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I was just reading a Q&A here about Chinese words for DVD and the discussion also included other acronyms from English.

It struck me that nobody wrote the pinyin for any of the terms which made me think it means the tones must be obvious so the logical conclusion was that they are all neutral tone.

But is this assumption correct and is it always the case? Also are such words ever affected by tone sandhi?


It seems this question is not clear to all readers. I'm specifically asking about tones, not about writing, though Pinyin is a good way to illustrate the tones. I couldn't find the pinyin for DVD but if the Wiktionary entry for CD is correct then it in fact uses the fourth, falling, tone for each syllable:

CD (sìdì)

So maybe I should change the question to ask if they always use falling tone for all syllables?


I'm interested in both viewpoints: prescriptive (what, if anything, Standard Chinese has to say about borrowed acronyms) and descriptive (how various Chinese speakers pronounce them in their natural speech, especially those who do not know English).

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I would disagree with falling tones. If anything for both CD and DVD I would suggest first tones. –  xiaohouzi79 Jan 6 '12 at 8:33
    
And the C in CD is similar to the English word "she" with a short "sh" sound, similar to an English C. –  xiaohouzi79 Jan 6 '12 at 8:36
    
That's interesting. There are two Chinese sounds that are a bit like "sh" to English speakers' ears. One is written "sh" and the other is written "x". Maybe Wiktionary is wrong or maybe there's more than one way to say it in different regions? –  hippietrail Jan 6 '12 at 9:02
    
Another interesting Chinese word looks like part English acronym but is actually borrowed from Japanese! 卡拉OK –  hippietrail Jan 8 '12 at 9:47
    
CD is pronounced "C" and "D" (as they are in English). If it did have a tone, si4 would be 四, not "C". Then that would get you far from the right pronunciation. –  gonnastop Mar 19 '12 at 4:24

6 Answers 6

I have no insights to offer on correct pronunciation. I do know, however, that: 1) tones seem to make a difference, for example R and 二 ('two') are best pronounced differently. If you pronounce R with a falling tone it could be misunderstood as '2'. Other letters seem to have their own distinctive tones and misusing them can interfere with communication; 2) people from different parts of China appear to have different pronunciations -- what works in Beijing may not work elsewhere.

The upshot is that if I'm trying to spell out letters to someone, it's often better to send a text message.

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I can't speak for either mainland or Taiwanese Mandarin speakers, but native speakers of Hong Kong Cantonese generally (in all cases I'm familiar with) use a high tone to pronounce acronyms like "CD" "DVD" or "NBA".

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I agree with fefe and I would like to show my experience on how to read these acronyms.

A native Chinese speaker will read it as he reads these letters in English, however, There is no standard way to pronunce these acronyms. Different people would read them differently, as every one has his own preference (also effected by his dialects,I believe) to read English letters. Have you heared a Japanese speaks English and an Indian speaks English?

For "CD", I (remember I could speak some English), will read it "see-dee", with approximate 1st tone of see and the approximate 4th tone of dee, but

  1. Some friends of mine (also can speak some English) read it "see-dee", with approximate 1st tone of "dee"
  2. One of my teachers (an old professor, had been working in the USA for some years, with the mother tongue of 客家 dialect, I believe (because he came from a county where a lot of 客家 people live), reads the letter "C" as "she" with short "ee", with approximate 1st tone.
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This is the best answer yet, thank you Huang! Naturally Japanese and Indian speakers pronounce English differently but all Japanese pronounce CD the same in Japanese (シーディー, shiidii). –  hippietrail Jan 6 '12 at 11:01
    
If you view the acronyms as just a group of English letters (and not in the greater context of being part of a Chinese sentence), then there is definitely a standard way to read them. Whether people are capable of doing that (pronounce English letters) is a separate matter. That said, some academics have spoken out against the increased usage of acronyms instead of properly localized terms. –  prusswan Jan 6 '12 at 11:56
    
@hippietrail: In Japanese, every English letter got its own kana notation, which uses Japanese sound to mimic the English pronunciation. So the letters then get a (half-)standard way to be pronounced in Japanese. –  fefe Jan 6 '12 at 12:06
    
@prusswan Standard way? Because there is no tone in English, I don't know if there could be a tone for every letter when a Chinese read them. Of course, the government may establish such a standard way, but I have never heard of it. Frankly speaking, I remember in the last few years, CCTV once disallowed the hosts to use the acronyms, but the complete translation(explanation) in Chinese. E.g, the hosts could not say "NBA", instead, he had to say "美国男子职业篮球联赛". It seems that this ban is not executed strictly at present, because people have been used to these acronyms. –  Huang Jan 6 '12 at 12:14
    
@hippietrail Note that one hiragana in Japanese doesn't have its tone. What I want to say is that there is no standard tone for these acronyms. –  Huang Jan 6 '12 at 12:19

I don't believe there is a standard for it. But from news and gameshows it is quite common to pronounce the first few letters of the alphabet (ABCD..) in first tone as part of a Chinese sentence. For other letters like HXZ that do not go well in first tone, the fourth tone is used. Like I said I don't believe this to be a standard, but a result of people attempting to blend in the acronyms with the other Chinese words by pronouncing them in any of the four tones, whichever that sound natural enough.

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In short: the standard pronunciation is the English pronunciation.

There's no Chinese standard way to pronounce English letter (how they are pronounced when they are used as pinyin should not be counted here, I think). Tone does not exist for English letters, as they are English, not Chinese. English intonation should take effect(in English, when 'DVD' is pronounced, some letter would be falling, others not).

However, as only few can pronounce English very good in China, and as the pronunciation is affected by the whole sentence(which is in Chinese), what mostly used is in fact Chinglish.

And the pinyin 'sìdì' for CD in wikitionary is definitely wrong. I've never heard anybody talk like that. Pinyin cannot be assigned to English letters.

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Where do monolinguals learn this English pronunciation from? Do some use British pronunciation and some use American pronunciation? What about acronyms which involve "l" and "r", the English pronunciations of which are often a difficult point for Chinese speakers? –  hippietrail Jan 6 '12 at 10:01
    
Also are Chinese speakers therefore more conscious of the etymological origins of borrowed English acronyms than other borrowings from various languages or do they pronounce all borrowings as they would be said in their source languages? (German is a language which tries to do this.) –  hippietrail Jan 6 '12 at 10:04
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@hippietrail: They learn from each other. The pronunciation would get more and more Chinglish in this process. Both British and American pronunciation are used, I think, as I cannot quite distinguish them. For the sound that are hard for Chinese, we will try to mimic. Maybe different people would mimic in different ways, and many are only mimicking the Chinglish pronunciation by other speaker. –  fefe Jan 6 '12 at 10:22
    
@hippietrail: This is try for English acronyms, and may even be used for Chinese necromancy (e.g. HSK, hanyu shuiping kaoshi). As to words, when the original form appears in the text, they are in the original language, but not Chinese. So yes, they should be pronounced as in their source language, though few would be able to so. Chinese don't borrow words like this. We will translate it to some Chinese words/characters. Usually only acronyms can be widely used, and acronyms are always read in the English way. –  fefe Jan 6 '12 at 10:32
    
Yes I think the most common loanwords in Chinese from other languages are proper names. But these get assigned characters and so can also be written in Pinyin and from what I know won't sound so much like in their original languages. For instance "Paris" and "Bali" both become "Bālí" whereas the English surname "Barrie" becomes "Bālǐ", so some words which sound different in English sound the same in Chinese, and some other are only differentiated by tone. –  hippietrail Jan 6 '12 at 10:54

From personal experience I would say A - Z are all pronounced in a certain way and this is different from the English A - Z. These are written without tone marks.

So DVD is just DVD but it is not pronounced the same DVD in the west.

These are not affected by Sandhi or anyhting else. But they do have a reasonable exact pronunciation as A - Z has in English.

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But I'm asking how they are pronounced, not how they are written. There are tones in speech too - the tone marks in writing are just a representation of them. And pinyin can be used as a representation of Chinese pronunciation. –  hippietrail Jan 6 '12 at 8:12
    
I think you may be hard up finding a written representation of how these are pronounced as a guide. They are an attempt by Chinese people to pronounce the English equivalent. So how do you go about coming up with a system that mimics and existing system with slightly different sound. It's just like the same melody in music that has been flattened 2 tones. How do you write something that is essentially the same? –  xiaohouzi79 Jan 6 '12 at 8:16
    
I think you will find I have answered your question. The answer is that there is no difference because it is a copy of the English alphabet just pronounced slightly different. –  xiaohouzi79 Jan 6 '12 at 8:19
    
Generally words borrowed from any language A into any language B are adapted into the phonological system of language B. Just look at Chinese words borrowed into English - they are only crude approximations of the Chinese pronunciation at best. (Chinese/English bilinguals may however mix both phonologies.) –  hippietrail Jan 6 '12 at 8:20
    
You are still focusing on the alphabet, which is about writing. It is the details of the "just pronounced slightly different" that I want to learn. –  hippietrail Jan 6 '12 at 8:21

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