What is the correct pronunciation of the letters Z and C in Pinyin? Chinese phonology wikipedia says that Z is pronounced /ts/ and C is pronounced /tsʰ/, but several websites and videos say they are pronounced /dz/ and /ts/, respectively. Examples:

When i hear words with Z and C, I clearly hear the latter pronunciation ( /dz/ and /ts/ ). Why Wikipedia says that Z is pronounced /ts/ ? Why isn't there a consensus about the IPA transcription of these 2 letters?

  • 1
    When studying phonology of languages, it's important to make a three-way distinction with voicing. In this case, that's /tsʰ/ vs /ts/ vs /dz/. Very few languages have all 3 types. English (mostly) has 1-vs-3. Chinese has 1-vs-2. Some languages have 2-vs-3. If you can't tell the difference between all three, you're probably going to find the explanations confusing. – Stumpy Joe Pete Sep 13 '19 at 5:57
  • It's not a significant difference between [dz] and [ts], For monolingual Mandarin speakers. Most Mandarin native speakers don't use the sound [dz], but similar [ts] and [tsʰ] – 炸鱼薯条德里克 Sep 13 '19 at 10:15
  • So am I incorrectly hearing Z as /dz/ in the YouTube video above and in Google Translate? Also, at forvo.com/word/%E8%B5%B0 , I hear witenglish say /dzou/ and then Arielj say /tsou/. Is my ear crazy? – Alan Evangelista Sep 13 '19 at 12:06
  • @炸鱼薯条德里克 For me, there is a big difference between [dz] and [ts]. More broadly speaking, there is a big difference between voicing a consonant or not and several words I know in other languages only differ by a single voiced/unvoiced letter (eg ban and van in English). Do you mean that Mandarin native speakers may pronounce Z either [dz] or [ts] ? – Alan Evangelista Sep 13 '19 at 12:11
  • Firstly, That's only for you. Surprisingly, there's thousands kinds of different languages and they're all extremely different than your mother tounge, and native speakers of those languages have extremely different judgement of difference between sounds.Secondly, I don't know what do you mean by voiced/unvoiced letter and how is that related to your Q, I never heard of that terminology. Thirdly, I don't repeat, you read. – 炸鱼薯条德里克 Sep 13 '19 at 12:33

(Expanding my comment into an answer)

When discussing phonology of Chinese relative to English (or some other language), there are a couple important things to keep in mind:

  • Sounds (which we try to represent unambiguously with IPA notation) are not the same as letters. The letter "t" in American English can correspond to several different sounds. For example, the "t"s in each of the following words would all be written differently in IPA: "tea", "steam", "beat", and "butter". Perhaps you would consider the "t" in "tea" to be the prototypical "t" sound. How is it written in IPA? Not as [t]! It's actually [tʰ]!

  • IPA makes a 3-way distinction regarding voicing and aspiration. Some stops are truly voiced (in the sense of having vocal chords vibrating before the stop is even released). For instance [d]. There are unvoiced-unaspirated stops, where the vibration-start and the release are more-or-less simultaneous (e.g., [t]). And there are unvoiced-aspirated stops, where a puff of air comes out after the stop has been released and before the vibration of the vocal chords starts (e.g., [tʰ]).

Chinese, English, and French all make different two way distinctions in voicing/aspiration.

  • Chinese distinguishes [tʰ] and [t]. [d] is never produced but "sounds like" [t] to a Chinese listener.
  • French (and Japanese, for that matter) distinguishes [t] and [d]. [tʰ] is never produced but "sounds like" [t] to a French listener.
  • English distinguishes [tʰ] and [d]. [t] is never produced (in isolation at the front of a syllable, anyway), but (on its own), it "sounds like" [d]. However, for English speakers listening to someone who makes a [t/d] distinction (e.g., someone with a strong French accent), the [t] usually sounds like a [tʰ].

If you are unaware of the above, or you ignore it, it will be very confusing discussing the sounds in Chinese vs those in English. Here is my summary of how "z" and "c" sound, given the above:

  • Pinyin "z" is pronounced [ts] by Chinese speakers. If English is your native language, you are likely going to perceive it as sounding like [dz]. If you also pronounce it as [dz], that will probably "sound like" [ts] to Chinese listeners, so there won't be any miscommunication.

  • Pinyin "c" is pronounced [tsʰ] by Chinese speakers. If English is your native language, you will likely hear it as [tsʰ]. Note that the letters "ts" in English--for instance, in the word "tsar", assuming you attempt to pronounce the t in there--are pronounced [tsʰ]! "ts" is not pronounced [ts]!

  • I was aware of almost all of this, except the fact that I may hear /ts/ as /dz/ because of my native language. I am currently able to differentiate "t" and "d" in Spanish, which has unaspirated consonants (I wasn't when I started to hear them), but I am not sure if I do it because my ear is better trained than before or because I am already familiar with vocabulary and which words are more common in a certain context. Anyway, I "clearly hear" the woman say /dz/ for Z in that YouTube video linked above. I assume I am hearing it badly and she says indeed /ts/ ? – Alan Evangelista Sep 13 '19 at 18:58
  • @AlanEvangelista Just to clarify so I know what you're saying about your perceptions... you perceive pinyin "z" as [dz] rather than [ts], right? What about pinyin "c"? – Stumpy Joe Pete Sep 13 '19 at 20:57
  • Right, I hear the Pinyin "z" as [dz]. I hear the Pinyin "c" as [tsʰ]. Don't you hear the same on the Youtube video I posted in my question? In fact, she even says that you have to touch your throat and feel the voicing while pronouncing Pinyin "z". – Alan Evangelista Sep 13 '19 at 21:40
  • The woman in the YouTube does have a much shorter VOT for z initial, but it is definitely not strongly voiced – 炸鱼薯条德里克 Sep 13 '19 at 23:12
  • What is VOT? My impression is that her pronunciation is irregular. She pronounces [dz] (voiced) when she is initially talking about the sound of Pinyin "z" and then she pronounces [ts] (unvoiced) in the example words. I know that voicing does not matter for this phonem, but it is confusing for a beginner in the Chinese language such as myself. – Alan Evangelista Sep 14 '19 at 5:00

/.../ represent phonemes, which may have different realisations in different contexts/by different speakers. But, as you note, /ts/ can become voiced when unstressed and so an equally meaningful IPA transcription would distinguish the two sounds by voicedness as opposed to aspiration:

The unaspirated stops and affricates [ p, t, k, ʈʂ, ts] can become voiced [b, d, g, ɖʐ , dz] when they occur in an unstressed syllable, such as [tswəi pa] → [tswəi ba] ‘mouth’ (M. Fu 1956: 3; Dong 1958: 75). It is possible to represent [ p, t, k, ʈʂ, ts, ph, th, kh, ʈʂh, tsh] as [b, d, g, ɖʐ , dz, p, t, k, ʈʂ, ts] instead;

  • The Phonology of Standard Chinese

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