Pinyin (拼音, pīnyīn) literally means "join together sounds" (a less literal translation being "phoneticize", "spell" or "transcription") in Chinese and usually refers to Hànyǔ pīnyīn (汉语拼音, literal meaning: "Han language pinyin"), which is a system of romanization (phonetic notation and transliteration to roman script) for Standard Mandarin used in the People's Republic of China. Pinyin was approved in 1958 and adopted in 1979 by its government. It superseded older transcriptions like the Wade-Giles system (1859; modified 1912) or Bopomofo. Similar systems have been designed for Chinese dialects and non-Han minority languages in the PRC. Cantonese also has a pinyin-type system called Penkyamp, whose name derives from the same word as pinyin, with the characters pronounced using their respective Cantonese pronunciations.
Since then, pinyin has been accepted by the Library of Congress, The American Library Association, and most international institutions as the transcription system for Mandarin. In 1979 the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) adopted pinyin as the standard romanization for Modern Chinese.
It is important to maintain the distinction that pinyin is a romanization and not an anglicization; that is, it is equally applicable for transliteration into any language that uses a roman alphabet. Indeed some of the transliterations in pinyin such as the "ang" ending, do not correspond to English pronunciations. Pinyin has also become a useful tool for entering Chinese language text into computers.
The primary purpose of pinyin in Chinese schools is to teach Mandarin pronunciation. Many in the West are under the mistaken belief that pinyin is used to help children associate characters with spoken words which they already know, but this is incorrect as many Chinese do not use Mandarin at home, and therefore do not know the Mandarin pronunciation of words until they learn them in elementary school through the use of pinyin.
Pinyin uses the Roman alphabet, hence the pronunciation is relatively straightforward for Westerners. A pitfall for English-speaking novices is, however, the unusual pronunciation of "x", "q", "c" and "z". More information on the pronunciation of all pinyin letters in terms of English approximations is given further below.
Conventional order: b p m f d t n l g k h j q x zh ch sh r z c s
-r rhymes omitted. 2
In combination with an initial:
In standalone (no initials) form:
Rules given in terms of English pronunciation
All rules given here in terms of English pronunciation are approximate.
Pinyin differs from other Romanizations in several aspects, such as:
The Pinyin system also incorporates suprasegmental phonemes to represent the four tones of Mandarin. Each tone is indicated by a diacritical mark above a non-medial vowel. Note that the lower-case letter "a" in pinyin is supposed to be of the handwritten type with no curl over the top. This can be achieved by using a font in which the letter happens to look like this, or alternatively by specifying it using Unicode as we have done in the bracketed example.
Since most computer fonts do not contain the macron or caron accents, a common convention is to postfix the individual syllables with a digit representing their tone (e.g., "tóng" (tong with the rising tone) is written "tong2"). The digit is numbered as the order listed above, except the "fifth tone", which, in addition to being numbered 5, is also either not numbered or numbered zero, as in ma0 (吗/嗎, an interrogative marker).
The pinyin vowels are ordered as a, o, e, i, u, and ü. Generally, the tone mark is placed on the vowel that first appears in the order mentioned. Liú is a superficial exception whose true pronunciation is lióu. And since o precedes i, óu (contracted to ú) is marked.
These tone marks normally are only used in Mandarin textbooks or in foreign learning texts, but they are essential for correct pronunciation of Mandarin syllables, as exemplified by the following classical example of five characters whose pronunciations differ only in their tones:
(Being "mother", "hemp", "horse", "insult" and a question particle, respectively.)
A dieresis or an umlaut is placed over the letter u when it occurs after the initials l and n. This is necessary in order to distinguish the front high rounded vowel in lü (e.g. 驴/驢 donkey) from the back high rounded vowel in lu (e.g. 炉/爐 oven). Tonal markers are added on top of the umlaut, as in lǘ.
However, the umlaut-u is not used in other contexts where it represents a front high rounded vowel, namely after the letters j, q, x and y. For example, the sound of the word 鱼/魚 (fish) is transcribed in pinyin simply as yú, not as yǘ. This practice is opposed to Wade-Giles, which always uses ü, and Tongyong Pinyin, which always uses yu. Whereas Wade-Giles needs to use the umlaut to distinguish between chü (pinyin ju) and chu (pinyin zhu), this ambiguity cannot arise with pinyin, so the more convenient form ju is used instead of jü. Genuine ambiguities only happen with nu/nü and lu/lü, which are then distinguished by an umlaut diacritic.
Many fonts or output methods do not support a diaeresis (umlaut) for ü or cannot place tone marks on top of ü. Likewise, using ü in input methods is difficult because it is not present as a simple key on many keyboard layouts. For these reasons v is sometimes used instead by convention. Occasionally, uu (double u) or U (capital u) is used in its place.
Pinyin in Taiwan
The Republic of China on Taiwan is in the process of adopting a modified version of pinyin (currently Tongyong Pinyin). For elementary education it has used zhuyin, and for romanization there is no standard system in general use on Taiwan despite many efforts to standardize on one system. In the late-1990s, the government of Taiwan formally decided to move from zhuyin to pinyin. This has triggered a very heated discussion of which pinyin system to use, hanyu pinyin of People's Republic of China or some other systems.
Much of the controversy centered on issues of national identity because of political interests. Proponents for adopting pinyin maintained that it is an international standard that is already used throughout the world. Proponents for adopting a new system maintain that Taiwan should have its own identity and culture apart from People's Republic of China.
On October 2002, the ROC government has adopted tongyong pinyin but through an administrative order which local governments can override. Localities with governments controlled by the Kuomintang, most notably Taipei City, have overridden the order and converted to hanyu pinyin (although with a slightly different capitialization convention than the Mainland). As a result, English signs have inconsistent romanization in Taiwan with most places using Tongyong Pinyin but some using Hanyu Pinyin. This has resulted in the odd situation in Taipei City in which inconsistent pinyin are shown in freeway directions, with freeway signs, which are under the control of the national government, using one pinyin, but surface street signs, which are under the control of the city government, using the other.
As of 2003, no form of pinyin is used in elementary education on Taiwan to teach pronunciation. Although the ROC government has stated the desire to use romanization rather than bopomofo in education, the lack of agreement on which form of pinyin to use and the huge logistical challenge of teacher training has stalled these efforts.
Debate continues about the actual suitability of pinyin as a Chinese romanization method. This argument revolves around pinyin's unconventional use of Roman letters, of which the phonological values of some phonemes are quite different than that of most languages utilizing the Roman alphabet. Some sinologists praise this as pinyin's flexibility in that it allows the entire Roman alphabet to be adapted to the Chinese sound system (compared to Wade-Giles, which leaves out or underuses many letters); others, however, point out that pinyin letter values are hence so unconventional that they guarantee a very large number of mispronunciations in a non-Chinese reading the romanized text, again, in contrast with Wade-Giles. However, as not only the PRC but by now most institutions and publications have adopted it, the debate seems increasingly obsolete.