Standard Chinese phonology

This article summarizes the phonology (the sound system, or in more general terms, the pronunciation) of Standard Chinese (Standard Mandarin).

Standard Chinese is based on the Beijing dialect of Mandarin. Actual production varies widely among speakers, as they inadvertently introduce elements of their native dialects (although television and radio announcers are chosen for their pronunciation accuracy and standard accent). Elements of the sound system include not only the segments – the vowels and consonants – of the language but also the tones that are applied to each syllable. Standard Chinese has four main tones, in addition to a neutral tone used on weak syllables.

This article represents phonetic values using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), noting correspondences chiefly with the Pinyin system for transcription of Chinese text. For correspondences with other systems, see the relevant articles, such as Wade–Giles, Bopomofo (Zhuyin), Gwoyeu Romatzyh, etc., and Romanization of Chinese.

Consonants

The following table shows the consonant sounds of Standard Chinese, transcribed using the International Phonetic Alphabet. The sounds shown in parentheses are sometimes not analyzed as separate phonemes; for more on these, see § Alveolo-palatal series below. Excluding these, and excluding the glides [j], [ɥ] and [w] (for which see § Glides below), there are 19 consonant phonemes in the inventory.

Labial Denti-
alveolar
Retroflex Alveolo-
palatal
Velar
Nasal m n ŋ
Stop aspirated
unaspirated p t k
Affricate aspirated t͡sʰ ʈ͡ʂʰ (t͡ɕʰ)
unaspirated t͡s  ʈ͡ʂ (t͡ɕ)
Fricative f s ʂ (ɕ) x
Liquid l ɻ

Between pairs of stops or affricates, having the same place and manner of articulation, the primary distinction is not voiced vs. voiceless (as in French), but unaspirated vs. aspirated (as in Icelandic and Scottish Gaelic). The unaspirated stops and affricates may however become voiced in weak syllables (see § Syllable reduction below). Such pairs are represented in the pinyin system mostly using letters which in Romance languages generally denote voiceless/voiced pairs (for example [p] and [b]), or in Germanic languages often denotes fortis/lenis pairs (for example initial aspirated voiceless/unaspirated voiced pairs such as [pʰ] and [b]). However, in pinyin they denote aspirated/unaspirated pairs, for example /pʰ/ and /p/ are represented with p and b respectively.

More details about the individual consonant sounds are given in the following table.

Phoneme or sound Approximate description Pinyin Notes
/p/ Like English p but unaspirated – as in spy b
// Like an aspirated English p, as in "pie" p
/m/ Like English m m
/f/ Like English f f
/t/ Like English t but unaspirated – as in sty d See § Denti-alveolar and retroflex series.
// Like an aspirated English t, as in tie t See § Denti-alveolar and retroflex series.
/n/ Like English n n See § Denti-alveolar and retroflex series. Can occur in the onset and/or coda of a syllable.
/l/ Like English clear 'l, as in RP lay (never dark, i.e. velarized) l See § Denti-alveolar and retroflex series.
/k/ Like English k, but unaspirated, as in ski g
// Like an aspirated English k, as in key k
/ŋ/ Like ng in English sing ng Occurs only in the syllable coda.
/x/
([h ~ x])[1]:27
Varies between h in English hat and ch in Scottish loch. h
/s/ Like English s, but usually with the tongue on the lower teeth. s See § Denti-alveolar and retroflex series.
/t͡s/ Like English ts in cats, without aspiration z See § Denti-alveolar and retroflex series.
/t͡sʰ/ As above, but with aspiration c See § Denti-alveolar and retroflex series.
[ɕ] Similar to English sh, but with an alveolo-palatal (softer) pronunciation x See § Alveolo-palatal series.
[t͡ɕ] Like an unaspirated English ch, but with an alveolo-palatal (softer) pronunciation j See § Alveolo-palatal series.
[t͡ɕʰ] As above, with aspiration q See § Alveolo-palatal series.
/ʂ/ Similar to English sh, but with a retroflex articulation sh See § Denti-alveolar and retroflex series.
/ʈ͡ʂ/ Similar to ch in English chat, but with a retroflex articulation and no aspiration zh See § Denti-alveolar and retroflex series.
/ʈ͡ʂʰ/ As above, but with aspiration ch See § Denti-alveolar and retroflex series.
/ɻ/
([ɻ ~ ʐ])[a]
Similar to initial r in English, but with a retroflex articulation; varies to a sound similar to s in 'Asia' but with retroflex articulation for some speakers. r For pronunciation in syllable-final position, see § Rhotic coda.

All of the consonants may occur as the initial sound of a syllable, with the exception of /ŋ/ (unless the zero initial is assigned to this phoneme; see below). Excepting the rhotic coda, the only consonants that can appear in syllable coda (final) position are /n/ and /ŋ/ (although [m] may occur as an allophone of /n/ before labial consonants in fast speech). Final /n/, /ŋ/ may be pronounced without complete oral closure, resulting in a syllable that in fact ends with a long nasalized vowel.[1]:72 See also § Syllable reduction, below.

Denti-alveolar and retroflex series

The consonants listed in the first table above as denti-alveolar are sometimes described as alveolars, and sometimes as dentals. The affricates and the fricative are particularly often described as dentals; these are generally pronounced with the tongue on the lower teeth.[1]:27

The retroflex consonants (like those of Polish) are actually apical rather than subapical, and so are considered by some authors not to be truly retroflex; they may be more accurately called post-alveolar.[3][4] Some speakers not from Beijing may lack the retroflexes in their native dialects, and may thus replace them with dentals.[1]:26

Alveolo-palatal series

The alveolo-palatal consonants (pinyin j, q, x) are standardly pronounced [t͡ɕ, t͡ɕʰ, ɕ]. Some speakers realize them as palatalized dentals [t͡sʲ], [t͡sʰʲ], [sʲ]; this is claimed to be especially common among children and women,[1]:33 although officially it is regarded as substandard and as a feature specific to the Beijing dialect.[5]

In phonological analysis, it is often assumed that, when not followed by one of the high front vowels [i] or [y], the alveolo-palatals consist of a consonant followed by a palatal glide ([j] or [ɥ]). That is, syllables represented in pinyin as beginning ⟨ji-⟩, ⟨qi-⟩, ⟨xi-⟩, ⟨ju-⟩, ⟨qu-⟩, ⟨xu-⟩ (followed by a vowel) are taken to begin [t͡ɕj], [t͡ɕʰj], [ɕj], [t͡ɕɥ], [t͡ɕʰɥ], [ɕɥ]. The actual pronunciations are more like [t͡ɕ], [t͡ɕʰ], [ɕ], [t͡ɕʷ], [t͡ɕʰʷ], [ɕʷ] (or for speakers using the dental variants, [t͡sʲ], [t͡sʰʲ], [sʲ], [t͡sᶣ], [t͡sʰᶣ], [sᶣ]). This is consistent with the general observation (see under § Glides) that medial glides are realized as palatalization and/or labialization of the preceding consonant (palatalization already being inherent in the case of the palatals).

On the above analysis, the alveolo-palatals are in complementary distribution with the dentals [t͡s, t͡sʰ, s], with the velars [k, kʰ, x], and with the retroflexes [ʈ͡ʂ, ʈ͡ʂʰ, ʂ], as none of these can occur before high front vowels or palatal glides, whereas the alveolo-palatals occur only before high front vowels or palatal glides. Therefore, linguists often prefer to classify [t͡ɕ, t͡ɕʰ, ɕ] not as independent phonemes, but as allophones of one of the other three series.[6] The existence of the above-mentioned dental variants inclines some to prefer to identify the alveolo-palatals with the dentals, but identification with any of the three series is possible (unless the empty rime is identified with /i/, in which case the velars become the only candidate; see below). The Yale and Wade–Giles systems mostly treat the alveolo-palatals as allophones of the retroflexes; Tongyong Pinyin mostly treats them as allophones of the dentals; and Mainland Chinese Braille treats them as allophones of the velars. In standard pinyin and bopomofo, however, they are represented as a separate sequence.

The alveolo-palatals arose historically from a merger of the dentals [t͡s, t͡sʰ, s] and velars [k, kʰ, x] before high front vowels and glides. Previously, some instances of modern [t͡ɕ(ʰ)i] were instead [k(ʰ)i], and others were [t͡s(ʰ)i]. The change took place in the last two or three centuries at different times in different areas. This explains why some European transcriptions of Chinese names (especially in postal romanization) contain ⟨ki-⟩, ⟨hi-⟩, ⟨tsi-⟩, ⟨si-⟩ where an alveolo-palatal might be expected in modern Chinese. Examples are Peking for Beijing, Chungking for Chongqing, Fukien for Fujian (c.f. Hokkien), Tientsin for Tianjin; Sinkiang for Xinjiang, and Sian for Xi'an. The complementary distribution with the retroflex series arose when syllables that had a retroflex consonant followed by a medial glide lost the medial glide.

Zero onset

A full syllable such as ai, in which the vowel is not preceded by any of the standard initial consonants or glides, is said to have a null initial or zero onset. This may be realized as a consonant sound: [ʔ] and [ɣ] are possibilites, as are [ŋ] and [ɦ] in some nonstandard varieties. It has been suggested that such an onset be regarded as a special phoneme, or as an instance of the phoneme /ŋ/, although it can also be treated as no phoneme (absence of onset). By contrast, in the case of the particle a, which is a weak onsetless syllable, linking occurs with the previous syllable (as described under § Syllable reduction, below).[1]:43

When a stressed vowel-initial Chinese syllable follows a consonant-final syllable, the consonant does not directly link with the vowel. Instead, the zero onset seems to intervene in between. 棉袄; mián'ǎo ("cotton jacket") becomes [mjɛnʔau], [mjɛnɣau]. However, in connected speech none of these output forms is natural. Instead, when the words are spoken together the most natural pronunciation is [mjɛ̃ːau], in which there is no nasal closure or any version of the zero onset, and instead nasalization of the vowel occurs.

Glides

The glides [j], [ɥ] and [w] sound respectively like the y in English yes, the (h)u in French huit, and the w in English we. (Beijing speakers often replace initial [w] with a labiodental [ʋ], except when it is followed by [o].[1]:25) The glides are commonly analyzed not as independent phonemes, but as consonantal allophones of the high vowels: [i̯, y̯, u̯]. This is possible because there is no ambiguity in interpreting a sequence like yao/-iao as /iau/, and potentially problematic sequences such as */iu/ do not occur.

The glides may occur in initial position in a syllable. This occurs with [ɥ] in the syllables written yu, yuan, yue and yun in pinyin; with [j] in other syllables written with initial y in pinyin (ya, yi, etc.); and with [w] in syllables written with initial w in pinyin (wa, wu, etc.). When a glide is followed by the vowel of which that glide is considered an allophone, the glide may be regarded as epenthetic (automatically inserted), and not as a separate realization of the phoneme. Hence the syllable yi, pronounced [ji], may be analyzed as consisting of the single phoneme /i/, and similarly yin may be analyzed as /in/, yu as /y/, and wu as /u/.[1]:274ff It is also possible to hear both from the same speaker, even in the same conversation.[1]:274ff For example, one may hear the number "one" ; as either [jí] or [í].

The glides can also occur in medial position, that is, after the initial consonant but before the main vowel. Here they are represented in pinyin as vowels: for example, the i in bie represents [j], and the u in duan represents [w]. There are some restrictions on the possible consonant-glide combinations: [w] does not occur after labials (except for some speakers in bo, po, mo, fo); [j] does not occur after retroflexes and velars (or after [f]); and [ɥ] occurs medially only in lüe and nüe and after alveolo-palatals (for which see above.) A consonant-glide combination at the start of a syllable is articulated as a single sound – the glide is not in fact pronounced after the consonant, but is realized as palatalization [ʲ], labialization [ʷ], or both [ᶣ], of the consonant.[1]:28 (The same modifications of initial consonants occur in syllables where they are followed by a high vowel, although normally no glide is considered to be present there. Hence a consonant is generally palatalized [ʲ] when followed by /i/, labialized [ʷ] when followed by /u/, and both [ᶣ] when followed by /y/.)

The glides [j] and [w] are also found as the final element in some syllables. These are commonly analyzed as diphthongs rather than vowel-glide sequences. For example, the syllable bai is assigned the underlying representation /pai̯/. (In pinyin, the second element is generally written ⟨-i⟩ or ⟨-u⟩, but /au̯/ is written as ⟨-ao⟩.)

Syllabic consonants

The syllables written in pinyin as zi, ci, si, zhi, chi, shi, ri may be described as having a syllabic consonant instead of a vowel:

  • [ɹ̩ ~ ], a laminal denti-alveolar voiced continuant,[a] in zi, ci, si ([tsɹ̩ tsʰɹ̩ sɹ̩]);
  • [ɻ̩ ~ ʐ̩], an apical retroflex voiced continuant,[a] in zhi, chi, shi, ri ([ʈʂɻ̩ ʈʂʰɻ̩ ʂɻ̩ ɻɻ̩]).

Alternatively, the nucleus may be described not as a syllabic consonant, but as a vowel:

  • [ɯ], like [u] without lip rounding, in zi, ci, si ([tsɨ tsʰɨ sɨ]);
  • [ɨ], similar to Russian ы, in zhi, chi, shi, ri [ʈʂɨ ʈʂʰɨ ʂɨ ɻɨ].

Phonologically, these syllables may be analyzed as having their own vowel phoneme, /ɨ/. However, it is possible to merge this with the phoneme /i/ (to which it is historically related), since the two are in complementary distribution – provided that the § Alveolo-palatal series is either left unmerged, or is merged with the velars rather than the retroflex or alveolar series. (That is, [t͡ɕi], [t͡sɯ] and [ʈ͡ʂɨ] all exist, but *[ki], *[kɯ] and *[kɨ] do not exist, so there is no problem merging both [i]~[ɨ~ɯ] and [k]~[t͡ɕ] at the same time.)

Another approach is to regard the syllables assigned above to /ɨ/ as having an (underlying) empty nuclear slot ("empty rime", Chinese 空韵; kōngyùn), i.e. as not containing a vowel phoneme at all. This is more consistent with the syllabic consonant description of these syllables. When this is the case, sometimes the phoneme is described as shifting from voiceless to voiced, e.g. becoming /sź̩/.

Syllabic consonants may also arise as a result of weak syllable reduction; see below. Syllabic nasal consonants are also heard in certain interjections; pronunciations of such words include [m], [n], [ŋ], [hm], [hŋ].

Vowels

Beijing Mandarin monophthongs chart
Monophthongs of Mandarin Chinese as they are pronounced in Beijing (from Lee & Zee (2003:110)).
Beijing Mandarin diphthongs chart - part 1
Part 1 of Mandarin Chinese diphthongs as they are pronounced in Beijing (from Lee & Zee (2003:110)).
Beijing Mandarin diphthongs chart - part 2
Part 2 of Mandarin Chinese diphthongs as they are pronounced in Beijing (from Lee & Zee (2003:110)).

Standard Chinese can be analyzed as having five vowel phonemes: /i, u, y, ə, a/. (For discussion of possible analyses, including some with fewer vowels, see below.) /i, u, y/ are high (close) vowels, /ə/ is mid whereas /a/ is low (open).

The precise realization of each vowel depends on its phonetic environment. In particular, the vowel /ə/ has two broad allophones [e] and [o] (corresponding respectively to pinyin e and o in most cases). These sounds can be treated as a single underlying phoneme because they are in complementary distribution. (Apparent counterexamples are provided by certain interjections, such as [ɔ], [ɛ], [jɔ], and [lɔ], but these are normally treated as special cases operating outside the normal phonemic system.[b])

Allophones

Transcriptions of the vowels' allophones (the ways they are pronounced in particular phonetic environments) differ somewhat between sources. The following table provides one fairly typical set of descriptions (not including the values that occur with the rhotic coda).[c]

Nucleus /i/ /u/ /y/ /ə/ /a/
Medial /j/ /j/ /w/ /ɥ/ /j/ /w/ /ɥ/
Coda [ɹ̩~ɻ̩]

-i
[i]
yi
-i
[u]
wu
-u
[y]
yu
1
[ɤ]
e
-e
[je]
ye
-ie
[wo]
wo
-uo2
[ɥe]
yue
-üe1
[a]
a
-a
[ja]
ya
-ia
[wa]
wa
-ua
/i/ [ei̯]
ei
-ei
[wei̯]
wei
-ui
[ai̯]
ai
-ai
[wai̯]
wai
-uai
/u/ [ou̯]
ou
-ou
[jou̯]
you
-iu
[au̯]
ao
-ao
[jau̯]
yao
-iao
/n/ [in]
yin
-in
[yn]
yun
-ün1
[ən]
en
-en
[wən]
wen
-un
[an]
an
-an
[jɛn]
yan
-ian
[wan]
wan
-uan
[ɥɛn]
yuan
-üan1
/ŋ/ [iŋ]
ying
-ing
[ʊŋ]

-ong
[jʊŋ]
yong
-iong
[əŋ]
eng
-eng
[wəŋ]
weng
 
[aŋ]
ang
-ang
[jaŋ]
yang
-iang
[waŋ]
wang
-uang
1 ü is written as u after j, q, or x (the ⟨-u⟩ phoneme never occurs in these positions)
2 uo is written as o after b, p, m, or f.

More details about the individual vowel allophones are given in the following table.

Phoneme Allophone Description
/i/ [i] Like English e as in be
/u/ [u] Like English o as in do
[ʊ] Varies between [o][7] and [u] depending on the speaker.
/y/ [y] Like French u or German ü
/ə/ [e] Like English e as in bed
[o] Like British English awe
[ɤ] Pronounced as a sequence [ɰɤ̞].
[ə] Schwa, like English a as in about.
/a/ [a] Like English a as in father
[ɛ] Varies between [e] and [a] depending on the speaker.

As a general rule, vowels in open syllables (those which have no coda following the main vowel) are pronounced long, while others are pronounced short. This does not apply to weak syllables, in which all vowels are short.[1]:42

Effect of coda on central vowels

In Standard Chinese, the vowels [a] and [ə] harmonize in backness with the resulting coda.[8][1]:72–73 For [a], it is fronted [a̟] before /i, n/ and backed [a̠] before /u, ŋ/. For [ə], it is fronted [ə̟] before /n/ and backed [ə̠] before /ŋ/.

Effect of tone on mid vowel

Some native Mandarin speakers may pronounce [wei̯], [jou̯] and [wən] as [ui], [iu] and [un] respectively in the first or second tone.[9]:69

Alternative analyses

Some linguists prefer to reduce the number of vowel phonemes still further (at the expense of including underlying glides in their systems). Edwin G. Pulleyblank has proposed a system which includes underlying glides, but no vowels at all.[1]:37 More common are systems with two vowels; for example, in Mantaro Hashimoto's system,[10] there are just two vowel nuclei, /ə, a/, which may be preceded by a glide /j, w, ɥ/, and may be followed by a coda /i, u, n, ŋ/ (additional sequences are afforded by the rhotic coda /ɚ̯/; see Erhua). The various combinations of glide, vowel, and coda have different surface manifestations, as shown in the table below. Any of the three positions may be empty, i.e. occupied by a null meta-phoneme ; for example, the high vowels [i, u, y] are analyzed as glide + , and the empty rime, i.e. the syllabic consonant [ɹ̩~ɻ̩] or the vowel [ɨ~ɯ], is analyzed as having all three values null, e.g. si [sɹ̩] is analyzed as an underlying syllabic /s̩/.

Nucleus /ə/ /a/
Coda /i/ /u/ /n/ /ŋ/ /i/ /u/ /n/ /ŋ/
Medial [ɹ̩~ɻ̩]

-i
[ɤ]
e
-e
[ei̯]
ei
-ei
[ou̯]
ou
-ou
[ən]
en
-en
[əŋ]
eng
-eng
[a]
a
-a
[ai̯]
ai
-ai
[au̯]
ao
-ao
[an]
an
-an
[aŋ]
ang
-ang
/j/ [i]
yi
-i
[je]
ye
-ie
[jou̯]
you
-iu
[in]
yin
-in
[iŋ]
ying
-ing
[ja]
ya
-ia
[jau̯]
yao
-iao
[jɛn]
yan
-ian
[jaŋ]
yang
-iang
/w/ [u]
wu
-u
[wo]
wo
-uo2
[wei̯]
wei
-ui
[wən]
wen
-un
[wəŋ], [ʊŋ]
weng
-ong
[wa]
wa
-ua
[wai̯]
wai
-uai
[wan]
wan
-uan
[waŋ]
wang
-uang
/ɥ/ [y]
yu
1
[ɥe]
yue
-üe1
[yn]
yun
-ün1
[jʊŋ]
yong
-iong
[ɥɛn]
yuan
-üan1
1 ü is written as u after j, q, or x.
2 uo is written as o after b, p, m, or f.

This system of phonemes is used in the bopomofo phonetic transcription system commonly used in Taiwan.

Rhotic coda

Standard Chinese features syllables that end with a rhotic coda /ɚ/. This feature, known in Chinese as erhua, is particularly characteristic of the Beijing dialect; many other dialects do not use it as much, and some not at all.[1]:195 It occurs in two cases:

  1. In a small number of independent words or morphemes pronounced [ɚ] or [aɚ̯], written in pinyin as er (with some tone), such as èr "two", ěr "ear", and (traditional ) ér "son".
  2. In syllables in which the rhotic coda is added as a suffix to another morpheme. This suffix is represented by the character 儿 [兒] ("son"), to which meaning it is historically related, and in pinyin as r. The suffix combines with the final sound of the syllable, and regular but complex sound changes occur as a result (described in detail under erhua).

The r final is pronounced with a relatively lax tongue, and has been described as a "retroflex vowel".[1]:41

In dialects that do not make use of the rhotic coda, it may be omitted in pronunciation, or in some cases a different word may be selected: for example, Beijing 这儿 zhèr "here" and 那儿 nàr "there" may be replaced by the synonyms 这里 zhèli and 那里 nàli.

Syllables

Syllables in Standard Chinese have the maximal form CGVXT,[9]:48 traditionally analysed as an "initial" consonant C, a "final" and a tone T.[11] The final consists of a "medial" G, which may be one of the glides [j, w, ɥ], a vowel V and a coda X, which may be one of [n, ŋ, ɚ̯, i̯, u̯]. The vowel and coda may also be grouped as the "rhyme",[9]:16 sometimes spelled "rime". Any of C, G and X (and V, in some analyses) may be absent.

Many of the possible combinations under the above scheme do not actually occur. There are only some 35 final combinations (medial+rime) in actual syllables (see pinyin finals). In all, there are only about 400 different syllables when tone is ignored, and about 1300 when tone is included. This is a far smaller number of distinct syllables than in a language such as English. Since Chinese syllables usually constitute whole words, or at least morphemes, the smallness of the syllable inventory results in large numbers of homophones. However, in Standard Chinese, the average word length is actually almost exactly two syllables, practically eliminating most homophony issues even when tone is disregarded, especially when context is taken into account as well.[12][13] (Still, due to the limited phonetic inventory, homophonic puns in Mandarin Chinese are very common and important in Chinese culture.[14][15])

For a list of all Standard Chinese syllables (excluding tone and rhotic coda) see the pinyin table or zhuyin table.

Full and weak syllables

Syllables can be classified as full (or strong), and weak. Weak syllables are usually grammatical markers such as 了 le, or the second syllables of some compound words (although many other compounds consist of two or more full syllables).

A full syllable carries one of the four main tones, and some degree of stress. Weak syllables are unstressed, and have neutral tone. The contrast between full and weak syllables is distinctive; there are many minimal pairs such as 要事 yàoshì "important matter" and 钥匙 yàoshi "key", or 大意 dàyì "main idea" and (with the same characters) dàyi "careless", the second word in each case having a weak second syllable. Some linguists consider this contrast to be primarily one of stress, while others regard it as one of tone. For further discussion, see under Neutral tone and Stress, below.

There is also a difference in syllable length. Full syllables can be analyzed as having two morae ("heavy"), the vowel being lengthened if there is no coda. Weak syllables, however, have a single mora ("light"), and are pronounced approximately 50% shorter than full syllables.[1]:88 Any weak syllable will usually be an instance of the same morpheme (and written with the same character) as some corresponding strong syllable; the weak form will often have a modified pronunciation, however, as detailed in the following section.

Syllable reduction

Apart from differences in tone, length and stress, weak syllables are subject to certain other pronunciation changes (reduction).[16]

  • If a weak syllable begins with an unaspirated obstruent, such as (pinyin) b, d, g, z, j, that consonant may become voiced. For example, in 嘴巴 zuǐba ("mouth"), the second syllable is likely to begin with a [b] sound, rather than an unaspirated [p].
  • The vowel of a weak syllable is often reduced, becoming more central. For example, in the word zuǐba just mentioned, the final vowel may become a schwa [ə].
  • The coda (final consonant or offglide) of a weak syllable is often dropped (this is linked to the shorter, single-mora nature of weak syllables, as referred to above). If the dropped coda was a nasal consonant, the vowel may be nasalized.[1]:88 For example, 脑袋 nǎodai ("head") may end with a monophthong [ɛ] rather than a diphthong, and 春天 chūntian ("spring") may end with a centralized and nasalized vowel [ə̃].
  • In some cases, the vowel may be dropped altogether. This may occur, particularly with high vowels, when the unstressed syllable begins with a fricative or an aspirated consonant; for example, 豆腐 dòufu ("tofu") may be said as dòu-f, and 问题 wènti ("question") as wèn-t (the remaining initial consonant is pronounced as a syllabic consonant). The same may even occur in full syllables that have low ("half-third") tone.[1]:258 The vowel (and coda) may also be dropped after a nasal, in such words as 我们 wǒmen ("we") and 什么 shénme ("what"), which may be said as wǒm and shém – these are examples of the merger of two syllables into one, which occurs in a variety of situations in connected speech.

The example of shénme → shém also involves assimilation, which is heard even in unreduced syllables in quick speech (for example, in guǎmbō for 广播 guǎngbō "broadcast"). A particular case of assimilation is that of the sentence-final exclamatory particle a, a weak syllable, which has different characters for its assimilated forms:

Preceding sound Form of particle (pinyin) Character
[ŋ], [ɹ̩], [ɻ̩] a
[i], [y], [e], [o], [a] ya (from ŋja)
[u] wa
[n] na
le (grammatical
marker)
combines to form la

Tones

Half-third Pinyin Tone Chart
Relative pitch changes of the four tones in running speech, most common realization
Pinyin Tone Chart
Relative pitch changes of the four full tones in isolation

Standard Chinese, like all varieties of Chinese, is tonal. This means that in addition to consonants and vowels, the pitch contour of a syllable is used to distinguish words from each other. Many non-native Chinese speakers have difficulties mastering the tones of each character, but correct tonal pronunciation is essential for intelligibility because of the vast number of words in the language that only differ by tone (i.e. are minimal pairs with respect to tone). Statistically, tones are as important as vowels in Standard Chinese.[note 1][17]

Tonal categories

The following table shows the four main tones of Standard Chinese, together with the neutral (or fifth) tone.

Tone number 1 2 3 4 5
Description high rising low (dipping) falling neutral
Pinyin diacritic ā á ǎ à a
Tone letter ˥ (55) ˧˥ (35) ˨˩, ˩, ˩˧, ˨˩˦
(21, 11, 13, 214)
˥˩ (51) -
IPA diacritic /á/ /ǎ/ [a᷄] /à/[d] [à̤, a̤᷆, a̤᷅, a̤᷉] /â/ -
Tone name yīn píng yáng píng shǎng qīng

The four main tones of Standard Mandarin, pronounced with the syllable ma.

First tone (Mandarin)
Third tone (Mandarin)

The Chinese names of the main four tones are respectively 阴平 [陰平] yīn píng ("dark level"), 阳平 [陽平] yáng píng ("light level"), shǎng[19][20] or shàng[21] ("rising"), and ("departing"). As descriptions, they apply rather to the predecessor Middle Chinese tones than to the modern tones; see below. The modern Standard Chinese tones are produced as follows:

  1. First tone, or high-level tone, is a steady high sound, produced as if it were being sung instead of spoken. (In a few syllables the quality of the vowel is changed when it carries first tone; see the vowel table, above.)
  2. Second tone, or rising tone, or more specifically high-rising, is a sound that rises from middle to high pitch (like in the English "What?!"). In a three-syllable expression, if the first syllable has first or second tone and the final syllable is not weak, then a second tone on the middle syllable may change to first tone.[22]
  3. Third tone, low or dipping tone, descends from mid-low to low; between other tones it may simply be low. This tone is often demonstrated as having a rise in pitch after the low fall; however, when a third-tone syllable is not said in isolation, this rise is normally heard only if it appears at the end of a sentence or before a pause, and then usually only on stressed monosyllables.[1]:222 The third tone without the rise is sometimes called half third tone. Third tone syllables that include the rise are significantly longer than other syllables. For further variation in syllables carrying this tone, see Third tone sandhi, below. Unlike the other tones, third tone is pronounced with breathiness or murmur.[1]:213
  4. Fourth tone, falling tone, or high-falling, features a sharp fall from high to low (as is heard in curt commands in English, such as "Stop!"). When followed by another fourth-tone syllable, the fall may be only from high to mid-level.[23]
  5. For the neutral tone or fifth tone, see the following section.

Most romanization systems, including pinyin, represent the tones as diacritics on the vowels (as does zhuyin), although some, like Wade–Giles, use superscript numbers at the end of each syllable. The tone marks and numbers are rarely used outside of language textbooks: in particular, they are usually absent in public signs, company logos, and so forth. Gwoyeu Romatzyh is a rare example of a system where tones are represented using normal letters of the alphabet (although without a one-to-one correspondence).

Neutral tone

Also called fifth tone or zeroth tone (in Chinese 轻声; 輕聲; qīngshēng, literal meaning: "light tone"), or neutral tone is sometimes thought of as a lack of tone. It is associated with weak syllables, which are generally somewhat shorter than tonic syllables. The pitch of a syllable with neutral tone is determined by the tone of the preceding syllable. The following table shows the pitch at which the neutral tone is pronounced in Standard Chinese after each of the four main tones.[24] The situation differs by dialect, and in some regions, notably Taiwan, the neutral tone is relatively uncommon.

Realization of neutral tones
Tone of preceding syllable Pitch of neutral tone[e]
(5=high, 1=low)
Example Pinyin Meaning Overall
tone pattern[e]
First ˥ ˨ ( ) 2 玻璃 bōli glass ˥.˨ ( ˥꜋ )
Second ˧˥ ˧ ( ) 3 伯伯 bóbo uncle ˧˥.˧ ( ˧˥꜊ )
Third ˨˩ ˦ ( ) 4 喇叭 lǎba horn ˨˩.˦ ( ˨˩꜉ )
Fourth ˥˩ ˩ ( ) 1 兔子 tùzi rabbit ˥˩.˩ ( ˥˩꜌ )

Although the contrast between weak and full syllables is often distinctive, the neutral tone is often not described as a full-fledged tone; some linguists feel that it results from a "spreading out" of the tone on the preceding syllable. This idea is appealing because without it, the neutral tone needs relatively complex tone sandhi rules to be made sense of; indeed, it would have to have four allotones, one for each of the four tones that could precede it. However, the "spreading" theory incompletely characterizes the neutral tone, especially in sequences where more than one neutral-tone syllable is found adjacent.[25] In Modern Standard Mandarin as applied in A Dictionary of Current Chinese, the second syllable of words with a 'toneless final syllable variant' (重·次輕詞語) can be read with either a neutral tone or with the normal tone.[26][27][28]

Relationship between Middle Chinese and modern tones

The four tones of Middle Chinese are not in one-to-one correspondence with the modern tones. The following table shows the development of the traditional tones as reflected in modern Standard Chinese. The development of each tone depends on the initial consonant of the syllable: whether it was a voiceless consonant (denoted in the table by v−), a voiced obstruent (v+), or a sonorant (s). (The voiced–voiceless distinction has been lost in modern Standard Chinese.)

Middle Chinese Tone ping () shang () qu () ru ()
Initial v− s v+ v− s v+ v− s v+ v− s v+
Standard Chinese Tone name yīn píng
(1st)
yáng píng
(2nd)
shǎng
(3rd)

(4th)
redistributed
with no
pattern

(4th)
yáng píng
(2nd)
Tone contour 55 35 21(4) 51 51 35

Tone sandhi

Pronunciation also varies with context according to the rules of tone sandhi. Some such changes have been noted above in the descriptions of the individual tones; however, the most prominent phenomena of this kind relate to consecutive sequences of third-tone syllables. There are also a few common words that have variable tone.

Third tone sandhi

The principal rule of third tone sandhi is:

  • When there are two consecutive third-tone syllables, the first of them is pronounced with second tone.

For example, lǎoshǔ老鼠 ("mouse") comes to be pronounced láoshǔ [lau̯˧˥ʂu˨˩]. It has been investigated whether the rising contour (˧˥) on the prior syllable is in fact identical to a normal second tone; it has been concluded that it is, at least in terms of auditory perception.[1]:237

When there are three or more third tones in a row, the situation becomes more complicated, since a third tone that precedes a second tone resulting from third tone sandhi may or may not be subject to sandhi itself. The results may depend on word boundaries, stress, and dialectal variations. General rules for three-syllable third-tone combinations can be formulated as follows:

  1. If the first word is two syllables and the second word is one syllable, then the first two syllables become second tones. For example, bǎoguǎn hǎo 保管好 ("to take good care of") takes the pronunciation báoguán hǎo [pau̯˧˥kwan˧˥xau̯˨˩˦].
  2. If the first word is one syllable, and the second word is two syllables, the second syllable becomes second tone, but the first syllable remains third tone. For example: lǎo bǎoguǎn 老保管("to take care of all the time") takes the pronunciation lǎo báoguǎn [lau̯˨˩pau̯˧˥kwan˨˩˦].

Some linguists have put forward more comprehensive systems of sandhi rules for multiple third tone sequences. For example, it is proposed[1]:248 that modifications are applied cyclically, initially within rhythmic feet (trochees; see below), and that sandhi "need not apply between two cyclic branches."

Tones on special syllables

Special rules apply to the tones heard on the words (or morphemes) ("not") and ("one").

For :

  1. is pronounced with second tone when followed by a fourth tone syllable.
    Example: 不是 (+shì, "to not be") becomes búshì [pu˧˥ʂɻ̩˥˩]
  2. In other cases, is pronounced with fourth tone. However, when used between words in an A-not-A question, it may become neutral in tone (e.g. 是不是 shìbushì).

For :

  1. is pronounced with second tone when followed by a fourth tone syllable.
    Example: 一定 (+dìng, "must") becomes yídìng [i˧˥tiŋ˥˩]
  2. Before a first, second or third tone syllable, 一 is pronounced with fourth tone.
    Examples:一天 (+tiān, "one day") becomes yìtiān [i˥˩tʰjɛn˥], 一年 (+nián, "one year") becomes yìnián [i˥˩njɛn˧˥], 一起 (+, "together") becomes yìqǐ [i˥˩t͡ɕʰi˨˩˦].
  3. When final, or when it comes at the end of a multi-syllable word (regardless of the first tone of the next word), is pronounced with first tone. It also has first tone when used as an ordinal number (or part of one), and when it is immediately followed by any digit (including another ; hence both syllables of the word 一一 yīyī and its compounds have first tone).
  4. When is used between two reduplicated words, it may become neutral in tone (e.g. 看一看 kànyikàn ("to take a look of")).

The numbers ("seven") and ("eight") sometimes display similar tonal behavior as , but for most modern speakers they are always pronounced with first tone. (All of these numbers, and , were historically Ru tones, and as noted above, that tone does not have predictable reflexes in modern Chinese; this may account for the variation in tone on these words.)[1]:228

Stress, rhythm and intonation

Stress within words (word stress) is not felt strongly by Chinese speakers, although contrastive stress is perceived easily (and functions much the same as in other languages). One of the reasons for the weaker perception of stress in Chinese may be that variations in the fundamental frequency of speech, which in many other languages serve as a cue for stress, are used in Chinese primarily to realize the tones. Nonetheless, there is still a link between stress and pitch – the range of pitch variation (for a given tone) has been observed to be greater on syllables that carry more stress.[1]:134,231

As discussed above, weak syllables have neutral tone and are unstressed. Although this property can be contrastive, the contrast is interpreted by some as being primarily one of tone rather than stress. (Some linguists analyze Chinese as lacking word stress entirely.)[1]:134

Apart from this contrast between full and weak syllables, some linguists have also identified differences in levels of stress among full syllables. In some descriptions, a multi-syllable word or compound[f] is said to have the strongest stress on the final syllable, and the next strongest generally on the first syllable. Others, however, reject this analysis, noting that the apparent final-syllable stress can be ascribed purely to natural lengthening of the final syllable of a phrase, and disappears when a word is pronounced within a sentence rather than in isolation. San Duanmu[1]:136ff takes this view, and concludes that it is the first syllable that is most strongly stressed. He also notes a tendency for Chinese to produce trocheesfeet consisting of a stressed syllable followed by one (or in this case sometimes more) unstressed syllables. On this view, if the effect of "final-lengthening" is factored out:

  • In words (compounds) of two syllables, the first syllable has the main stress, and the second lacks stress.
  • In words (compounds) of three syllables, the first syllable is stressed most strongly, the second lacks stress, and the third may lack stress or have secondary stress.
  • In words (compounds) of four syllables, the first syllable is stressed most strongly, the second lacks stress, and the third or fourth may lack stress or have secondary stress depending on the syntactic structure of the compound.

The positions described here as lacking stress are the positions in which weak (neutral-tone) syllables may occur, although full syllables frequently occur in these positions also.

This preference for a trochaic metrical structure is also cited as a reason for certain phenomena of word order variation within complex compounds, and for the strong tendency to use disyllabic words rather than monosyllables in certain positions.[1]:145–194 Many Chinese monosyllables have alternative disyllabic forms with virtually identical meaning – see Chinese grammar § Word formation.

Another function of voice pitch is to carry intonation. Chinese makes frequent use of particles to express certain meanings such as doubt, query, command, etc., reducing the need to use intonation. However, intonation is still present in Chinese (expressing meanings rather similarly as in standard English), although there are varying analyses of how it interacts with the lexical tones. Some linguists describe an additional intonation rise or fall at the end of the last syllable of an utterance, while others have found that the pitch of the entire utterance is raised or lowered according to the desired intonational meaning.[1]:234

Notes

  1. ^ a b c Lee & Zee (2003) and Lin (2007) transcribe these as approximants, while Duanmu (2007) transcribes these as voiced fricatives. The actual pronunciation has been acoustically measured to be more approximant-like.[2]
  2. ^ Compare the normal treatment in English phonology of "hmm", "unh-unh", "shhh!" and other exclamations that violate usual phonotactic and allophonic rules.
  3. ^ The values of the vowels are discussed in Lee & Zee (2003:110–111), Duanmu (2007:55–58) and Lin (2007:65)
  4. ^ Phonologically the third tone is simply low. Phonetically, however, it may be realized as low falling, low rising or low dipping, depending on context.[18]
  5. ^ a b The second notation given, which may require additional font support to display properly, uses modified Chao tone letters composed of staves plus dots.
  6. ^ The concepts of "word" and "compound" in Chinese are not easily defined.
  1. ^ "A word pronounced in a wrong tone or inaccurate tone sounds as puzzling as if one said 'bud' in English, meaning 'not good' or 'the thing one sleeps in.'" Chao (1948):24.

References

Citations

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab Duanmu (2000).
  2. ^ Lee-Kim, Sang-Im (2014), "Revisiting Mandarin 'apical vowels': An articulatory and acoustic study", Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 44 (3): 261–282, doi:10.1017/s0025100314000267
  3. ^ Ladefoged & Wu (1984).
  4. ^ Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996), pp. 150–154.
  5. ^ 普通话是以北京语音为标准音的。那么北京人为什么还要学习普通话语音呢?这是因为北京话也是一种汉语方言。普通话采取北京语音系统作为标准音,并不是不加分析、不加选择地采用,而是要排除北京话的特殊土语成分。北京话的特殊土语成分可以表现在语音的许多方面。例如:在声母上,一部分年轻女性把普通话舌面前音j、q、x读作舌尖前音z、c、s。[...] 所以,北京人也有一个学习普通话语音的问题。" (Translation) "Putonghua takes the Beijing pronunciation as the standard pronunciation. Then why would Beijingers need to learn Putonghua's pronunciation? Because Beijing Chinese is a Chinese dialect. Putonghua does not absorb the Beijing pronunciation indiscriminately, but has to exclude special dialectal constituents. Special dialectal constituents of Beijing may exhibit in many aspects in pronunciation. For instance, in terms of initials, some young females pronounce anterior dorsal j, q, and x as anterior coronal z, c, and s. [...] Therefore, Beijingers still have the problem of learning Putonghua pronunciation." (北京市语言文字工作委员会办公室(2005). 普通话水平测试指导用书(北京版). Beijing: 商务印书馆. p. 6. ISBN 978-7-100-04553-7.)
  6. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 140–141.
  7. ^ Wan, I-Ping; Jaeger, Jeri J. (2003). "The Phonological Representation of Taiwan Mandarin Vowels: A Psycholinguistic Study". Journal of East Asian Linguistics. 12 (3): 205–257. doi:10.1023/A:1023666819363.
  8. ^ Mou, Xiaomin (2006). Nasal codas in Standard Chinese : a study in the framework of the distinctive feature theory (Thesis). Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  9. ^ a b c Duanmu (2007).
  10. ^ Hashimoto, Mantaro (1970). "Notes on Mandarin Phonology". In Jakobson, Roman; Kawamoto, Shigeo (eds.). Studies in General and Oriental Linguistics. Tokyo: TEC. pp. 207–220. ISBN 978-0-404-20311-5.
  11. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 138–139.
  12. ^ Mair, Victor H. (May 1990). Mair, Victor H. (ed.). "Two Non-Tetragraphic Northern Sinitic Languages: a) Implications of the Soviet Dungan Script for Chinese Language Reform" (PDF). Sino-Platonic Papers. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania (18): A-10. Retrieved 17 June 2016.
  13. ^ Mair, Victor (November 29, 2014). "[reply to comment in] Punning banned in China". Language Log. Retrieved 30 November 2014. At the monosyllabic level, there are a lot of homophones, but the average length of a word is approximately two syllables. So, at the level of the word, there's no problem with homophony.
  14. ^ Pollack, John (2011). The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics. Penguin. pp. Chapter 5.
  15. ^ Wines, Michael (11 March 2009). "A Dirty Pun Tweaks China's Online Censors". The New York Times. Retrieved 12 March 2009.
  16. ^ Yip, Po-ching (2000). The Chinese lexicon: a comprehensive survey. Psychology Press. p. 29. ISBN 978-0-415-15174-0.
  17. ^ Surendran, Dinoj and Levow, Gina-Anne (2004), "The functional load of tone in Mandarin is as high as that of vowels", Proceedings of the International Conference on Speech Prosody 2004, Nara, Japan, pp. 99–102.
  18. ^ Zhu & Wang (2015), p. 514.
  19. ^ "上聲 - 國語辭典" (in Chinese). 中華民國教育部. Retrieved 2018-11-28.
  20. ^ 《古代汉语词典》编写组 (2002). 古代汉语大词典大字本 (in Chinese). Beijing: 商务印书馆. p. 1369. ISBN 978-7-100-03515-6.
  21. ^ 中国社会科学院语言研究所词典编辑室 (2006). 现代汉语词典(第5版) (in Chinese). Beijing: 商务印书馆. p. 1193. ISBN 978-7-100-04385-4.
  22. ^ Chao (1968), p. 27.
  23. ^ Chao (1968), p. 28.
  24. ^ Wang Jialing, The Neutral Tone in Trisyllabic Sequences in Chinese Dialects, Tianjin Normal University, 2004
  25. ^ Yiya Chen and Yi Xu, Pitch Target of Mandarin Neutral Tone (abstract Archived 2007-06-30 at the Wayback Machine), presented at the 8th Conference on Laboratory Phonology Archived 2007-07-14 at the Wayback Machine
  26. ^ 凡例, section 3.5: "一般读轻声、间或重读的字{...}"现代汉语词典(第七版). A Dictionary of Current Chinese (Seventh Edition) (in Chinese). 北京. Beijing: 商务印书馆. The Commercial Press. 1 September 2016. p. 3. ISBN 978-7-100-12450-8.
  27. ^ "重·次轻词语后一音节的读音不太稳定,有"轻化"倾向,是"可轻读词语"。"邢, 福义 (March 2011). 普通话培训测试指要. Putonghua Peixun Ceshi Zhiyao (Second Edition) (in Chinese). 武汉. Wuhan: 华中师范大学出版社. p. 172. ISBN 978-7-562-24795-1.
  28. ^ "4{...}一般读轻声、间或重读的音节{...}"。"普通话水平测试实施纲要. Putonghua Shuiping Ceshi Shishi Gangyao. (First Edition). 北京. Beijing: 商务印书馆. 2004. p. 43. ISBN 7-100-03996-7.

Works cited

  • Chao, Yuen Ren (1948). Mandarin Primer: an Intensive Course in Spoken Chinese. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-73288-9.
  • Chao, Yuen Ren (1968). A Grammar of Spoken Chinese (2nd ed.). University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-00219-7.
  • Duanmu, San (2000). The Phonology of Standard Chinese. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • ——— (2007). The Phonology of Standard Chinese (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Lin, Yen-Hwei (2007). The Sounds of Chinese. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Ladefoged, Peter; Wu, Zongji (1984). "Places of Articulation: An Investigation of Pekingese Fricatives". Journal of Phonetics. 12: 267–78.
  • ———; Maddieson, Ian (1996). The Sounds of the World's Languages. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Lee, Wai-Sum; Zee, Eric (2003). "Standard Chinese (Beijing)" (PDF). Journal of the International Phonetic Association. 33 (1): 109–112. doi:10.1017/S0025100303001208.
  • Norman, Jerry (1988). Chinese. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-29653-3.
  • Zhu, Xiaonong; Wang, Caiyu (2015). "Tone". In Wang, William S.-Y.; Sun, Chaofen (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Chinese Linguistics. Oxford University Press. pp. 503–515. ISBN 978-0-19-985633-6.
  • 國立台灣師範大學, 國音教材編輯委員會 (2008). 國音學 (8th ed.). 正中书局. ISBN 978-9-570-91808-3.

External links

Chinese characters for transcribing Slavonic

Chinese characters for transcribing Slavonic were Chinese characters created for the purpose of transcribing Slavonic sounds into Chinese. The Russian Orthodox Church's mission in China had an interest in translating liturgical texts into Chinese and Japanese, and sought to devise new characters for this purpose.Many of these new characters were proposed by Archimandrite Gurias, the 14th head of the Russian mission from 1858–1864. They would have transcribed certain syllables normally not valid in standard Chinese phonology, such as vin, gi, or reia. These characters were later used for transcription into Japanese as well, with the character pronunciations changed to account for Japanese phonology. However, in both China and Japan, leaders of the Russian missions eventually decided to translate liturgical texts using standard vernacular Chinese and katakana, respectively.The majority of the new characters were composed through combining two existing characters side-by-side as radicals, which would also indicate their pronunciation. Unlike the typical rule of pronouncing the character based on the side radical, used in pronouncing phono-semantic compounds, the radicals are presented in initial-rime pairs. In a method similar to Fanqie, the right-hand character would indicate the syllable initial, while the left-hand character would be used as an indicator of the final. This approach to character formation was intended for vertical reading, where the flow of the text is from top-to-bottom, and ordered from right-to-left. Two exceptions were vertically-arranged characters used as abbreviations of "Christ" and "Jesus".Twenty Slavonic transcription characters were included in Unicode Standard version 10.0.

Chinese phonology

Chinese phonology is covered by the following articles:

Concerning modern Chinese:

Standard Chinese phonology

Cantonese phonology

For the phonology of other varieties of Chinese, see the articles on the particular varieties

For an overview, see Varieties of Chinese → Phonology

Concerning older forms of Chinese:

Historical Chinese phonology

Old Chinese phonology

Close-mid back unrounded vowel

The close-mid back unrounded vowel, or high-mid back unrounded vowel, is a type of vowel sound, used in some spoken languages. Acoustically it is a close-mid back-central unrounded vowel. Its symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet is ⟨ɤ⟩, called "ram's horns". It is distinct from the symbol for the voiced velar fricative, ⟨ɣ⟩, which has a descender. Despite that, some writings use this symbol for the voiced velar fricative.

Before the 1989 IPA Convention, the symbol for the close-mid back unrounded vowel was ⟨⟩, sometimes called "baby gamma", which has a flat top; this symbol was in turn derived from and replaced the inverted small capital A, ⟨Ɐ⟩, that represented the sound before the 1928 revision to the IPA. The symbol was ultimately revised to be ⟨⟩, "ram's horns", with a rounded top, in order to better differentiate it from the Latin gamma ⟨ɣ⟩. Unicode provides only U+0264 ɤ LATIN SMALL LETTER RAMS HORN (HTML ɤ), but in some fonts this character may appear as a "baby gamma" instead.

Close back rounded vowel

The close back rounded vowel, or high back rounded vowel, is a type of vowel sound used in many spoken languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound is ⟨u⟩, and the equivalent X-SAMPA symbol is u.

In most languages, this rounded vowel is pronounced with protruded lips ('endolabial'). However, in a few cases the lips are compressed ('exolabial').

The close back rounded vowel is almost identical featurally to the labio-velar approximant [w]. [u] alternates with [w] in certain languages, such as French, and in the diphthongs of some languages, [u̯] with the non-syllabic diacritic and [w] are used in different transcription systems to represent the same sound.

Close front rounded vowel

The close front rounded vowel, or high front rounded vowel, is a type of vowel sound, used in some spoken languages. Acoustically it is a close front-central rounded vowel. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound is ⟨y⟩, and the equivalent X-SAMPA symbol is y. Across many languages, it is most commonly represented orthographically as ⟨ü⟩ (in German, Turkish and Basque) or ⟨y⟩, but also as ⟨u⟩ (in French and a few other Romance languages and also in Dutch and the Kernewek Kemmyn standard of Cornish); ⟨iu⟩/⟨yu⟩ (in the romanization of various Asian languages); ⟨ű⟩ (in Hungarian for the long duration version; the short version is the ⟨ü⟩ found in other European alphabets); or ⟨уь⟩ (in Cyrillic-based writing systems such as that for Chechen)

Short /y/ and long /yː/ occurred in pre-Modern Greek. In the Attic and Ionic dialects of Ancient Greek, front [y yː] developed by fronting from back /u uː/ around the 6th to 7th century BC. A little later, the diphthong /yi/ when not before another vowel monophthongized and merged with long /yː/. In Koine Greek, the diphthong /oi/ changed to [yː], likely through the intermediate stages [øi] and [øː]. Through vowel shortening in Koine Greek, long /yː/ merged with short /y/. Later, /y/ unrounded to [i], yielding the pronunciation of Modern Greek. For more information, see the articles on Ancient Greek and Koine Greek phonology.

The close front rounded vowel is the vocalic equivalent of the labialized palatal approximant [ɥ]. The two are almost identical featurally. [y] alternates with [ɥ] in certain languages, such as French, and in the diphthongs of some languages, ⟨y̑⟩ with the non-syllabic diacritic and ⟨ɥ⟩ are used in different transcription systems to represent the same sound.

In most languages, this rounded vowel is pronounced with compressed lips ('exolabial'). However, in a few cases the lips are protruded ('endolabial').

Close front unrounded vowel

The close front unrounded vowel, or high front unrounded vowel, is a type of vowel sound that occurs in most spoken languages, represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet by the symbol i. It is similar to the vowel sound in the English word meet—and often called long-e in American English. Although in English this sound has additional length (usually being represented as /iː/) and is not normally pronounced as a pure vowel (it is a slight diphthong), some dialects have been reported to pronounce the phoneme as a pure sound. A pure [i] sound is also heard in many other languages, such as French, in words like chic.

The close front unrounded vowel is the vocalic equivalent of the palatal approximant [j]. The two are almost identical featurally. They alternate with each other in certain languages, such as French, and in the diphthongs of some languages, [i̯] with the non-syllabic diacritic and [j] are used in different transcription systems to represent the same sound.

Languages that use the Latin script commonly use the letter ⟨i⟩ to represent this sound, though there are some exceptions: in English orthography that letter is usually associated with /aɪ/ (as in bite) or /ɪ/ (as in bit), and /iː/ is more commonly represented by ⟨e⟩, ⟨ea⟩, ⟨ee⟩, ⟨ie⟩ or ⟨ei⟩, as in the words scene, bean, meet, niece, conceive; (see Great Vowel Shift). Irish orthography reflects both etymology and whether preceding consonants are broad or slender, so such combinations as ⟨aí⟩, ⟨ei⟩, and ⟨aío⟩ all represent /iː/.

Mid back rounded vowel

The mid back rounded vowel is a type of vowel sound, used in some spoken languages. While there is no dedicated symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents the exact mid back rounded vowel between close-mid [o] and open-mid [ɔ], it is normally written ⟨o⟩. If precision is desired, diacritics may be used, such as ⟨o̞⟩ or ⟨ɔ̝⟩, the former being more common. A non-IPA letter ⟨ⱺ⟩ is also found.

Just because a language has only one non-close non-open back vowel, it still may not be a true-mid vowel. There is a language in Sulawesi, Indonesia, with a close-mid [o], Tukang Besi. Another language in Indonesia, in the Maluku Islands, has an open-mid [ɔ], Taba. In both languages, there is no contrast with another mid (true-mid or close-mid) vowel.

Kensiu, in Malaysia and Thailand, is highly unusual in that it contrasts true-mid vowels with close-mid and open-mid vowels without any difference in other parameters, such as backness or roundedness.

Mid central vowel

The mid central vowel (also known as schwa) is a type of vowel sound, used in some spoken languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound is ⟨ə⟩, a rotated lowercase letter e.

While the Handbook of the International Phonetic Association does not define the roundedness of [ə], it is more often unrounded than rounded. The phonetician Jane Setter describes the pronunciation of the unrounded variant as follows: "[ə] is a sound which can be produced by basically relaxing the articulators in the oral cavity and vocalising." To produce the rounded variant, all that needs to be done in addition to that is to round the lips.

Afrikaans contrasts unrounded and rounded mid central vowels; the latter is usually transcribed with ⟨œ⟩. The contrast is not very stable, and many speakers use an unrounded vowel in both cases.Some languages, such as Danish and Luxembourgish, have a mid central vowel that is variably rounded. In some other languages, things are more complicated, as the change in rounding is accompanied with the change in height and/or backness. For instance, in Dutch, the unrounded allophone of /ə/ is mid central unrounded [ə], but its word-final rounded allophone is close-mid front rounded [ø̜], close to the main allophone of /ʏ/.The symbol ⟨ə⟩ is often used for any unstressed obscure vowel, regardless of its precise quality. For instance, the English vowel transcribed ⟨ə⟩ is a central unrounded vowel that can be close-mid [ɘ], mid [ə] or open-mid [ɜ], depending on the environment.

Obsolete and nonstandard symbols in the International Phonetic Alphabet

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) possesses a variety of obsolete and nonstandard symbols. Throughout the history of the IPA, characters representing phonetic values have been modified or completely replaced. An example is ⟨ɷ⟩ for standard [ʊ]. Several symbols indicating secondary articulation have been dropped altogether, with the idea that such things should be indicated with diacritics: ʮ for z̩ʷ is one. In addition, the rare voiceless implosive series ƥ ƭ ƈ ƙ ʠ has been dropped.

Other characters have been added in for specific phonemes which do not possess a specific symbol in the IPA. Those studying modern Chinese phonology have used ⟨ɿ⟩ to represent the sound of -i in Pinyin hanzi which has been variously described as [ɨ], [ɹ̩], [z̩] or [ɯ]. (See the sections Vowels and Syllabic consonants of the article Standard Chinese phonology.)

There are also unsupported symbols from local traditions that find their way into publications that otherwise use the standard IPA. This is especially common with affricates such as ƛ, and many Americanist symbols.

While the IPA does not itself have a set of capital letters (the ones that look like capitals are actually small capitals), many languages have adopted symbols from the IPA as part of their orthographies, and in such cases they have invented capital variants of these. This is especially common in Africa. An example is Kabiyé of northern Togo, which has Ɔ Ɛ Ŋ Ɣ. Other pseudo-IPA capitals supported by Unicode are Ɓ/Ƃ Ƈ Ɗ/Ƌ Ə/Ǝ Ɠ Ħ Ɯ Ɲ Ɵ Ʃ (capital ʃ) Ʈ Ʊ Ʋ Ʒ. (See Case variants of IPA letters.)

Capital letters are also used as cover symbols in phonotactic descriptions: C=Consonant, V=Vowel, etc.

This list does not include commonplace extensions of the IPA, such as doubling a symbol for a greater degree of a feature ([aːː] extra-long [a], [ˈˈa] extra stress, [kʰʰ] strongly aspirated [k], and [a˞˞] extra-rhotic [a]), nor superscripting for a lesser degree of a feature ([ᵑɡ] slightly prenasalized [ɡ], [ᵗs] slightly affricated [s], and [ᵊ] epenthetic schwa). The asterisk, as in [k*] for the fortis stop of Korean, is the convention the IPA uses when it has no symbol for a phone or feature.

For symbols and values which were discarded by 1932, see History of the International Phonetic Alphabet.

The table below shows examples of expansion in the meaning of IPA symbols in broad transcription.

Open-mid front unrounded vowel

The open-mid front unrounded vowel, or low-mid front unrounded vowel, is a type of vowel sound used in some spoken languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound is a Latinized variant of the Greek lowercase epsilon, ⟨ɛ⟩.

Open back unrounded vowel

The open back unrounded vowel, or low back unrounded vowel, is a type of vowel sound, used in some spoken languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound is ⟨ɑ⟩, and the equivalent X-SAMPA symbol is A. The letter ⟨ɑ⟩ is called script a because it lacks the extra hook on top of a printed letter a, which corresponds to a different vowel, the open front unrounded vowel. Script a, which has its linear stroke on the bottom right, should not be confused with turned script a, ɒ, which has its linear stroke on the top left and corresponds to a rounded version of this vowel, the open back rounded vowel.

In some languages (such as Azerbaijani, Estonian, Luxembourgish and Toda) there is the near-open back unrounded vowel (a sound between cardinal [ɑ] and [ʌ]), which can be transcribed in IPA with ⟨ɑ̝⟩ or ⟨ʌ̞⟩.

The Hamont dialect of Limburgish has been reported to contrast long open front, central and back unrounded vowels. This is extremely unusual.

Open central unrounded vowel

The open central unrounded vowel, or low central unrounded vowel, is a type of vowel sound, used in many spoken languages. While the International Phonetic Alphabet officially has no dedicated letter for this sound between front [a] and back [ɑ], it is normally written ⟨a⟩. If precision is required, it can be specified by using diacritics, such as centralized ⟨ä⟩ or retracted ⟨a̠⟩.

Acoustically, however, the open front [a] is an extra-low central vowel. It is more common to use plain ⟨a⟩ for an open central vowel and, if needed, ⟨æ⟩ (officially near-open front vowel) for an open front vowel. Alternatively, Sinologists may use the letter ⟨ᴀ⟩ (small capital A). The IPA has voted against officially adopting this symbol in 1976, 1989, and 2012.The Hamont dialect of Limburgish has been reported to contrast long open front, central and back unrounded vowels. This is extremely unusual.

Open front unrounded vowel

The open front unrounded vowel, or low front unrounded vowel, is a type of vowel sound, used in some spoken languages. It is one of the eight primary cardinal vowels, not directly intended to correspond to a vowel sound of a specific language but rather to serve as a fundamental reference point in a phonetic measuring system.The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) that represents this sound is ⟨a⟩, and in the IPA vowel chart it is positioned at the lower-left corner. However, the accuracy of the quadrilateral vowel chart is disputed, and the sound has been analyzed acoustically as an extra-open/low unrounded vowel at a position where the front/back distinction has lost its significance. There are also differing interpretations of the exact quality of the vowel: the classic sound recording of [a] by Daniel Jones is slightly more front but not quite as open as that by John Wells.In practice, it is considered normal by many phoneticians to use the symbol ⟨a⟩ for an open central unrounded vowel and instead approximate the open front unrounded vowel with ⟨æ⟩ (which officially signifies a near-open front unrounded vowel). This is the usual practice, for example, in the historical study of the English language. The loss of separate symbols for open and near-open front vowels is usually considered unproblematic, because the perceptual difference between the two is quite small, and very few languages contrast the two. If there is a need to specify the backness of the vowel as fully front one can use the symbol ⟨æ̞⟩, which denotes a lowered near-open front unrounded vowel.

The Hamont dialect of Limburgish has been reported to contrast long open front, central and back unrounded vowels. This is extremely unusual.

Retroflex approximant

The retroflex approximant is a type of consonant used in some languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound is ⟨ɻ⟩, and the equivalent X-SAMPA symbol is r\`. The IPA symbol is a turned lowercase letter r with a rightward hook protruding from the lower right of the letter.

Voiceless alveolar affricate

A voiceless alveolar affricate is a type of affricate consonant pronounced with the tip or blade of the tongue against the alveolar ridge (gum line) just behind the teeth. This refers to a class of sounds, not a single sound. There are several types with significant perceptual differences:

The voiceless alveolar sibilant affricate [t͡s] is the most common type and has an abrupt hissing sound, as the ts in English cats.

The voiceless alveolar retracted sibilant affricate [t͡s̺], also called apico-alveolar or grave, has a weak hushing sound reminiscent of retroflex affricates. It is found e.g. in Basque, where it contrasts with a more conventional non-retracted laminal alveolar affricate.

The voiceless alveolar non-sibilant affricate [t͡θ̠] or [t͡θ͇], using the alveolar diacritic from the Extended IPA, is somewhat similar to the th in some pronunciations of English eighth. It is found as a regional realization of the sequence /tr/ in some Sicilian dialects of Standard Italian.

The voiceless alveolar lateral affricate [t͡ɬ] is found in certain languages, such as Cherokee, Icelandic and Nahuatl.

Voiceless alveolo-palatal affricate

The voiceless alveolo-palatal sibilant affricate is a type of consonantal sound, used in some spoken languages. The symbols in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represent this sound are ⟨t͡ɕ⟩, ⟨t͜ɕ⟩, ⟨c͡ɕ⟩ and ⟨c͜ɕ⟩, and the equivalent X-SAMPA symbols are t_s\ and c_s\, though transcribing the stop component with ⟨c⟩ (c in X-SAMPA) is rare. The tie bar may be omitted, yielding ⟨tɕ⟩ or ⟨cɕ⟩ in the IPA and ts\ or cs\ in X-SAMPA.

Neither [t] nor [c] are a completely narrow transcription of the stop component, which can be narrowly transcribed as [t̠ʲ] (retracted and palatalized [t]) or [c̟] (advanced [c]). The equivalent X-SAMPA symbols are t_-' or t_-_j and c_+, respectively. There is also a dedicated symbol ⟨ȶ⟩, which is not a part of the IPA. Therefore, narrow transcriptions of the voiceless alveolo-palatal sibilant affricate include [t̠ʲɕ], [c̟ɕ] and [ȶɕ].

This affricate used to have a dedicated symbol ⟨ʨ⟩, which was one of the six dedicated symbols for affricates in the International Phonetic Alphabet. It occurs in languages such as Mandarin Chinese, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Albanian and Russian, and is the sibilant equivalent of voiceless palatal affricate.

Voiceless glottal fricative

The voiceless glottal fricative, sometimes called voiceless glottal transition, and sometimes called the aspirate, is a type of sound used in some spoken languages that patterns like a fricative or approximant consonant phonologically, but often lacks the usual phonetic characteristics of a consonant. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound is ⟨h⟩, and the equivalent X-SAMPA symbol is h, although [h] has been described as a voiceless vowel because in many languages, it lacks the place and manner of articulation of a prototypical consonant as well as the height and backness of a prototypical vowel:

[h and ɦ] have been described as voiceless or breathy voiced counterparts of the vowels that follow them [but] the shape of the vocal tract […] is often simply that of the surrounding sounds. […] Accordingly, in such cases it is more appropriate to regard h and ɦ as segments that have only a laryngeal specification, and are unmarked for all other features. There are other languages [such as Hebrew and Arabic] which show a more definite displacement of the formant frequencies for h, suggesting it has a [glottal] constriction associated with its production.

Lamé contrasts voiceless and voiced glottal fricatives.

Voiceless velar fricative

The voiceless velar fricative is a type of consonantal sound used in some spoken languages. It was part of the consonant inventory of Old English and can still be found in some dialects of English, most notably in Scottish English, e.g. in loch, broch or saugh (willow).

The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound is ⟨x⟩, the Latin and English letter x. It is also used in broad transcription instead of the symbol ⟨χ⟩, the Greek chi, (or, more properly, ⟨ꭓ⟩, the Latin chi) for the voiceless uvular fricative.

There is also a voiceless post-velar fricative (also called pre-uvular) in some languages. For voiceless pre-velar fricative (also called post-palatal), see voiceless palatal fricative.

Zero (linguistics)

In linguistics, a zero or null is a segment which is not pronounced or written. It is a useful concept in analysis, indicating lack of an element where one might be expected. It is usually written with the symbol "∅", in Unicode U+2205 ∅ EMPTY SET (HTML ∅ · ∅). A common ad hoc solution is to use the Scandinavian capital letter Ø instead.

There are several kinds of zero:

In phonetics:

A null phoneme indicates that no phone is produced where one might be expected. For example, in syllable structure analysis, null onset indicates that a syllable lacks an initial consonant (onset) that is normally required by phonotactics of the considered language. For an example, see Standard Chinese phonology#Zero onset.In morphology:

A zero morph, consisting of no phonetic form, is an allomorph of a morpheme that is otherwise realized in speech. In the phrase two sheep-∅, the plural marker is a zero morph, which is an allomorph of -s as in two cows. In the phrase I like-∅ it, the verb conjugation has a zero affix, as opposed to the third-person singular present -s in he likes it.

Similarly, a zero inflection is an unrealized inflection, such as in nouns with identical singular and plural forms. For example, plural of sheep can be analyzed as sheep-∅.In grammar:

A zero pronoun occurs in some languages. In the English sentence nobody knows ∅ the zero pronoun plays the role of the object of the verb, and in ∅ makes no difference it plays the role of the subject. Likewise, the zero pronoun in the book ∅ I am reading plays the role of the relative pronoun that in the book that I am reading. In generative grammar, this is also referred to as PRO. In pronoun-dropping languages, including null subject languages such as most Romance languages, the zero pronoun is a prominent feature.

A zero subordinate conjunction occurs in English in sentences like I know ∅ he likes me, in which the zero conjunction plays the role of the subordinate conjunction that in I know that he likes me. This comes naturally to native speakers of English, but some non-native learners of English have to consciously adjust to it, as their native languages rarely do it.

A zero article is an unrealized indefinite or definite article in some languages.

A zero copula, in which a copula such as the verb to be is implied but absent. For example, in Russian the copula is usually omitted in the present tense, as in "Она красивая" (literally: She beautiful), the same happening with colloquial Brazilian Portuguese, as in "irônicos, aqueles" (literally: ironic, those [guys]), though never with the adjective coming after the subject as usual in Romance languages. In English the copula is sometimes omitted in some nonstandard dialects.

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