HanYu-Pinyin is the official Romanisation system of the People's Republic of China (PRC). HanYu-Pinyin uses the Latin alphabet to transcribe the pronunciation of Chinese characters. Its main purpose is to spell Chinese names in order to become legible to non Chinese speakers or Chinese learners. HanYu-Pinyin is used by learners of Chinese all over the world to become familiar with the Chinese pronunciation. HanYu-Pinyin also includes tone marks to teach the reader the correct use of the four tones. Apart from that HanYu-Pinyin serves as an input method for entering Chinese text into computers with a standard ASCII keyboard.
Chinese is a tonal language. Words having the same syllables change their meaning through the use of their individual tone. Each Chinese syllable is pronounced by using one out of the four following tones:
Apart from the four tones shown on the table, there is also the neutral tone (fifth tone). The fifth tone has no pitch. The pitch of the neutral tone depends on the preceding tone. The neutral tone is not emphasised and is a bit shorter than the other tones. In HanYu-Pinyin the accent above the word stands for the tone used (e.g. ā, á, ă, à).
The following table uses the syllable 'ma' to show how its meaning changes according to the four tones:
Note: Apart from the Chinese characters we will also be giving you HanYu-Pinyin and audio examples to make it easy for you to read and pronounce the examples correctly.
If we translated the question 'Are you American?' into HanYu-Pinyin, it would read as follows: 'Nín shì Mĕiguó rén ma?'.
Tones in succession
If we use two or more syllables in succession which all have the Third Tone (e.g. hĕn hăo), the first syllable changes to the Second Tone and the second syllable keeps the Third Tone (hén hăo).
If we use two syllables in succession which all have the Fourth Tone (e.g. bù duì), the first syllable changes to the Second Tone and the second syllable keeps the Fourth Tone (bú duì).
Tone change in the number 一 (yī)
The number 一 (yī) changes its tone when pronounced in succession, (e.g. yībān changes to yìbān.
If the number 一 (yī) is followed by a word having the second tone (e.g. tiáo), the number yī changes to yì (e.g. yì tiáo).
If the number 一 (yī) is followed by a word having the third tone (e.g. qǐ), the number yī also changes to yì (e.g. yì qǐ).
If the number 一 (yī) is followed by a word having the neutral (fith) tone, the First Tone changes to the Second Tone (e.g. yí ge rén)
Tone change in the neutral tone
Sometimes the second syllable of bysillabic words loses its original tone and changes to the neutral tone. The pronunciation of the word for 謝謝 (thanks) changes from xièxiè to xièxie. The second syllable is no longer pronounced in the fourth tone but in the neutral tone. Other example are 弟弟 (younger brother) changing from dìdì to dìdi.
Most of the time, the suffix 子 also changes its pronunciation from zǐ to the neutral tone zi when put at the end of a noun (e.g. háizǐ changes to háizi).
For typing Chinese characters into the computer, most people in the PRC and Western Chinese learners are using Hanyu Pinyin. In Taiwan Zhuyin (Bopomofo) is predominantly used.
Chinese input methods for computers
Input methods are methods that allow the user to input Chinese text into computers. One example of an input method is Microsoft's Input Mode Editor (IME). The input method converts the phonetic entry in HanYu-Pinyin into the corresponding Chinese character. If there are more characters corresponding to the phonetic entry, the input method lists all characters in question. The user then selects the right character from the list. Most input methods have their own learning curve and arrange the proposed characters by the frequency of their occurrence.
In our example the user wants to enter the character 花. For this, the user needs to know the phonetic spelling of the word in HanYu-Pinyin, which in our case is hua.
After entering the phonetic entry hua, the input method lists all characters corresponding to this sound. The user then selects the matching character from the list. In our case this would be the character number 3.
In order to limit the range of characters, apart from the sound the user can also enter the tone (1-5) of the character in question. In our case this would be the 1st tone (hua1). The list is then limited to all characters having the sound hua and the 1st tone.
If, after entering the phonetic sound in HanYu-Pinyin (e.g. xian), the user is unsure which character of the list is the correct one, most input methods offer a fuzzy search.
With the IME, for example, right-clicking on the arrow symbol in the lower right corner informs the user which sound and tone the selected character corresponds to (e.g. 'xian4'). Apart from that, the IME also shows characters of the same tone and characters having a similar sound (e.g. 'xuen4' und 'xiang4').
Even Chinese do not always know the pronunciation of a character unknown to them. In such a case, the IME Pad lets you draw the character by hand or you can pick
it from a list containing all characters and radicals in use. The list is ordered according to the number of strokes or radicals in ascending order.
The screenshot below shows all characters in use which consist of one, two or three strokes. The user can pick the character he is looking for from the list.
In the following example we want to find the character 事 in the list of radicals. The character's radical is 亅. Apart from its radical, the character consists of 7 additional strokes. In the screenshot below, we see all characters containing the radical 亅.
If we only want to see the characters containing the radical 亅 and having 7 additional strokes, we will find the radical we are looking for, namely the character 事.