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).

  • 2
    I would disagree with falling tones. If anything for both CD and DVD I would suggest first tones.
    – going
    Commented Jan 6, 2012 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.
    – going
    Commented Jan 6, 2012 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? Commented Jan 6, 2012 at 9:02
  • Another interesting Chinese word looks like part English acronym but is actually borrowed from Japanese! 卡拉OK Commented Jan 8, 2012 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
    Commented Mar 19, 2012 at 4:24

8 Answers 8


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.

  • 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? Commented Jan 6, 2012 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.) Commented Jan 6, 2012 at 10:04
  • 1
    @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
    Commented Jan 6, 2012 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
    Commented Jan 6, 2012 at 10:32
  • 1
    My guess is that a skilled bilingual C-E speaker starts dropping English words in their Chinese, then monolingual Chinese speakers attempt to emulate him/emulate each other and spread the word around. Eventually, if a word becomes popular enough, the government or some official body recommends the use of certain characters to write the word, at which point the pronunciation is standardized.
    – HAL
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 6:21

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 pronounce these acronyms. Different people would read them differently, as every one has his own preference (also affected by his dialects, I believe) to read English letters. Have you heard a Japanese speak English and an Indian speak 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 (Hakka) 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.
  • 1
    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). Commented Jan 6, 2012 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
    Commented Jan 6, 2012 at 11:56
  • 1
    @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
    Commented Jan 6, 2012 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
    Commented Jan 6, 2012 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
    Commented Jan 6, 2012 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.


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".


There is no standard Chinese pronunciation for Latin alphabet. Chinese people just try their best to pronounce them exactly the same as what the British or the Americans pronounce, so CD is just pronounced as see dee in China, and DVD is just pronounced as dee vee dee in China.

Sure, there exist Chinese accents, so there can be some fixed tones or some other consonants for certain letters unconsciously, which is known as Chinglish. As for the non-standard Chinglish pronunciation, CD is likely to be pronounced as xī dì or xī dī or even sēi dī, and DVD is likely to be pronounced as dī wēi dì or dī wēi dī. These kinds of Chinglish pronunciations do exist, but they are usually regarded as a symbol of low-educated people, so you do not really need to care too much about it.


I was born n raised in Beijing and remember that everybody around me when I was young pronounced the English alphabet like this 诶ei(1)闭bi(4)sei(1)地di(4)亿yi(4)癌负aifu(2,0)纪ji(4)癌赤aichi(2,0)爱ai(4)这zhei(4)剋kei(4)癌喽ailou(2,0)癌木aimu(2,0)恩en(1)欧ou(1)屁pi(4)kiou(4)啊儿ar(4)癌四aisi(2,0)替ti(4)优you(1)威vei(1)达不溜dabuliu(2,0,0)癌克思aikesi(2,0,0)外wai(4) 贼zei(4)


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.


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.

  • 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. Commented Jan 6, 2012 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?
    – going
    Commented Jan 6, 2012 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.
    – going
    Commented Jan 6, 2012 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.) Commented Jan 6, 2012 at 8:20
  • 1
    I understand that. You will find it hard to get without spending time with a background speaker. I am suggesting you won't find it because it is not in a unique space; native speakers don't view it as a unique subset. There is no written format different from English. So your only chance is to grab a native speaker or find a recording somewhere on the net. I just did quick search but Google assumes you are looking for Bo-po-mo-fo etc..
    – going
    Commented Jan 6, 2012 at 8:26

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