Pronouncing words in Mandarin: Special sounds

Pinyin was invented to help people learn the pronunciation of Mandarin characters.

For many Mandarin sounds, once the pronunciation of their initials and finals is known, the pronunciation of the full word can be figured out by combining the two with their tone.

For example, the Mandarin for mountain can be broken down as the initial (sh), the final (an) and the first tone (-) to make listen shān.

The following sounds do not follow this general rule - they should be read as a whole, rather than separated into their initial and final.

Zhi

The ‘zhi’ sound in Mandarin is like an extension of the 'j' sound in 'jerk', eg:

  • listen zhĪ (to know)

  • listen zhÍ (straight)

  • listen zhǐ (paper)

  • listen zhì (intelligence)

Zhi

Chi

The ‘chi’ sound in Mandarin is like an extension of the 'ch' sound in 'church', eg:

  • listen chĪ (to eat)

  • listen chÍ (late)

  • listen chǐ (a ruler)

  • listen chì (wing)

Chi

Shi

The ‘shi’ sound in Mandarin is like an extension of the 'sh' sound in 'shirt', eg:

  • listen shĪ (poem)

  • listen shÍ (ten)

  • listen shǐ (history)

  • listen shì (yes, is or are)

Shi

Ri

The 'ri' sound in Mandarin is pronounced like the ending of of the 'zhi', chi' and 'shi' sounds, like an 'rrrr' noise with the tip of the tongue on the roof of the mouth, eg:

  • listen (sun or day)
Ri

Did you know?

The 'zh-', 'ch-', 'sh-' and 'r-' sounds are called retroflexes.

This means that you make them by curling the tip of your tongue back to touch the middle of the roof of your mouth.

When they are followed just by an 'i' in pinyin, the 'i' is not really sounded but becomes like an extension of the initial sound.

Zi

The ‘zi’ sound in Mandarin is similar to ‘ds’ in ‘suds’, eg:

  • listen 滋味 zī wèi (taste)

  • listen (son or child)

  • listen (word)

Zi

Ci

The ‘ci’ sound in Mandarin is similar to the ‘ts’ in ‘cats’, eg:

  • listen (word)

  • listen (this)

  • listen (times)

Ci

Si

The 'si' sound in Mandarin is similar to the 'ss' in 'hiss' with an 'r' at the end, eg:

  • listen 思考 sī kǎo (to think)

  • listen (four)

Si

Yi

The ‘yi’ sound is similar to the ‘ee’ in ‘cheese’, eg:

  • listen (one)

  • listen 阿姨 ā yí (aunt)

  • listen 椅子 yǏ zi (chair)

  • listen 容易 róng yì (easy)

Yi

Yu

The ‘yu’ sound is like 'eew' said with rounded lips, eg:

  • listen (fish)

  • listen (rain)

  • listen (jade)

Yu

Ye

The ‘ye’ sound is similar to a light pronunciation of ‘air’, eg:

  • listen 爷爷 yé ye (grandfather)

  • listen (as well)

  • listen (night)

Ye

Yue

Ü is pronounced by rounding your lips and saying the 'ee' in 'see' without moving your lips.

‘Yue’ is similar to the pronuniciation of Ü but with the sound of the word 'air' on the end, eg:

  • listen 约会 yuē huì (date)

  • listen yuè (month)

Yue

Yuan

The ‘yuan’ sound is similar to a combination of ‘you’ and ‘an’, eg:

  • listen 公园 gōng yuán (park)

  • listen yuàn (hope)

Yuan

Yin

The ‘yin’ sound is similar to the ‘ean’ in ‘bean’, eg:

  • listen 因为 yīn wèi (because)

  • listen 银色 yín sè (silver)

  • listen yǐn (drink)

Yin

Yun

The ‘yun’ sound is similar to the ‘oon’ in ‘moon’, eg:

  • listen yún (cloud)

  • listen 允许 yǔn xǔ (allow)

  • listen 熨斗 yùn dǒu (iron)

Yun

Ying

The ‘ying’ sound is similar to the ‘ing’ in ‘thing’, eg:

  • listen yīng (eagle)

  • listen yíng (win)

  • listen 影子 yǐng zi (shadow)

Ying

Wu

The ‘wu’ sound is similar to the ‘oo’ in ‘room’, eg:

  • listen 乌鸦 wū yā (crow)

  • listen (none)

  • listen (five)

  • listen (fog)

Wu
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