A Guide to Pronouncing Chinese Names (Pinyin Transliteration)

Very frequently, non-Chinese people incorrectly pronounce Chinese names. Of course, it’s completely not their fault. One reason of course is that there are always those new nuances in pronunciation that are pretty much inevitable when one gets to a new language. (I still don’t think I roll r’s properly, let alone differentiate all those h’s in Arabic.) But another reason, one that actually bothers me, is that Chinese people outside China do not usually pronounce them correctly either.

I could partially understand why, because the sudden shift in sound in mentioning a Chinese name with the correct pronunciation in the middle of an English language sometimes is very linguistically awkward. I in fact do it too, although to a much lesser extent than others, for example frequently with the names “Lin” and “Sun” (although the surge of people that were talking about “Linsanity” has made me question that a bit more). (For those of you who currently want an advanced touch, Lin is pronounced “leen” and Sun is pronounced “swen.”) But in any case, Chinese people pronouncing more English-friendly versions of Chinese names started bothering me when I heard someone talk about the “many ways” to spell Chang, when actually each of those “different ways” that that someone was mentioning was actually a different Chinese name, pronounced a different way. I figured that at least those that wish to take the effort to correctly pronounce Chinese names should have the right to have a fairly easy guide to the actual way to pronounce them, and thus I’m writing this. Note that in no way am I requiring or asking that the general public perfect their Chinese pronunciation, and that this article exists for the purpose of giving more to the people who wish to know more.

A few notes before I start:

1. In actual Chinese, there are various accents (or tones) on the way any phonetic can be pronounced to produce different words, and that sounds even more out-of-place in a sentence of another language. For the purposes of this article, the accents are left out.

2. This guide is a guide to pronouncing Pinyin. Note that that is not the only method of Romanization of Chinese characters, but it will be the only one thoroughly discussed here, although I would occasionally insert a sidenote about various other translations. If you use this guide for pronunciation, make sure you’re looking at Pinyin.

3. This article references Chinese sounds with respect to English approximations. If you don’t know English, 1) you’re either a liar or an amazing guesser as you’re reading this and 2) this article won’t help you much.

Consonants I

Let’s start with some consonants pronounced just like in English.

They are b, d, f, g, h, k, l, m, n, p, s*, and t. We’ll get to the other consonants later.

*Nuance later. Also, as an aside, this is notated “sz” is other Romanizing systems.

Vowels I

In any Chinese syllable, one never finds consonants after vowels, so you can identify vowels by their location within a syllable. Note that we are slightly changing the definition of a vowel here in a way that will be clearly apparent when examples are given. There are many vowels in Chinese.

“a” is pronounced “ah” as in the a in “wasp.”

“e” is pronounced “uh” as in the e in “the.”**

“ai” is pronounced long i as in the i in “find.”

“ei” is pronounced long a as in a in “mane.”

“ao” is pronounced the not-the-long-o “ow” as in the ow in “cow.”

“ou” is pronounced long o as in o in “tone.”

**Exception coming later.

Exercise: How would you pronounce Chinese “la”?

Answer: Just like as if you were singing. Or, you know, the note that’s after sol.

Exercise: How would you pronounce Chinese “he”?

Answer: Like the interjection “huh.”

Exercise: How would you pronounce Chinese “tai”?

Answer: Like the word “tie.”

Exercise: How would you pronounce Chinese “bei”?

Answer: Like the word “bay.”

Exercise: How would you pronounce Chinese “nao”?

Answer: Like the word “now.”

Exercise: How would you pronounce Chinese “hou”?

Answer: Like the word “hoe.”

Now, for what is in my opinion a harder one. For “o,” pretend that you’re saying the short “o” as in “not” but that you are getting there from saying a long “oo.” The effect sounds somewhat like “uo” where u represents the long oo, although usually the vowel u will come in front anyway.

We are classifying the following combinations of vowels with what would in English be considered a consonant for purposes here, as warned above.

“an” is pronounced like the “an” in “ran.”

“en” is pronounced like the “en” in “hen.”

“ang” is pronounced like “ah” as in “wasp” followed by English “ng.”

“eng” is pronounced like “uh” as in “the” followed by English “ng.”

“er” is pronounced like “ur” as in the “ir” in “stir.”

Exercise: How would you pronounce Chinese “tan”?

Answer: Like the English word “tan.”

Exercise: How would you pronounce Chinese “dang”?

Answer: Not like the English “dang”! Look above.

Exercise: How would you pronounce Chinese “deng”?

Answer: Like the English word “dung.” Yeah, that’s unfortunate. It’s like how one definition of “ben” in Chinese is “stupid.”

“i” is pronounced long “e” as in the ee in “see.”

“u” is pronounced long “oo” as in the oo in “noon.”

“y” before i is silent.

“w” before u is silent.

Exercise: How would you pronounce Chinese “yi”?

Answer: just long e: “ee”

Exercise: How would you pronounce Chinese “wu”?

Answer: just long oo: “oo”

Note that “i” and “u” is sometimes followed consecutively by another vowel above in a syllable. In some of these cases, some letters are left out, and will be discussed later. There is also one more vowel to introduce later.

Consonants II

“z” is pronounced like “dz” in English. Note that “zh” is a totally different consonant, mentioned later in this section.

“c” is pronounced like “tz” in English.

Exercise: How would you pronounce Chinese “zu”?

Answer: “dzoo”

Exercise: How would you pronounce Chinese “ceng”?

Answer: “tzuhng”

“j” is pronounced very close to “j” in English. Smile more than when pronouncing the English “j.”

“q” is pronounced very close to “ch” in English. Smile more than when pronouncing the English “ch.”

“x” is pronounced very close to “sh” in English. Smile more than when pronouncing the English “sh.”

Notes: In some methods of Romanizing, the last of the above-mentioned three sounds is Romanized as “hs.” Also, in the exercises, I will sometimes leave out the smiling remark in pronunciation for “j,” “ch,” and “sh,” but remember the subtlety.

Exercise: How would you pronounce Chinese “ji”?

Answer: Like the English interjection “gee” with a smile.

“zh” is a sound that does not exist in English. In my opinion, it is closest to “dr,” and can be approximated closer by mashing the two sounds temporally closer.

“ch” is a sound that does not exist in English. In my opinion, it is closest to “tr,” and can be approximated closer by mashing the two sounds temporally closer.

“sh” is a sound that does not exist in English. In my opinion, it is closest to “shr,” and can be approximated closer by mashing the two sounds temporally closer.

“r” is very much like the English “r,” but roll the tongue even less than in English.

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Chan”?

Answer: approximately “tran”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Chen”?

Answer: approximately “tren”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Chang”?

Answer: approximately “trahng”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Cheng”?

Answer: approximately “truhng”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Zhang”?

Answer: approximately “drahng”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Zheng”?

Answer: approximately “druhng”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Zhu”?

Answer: approximately “droo”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Zu”?

Answer: approximately “dzoo”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Ren”?

Answer: approximately “ren”

Vowels II

Sometimes parts of sounds are replaced in the spelling of a word. For example, when indicating “i” followed by “ou,” the “o” is truncated and “iu” is used instead. Note that in some systems of Romanizing, the truncation is left out. Additionally, “eng” is sometimes written “ong.”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Liu”?

Answer: like “Leo” (the lion), except quickly, as one syllable

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Huang”?

Answer: “hooahng” (one syllable) (most people actually bother to pronounce this last name correctly, just listen to what they say)

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Zhuang”?

Answer: approximately “drooahng” (one syllable)

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Min”?

Answer: “meen”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Sun”?

Answer: “swen”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Jin”?

Answer: approximately “jeen”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Jing”?

Answer: approximately “jeeng”

In Chinese, some words consist of only a consonant, pronounced with some sound. In these cases, a silent “i” is attached at the end.

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Shi”?

Answer: approximately “shr”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Ci”?

Answer: approximately “tz”

One last vowel. This is sometimes notated “ü,” sometimes “uu,” sometimes “eu,” and sometimes “v.” (Yes, “v” being a vowel. Imagine that. It’s used because the English “v” sound does not exist in Chinese and is close to “u.”)  I will use the “uu” notation in words and the “ü” notation in pronunciations from here forward.

The vowel “uu” is a sound that does not exist in the English language, and is not even close to any sound in the English language. To produce this sound, pucker your lips and make a vowel sound. One only finds this vowel specifically written in its form after l or n; after j, q, x, or y, any “u” following is implied to be this u, not the long-oo u.

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Lu”?

Answer: “loo”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Luu” or “Leu”?

Answer: “lü”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Fu”?

Answer: “foo”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Ju”?

Answer: “jü”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Mu”?

Answer: “moo”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Qu”?

Answer: “chü”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Wu”?

Answer: “oo”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Xu”?

Answer: “shü”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Yu”?

Answer: “ü”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Zu”?

Answer: “dzoo”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Yuan”?

Answer: “üen”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Yun”?

Answer: “üin”

Exercise: How would you pronounce the Chinese name “Jun”?

Answer: “jüin”

Apostrophes

In Pinyin, apostrophes indicate that the two parts split by an apostrophe are to be pronounced as separate syllabes. For example, “Xi’an” would be “shee an” whereas “Xian” would “sheeen” (that may look confusing; that’s a long e followed by “en”). Note that in other Romanizing systems, apostrophes have other roles, sometimes representing a different sound. Also note that when it is clear that the word has multiple syllables, apostrophes usually aren’t used.

Ending Exercises

Try pronouncing the following names.

1. Sun Yixian
2. Jiang Jieshi
3. Mao Zedong
4. Li Xiaolong
5. Hua Mulan
6. He Xiaoyu
7. Wang Weiwei
8. Lin Ying
9. Hu Jintao
10. Bei Yuming
11. Deng Xiaoping
12. Xu Yushi

Answers:

1. swen ee sheeen
2. jeeahng jeeeh shr
3. mow dzuh dohng
4. lee sheeow lohng
5. hooah moo lan
6. huh sheeow ü
7. wahng wayway
8. leen eeng
9. hoo jeen tow
10. bay ü meeng
11. duhng sheeow peeng
12. shü ü shr

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “A Guide to Pronouncing Chinese Names (Pinyin Transliteration)

  1. This all seems rather ironic considering how Mandarin (pet peeve: what is this “Chinese?”) has its own special way of mangling things. If blog can become 博客, 張 can rhyme with bang.

    On the topic of “properly” reading (any sort of) Romanization scheme, it’s easier to learn IPA and read Wikipedia than it is to deal with approximations like tr (or even ch) for [tʂʰ].

  2. How would you pronounce the name Xueying Le? The shortened version of Axue? Is the latter pronounced “ah-shwuh”?

    1. Assuming the Pinyin transliteration, ‘xue’ is pronounced approximately ‘shweh’ (with the short e of ‘let’), so ‘Axue’ is ‘ah-shweh’. ‘Le’, though, is not too common last name through Pinyin transliteration, so the assumption that this is Pinyin might not be true here, but it’s still possible, and ‘Le’ is pronounced ‘luh’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s