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So I'm wondering why, Chinese lacks voiced sounds like B, D and G. B, D and G all sound different from English. B is like [p], D is like [t], and G is like [k]. Were the voiced sounds all too hard to pronounce or were they replaced with voiceless ones? I already know, K, P and T are reserved for the aspirated version of G, B and D. But what is the reason for the lack of voiced sounds in Pinyin?

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    To expand on the other answer: Middle Chinese had a 4-way tone distinction as well as a voicing distinction, but in most branches of the languages, this changed into an 8-way tone distinction w/no voiced stops. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_tones_(Middle_Chinese) for more; Cantonese is a good examples, as the modern tone categories map closely to this 8-way distinction. Jan 6 at 23:16
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    I think that there is a very interesting question here, but it is a bit obscured by your premise "B, D and G all sound different from English." Of course Chinese consonants sound different from English. Also Spanish consonants, French consonants and German consonants sound different from English. In fact if you look at Chinese transcriptions into European languages before pinyin became so popular, you'll find that every language transcribed Chinese consonants differently, as they were each trying to pull Chinese consonants towards the closest consonants from their own language.
    – Stef
    Jan 7 at 9:50
  • The reason I'm specifically talking about B, D and G is because, that is not their usual sound. In most of the languages, they're in, they are pronounced [b], [d] and [g] respectively Jan 7 at 15:50
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    Re: "In most languages... they are pronounced [b], [d], and [g]", I think most languages have a single VOT distinction. But I don't think it's really uncommon for languages to mostly distinguish aspiration rather than voicing. Even in many English dialects, initial /b/ /d/ and /g/ are barely voiced at all, and initial /p/ /t/ and /k/ are pretty strongly aspirated. So for a monolingual English speaker, Pinyin "b" and "p" seem like intuitive transcriptions of the consonants. Jan 7 at 18:09
  • What are they those English dialects Jan 29 at 15:43

3 Answers 3

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It's generally believed that we used to have a contrast between voiced and voiceless b,d,g, but this distinction was lost during Song dynasty.

王力《汉语语音史》 (王力全集 edition)

Page 247

本章讲宋代音系,主要是根据朱熹反切。……他所用的反切并不依照《切韵》,可见他用的是宋代的读音。这样,朱熹反切就是很宝贵的语音史资料。

Page 248

这个声母系统比晚唐五代的声母系统大大地简化了,其原因是:1. 全浊声母全部消失了。……

(The consonant system of Song dynasty was greatly simplifed compared to that of late Tang dynasty. The reason is that ... most voiced initial-consonants have disappeared, except /m/ 明, /ɱ/ 微, /n/ 泥, /ŋ/ 疑, /l/ 来, /r/ 日.)

王力 1980 construction of late Tang initial-sounds:

late Tang initial-sounds

王力 1980 construction of Song initial-sounds:

Song initial-sounds

See also 邵荣芬《汉语语音史讲话》 chapter 5.1 discussion, and this Internet forum discussion.

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  • Thank you very much! Jan 6 at 22:30
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    Not all voiced consonants – all voiced obstruents. /l, r, m, n/ are also voiced consonants, and they remain unchanged. In the context of Chinese phonology, 全浊声母 means ‘voiced obstruent initials’ (including stops, fricatives and affricates), in opposition to 次浊音 ‘voiced sonorant initials’ (including nasals, laterals and other continuants) – the 全 doesn’t mean ‘all’. Jan 7 at 12:55
  • Yes, but explaining what is 全浊, 次浊 would need too much digression. 浊音清化 is also discussed on Chinese forums zhihu.com/question/55381763 Jan 7 at 14:16
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    You don't need to explain 全浊 and 次浊, but translating to "all" will confuse someone who is learning the proper pronunciation of Chinese: they will think they should also devoice /l, r, m, n/, which is incorrect. One can simply translate to 'all voiced obstruent initials have disappeared', then add a quick explanation: 'That is, all voiced consonants except /l, r, m, n/ have disappeared.' Jan 7 at 20:41
  • (There is also the issue that they didn’t ‘disappear’ – they merged with their unvoiced counterparts. If they’d disappeared, [ba da ga] would have become [a a a], which obviously didn’t happen. They disappeared as distinct entities from the system, but not as sounds from the individual words. But that’s sloppy wording in the original, not your translation.) Jan 8 at 0:29
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I will be frank, there is no answer to your question beyond the fact that all languages are made up of sounds humans can make, and that chinese has some sounds english doesn't and vice versa.

Why is lead and lead pronounced two different ways, while cite and sight are pronounced the same? Why is polish c a ts sound in english, why is j in spanish an h sound in english? Pick any language including english itself and such questions are all around you.

If you starting asking why things are the way they are, your best result is an etymology rabbit hole to a language thousands of years ago that still is what it is because it is.

So I don't blame you for asking, but its one of those odd questions with no direct answer isn't it? Why isn't the sh or ch in english the same as pinyin sh or ch? Why doesn't english have the ü sound? You can go on and on both ways with any language and you will not go anywhere.

If you have to say it, the answer is chinese pinyin sounds don't match english sounds, because they represent chinese sounds, not english ones. I hope the previous comparisons help show that as a 100% serious answer (◐‿◑)

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    Are you sure this is true? It's not an odd question. It's normal to ask about the absence of voiced consonants. Jan 6 at 22:11
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    @Akshat Yes, it’s absolutely true. It’s not an odd question, and it is perfectly normal to ask – there just isn’t really an answer. That’s how most ‘why’ questions about language are. As the other answer says, we know that there used to be voiced stops in Chinese – and indeed Wu (Shanghai) still has them to some extent – but they merged with the unvoiced ones. Why did this happen? Because it did. Why did the same thing happen in Icelandic and Danish, but not in Swedish and Norwegian? Why is it in the process of happening in English? Because it did/is. We can say no more. Jan 7 at 12:40
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    @AkshatGoswami I didn't mean to say that its odd to ask the question, but that the question itself is odd for not having an answer. Sorry for any confusion, I did not at all mean to say anything wrong for wondering about it. I will slightly reword that part to be more clear.
    – zagrycha
    Jan 7 at 18:42
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Reading OP’s clarifying comments, there are a couple of different questions mixed up here:

1. Why don’t the sounds /b/, /d/, /g/ occur in (spoken standard) Chinese?

This is about the phonology of the language itself, and comes down to two main points: One the one hand (as per zagyrcha’s answer), different languages just do have different inventories of sounds, which change over time through a complicated mixture of random chance and systematic effects — there’s no general reason to expect any given language to contain any particular sounds. On the other hand, the specific route by which standard Chinese came to lose these sounds (having historically had them, until around a millennium ago) is well-explained in user2249675’s answer.

2. Why does Pinyin, along with some other romanisations, use the letters «b», «d», «g» to transcribe sounds that aren’t /b/, /d/, /g/?

This is about the design of specific romanisations — that is, ways to represent Chinese using the Latin alphabet. Unlike the phonology of the spoken language, and unlike many older writing systems, these romanisations were deliberately and consciously designed, and explained by their designers, so it has a clearer answer than question (1).

Modern standard Chinese doesn’t have a voicing distinction like most European languages, i.e. the pairs of consonant sounds /p/-/b/, /t/-/d/, /k/-/g/ (in which /p/ is unvoiced and /b/ voiced, and so on). But it does have a somewhat analogous distinction: aspiration. So there are pairs of consonants /p/-/pʰ/ (unapirated and aspirated versions of /p/), /t/-/tʰ/, /k/-/kʰ/ — it’s hard to hear the difference for speakers of English and many other languages that don’t have such an aspiration distinction (e.g. in English, our /p/ may be aspirated or unaspirated just depending on context, we don’t think of it as a different sound), but the difference just as clear for speakers of languages that do have it as the voicing distinction /p/-/b/ is for Anglophones.

So any romanisation of Chinese wants some way to distinguish these aspirated–unaspirated pairs; and since the letters «b», «d», «g» used in most European languages for voiced consonants aren’t needed for that, it’s very natural to repurpose them for aspiration instead, with «p» representing the aspirated /pʰ/ and «b» the unaspirated /p/ (presumably since voiced consonants like /b/ are usually unaspirated in most languages, whereas unvoiced like /p/ are more often aspirated by default), and similarly for «t»–«d» and «k»–«g».

The table of “initials” on Wikipedia:Pinyin gives a helpful overview, with IPA notation and links to explanations of the terms involved.

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