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Wenlin 216x93.png Chapter 11 of the Wenlin User’s Guide

While Chinese characters give an extraordinary visual dimension to the language, Chinese speech sounds comprise an entirely different, but equally remarkable, acoustical dimension. This chapter explains how you can hear the pronunciation of any Mandarin syllable. It also provides an introduction to the speech sounds of Mandarin, tones, and pinyin spelling.

Of course, you can’t learn pronunciation completely just by listening to individual syllables, or reading a book. You also need to practice listening and speaking whole sentences, preferably assisted by an experienced teacher.

Hearing Sounds

You can use the Mouse pointer mouth.jpg mouth tool for pronouncing any pinyin syllable or Chinese character that you click on. The mouth tool is one of the tools in the toolbar, introduced in Chapter 1. When you click on its icon in the toolbar, it becomes highlighted, and the mouse pointer looks like Mouse pointer mouth.jpg (kǒu ‘mouth’) when you point to text in a window. By clicking on any Mandarin syllable written in pinyin, you can hear its pronunciation. By clicking on any Chinese character, you can hear its pronunciation(s). Note that some characters have more than one pronunciation; to hear only a single pronunciation, it’s better to click on a pinyin syllable rather than a Chinese character.

(If you can’t hear anything, make sure the speakers are connected and the volume is turned up.)

The mouth tool stays selected until you select another tool. While it is selected, one of the characters 男 (nán ‘man’) or 女 ( ‘woman’) is displayed beneath the toolbar. By clicking on that character you can switch between a woman’s voice and a man’s voice.

There is also another method. When you look up any Chinese character, the pronunciation(s) are shown in [square brackets] on the top line of the definition. You can click there with the Mouse pointer finger.jpg hand tool when you want to hear the pronunciation. Or you can click on a pinyin syllable anywhere, as long as it has a tone mark. To hear any syllable pronounced:

  • Click with the Mouse pointer finger.jpg hand tool on the pinyin syllable you want to hear
The pinyin window opens
  • From a pinyin window, you can hear a sound recording of a man or woman native speaker pronouncing the syllable.


  • Click on a button: ▷woman or ▷man
Wenlin plays that syllable in that tone.
  • From the same pinyin window, you can also obtain lists of similar sounding characters.
List ▷words / ▷characters pronounced “lóng” (2nd tone)
List ▷words / ▷characters pronounced “long” (any tone)

Chinese has relatively few sounds for all its characters: there are many similar sounding characters. Most similar sounding characters differ in tone, although some characters are pronounced exactly the same.

Every pinyin window shows the pinyin in all four tones as well as the bopomofo (bōpōmōfō ㄅㄆㄇㄈ; zhùyīn fúhào 注音符号) equivalent. To compare the pronunciation in another tone, simply click on the pinyin with that tone. In this manner you can easily open up four pinyin windows and listen to all four tones.

If you clicked on a neutral tone pinyin syllable in brackets, you are given the choice to pick one of the four tones; it isn’t possible to listen to a neutral tone syllable in isolation.

If the sound files haven’t been installed on the hard disk, and you’re not running from the CD-ROM, then in place of the line ...

Hear [... some syllable ...] pronounced by ▷woman or ▷man

... there will be this message:

Sound file not available for pronunciation.

There is a way to use the sound files on the CD-ROM (or another disk) while running a Wenlin that has been installed on the hard drive without sounds. This is explained at the end of Appendix C, in the section about the W3Sound folder. (Essentially all you need to do is open any sound file in W3Sound by choosing Open... from the File menu; once Wenlin knows where that folder is, everything should work normally.)

Mandarin Syllables

Note: an electronic version of this text may be found in the file “pinyin.wenlin”, which is located in the “Text” folder. It contains example syllables that you can click on to hear their recorded pronunciations.

A Mandarin syllable consists of an initial consonant (if any), a vowel or diphthong (combination of vowels), sometimes a final (-n, -ng, or -r), and a tone.


The consonants are all pronounced approximately the same as in English, with five major exceptions: c, q, x, z, and zh.

c- like ts in it’s high
q- like ch in cheese (with the tongue forward)
x- like sh in sheep (with the tongue forward)
z- like ds in bird’s eye
zh- like j in jerk (with the tongue back)

zh, ch, sh, and r are pronounced with the tongue pulled back, away from the teeth.

j, q, and x are pronounced with the tongue pushed forward, almost touching the teeth.

To distinguish j from zh, q from ch, and x from sh: the letters j, q, and x are always followed by a high front vowel, i as in machine, or by the French u sound (see ü with two dots, below). But zh, ch, and sh are never followed by those vowel sounds; after zh, ch, sh, or r, the letter i sounds like an English r, with the tongue pulled back, and u is a regular u as in true.

c, ch, k, p, q, and t are aspirates, pronounced with a strong puff of air.

z, zh, g, b, j, and d are pronounced the same as c, ch, k, p, q, and t, respectively, minus the puff of air. Unlike English, they are voiceless; for example, d is more like the t in English stew than the d in English dew; and b is more like the p in English spy than the b in English buy. Mandarin b, d, and g are like Spanish or French p, t, and c. In the Wade-Giles system of romanization, unlike pinyin, the sounds b, d, and g are spelled P, T, and K, whereas p, t, and k are spelled P', T', and K', with apostrophes to indicate puffs of air. (For example, T’AI2 PEI3 for Táiběi, the name of the city in Taiwan.)

Vowels and Finals

-a as in father (but -ian and yan rhyme with when)
-ai as in aisle
-ao like ow in now
-e like u in up or a in about (but after i, u, or y, like e in yes)
-ei as in weigh
-en as in open
-eng like ung in hung
-i as in machine, except:
in zhi, chi, shi, and ri, like r in shirt (don’t move the tongue)
in zi, ci, and si, like z in quiz (don’t move the tongue)
-iu like yo in yogurt
-o as in more
-ong like oo in book plus ng in sung
-ou as in though
-u as in true (but after j, q, x, or y, like ü with two dots, below)
-ui like way in sway
(with two dots) like ee in knee, but with the lips rounded
The two dots are only written when the initial is l (L) or n. When the initial is j, q, x, or y, the two dots are omitted, yet, for example, ju is pronounced as though it were written .

In finals such as -iao and -uan, the i or u is shorter than the following vowel. For example, Mandarin suàn sounds like English swan.

Notice the difference between xiān (‘first’), a single syllable, and Xī’ān (name of a city), two syllables. An apostrophe separates syllables when necessary to avoid confusion; to be precise, any syllable starting with a vowel (a/e/o) is separated from an immediately preceding letter by an apostrophe.


The Four Tones

Tones are simply variations in pitch over time. While pronouncing each syllable, you control the pitch, to give a pitch “contour” to the syllable. Mandarin has four basic tones: each one is indicated by a tone mark placed over a vowel in a pinyin syllable. If you give a word the wrong tone, you may completely change its meaning!

ā1. High Level: pitch starts high and stays constant.
á2. Rising: pitch starts medium and rises higher.
ǎ3. Dipping: pitch starts medium-low, dips very low, and rises to medium-high.
à4. Falling: pitch starts high and quickly falls to very low.

Although the tone mark is written over a single letter, it applies to the entire syllable. For example, in diào, the pitch falls continuously from the d to the o.

With tones, the important thing is the change in pitch over time. The absolute pitch is not important – everyone’s voice is different. Find a comfortable range where the high tone is not too high and where you can reach down low for the dipping tone. It is not necessary to match the exact pitch of the man or woman in Wenlin. You should, however, match the pitch contour. This graph roughly depicts the four tones:


Tones are not an added-on feature designed for special effects; they are just as much a part of pronunciation as consonants and vowels. Moreover, tones have nothing to do with a person’s affect – they don’t convey feelings. On the other hand, independent of the tones, an entire sentence has its own, gradual, pitch contour, and this contour communicates the speaker’s emotional state, meaning or intentions; in this respect, Chinese is like any other language.

Neutral Tone

Almost any syllable, if it is unstressed, can lose its tone; then it is said to be pronounced in the neutral tone. The duration is short, and the pitch does not rise or fall appreciably. The pitch depends on the previous syllable’s tone: if the previous syllable has the falling tone, then the neutral tone syllable has a low pitch (as in lìzi); otherwise the neutral tone syllable has a medium or high pitch. Some words are always in the neutral tone, such as ma (which, at the end of a sentence, makes it a yes-or-no question).

Rules of Tone Change

  • When two third tone syllables come together, the first syllable changes to the rising tone. For example, nǐ hǎo is pronounced ní hǎo.
  • When a third tone syllable is followed by a syllable in any tone except the third tone, the pitch of the first syllable starts medium-low and falls very low, but doesn’t rise up again. For example, in nǐ shuō, the tone of only falls. (Because of this rule and the previous rule, a third tone syllable only has its complete falling-and-rising sound when followed by a pause.)
  • When two fourth tone syllables come together (as in zàijiàn ‘good-bye’), the first syllable’s pitch only falls halfway.
  • The words ‘one’, ‘not’, and ‘eight’ all tend to be pronounced in the rising tone, if the following syllable is falling tone. Otherwise, ‘one’ is often pronounced in the falling tone. These changes are peculiar to these three particular words.

Tone-Change Notation

Tone changes are not normally shown in standard pinyin. For example, it is considered correct to write nǐ hǎo rather than ní hǎo, and yīxiē rather than yìxiē. For educational purposes, however, Wenlin uses a special notation. This notation was first introduced in the ABC English-Chinese/Chinese-English Dictionary. It uses dots and dashes below vowels to indicate tone changes:


The tone-change notation is used in Cídiǎn and Yīng-Hàn entries marked grade {A}, {B}, {C}, {D}, or {E}; that is, for frequently used vocabulary. It is not generally used in the entries for less common vocabulary, or in the Zìdiǎn. The notation can be helpful while learning the rules of tone change. After you have learned and practiced the rules, you will eventually be able to apply them automatically without needing to think about them. There is an option for hiding tone-change notation, explained in Chapter 2.


功夫 gōngfu ‘skill; time’

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