Mandarin grammar: Pinyin

What is pinyin?

Mandarin characters don’t tell you how to pronounce a word.

They are more like pictures that represent an object or an idea.

Pinyin was invented to help those learning Mandarin with pronunciation - listen 拼音 pīn yīn literally translates to ‘spell sound’.

For example it is impossible to tell, from looking at it, how the Mandarin character for mountain is pronounced, so we use the pinyin shān to give its sound - listen.

Pinyin with Burt Bessington

How is Pinyin formed?

Pinyin uses all the same letters of the alphabet as English, except for 'v', to form:

  • 23 initials - the beginning of a syllable

  • 36 finals - the end of a syllable

Here are some examples:

listen kāi open 
listen rén man 
listen shuǐ water 
listen  wood 
listenmaa question particle

The marks over the letters indicate which tone is used in the pronunciation, helping to make it clear which word you are saying.

Did you know?

Some words with different characters and different meanings are written exactly the same in pinyin.

For example:

  • listen 手势 shǒu shì - gesture

  • listen 首饰 shǒu shì - jewellery

These are called homophones.

Differences between pinyin and English

Pinyin was not created for English speakers, so whilst there are similarities, there are also important differences:

  • some pinyin sounds don’t exist in English

  • some pinyin is pronounced differently than English

You can find out more about these special sounds here.

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