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The ten most confounding Pinyin pronunciations

30 July, 2010 (05:00) | china | By: xensen

English speakers have an uphill slog to make sense of Chinese pronunciation from its transliteration. The Wade-Giles transliteration system used a lot of diacritical marks, with all the annoyances that entails. But the Pinyin system, which now far predominates (and is used in the museum’s materials) has its own challenges. Such as:

  1. Q
    This one at least is easy to learn. Q is pronounced like “ch,” so “Qin” is pronounced “Chin.”
  2. Zh
    You would think this would represent the initial sound of the French word “jardin,” or the way some people pronounce the second gee in “garage.” Nope. It’s pronounced like a J. “Zhou” is “Joe.”
  3. Ang
    What could be simpler, right? Wrong. No really, wrong: it’s pronounced more like the “ong” in “wrong.”
  4. X
    Who knows how to pronounce X in any language? In the U.S. many people just give up and pronounce the Spanish name Xavier as “Ex-avier.” In Pinyin X represents a kind of “sh” or “hs” sound, sort of like in the word “sheer.”
  5. C
    If you know Western languages you would have three guesses about this one: the C in “cat,” the S in “sat,” or the CH in “chat.” But it’s actually pronounced more like the “ts” in “nets.”
  6. Iu
    When you get to the IU sound you know when Pinyin was constructed someone must really have been trying to be difficult. This is pronounced like the “yo” in “yoyo.”
  7. I
    After c, s, or z the “i” sound is pronounced like the “i” in “sir”: after ch, sh, zh, or r it’s like the whole”ir” sound in the same word, “sir.”
  8. Z
    This isn’t really too bad. Just add a little initial dee sound, like the “dz” in “adze.”
  9. Er
    Not the sound a hesitant speaker makes, this is a homonym for the English word “are.”
  10. Ong
    This is pronounced like the “ung” in the German “achtung.”

Got that? Now we’re ready to tackle any Chinese name. Can you say the name of the late Ming painter Dong Qichang? Sure you can. It’s something like “Dung Chi(r)chong.” Er, I think. Please correct me.


Comment from peacsy
Time: July 31, 2010, 4:42 pm

That’s quite similar to the sorts of notes I took while ‘studying’ Vietnamese at the Uni. in Hanoi. But those notes of mine accumulated a mass of subnotes as I tried – often in vain – to approximate tones and configure unconfusing reminders about which of my many attempts at a sound or a word was in fact the right one. The memory of sound and its marriage to buccal and lingual gymnastics is an extraordinarily complex and astonishing – for me anyways – exercise. It wasn’t even comparable to my schoolboy days of learning French (although that, at least, gave me another tenuous architectural topography, so to speak, to help describe the ‘other-worldly’ foreign elements of Vietnamese; much like Chinese I’m sure).