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As I’m sure many of you know, the number of syllables in Chinese is limited. It’s not like English where you can just throw together practically any letters you want and make a new word (like “craisins”).
So, that means it’s actually possible to make a chart of all the possible syllables in the Chinese language. There are 409 syllables in the Chinese language (by my count, as you’ll see) excluding the various tones each syllable can have (and they can’t all have all 4 tones).
That means there are essentially 409 “words” that you have to learn to say in Chinese, and then you’re done. You’ve learned all the pronunciation you’ll even need (except for tone stuff of course). That may sound like a lot, but it’s really not. I think more than half are easy for English speakers to say without any coaching at all. And they all follow patterns so, with the exception of a few tricky sounds, most of it is easy to learn.
It wouldn’t be possible to make one of these charts for English because there is no limit to how letters can be combined in English. But on this chart, blank boxes represent sounds that do not exist in Mandarin.
Of course, there are a lot more than 409 hanzi characters in Chinese. But they just start recycling those 409 different syllables. The result is that a whole bunch of Chinese words sound the same. That’s good news for those learning how to speak, but bad news for listening comprehension.
I should say at this point that, while “er” is sometimes it’s own syllable (like the number “two” = “èr” 二), there is a hanzi character “er” 儿 that is the only character that can be added to another character and not become its own syllable. For example 玩儿 (meaning “fun / play”), two characters, is written in pinyin as the single syllable “wánr” and means is pronounced “wahr.”
What’s the point of this?
Well a few things.
- I firmly don’t believe the way for beginners to learn Chinese pronunciation is to go through and memorize the chart. No. That’s way too boring. But, I think by seeing what sounds do not exist (the blank boxes), I think it’s easier to understand the ones that do. I’ll explain more in later posts.
- There are some funky spellings for some of the syllables. Some of the syllables have the “ü” umlaut but it’s just written like a regular “u.” And some of the syllables look like they should be pronounced one way, and they’re really pronounced another. (I don’t know how long I was saying “yan” like “yam,” instead of how it should be said: “yen” like the Japanese currency). I’ve color-coded them so that new learners can avoid potential pitfalls.
Since I couldn’t find a good pinyin table or chart that that was easy to download and print, I just made my own based off of one I got from Ian Hudson. Let me know if I left anything off the chart.