Saturday, May 15, 2010

The "sleeping cats" guide to pinyin pronunciation

How much does pinyin confuse you? Which is the worst part for you?

In this short post, I show how "cats & zeds" will help you overcome a common pronuncation mistake. (PS. I know Americans say "zee" not "zed" - but for this to work, pretend you don't.)

Pinyin is the system which provides a method for pronouncing the Chinese characters using a Roman alphabet (and tone marks). It was developed by the Chinese for the Chinese - and let's face it, although it's the system we use in the West, if Westerners had designed it, I think we would have used different letters to represent the different sounds.

c is pronounced "ts",  z is "dz", zh is like "j", x is "sh" (kinda) ... sigh.

For me, the parts I got wrong in the beginning were mainly 'c' and 'z', and even today I find myself stumbling over words like "cún​zài" (存在 - to exist) when I talk too fast for my brain.

You might have a similar problem. In fact, you might not even realise you have the problem!

For example, when I meet other students of Mandarin in London, and I listen to sentences like "I live in London" (wǒ​ zhù​ zài​ Lún​dūn​), the 'zai' is often pronounced 'tsai' and not 'dzai' - so I know I'm not the only one.

Perhaps this might help ...
    cats & zeds
    [c]a[ts] & [z]e[dz]
    c is prounced 'ts'  &  z is pronounced 'dz'

Test yourself - how do you pronounce 汉字 (Hàn​zì​ - Chinese character), 现在 (xiàn​zài​ - now), 菜单 (cài​dān​ - menu), 词典 (cí​diǎn​ - dictionary)?

So cún​zài would (phonetically) be [ts]un-[dz]ai. Got it?
Cats & Zeds. Got it?



  1. Yes, I always stumbled over 'c' and 'z'. 'c' is fine, but damn I just can't get the 'z' always right. I always end up saying 'c'. But you've got some good tips. Thanks!

    Also I've posted this up on

  2. Great observation of cats and zeds!
    I might be wrong but I though the hanyu pinyin system actually uses letters for pronunciation that are standard in romanisation of other languages also.
    The initials also modify the vowels that follow. In English it's not always clear if "i" is long ("sing") or short ("sin") for example (although what follows the vowel often modifies it), whereas in pinyin "ji" is always a long "i" and "zhi" is always a short "i"

  3. Niel, thanks for commenting on this. I wish I'd got it right from the beginning, because it's the words I learned early (incorrectly) which I still trip-up on, like: za, xianzai, hanzi, etc. Hopefully this article will help others *before* they get into a bad habit!

    Puerhan, I didn't think that the pinyin system matched any other systems (although I'm sure they overlap in places). For example, I can't imagine writing 'c' for 'ts' (or 'e' for 'uh', like 'feng') can be particularly common. Happy to be proven wrong, though.

    Yeah, and the fact that vowels change their sound confuses me too (although I accept that English is infinitely worse). Compare, for example, the pronuncation of: ya, yan, yang.

  4. Representing pinyin 'z' as "[dz]" is problematic in that the sounds in English "[dz]" are voiced (something in your throat vibrates when you produce each consonant), while pinyin 'z' represents a sound that that is not voiced.

    "C" as the 'ts' in 'cats' is an excellent analogy.

  5. Hi kdobson, thanks for your comment. I'm not sure I fully understand your point (although I liked the part where you wrote "excellent analogy" :-)

    Ultimately, I was trying to come as close to the 'correct' pronunciation as I could, and the ending sound of "zeds" (or "heads" or "kids" ...) definitely sounds more like "dz" than "ts".

  6. Interesting article Greg.

    I tend to struggle the most with s, sh and x sounds. The s and sh applies to every language I guess.

  7. Pronunciation is the way a phrase or a vocabulary is used, or the manner in which someone utters a phrase. If you are said to have got "correct pronunciation", then it refers to both inside a particular dialect. How to pronounce London place-names