Pinyin’s never-used letter?

As most people reading this blog know, Mandarin has about 1,300 syllables (interjections and loan words complicate the count a little). If tones — a basic part of the language — are disregarded, the number of drops to 400 and something syllables.

Given 410 or so basic syllables and 4 tones — one of these days I need to write something more on the wrongful neglect of the so-called neutral tone — some people might expect there to be more like 1,640 syllables instead of about 1,300. The reason for the lower number is that not all syllables exist in all four tones. For example, quite clearly the official language of Zh?ngguó does not lack zh?ng … or zh?ng or zhòng. But zhóng is another matter.

So not all possible tonal variations of those 400-something syllables appear in modern standard Mandarin. But what about letters?

If you look at the official alphabet for Hanyu Pinyin, it’s exactly the same as that for English (other than in pronunciation, of course), which is a bit odd, especially considering that Pinyin doesn’t use the letter v (or at least isn’t supposed to for Mandarin words).

So in this case, I’m excluding v but otherwise being expansionist about the glyphs I’m calling letters. To be specific: I’m referring to a-z, minus v, but including ?, á, ?, à, ?, é, ?, è, ?, í, ?, ì, ?, ó, ?, ò, ?, ú, ?, ù, ü, ?, ?, ?, and ?. (Even though ?, Í, ?, Ì, ?, Ú, ?, Ù, Ü, ?, ?, ?, and ? never come at the beginning of a word, let’s not automatically eliminate them, because there is an occasional need for ALL CAPS.)

Are there any of those possible glyphs that don’t appear at all — at least as given in the large ABC Comprehensive Chinese-English Dictionary?

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is yes.

Which letter is it?

a. ? b. ? c. ? d. ?

Have you made your choice?

It doesn’t take much thought to eliminate C as the answer. “N?” (woman) is one of those first-couple-of-Mandarin-lessons vocabulary terms. And the word for green (l?sè) is hardly obscure either. It might be harder to think of a word with the letter ?; but there are some. Donkey (l?) is probably the most common. So the answer is A: ?.

It’s important to note that the lack of ? is in appearance only. The sound ? occurs in plenty of Mandarin words; it’s just that Pinyin’s simplified orthography calls for writing “u” instead where ? follows j, q, x, or y.

But even though I didn’t find an example of ?, I’d encourage font designers not to scratch it from their list of must-have glyphs for Pinyin faces, especially since teachers will no doubt want to continue giving tone-pattern drills based on four tones for all vowels, regardless. Also, someone with a searchable edition of the Hanyu Da Cidian or maybe the new Oxford online edition is probably about to use the comments to point me to some obscure entry there….

How to handle ‘de’ and interjections in Hanyu Pinyin

cover image for the bookToday’s selection from Yin Binyong’s X?nhuá P?nxi? Cídi?n (???????? / ????????) deals with how to write Mandarin’s various de‘s, mood particles, and interjections.

This reading is available in two versions:

  • simplified Chinese characters: ???? ????? (zhùcí, tàncí)
  • traditional Chinese characters: ???? ?????

I’ve already written about the principles in previous posts. For example, see

How to write numbers and measure words in Hanyu Pinyin

cover image for the bookToday’s selection from Yin Binyong’s X?nhuá P?nxi? Cídi?n (???????? / ????????) is about writing numbers and measure words.

This reading is available in two versions:

For more on this, see these posts and the PDFs linked to therein.

How to write verbs in Hanyu Pinyin (Mandarin text)

cover image for the book

Here’s the first of several selected readings from Yin Binyong’s X?nhuá P?nxi? Cídi?n (???????? / ????????). It covers the writing of verbs.

This reading is available in two versions:

  • simplified Chinese characters: ???? ??
  • traditional Chinese characters: ???? ??

For those who would like to read about this in English, see

important book on Pinyin to be excerpted on this site

cover image for the bookX?nhuá P?nxi? Cídi?n (???????? / ????????), is the second of Yin Binyong’s two books on Pinyin orthography. The first, Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and Orthography, is in English and Mandarin; much of it is already available here on Pinyin.Info.

Although Xinhua Pinxie Cidian is only in Mandarin, the large number of examples makes it easy to get the point even if you may not read Mandarin in Chinese characters very well.

This week I will begin posting some excerpts from this invaluable work. What’s more, I have made a version in traditional Chinese characters, which I hope that readers in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere will take advantage of. So those not used to reading simplified Chinese characters will have a choice (which is more than the government of Taiwan is providing these days).

I’m extremely happy to be able to bring you this information and wish to acknowledge the generosity of the Commercial Press. Stay tuned.

Spreading the good news

Behold, I bring you good tidings.

As I keep having to note, most of the things that are supposedly in Pinyin are terrible. This is not because Pinyin itself is inherently poor or difficult. It’s because most people who produce such things have a fundamental lack of understanding of Pinyin as a system. (And, yes, that includes most users in China.) So it is with amazement that I report today on a journal that not only offers dozens of pages in Hanyu Pinyin — good Hanyu Pinyin — but does so twice every month. It’s also well worth noting that the journal is aimed primarily at adult native speakers of Mandarin, not foreigners trying to pick up the language, though certainly it could also be read by people in the latter group.

From what I’ve seen so far, this journal gets right the things most commonly written incorrectly elsewhere, including:

And it doesn’t use the atrocious ɑ that some people mistakenly believe is required either.

Unfortunately, punctuation and alphanumerics are not included in the Pinyin. But other than that there’s very little that doesn’t follow standard Pinyin orthography, the main exception being the indication of the tone sandhi related to the special cases of and , (e.g., the journal gives “bú shì” and “búdà” instead of the standard “bù shì” and “bùdà,” and “yìhuíshì” and “yí wèi” instead of the standard “yīhuíshì” and “yī wèi“). That said, though, tone changes related to yi and bu can be something of a pain. So although this isn’t standard, I can see why it was done and am not entirely unsympathetic to this approach.

Here are a few sample lines (click to enlarge):
screenshot of some text in the journal, showing text in simplified Chinese characters with word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin above the Hanzi. Note: Yifusuoshu/以弗所書 = Ephesians

It would be nice if this were in Unicode, to help aid searches and cutting and pasting. The text, however, appears to have been made in a system devised years ago by the people at the journal. Regardless, I’m happy to see the Pinyin.

Overall, despite the lamentable absence of punctuation and Arabic numerals in the Pinyin, this is quality work, which is perhaps all the more remarkable in that the Pinyin and simplified Hanzi edition of this journal is not truly free to circulate in the land of its target audience. That’s because its publishers are Jehovah’s Witnesses, a group suppressed by the PRC (though it appears that at least at the moment their sites are not blocked by the great firewall). The journal, Shǒuwàngtái, may be more familiar to you by its English name: Watchtower. Whatever you might think of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I hope you’ll recognize the considerable accomplishment of those who put together this publication.

Getting to the Jehovah’s Witnesses Web pages that link to Shǒuwàngtái can be tricky. (Go to the magazines page, select “Chinese (Simplified)” for the language; then choose the month and file with Pinyin.) So I’m providing direct links to some documents below:

I haven’t found any Pinyin editions other than those. Perhaps old ones are taken offline.

Rénrén Dōu Xūyào Zhīdao De Hǎo Xiāoxi (I'd prefer 'de' instead of 'De' -- but that's no big deal) 人人都需要知道的好消息

With thanks to Victor Mair.

Wenlin releases major upgrade (4.0)

Wenlin logoOne of my favorite programs, Wenlin (which bills itself as “software for learning Chinese”), has just released a major upgrade for both Mac and Windows versions. This doesn’t happen often; it has been three-and-a-half years since the most recent big change was issued (Wenlin 3.4) and heaven only knows how long since 3.0 came out. So, yes, this release has many substantial improvements.

One of the features nearest and dearest to my heart is that Wenlin 4.0 features greatly improved handling of Pinyin. I was among the field testers for the new version, so I’ve already spent a lot of time examining this feature. Here are a few important aspects of this:

  • Conversions from Chinese characters follow Hanyu Pinyin orthography much more closely than before. This is a major change for the better. (There’s still some room for improvement. But I don’t think we’ll have to wait years for this.)
  • In the past, using Wenlin to convert long texts in Chinese characters into Pinyin could be a real chore, with users having to examine example after example of Chinese characters with multiple pronunciations in order to select the proper pronunciation for that particular context. But now users may, if they so desire, tell Wenlin not to ask users for disambiguation input. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Wenlin will always guess right; but many users will be happy that this trade-off allows them to skip the frustration of, for example, having to tell the program over and over and over that, yes, in this case 說 is pronounced shuō rather than shuì.
  • Relative newcomers to Mandarin may appreciate that for common words tone sandhi is indicated in Wenlin with additional marks (a dot or line below the vowel). This feature can also be turned off, for those who want standard Pinyin.

There are, of course, many improvements beyond the area of Pinyin. Here are a few:

  • One limitation of Wenlin 3.x was that its English dictionary wasn’t very large. But Wenlin 4.0 includes not only the ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary but also the excellent new ABC English-Chinese, Chinese-English Dictionary (now finally in stock in the printed version).
  • The flashcards are now set up to handle not just individual characters but polysyllabic words.
  • There’s full Unicode Unihan 6.0 support for more than 75,000 Chinese characters.
  • And for those who think 75,000 just isn’t enough, users can now access Wenlin’s CDL technology. Through this, users can create new, variant, and rare characters; moreover, these can be published and shared with other Wenlin users or CDL-friendly devices.
  • Seal script versions of more than 11,000 characters are provided.
  • Wenlin contains an e-edition of the Shuowen Jiezi (Shuōwén Jiězì / 說文解字 / 说文解字).
  • Coders will be interested to know that Wenlin appears to be headed toward becoming open-source.
  • Both Mandarin and English entries are marked with grade levels, which aids learners by indicating relative frequency of use. The levels for Mandarin words are based on the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (Hànyǔ Shǔipíng Kǎoshì / 汉语水平考试 / 漢語水平考試 / HSK).

The full version (i.e., the CD with the program comes in a box and is likely packaged with a hard copy of the manual) is US$199, or US$179 if you download it from the Wenlin Web store. Upgrades from 3.x cost US$49.

For more information, see the summary of features and outline of what’s new in Wenlin 4.0.

screenshot from Wenlin 4.0 -- click for larger version

Xin Tang 4

cover of issue number 4 of the journal 'Xin Tang (New China)'The fourth issue of Xin Tang is now online.

For those of you wondering why Xin Tang is spelled Xin Talng on the cover, that’s because parts of this particular issue use a tonal-spelling variation of Hanyu Pinyin, as follows.

Simple rules for tonal spelling

  1. ma (?) / ling (?)
  2. mal (?) / lilng (?)
  3. maa (?) / liing (?)
  4. mah (?) / lihng (?)
  5. “‘” biaaoshih qingsheng, kee’shi “‘de” dou –> “d”.

Here, for example, is a message from the publisher.

Colng zheih yihqi qii SHIN TARNG gaai weil XIN TALNG, shiiyohng d welnzih yii Pin Yin (jiaan xiee PY) weil jichuu. Duobahn d welnzhang yohng yooudiaoh PY xiee. Biaodiaoh faa qiing kahn fengmiahn erh xiah’tou d jiaandan shuomilng.

The same passage in Pinyin with tone marks:

Cóng zhèi yì q? q? SHIN TARNG g?i wéi XIN TANG, sh?yòng d wénzì y? P?n Y?n (ji?n xi? PY) wéi j?ch?. Du?bàn d wénzh?ng yòng y?udiào PY xi?. Bi?odiào f? q?ng kàn f?ngmiàn èr xià’tou d ji?nd?n shu?míng.

Not all of the romanization in this issue follows that form. Some has no special spellings but instead uses tone marks. Some has no tone marks. Give ’em all a try and see what you think.

Xin Tang 4 (PDF)