Pinyin seems to be an EXACT pronunciation guide to Chinese words, but is it exact? I am not a Chinese speaker so don't know for sure. I would like to take the Pinyin transcription of Chinese words and convert it to a pronunciation guide using my own techniques, but I am not sure if I can properly do that because for all I know Pinyin might not accurately match real pronunciations in the real world. Are there cases where Pinyin doesn't accurately reflect the pronunciation of words in Chinese? What are some examples if that is the case? If it does accurately reflect pronunciation, that's great then and that answers the question.

By EXACT I mean, Pinyin at least has a seemingly 1-to-1 mapping of sounds to spellings, but perhaps one spelling might have multiple pronunciations in the real world. I am not talking about dialects really, assume I am talking about some hand-wavy notion of a "standard" pronunciation of a Chinese word. I am talking about one word say "zang" (just making this up) might be pronounced "zayng" but "zhang" might be pronunced "zhung", so the "-ang" is pronounced "-ay" in one case but "uh" in another, sort of thing.

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    off the top of my head, the exact pronunciation of the r- initial is controversial, and most of the U's in pinyin are actually Ü's – 小奥利奥 Nov 30 '20 at 22:54
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    It's pretty accurate except for Tone Sandhi, where we might change the tone for some words in speech. – dan Dec 1 '20 at 0:40
  • I'm not an expert but I find the -ian ending sounds different for some words. To my ears, for the same speaker "天 (tian1)" may sound more like an "e" vowel whereas in "年 (nian2)" it would sound more like an "a" vowel. It's probably also related to regional variations. But apart from that I fend that pinyin is generally a good, almost completely reliable guide to pronunciation - once you understand its (sometimes quite counter-intuitive) rules. – goPlayerJuggler Dec 1 '20 at 10:08
  • @goPlayerJuggler says "once you understand its (sometimes quite counter-intuitive) rules". Ironically (to an outsider at least), those complicating rules were done in the name of simplification. E.g. When a "ü" is used where a "u" would be illegal, then omit the umlaut — The sequence "ui" is never legal, so omit the "e" from sequence "uei". – Ray Butterworth Dec 15 '20 at 15:55

Hanyu Pinyin does not have a 1:1 mapping between written symbols (letters) and pronunciation, and so can't be said to be accurate in the sense that IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet) is meant to be accurate.

It is of course perfectly functional as a way of writing down Mandarin pronunciation, but only if you know how to pronounce the language first or learn the system properly.

However, you can not rely on letters representing the same sounds, or that the same sounds are written with the same letters! This is particularly true for vowels, while the consonants are more straightforward.

There are cases where many sounds are mapped to one single written symbol. Here are a few examples (the examples are from this article, that has both more examples and audio for some of them):

The letter i represents some very different sounds in Mandarin:

  1. It’s a front close vowel [i] and occurs in: mi, bi, ti etc.
  2. i represents the empty rhyme following z, c and s (this sound can be described in many ways, but it’s fairly close to English [z], but with more air allowed to pass).
  3. It also represents the sound following zh, ch and sh. This is the same as the previous sound, but pronounced close to the retroflex position (i.e., the tongue is retracted and raised as when producing the zh, ch, sh and r sounds, just not as close).

Other examples include many different sounds represented by the letters e and a.See the linked article above for more examples of these.

There are also cases where the opposite is true, i.e. that one sound is written in many different ways.

The example that best shows why you need to already speak the language for the system to make perfect sense is how [y] is treated. It has dots, written ü, when there is ambiguity, as in lü and nü, because we also have lu and nu, which are different sounds (which any native speaker knows intuitively, but beginner students don't). But there are no dots when there's no ambiguity, so even if it's actually pronounced jü, qü and xü, it's spelt ju, qu and xu. Same with jüe (jue) jün (jun), etc.. There is no syllable that start with j and ends with the u in e.g. lu: *[t͡ɕu]

Then we also have sounds that are there but simply left out, such as -ui actually being pronounced -uei (水, 对, 贵) and -iu actually being pronounced -iou (六,休,牛).

As Dan mentioned in a comment, tone changes can also be opaque unless you are familiar with the language. There's no written indication that nǐhǎo is pronounced with a rising tone on the first syllable, or that the third tone is a low tone in front of all other tones except the third tone (e.g. měiguó, xiǎngyào etc.), or that 不 and 一 change tone depending on the following syllable.

So no, Pinyin is not exact in the way you imagine it to be. And if I may ask, if you're working on a guide for how Mandarin is pronounced, wouldn't it make more sense to just use IPA, which is designed specifically to describe how languages are pronounced?

Then you can rely on the works of countless other people who have tried to make similar guides and descriptions, and you can use what you've learnt to learn about pronunciation in other languages too! Maybe start with the Standard Chinese Phonology article on Wikipedia. For reading in English, I also recommend:

  • Lin, Y. H. (2007). The Sounds of Chinese. Cambridge University Press.
  • Duanmu, S. (2007). The phonology of standard Chinese. Oxford University Press.
  • Do you know where I can find a free long list of IPA pronunciations of Chinese words? (ideally not Wiktionary, as I have to write a complicated parser for that and I don't know how accurate it is) – Lance Pollard Dec 1 '20 at 16:43
  • This tool converts to IPA: easypronunciation.com/en/…. AllSet Learning's chart can be switched to IPA (show settings, then tick the IPA box): resources.allsetlearning.com/chinese/pronunciation/pinyin_chart – Olle Linge Dec 1 '20 at 17:17
  • I'm a complete beginner in the language, but I found (with my VERY limited experience) that the symbols of Zhuyin seem to be easier to understand in this regard. It seems to be based a little more on the sounds than the spelling - so, for instance, there are separate symbols for "u" and "ü", as well as separate glyphs for the different "e" sounds. "iu" is also an excellent example, as its Zhuyin counterpart seems more consistent (like, why does "liu" rhyme with "hou"). For me as a native English speaker, it's more intuitive to construct complex sounds. It's helped me understand Pinyin. – jedd.ahyoung Dec 2 '20 at 2:29
  • The advantage with Zhuyin is that you can't cheat. When using Pinyin, you can just guess that "shi" is pronounced like "she" in English, which it absolutely isn't (it's not even close). On the other hand, Pinyin is more convenient, both for typing and for reading. Both systems work very well if you learn them properly. IPA is very useful for pronunciation, but extremely hard to type and almost non-existent in learning resources. I compared Pinyin, Zhuyin and IPA here if you're curious: hackingchinese.com/… – Olle Linge Dec 2 '20 at 17:18

Yes, pinyin is an accurate guide to pronunciation in general, but exceptions exist. An example is that two consecutive words with the 3rd intotation 第三声 are usually pronounced with the first word having 2nd intonation instead. This phenomenon is known as 变调 (literally: change in intotation, also known as tone sandhi). For instance, the adjective “小小”, with the word 小 xiao3 repeated for emphasis, is not pronounced as xiao3 xiao3, but instead as xiao2 xiao3. However, the written pinyin representation is still considered to be xiao3 xiao3. Similarly 美好 (meaning beautiful, wonderful) has pinyin mei3 hao3 but is pronounced mei2 hao3. There are also instances where the change in intonation does not follow this general rule, such as 姐姐 (sister) which is usually pronounced jie3 jie with a neutral intonation for the second word.

There are also other examples of 变调, for example with certain exclamations. The word 啊 corresponds to an "ah" sound, and can therefore be any one of the four intotations depending on context or even the speaker's interpretation/intent. In this case, the 2nd intotation can express skepticism or doubt with the rising inflection similar to English sentences ending in a question mark, and the 4th intotation may express some kind of sudden understanding (think "ah! I get it now!"), among other things.

Another phenomenon which comes to mind is that of 儿话音 (er2 hua4 yin1), common in speakers from certain regions, where phrases ending in -儿 get pronounced in a slur as if the 儿 was not a separate word. Sometimes the 儿 does not necessarily appear in written form, but the phrase gets pronounced with 儿话音 anyway. For example, 好好的 (hao3 hao3 de) or 好好儿的 (hao3 hao3 er2 de) are both acceptable ways of writing a phrase loosely translated to "in a normal working condition" but the first form can be pronounced similarly to hao3 hao1 de or hao2 hao3 de (without 儿话音) but also as something like "hao3 haor1 de", with 儿话音 present as if there were an "r" attached behind the second word. This is also an acceptable pronunciation of the second way to write the phrase. Paradoxically, the actual pinyin pronunciations are not acceptable and would sound awkward to any native speaker.

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