚ
Tone 4 Vowels:
  À À   È È   Ì Ì   Ò Ò   Ù Ù   Ǜ Ǜ
  À   È   Ì   Ò   Ù

  à à   è è   ì ì   ò ò   ù ù   ǜ ǜ
  à   è   ì   ò   ù
Another popular system of describing Chinese pronounciation is bopomofo, which look more like Chinese character radicals.

See also Using Unicode on E2 if interested in when and when not to use Unicode, and the rationale behind it.
How to write Pinyin in Chinese: The characters are the same for both Traditional and Simplified Chinese:

拼 (拼 or 拼) pīn, pin1 = join together, link, incorporate
音 (音 or 音) yīn, yin1 = sound, tone, pitch, pronunciation

The problem with the Hanyu Pinyin system is that often, the words still do not give the proper pronunciation, but rather assign certain Roman letters and combinations of letters to certain Mandarin sounds. This is because many of these sounds or distinctions between sounds do not exist in English or almost any other European language.

The sad fact is that Mandarin can never be properly rendered in regular Roman script, because we simply do not have enough letters to go around, and many of the sounds or so completely foreign that it is difficult to even make an approximation.

So, the best way to show an English or SAE(Standard Average European) speaker how to pronounce Mandarin sounds from the Pinyin is to describe the sounds, as would the International Phonetic Alphabet, many of whose symbols are difficult to represent here, but can be found at http://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/IPA/fullchart.html . The IPA is the more or less standard alphabet used by linguists to represent phonetic sounds, which almost any language's orthography pretty much always sucks at doing(English is notorious for this).

Anyway, here are the sounds (generally), in Pinyin, the ever-popular and outdated Wade-Giles system, and IPA or a phonetic description (IPA listings with an asterix are not the true symbol, but the best I could do with the character set I have):

INITIAL SOUNDS:

-- b p /b/, but with very little or no voicing, which should be easy for English speakers, since we do not voice stops very fully at all. It could actually be more similar to 'p' in any SAE language like Spanish.

-- p p' /p/, like the English word 'pop,' with a heavy puff of air following the stop. This is called 'aspiration'Again, this is no problem for English speakers, since we do it anyway.

-- m m /m/

-- f f /f/

-- d t /d/, with the same rule as for 'b'

-- t t' /t/, with the same rule as 'p'

-- n n /n/

-- l l /l/

-- g k /g/, with the same rule as for 'b' and 'd'

-- k k' /k/, with the same rule as for 'p' and 't'

-- h h /x/, this sound is a voiceless velar fricative, like the Greek 'chi,' or like the sound in the German 'machen.' This is pronounced in exactly the same place as 'k,' but instead of the air stopping, it is blown through with much friction. This same relationship exists between 't' and 's.'

-- j ch(i) /dzh/* This sound is a lot like the 'j' in English, but more palatalized. The English 'j' is actually a combination of two sounds, /d/ and /zh/, a sound like the 's' in 'measure.' This is slightly more palatal sounding in Mandarin, as if you said 'jyeep.'

-- q ch'(i) /tsh/* Like the 'ch' in 'chase,' but more palatized, like 'chyase.' This is also aspirated, like 't' 'p' and 'k,' but this is done anyway in English.

-- x hs,s /sh/*, but more palatized, like

saying 'shyeep'

-- zh ch /dzhr/* a lot like the 'j' in English, but retroflexed. Retroflection is done by curling back the tip of the tongue(Retroflection is very common in Hindi, and is often heard in stereotypes of Indian people).

-- ch ch' /tshr/* like the English, 'ch,' but retroflexed.

-- r j /zhr/* like the sound in measure, but retroflexed.

-- z ts,tz /dz/

-- c ts',tz' /ts/

-- s s,ss,sz /s/

MEDIALS AND ONGLIDES:

-- i i /j/ the 'y' sound in English 'yet'

-- u u /w/

-- y(u)/(l/n)ü ü /y/ This sound is a lot like the 'u' in the French 'lune' or the 'ü' in the German 'über.' It's a very easy sound to make, just say, 'tea,' but round your lips as if the sound was /u/ and not /i/.

-- y y /j/

-- w w /w/

-- y(u) y(ü) /y/

FINAL SOUNDS:

-- a a /a/ like 'a' in 'father,' but a little more fronted before /n/.

-- o o /o/, but when it follows a consonant, it's /wo/. Mandarin 'po' is pronounced /pwo/

-- e e,ê,o,eh /uh/*, /eh/* This sound is a lot like the 'uh' sound in 'cut,' but a lot tenser sounding. When it follows one of the medials or onglides, it is pronounced like the 'e' in 'bet.'

-- ai ai /aj/ like in 'buy' or 'high'

-- ei ei /ej/ like in 'pay' or 'weigh'

-- ao ao /aw/ like in 'how' or 'cow'

-- ou ou /ow/ like in 'mow' or 'foe'

-- ian ien /yehn/* just like the Japanese 'yen'

-- ng ng /ng/* Like in 'sing'

-- er er,erh /er/ Like in 'herd'

-- i i,u,ih /i/,/ih/*,/irh/* This is a bit complicated. Normally, it is /i/, but following (pinyin) c/z/s, it is pronounced like the 'i' in 'bit.'And after sh/ch/zh/r, it's like 'bit,' but the vowel is retroflexed.

-- u u /u/ like 'food' or 'dude.'

-- (y)u,(l/n)ü ü /y/

-- un un /wuhn/* like 'fun' but 'fwun'

-- o(ng) u(ng) /oo/* like in 'look' or 'wood.'

Of course, tone is always important in Chinese. Mandarin has five tones. There are a few ways to represent this. One is to use the number 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 following the word. This often results in a very hard-to-read transliteration. The one I like uses a series of diacritics over the vowels. Here are the tones:

1. High and long 'ā'

2. Rising and long 'á'

3. Low(Dipping) and short 'ǎ'

4. Falling and short 'à'

5. Neutral 'a'

China's official system for romanizing putonghua (Common Chinese Speech or Mandarin) was developed in China in the late 1950s. It is strictly phonetic, based on the Beijing dialect. It is almost without exception these days also the international system for the same task. There have been and are other Systems for Romanizing Chinese. Pinyin's full name is "Hanyu Pinyin", which well-translated means "Mandarin Phonetics".

A little history is in order. The English name for Mandarin exists because for a long time the Beijing dialect has been (and is today) the language of the mandarinate, or Chinese officialdom. It was perhaps inevitable that any "Chinese alphabet" (which, linguistically, is what pinyin is) invented inside China in recent times corresponding to this language would be politicized by parties who wanted to deny Beijing's authority in political matters. This of course meant pinyin was defended using political arguments by Beijing. This has unfortunately lead to many misunderstandings which deserve a linguistic history node of their own. Suffice it to say that if you started learning Chinese at a North American university, you may have been subjected to a rant or two about pinyin.

In truth, there needs to be no tedious "mine's better than yours" for these various systems, because in fact most of them were invented for different purposes, to catch a different "set" of Chinese dialect sounds, even different Chinese languages. The purpose of pinyin is to create an alphabet for putonghua and it does a really excellent job doing exactly that, and little more. But, for the history buffs, here are a couple of comparisions that may explain some spelling changes you've observed over the years. Where Wade-Giles creates Mao Tse-tung, Tsing-tao and Chung-kuo, Pinyin creates Mao Zedong, Qingdao and Zhongguo. In all three examples I've left the tone marks off - this is how they were/are rendered in English. For more on tone marks, read on!

I have met many linguists in China who have exclaimed "I must be stupid, I just can't seem to completely switch over to pinyin, even when I need to..." (to design coursework, for example). This is not a problem of mental horsepower, but rather a reflection that the spoken and written languages have developed in parallel, and are inextricably linked, and so once you've learned characters, you "think" in characters. Studies show that children who are taught pinyin from the start don't have this difficulty.

So here for your usage and amazement is Hanyu Pinyin, complete and unexpurgated.

Initials

Syllables in putonghua are predominantly made up of an initial, which is always a consonant, and a final, which makes up the rest of the syllable. There are also "final only" syllables. In textbooks, the initials are always laid out in a carefully formatted matrix, which corresponds to the different pure vowel sounds used to enunciate them when learning putonghua if you are a foreigner, or learning pinyin if you are a Chinese primary school student. There are 21 initials:

   b    p    m    f 
   d    t    n    l 
   g    k    h
   j    q    x
   z    c    s
   zh   ch   sh   r

Here is a quick'n'dirty pronunciation key for all initials. Please note that pronunciation keys by nature really only work to get you halfway there - you simply must have native instruction. For additional angles on pinyin pronunciation, see Mandarin and other writeups in this node, which tackle the issue from different perspectives.

  • m, f, n, l, h and sh are pronounced as in English
  • d like "d" in "bed" (unaspirated)
  • j like "g" in "genius" (unaspirated)
  • z like "ds" in "beds"
  • zh like "j" in "a job"
  • b like "p" in "spin" (unaspirated)
  • g a soft unaspirated "k" sound
  • x like "sh" in "sheep" but with the corners of the lips drawn back
  • r somewhat like "r" in "rain" (tongue forward - NOT retroflex! If you think about this - and practice it - it will completely explain a certain puzzling pronunciation difficulty experienced by many Asians learning Engrish.)
All the following are aspirated and therefore tricky. You must expel considerable air after the consonant is pronounced.
  • p like "p" in "pop"
  • t like "t" in "tap"
  • k like "k" in "kangaroo"
  • q harder than the "ch" in "cheap"
  • c like the "ts" in "cats", with aspiration
  • ch no analogue. tongue curled back "ch", aspirated
  • Practice these key differences: b/p d/t g/k j/q z/c zh/ch

Finals

There are 38 finals, which form the end of a Chinese syllable. These will also be presented in the standard table:

        i      u         ü
   a    ia     ua
   o           uo
   e    ie
   er
   ai          uai
   ei          uei (ui)
   ao   iao
   ou   iou (iu)
   an   ian    uan       üan
   en   in     uen (un)  üen
   ang  iang   uang
   eng  ing    ueng
   ong  iong
Note that when transcribing these, because not all finals can map onto all initials, some helpful shortcuts are taken in writing down the finals, which I will outline below in Rules of Spelling. Here is a quick'n'dirty pronunciation guide for tricky finals - you will also be able to extract the single vowel finals from this:
  • ie like "ye" in "yes"
  • e like "e" in "her"
  • er like "er" in "sister" (American English)
  • ai like "y" in "by" (lightly)
  • ei like "ay" in "bay"
  • ou like "o" in "go"
  • an like "an" in "can" (don't stress the "n")
  • -ng finals like "ng" in "bang" without hitting the "g"
  • uei, uen and iou, when preceded by an initial , are transcribed ui, un and iu.

Tones

The dreaded tones! This is what supposedly makes tonal language systems impossible. Actually, in Madarin one is relatively blessed, because there are only four (plus a "light" tone which means "no tone"), also, each of these tones has a pretty close analog in English. English, of course, uses tones:

  • the question tone: "Really?" (rising)(2)
  • the exclamation tone "Really!" (falling)(4)
  • the bored disbelief tone "Really...?" (flat and slightly high)(1) - I also call this the "killer robot" tone.
  • the strong doubt tone "Oh Really?" (down, then up)(3) - although the tone here is over two words, in Mandarin you put it onto a single syllable.
  • and finally the meeting tone. PHB "It's win-win!" You "(Really).." (lightly, lower and flat) (light).
When I was Learning Chinese one of my teachers liked my five "Reallys" so much she now uses them to teach tones! I list them out of numerical order on purpose; they are listed in order of relative difficulty of production and application for English speakers. Although the "light" tone is listed in all the textbooks as the easiest, actually it isn't. It inevitably comes at the end of sentences or words, and we English speakers then mutilate it with the natural English intonation of that sentence or word. So easiest to produce, but hardest to apply.

Tones are what make it possible to only have 400-odd syllables and still create an entire language. Each syllable has four possible tones, plus the neutral tone dependant on position. Changing the tone of the syllable (most of them complete words in a single syllable) changes the meaning entirely. Plus, like most languages including English, there are many "soundalikes" or "sound-very-similars" with different meanings. And then you add in multisyllable words, and a complex, rich, efficient language emerges.

The first tone exercise is traditionally initial "m" final "a" = "ma". This is because this sound is somewhat universal, and also because this single syllable, with the four different tones, doesn't have any offensive or unlucky possible words in Chinese. So the four main tones are: ma1 ma2 ma3 ma4, or using the handy-but-hard-to-type tone marks: mā má mǎ mà.

Rules of Spelling

As I mentioned above, not all initials can go with all finals (there are about 400 total combinations). So this means some shortcuts can be used to reduce the number of letters you have to write out. Three of those have already been seen in the finals section. Most of the initial+final combinations are just as written. Here are the rest of the rules, with the correct spelling on the left replacing the initial+final combination on the right:

   zi     ci     si            =   z     c     s
   zhi    chi    shi     ri    =   zh    ch    sh    r
   ju     jue    juan    jun   =   jü    jüe   jüan  jün
   qu     que    quan    qun   =   qü    qüe   qüan  qün
   xu     xue    xuan    xun   =   xü    xüe   xüan  xün
   yu     yue    yuan    yun   =   ü     üe    üan   ün
   ya     ye     yao     you   =   ia    ie    iao   iou
   yan    yin    ying    yang  =   ian   in    ing   iang
   yong                        =   iong
   wu     wa     wo      wai   =   u     ua    uo     uai
   wei    wan    wen     wang  =   uei   uan   uen    uang
   weng                        =   ueng
This may seem awfully complicated, but actually it makes for a very clean written script, with a minimum of those double-barreled Wade-Giles consonants that had everyone convinced Chinese was impossible to grok.

In Action

Example 1

A: Nǐ xiànzài shàng wǎng ma?
B: "Shàng wǎng" shì shěnme yìsi?
A: Nǐ zěnme lián zhe dōu bù zhīdào ya?

A: 你现在上网吗?
B:上网是什么意思?
A: 你怎么连这都不知道呀?

A: Do you surf the net?
B: What's "surfing the net"?
A: How is it possible you don't know that!?

Example 2

Sì shì sì, shí shì shí, shísì shì shísì, sìshí shì sìshí, sìshísì zhī shí shī zǐ shì sǐ le.

四是四,十是十,十四是十四,四十是四十,四十四只石狮子是死了。

Four is four, ten is ten, fourteen is fourteen, forty is forty, forty-four stone lions really died.


Sources:
New Approaches to Learning Chinese, Zhang Pengpeng, Sinolingua, 2000. ISBN 7-80052-577-5
Book 1, Hanyu Jiaocheng, Various, BLCU Press, 2001. ISBN 7-5619-0745-1
Reading and Writing Chinese, William McNaughton and Li Ying, Tuttle Publishing, 1999. ISBN 0-8048-3206-4
The Chinese Language - Fact and Fantasy, John DeFrancis, UHP. ISBN 0-8248-1068-6
My class notes.
tongpoo's writeup in this very node - extremely useful.

Note: You may need to change encoding and/or download a set of Chinese Character fonts to see this node, and this writeup, in their full glory. Also, before I'm accused of making up some random Chinese for Example 2 to make a point - what I've used above is a very well known Chinese tongue twister, a paraphrase of a famous classical poem Shíshì shishì Shi Shì, shì shi, shì shí shí shi. It makes sense in Chinese!

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