dì yī kè pīn yīn

From nowhere to pinyin

For those with little insight to Chinese, the most obvious difference between this language and most European languages is in the writing system. Ever wondered how anyone could understand any of those funny “drawings”? Well, you might not believe it now, but these “drawings” are not that difficult to understand, and after a while, you will see that they really are not drawings, but a complete, wonderful system of writing, and who knows, one day you might find that they even make some sense.

Chinese does not have a phonetical writing system. This means that the written text does not tell you much about how you should pronounce what you are reading. You’ll have to memorize the pronunciation of every character you learn. Just from the top of your head, how many other languages can you think of that do not use a phonetical writing system? Unless you are into some really weird tribal languages, I bet you can think of none. You might say Japanese, but then you would be wrong.

 With all those dialects, this writing system probably comes in handy for the Chinese. They can at least understand each other in writing. Imagine if everyone wrote phonetically in China. There would be no way one could communicate with the other who lives across the river. To also make verbal communication easier, the Chinese government has been enforcing the use of “pŭtōnghuà” (Mandarin), which is based on the Northern dialect, giving priority to the Beijing sub dialect. Pŭtōnghuà is the official language of China, and is about to become the common medium of verbal communication all over the country, despite the fact that no one really speaks standard pŭtōnghuà in their daily life, except when they assume that the other would not understand them otherwise.

Didn’t I say that Chinese writing was not phonetical? So what is this “pŭtōnghuà” thing I keep writing with (almost) Latin letters? Well, to make life easier, especially for the foreign learners, a phonetical transliteration system has been developed for pŭtōnghuà that uses Latin letters. This official system is called the pīnyīn. This is also how we will indicate the pronunciation of Chinese characters in this book, and the pīnyīn will appear under the corresponding characters. Although we do provide pīnyīn in the beginning, it is only for your convenience (and my inconvenience), and you should try to get rid of looking at it all the time, as that is not the way the Chinese write.

Forming of Chinese syllables

Most Chinese syllables consist of three parts: an initial, a final and a tone. The initial is the head consonant; the final is the rest of the syllable. The tone is represented by one of the tone-indicators placed on the main vowel of the syllable. The tone-indicators are: ― (first tone), / (second tone), ٧ (third tone), \ (fourth tone). Sounds too much? There you go:

面 (face)


Initial: m

final: ian

tone: \ (fourth)

蓝 (blue)


initial: l

final: an

tone: / (second

Not all initials can be matched with all finals. The possible combinations of initials and finals can be seen in the table included at the end of the first lesson.

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