Note on the Chinese Language and the several ways its sounds are written down in English:

Just as Europe has the Romance languages that are all descended from Latin and yet are mutually unintelligible, China has several regional languages that are as different from each other as French is from Italian or as English is from German. The pronunciation given here is that of the language of instruction of all school systems in China. That language, which some call Mandarin in English, has a very great geographical range. Within that language area one will find differences of pronunciation and vocabulary at least as great as the differences to be found among the many varieties of English.

There are several systems of romanization in common use in the United States, and still other systems in use abroad.

Most older texts use the Wade-Giles system, which, although linguistically correct, requires the reader to remember that ch sounds something like the "j" in jar, while ch' sounds something like "ch" in church, etc. Since most people don't know the rules, they frequently mispronounce the Chinese words that contain such special spellings.

Many American textbooks use the Yale University system. That system lets readers pronounce Chinese words fairly accurately without the need for any special training.

In recent years the community of scholars whose work involves the Chinese language have gradually drifted away from using the Wade-Giles system in new publications, and to use the pin-yin ("peen-een") system that Chinese people invented. Unfortunately, it too contains letters and combinations of letters that do not represent what the average English-speaking reader would expect them to represent.

The following discussion and illustrations are intended to let the non-specialist pronounce romanized Chinese words close enough to the correct way to serve for most practical purposes. The sounds ji, qi, xi and zhi, chi, shi, and ri are particularly difficult for most native speakers of English because most of us do not have those speech sounds in our native language. To us, "ji" and "zhi" both seem to have an initial consonant sound like our English "j". And "qi" and "chi" both seem to have an initial consonant sound like our English "ch". "Xi" and "shi" both seem to have an initial English "sh" consonant. And "ri" seems to have an initial consonant that is like an English "r." But most speakers of English make the sounds "jee", "chee", and "she" with the tip of the tongue reaching up to a point on the hard ridge immediately behind the upper front teeth. The following diagram shows that the tongue is in one completely different position when making the Chinese "ji, qi, xi" sounds, and in yet another position when making the "zhi, chi, shi, ri" sounds.


Mainland Chinese (pin-yin) Wade-Giles (pre-Nixon U.S. standard) Yale IPA Approximate Sound
ji chi ji tɕi jee
qi ch'i chi tsʰi chee
xi hsi syi ɕi shee
zhi chih jr tʂʐ like "ger" in "passenger"
chi ch'ih chr ʰʐ like "chur" in "church"
shi shih shr ʂʐ like "sher" in "sherbet"
ri jih r ʐ like "r" in "wrought"
zi tzu dz tsz̩ like "dz" in "adz"
ci tz'u tsz tsʰz̩ like "ts" in "its
si ssu sz sz̩z̩ like "ss" in "hiss"
hui hui hwei xuei a sound like your English teacher instructing you to say "hhhhwhay" as in "whale" (not "wail")


Mainland Chinese

Wade-Giles Yale IPA Approximate Sound
ai ai ai ai like "i" in "rice"
ei ei ei ei like "ay" in "day"
ao ao au ɑo like "ow" in "power"
en en en ən like "on" in "honey"
ong ung ung ʊŋ like "oong" with "oo" pronounced as in "foot"
ang ang ang ɑŋ like "ong" in "ping-pong"
eng eng eng ʌŋ like "ung" in "hung"
iao (yao) iao (yao) yau iau (jau) like "eow" in "meow"
ian (yan) ien (yen_ yan iɛn (jɛn) like the English word "yen"
uo (wo) uo wo uɔ (wɔ) like "wa" in "walk"
ui (wei) ui (wei) wei uei (wei) like "way"


Mainland Chinese Wade-Giles Yale IPA Approximate Sound
b p b b like "b" in "bat"
c tz' tsz tsʰ like "ts" in "its"
ch ch' chr ʰ like "ch" in "church"
d t d d like "d" in "dog"
f f f f like "f" in "fog"
g k g g like "g" in "go"
h h h x like "h" in "hat"
j ch j like "j" in "jib"
k k' k kʰ like "k" in "kibble"
l l l l like "l" in "log"
m m m m like "m" in "map"
n n n n like "n" in "nap"
p p' p pʰ like "p" in "pan"
q ch' ch ʰ like "ch" in "cheer"
r j r ɹ like "r" in "garage"
s s s s like "s" in "sit"
sh sh shr ʂ like "sh" in "sherbet"
t t' t tʰ like "t" in "table"
w w w w like "w" in "web"
wu wu wu wu (like "woo" -- "u" in initial position has a consonant sound.
x hs s(y) ɕ like "sh" in "ship"
z tz dz dz like "dz" in "adz"
zh ch jr ɹ like "r" in "gerbil"



a a a a like "o" in "bot"
o o o o like "o" in "for"
e e e ə like "uh" in "duh"
ê ê ê ε The "eh" in "Eh...What's up, Doc?"
ai ai ai ai like "eye"
ei ei ei ei like "ey" in "fey"
ao ao ao ɑo like "ow" in "pow"
ou ou ou ou like "ow" in "low"
an an/en an/en



after a consonant, like "an" in "pan". (After an "i", like "en" in "pen")

en en en ən like "un" in "fun"
ang ang ang ɑŋ like "ong" in "ping pong"
eng eng eng ʌŋ like "ung" in "hung"
er er er ɚ like "er" in "flier"
i i i i like "e" in "eve"
u u u u like "oo" in "poodle"
ü (and u after j, q, or x) ü yu y Round your lips like you are trying to suck something through a soda straw and try to say "i" as in "it".

More complete IPA renderings are given in the "Chart of IPA Transliterations."

This page was created 20030516 and modified 20070113.

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