Learning Chinese - Pīnyīn initials

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PīnyīnPīnyīn initialsPīnyīn finals

Chapter Archive

Quick recap, the initial of pīnyīn notation is the first part of the pīnyīn that consists of zero, one or two consonants, which is always followed by a final to be valid. In contrast, not all pīnyīn need to have an initial to be valid, such as ài (which can mean 'love', by the way).

One thing you've probably noticed is that not all initials are used for each final, which does mean there aren't as many combinations that could have existed.

Each initial has their own single sound, regardless of the final they are paired with. This would have been the same for the finals, had it not been for -i and i.

We will work left to right across the table below. In each case, I will supply an English word that starts with the same sound, where the sound is in bold type. Each word has been chosen such that if you additionally pronounce the vowel following the sounds, this produces a legitimate pronunciation of a Chinese word (ignoring tone). Initials that need particular attention are highlighted in red. Required tongue positions for particular initial groups are also pointed out.

Each initial will be accompanied with IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) notation of its pronunciation but do be aware that pronunciations can wary, depending on different dialects or accents of the speaker. If you know IPA notation or at least are familiar with the system, the notation can be helpful. If you don't know anything about IPA, I would recommend ignoring the notation. It can be distracting or confusing because you would have even more to remember.

We'll replay the table here for reference.

Pīnyīn table Initials Pīnyīn table
b p m f d t n l g k h j q x zh ch sh r z c s
Group a Finals -i zhi chi shi ri zi ci si -i Group a Finals
a a ba pa ma fa da ta na la ga ka ha zha cha sha za ca sa a
o o bo po mo fo lo o
e e me de te ne le ge ke he zhe che she re ze ce se e
ê ê ê
ai ai bai pai mai dai tai nai lai gai kai hai zhai chai shai zai cai sai ai
ei ei bei pei mei fei dei tei nei lei gei kei hei zhei shei zei sei ei
ao ao bao pao mao dao tao nao lao gao kao hao zhao chao shao rao zao cao sao ao
ou ou pou mou fou dou tou nou lou gou kou hou zhou chou shou rou zou cou sou ou
an an ban pan man fan dan tan nan lan gan kan han zhan chan shan ran zan can san an
en en ben pen men fen den nen gen ken hen zhen chen shen ren zen cen sen en
ang ang bang pang mang fang dang tang nang lang gang kang hang zhang chang shang rang zang cang sang ang
eng eng beng peng meng feng deng teng neng leng geng keng heng zheng cheng sheng reng zeng ceng seng eng
er er er
Group i Finals i yi bi pi mi di ti ni li ji qi xi i Group i Finals
ia ya dia nia lia jia qia xia ia
io yo io
ie ye bie pie mie die tie nie lie jie qie xie ie
iai yai iai
iao yao biao piao miao fiao diao tiao niao liao jiao qiao xiao iao
iu you miu diu niu liu jiu qiu xiu iu
ian yan bian pian mian dian tian nian lian jian qian xian ian
in yin bin pin min nin lin jin qin xin in
iang yang biang diang niang liang jiang qiang xiang iang
ing ying bing ping ming ding ting ning ling jing qing xing ing
Group u Finals u wu bu pu mu fu du tu nu lu gu ku hu zhu chu shu ru zu cu su u Group u Finals
ua wa gua kua hua zhua chua shua rua ua
uo wo duo tuo nuo luo guo kuo huo zhuo chuo shuo ruo zuo cuo suo uo
uai wai guai kuai huai zhuai chuai shuai uai
ui wei dui tui gui kui hui zhui chui shui rui zui cui sui ui
uan wan duan tuan nuan luan guan kuan huan zhuan chuan shuan ruan zuan cuan suan uan
un wen dun tun nun lun gun kun hun zhun chun shun run zun cun sun un
uang wang guang kuang huang zhuang chuang shuang uang
ong weng dong tong nong long gong kong hong zhong chong shong rong zong cong song ong
Group ü Finals ü yu ju qu xu ü Group ü Finals
üe yue nüe lüe jue que xue üe
üan yuan juan quan xuan üan
ün yun lün jun qun xun ün
iong yong jiong qiong xiong iong
Pīnyīn table b p m f d t n l g k h j q x zh ch sh r z c s Pīnyīn table
Initials
Every pīnyīn links to an example character with that pīnyīn.
Colour Legend:
"regular" initial or final

Final is in Group a or is a direct combination of:

  • i+Group a final
  • u+Group a final
  • ü+Group a final
Final of i, u, ü groups is a modified combination of:
  • i+Group a final
  • u+Group a final
  • ü+Group a final
syllable is direct combination of initial and final (or follows rules for no-initial syllables outlined at the top of the page) syllable is modified combination of initial and final

b, p, m and f

b, p, m and f are generally grouped together as they can combine with the same finals, with exceptions.

Initials English equivalent IPA Guidance
b batter [p] The pronunciation of the Chinese b is a little different to English. While English vocally speaks out the b sound, the Chinese b is made by instead by making the English p sound but not blowing out any air out of your mouth when doing it. This sounds similar to an English b most of the time but if the communication is not clear, such as having a fast speaker, it could sound like a p instead.
p patter [pʰ] Typical English p sound, though do beware of confusion with b, explained above.
m matter [m] Typical English m here. Not too bad so far.
f fatter [f] Typical English f.

d, t, n and l

d, t, n and l form the next group.

Initials English equivalent IPA Guidance
d dash [t] Similar to b and p, we have the same here for d and t. While English vocally speaks out the d sound, the Chinese d is made by instead by making the English t sound but not blowing out any air out of your mouth when doing it. This sounds similar to an English d most of the time but if the communication is not clear, such as having a fast speaker, it could sound like a t instead.
t tatter [tʰ] Typical English t, though do beware of confusion with d, explained above.
n natter [n] Typical English n, as before.
l latter [l] Typical English l.

g, k and h

g, k and h form the first group of three. Unlike the previous groups of four, all three can combine with the same finals. There are no exceptions.

Initials English equivalent IPA Guidance
g gas [k] Once again, we have a similar situation to b and p plus d and t for g and k. While English vocally speaks out the g sound, the Chinese g is made by instead by making the English k sound but not blowing out any air out of your mouth when doing it. This sounds similar to an English g most of the time but if the communication is not clear, such as having a fast speaker, it could sound like a k instead.
k kangaroo [kʰ] Typical non-silent English k, though do beware of confusion with g, explained above.
h hatter [x] Almost typical English h. Typical Chinese h sounds tend to be a little raspier, emphasising the h more at the back of the throat.

j, q and x

j, q and x form the next group. Again, these three can combine with the same finals with no exceptions.

Tongue position

For this group, the tongue needs to be on the back of your bottom teeth. This tongue position is what makes this group different from the zh, ch, sh and r group above.

Initials English equivalent IPA Guidance
j jeep [] Almost typical English j, noting the tongue position. The thing to note about the English equivalent is that there is no ja sound in Chinese (the closest equivalent is jia). However, the other thing to note is that there is no je sound in Chinese either (similarly, the closest is jie). jeep instead corresponds to the Chinese ji.

You can tell the finals has more difficult pronunciations than the initials so far.

j's corresponding initial in the zh, ch, sh and r group is zh.

q cheep [ʰ] Speaking of difficult pronunciations, we've reached the initials that throw some curveballs with their sounds. In this case, the Chinese q is the same as the typical English ch. As above with j, cheep corresponds to the Chinese qi.

Do note, that ch is a separate initial but it has a close pronunciation, the difference caused by tongue position.

x sheep [ɕ] Corresponds to the typical English sh. As above, sheep corresponds to the Chinese xi.

Do note, that sh is a separate initial but it has a close pronunciation, the difference caused by tongue position.

zh, ch, sh and r

zh, ch, sh and r form the next group.

Tongue position

For this group, your tongue needs to be on the roof of your mouth when speaking the initial. The place on the roof to choose should be just behind the ridge (called the upper alveolar ridge) which is behind your upper teeth, which should give a natural sound. Any further back might make the sound feel unnatural. This tongue position is what makes this group different from the j, q and x group above.

Initials English equivalent IPA Guidance
zh jag + hag [] There is no single English equivalent but mainly because we don't really have an English word that starts with jh. To make this sound, you need to start with the j sound and morph it into the h sound before you reach the vowel.

One possible way to practise this sound is to read the character , which has pīnyīn of zhōng. Try reading this as jiyhong (the y is there to stop you from reading this a two distinct syllables and instead merge this as one continuous sound). Then you practise shortening the iy again and again until you've made it disappear. This can be done with the other readings, like zha, which can be practised as jiyha with the iy shortened. To emphasise, the iy must be gone, otherwise you end up with the Chinese jia, which is obviously different.

Obviously, the best way to learn this one is to listen to someone read out example words that start with zh.

ch chatter [ʰ] Almost typical English ch but do be careful to have your tongue at the roof of your mouth behind the ridge. This one can catch people out.
sh sheep [ʂ] Almost typical English sh but again keep in mind the tongue position on the roof of your mouth behind the ridge.
r random [ʐ] or [ɻ] Odd one odd of this group, being only one letter and with no corresponding initial in the j, q and x group. But it isn't too difficult, sounding almost like the typical English r. Just to note about the English example here, random is the same as the Chinese ran. There is no Chinese ra sound, the closest being rua.

z, c and s

z, c and s is the last group.

Initials English equivalent IPA Guidance
z kids [ts] We don't really have any words beginning with this sound but we do have a lot that end with it. Depending on how you pronounce the English z, this can sound a lot like zapper.
c tsunami [tsʰ] Slightly easier with an English equivalent. Though it is a bit of a cop-out, given this is actually a Japanese word.
s sat [s] Typical English s.

Semi-initial w

Not a proper initial, w is only used when a final in Group u is not combined with a proper initial. This will be covered in more detail on the next page but it is here for completion.

Initials English equivalent IPA Guidance
w why [w] Typical English w. The English why sounds like the Chinese wai.

There is one important exception to this, being the Chinese wu, which sounds more like the English ooh.

Semi-initial y

Again, not a proper initial, y is used when a final in Group i or Group ü is not combined with a proper initial. This will be covered in more detail on the next page but it is here for completion.

Initials English equivalent IPA Guidance
y yellow [j] or [ɥ] Typical English y.

There is one exception here. The Chinese yi sounds like the English ee (effectively a silent y).

PīnyīnPīnyīn initialsPīnyīn finals

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