The Wild Cards of Hanyu Pinyin

Aside from the vowels (also known as Finals in Hanyu Pinyin), I like to think that the father of Pinyin saw various modern English letters as wild cards and repurposed them for novelty sounds that the English speakers might not be accustomed to.

It was a rather clever move in the 20th century for the generation of Chinese and Chinese-Singaporeans (like myself) who studied both English and Mandarin Chinese, concurrently, at a young age. My brain automatically distinguishes the Hanyu Pinyin letters from the English.

When I started learning Russian in my twenties, I noted that the Cyrillic ‘B’ sounds like the English ‘V’, the Cyrillic ‘C’ sounds like the English ‘S’, and the Cyrillic ‘H’ sounds like the English ‘N’. There is no English equivalent for the Cyrillic ‘ц’ but I made notes with the Hanyu Pinyin ‘C’ and ‘Q’. Over time, I was able to read the Cyrillic letters without my initial English or Hanyu Pinyin references.

I had not paid much attention to myself switching from one language to another until I married Jon, who is British. It is confusing for someone who has conversed solely in English for more than thirty years to grasp the ‘C’ and ‘Q’ in Hanyu Pinyin without any point of reference. I wanted to tell him it’s similar to the Cyrillic ‘ц’ but that would make him even more confused.

I began laying out the Hanyu Pinyin in an A-to-Z fashion…

Something intrigued me as I started to create a visual pattern out of the Hanyu Pinyin Initials and Finals[1] JQ and X Initials have no interaction with “a”, “o”, and “e” Finals.

Magnified version on a little booster dose of Hanyu Pinyin

Yet when it comes to “i” Finals, JQ and X Initials become extensions and alternatives of ZC and S Initials respectively.

a little booster dose of Hanyu Pinyin — “i” Finals (Part 1)

Unlike the rest of the columns that read with a certain rhythmic flow, the first column can be quite puzzling.

  • Ci does not sound like Cider or ‘Kee’ (going by the rhythmic flow) yet it is a crucial sound to grasping Qi.
    Suggestion: Enunciate and repeat Its slowly… finally, drop the ‘I’ and keep the ‘ts’ sound.
  • Qi sounds like an extension of Ci
    Suggestion: Retain that ‘ts’ sound, coupled with the “ee” rhythmic flow
  • Zi does sound a little buzzy, but more ‘zzz’ than ‘zee’
    Suggestion: Enunciate and repeat Odds slowly… finally, drop the ‘Od’ and keep the ‘ds’ sound
  • Ji sounds like an extension of Zi
    Suggestion: Retain that ‘ds’ sound, coupled with the “ee” rhythmic flow
  • Si sounds like a Hiss, with a silent ‘Hi
  • Xi sounds like an extension of Si, and exactly like See in English (phew!)

Figuring out the first column of “i” Final and getting used to the rhythmic flow would make the rest of “i” Finals feel like a piece of cake.

a little booster dose of Hanyu Pinyin — “i” Finals (Part 2)

This might not be a conventional way to learn Mandarin Chinese but perhaps it could give us a new perspective on language learning. If we could all take a step back and be more open-minded about the letters that we already know, we could learn so much more.

The first version of these charts was printed and published in A Little Daily Dose while I am currently refining and updating the online version. I am determined to find the closest English word for every Hanyu Pinyin anomaly.

[1] Initial and Final are also known as the Sound (声母) and Rhythm (韵母) in Chinese


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