Kindles and Pinyin

Sure, Amazon Kindles can store thousands of books, play mp3 files, provide Web access, and allow one to spend money on books with alarming ease. But can they handle Pinyin?

photo of a Kindle 3 displaying the opening of 'Muqin Chujia' -- showing that all tone marks appear correctly


This test was made on a Kindle 3 purchased at a U.S. retail store. All three typefaces — regular, condensed, and sans serif — worked well.

Yes, Kindles can display Hanzi as well — though there may be some problems with those appearing correctly in book titles in the device’s index.

Below are links to my files, in case you want to test this yourself. I’d appreciate hearing about how Nook and other devices handle this. Thanks.

Script font for Pinyin

Unfortunately, relatively few fonts support Hanyu Pinyin (with tone marks, that is). So I was surprised to come across Pecita, by Philippe Cochy. This is the first script typeface I recall seeing that covers Pinyin … and a lot more.

It might be too individualistic for much Pinyin use. But I’m very glad to know it exists and hope to see many more creations like it.

GIF of Pecita in action: A-Z, a-z, plus the diacritics used in Pinyin and a pinyin pangram

Pecita is licensed under the SIL Open Font License, Version 1.1.

Additional links:

Google Web fonts and Hanyu Pinyin

Back in the last century, getting Web browsers to correctly display Pinyin was such a troublesome task that I remember once even employing GIFs of first- and third-tone letters to get those to look right. So there were a whole lotta IMG tags in my text. Sure, I put the necessary info in ALT tags (e.g., “alt=’a3′”), just in case. But, still, I shudder to recall having to resort to that particular hack.

Things are better now, though still far from ideal. Something that promises to considerably improve the situation of website viewers not all having the same font you may wish to use is CSS3’s @font-face, which allows those creating Web pages to employ fonts that are provided online. Google is helping with this through its Google Web Fonts. (Current count: 252 font families.)

But is anything in Google’s collection capable of dealing with Hanyu Pinyin? Armed with a handy-dandy Pinyin pangram, I had a look at what Google has made available.

Not surprisingly, most of the 29 font families marked as offering the “Latin Extended” character set failed to handle the entire Hanyu Pinyin set. The ??? group is the most likely to be unsupported at present, with third-tone vowels also frequently missing.

Here are the Google Web fonts that do support Hanyu Pinyin with tone marks:

  • EB Garamond (227 KB)
  • Gentium Basic (263 KB — and about the same for each of the three accompanying styles: italic, bold, bold italic)
  • Gentium Book Basic (267 KB — and about the same for each of the three accompanying styles: italic, bold, bold italic)
  • Neuton (56 KB — and about the same for each of the five accompanying styles: italic, bold, light, extra light, extra bold)

screenshot of the Pinyin fonts above


  • Neuton has relatively weak tone marks, so I wouldn’t recommend it for Web pages aimed at beginning students of Mandarin.

Sans Serifs

  • Andika (1.4 MB)
  • Ubuntu (350 KB) — available in eight styles

screenshot of the Pinyin fonts above

Some Ubuntu sample PDFs: Ubuntu regular, Ubuntu italic, Ubuntu bold, Ubuntu bold italic, Ubuntu light, Ubuntu light italic, Ubuntu medium, Ubuntu medium italic.

Andika sample PDF.


  • Andika’s relatively large size (1.4 MB) makes it unsuitable for @font-face use because of download time. (Its license, however, would permit someone with the time and energy to crack it open and remove lots of the glyphs not needed for Pinyin, thus reducing the size.) More fundamentally, though, I don’t much like the look of it; but YMMV.

Since Google is likely to expand the number of fonts it offers, I’m including the list of all 29 faces I tried for this experiment, which should make it easier for those wanting to test only new fonts. (It is possible, however, that Pinyin support will be added later to some fonts that fail in this area now. If anyone hears of any such changes, please let me know.) Use of bold indicates Pinyin support; everything else failed.

Display Faces with Latin Extended (all fail)

  • Abril Fatface
  • Forum
  • Kelly Slab
  • Lobster
  • MedievalSharp
  • Modern Antiqua
  • Ruslan Display
  • Tenor Sans

Handwriting Faces with Latin Extended (all fail)

  • Patrick Hand

Serif Faces with Latin Extended

  • Cardo
  • Caudex
  • EB Garamond
  • Gentium Basic
  • Gentium Book Basic
  • Neuton
  • Playfair Display
  • Sorts Mill Goudy

Sans Serif Faces with Latin Extended

  • Andika
  • Anonymous Pro
  • Anton
  • Didact Gothic
  • Francois One
  • Istok Web
  • Jura
  • Open Sans
  • Open Sans Condensed
  • Play
  • Ubuntu
  • Varela

Additional resource: SIL Fonts for downloading (including the full versions of Andika and Gentium).

Key Chinese updated, adding new Pinyin features

The program Key, which offers probably the best support for Hanyu Pinyin of any software and thus deserves praise for this alone, has just come out with an update with even more Pinyin features: Key 5.2 (build: August 21, 2011 — earlier builds of 5.2 do not offer all the latest features).

Those of you who already have the program should get the update, as it’s free. But note that if you update from the site, the installer will ask you to uninstall your current version prior to putting in the update, so make sure you have your validation code handy or you’ll end up with no version at all.

(If you don’t already have Key, I recommend that you try it out. A 30-day free trial version can be downloaded from the site.)

Anyway, here’s some of what the latest version offers:

  • Hanzi-with-Pinyin horizontal layout gets preserved when copied into MS Word documents (RT setting), as well as in .html and .pdf files created from such documents.
  • Pinyin Proofing (PP) assistance: with pinyin text displayed, pressing the PP button on the toolbar will colour the background of ambiguous pinyin passages blue; right-clicking on such a blue-background pinyin passage will display the available options.
  • Copy Special: a highlighted Chinese character passage can be copied & pasted automatically in various permutations.
  • Improved number-measureword system: it now works with Chinese-character, pinyin and Arabic numerals.
  • Showing different tones through coloured characters (Language menu under Preferences).
  • Chengyu (fixed four character expression) spacing logic: automatic spacing according to the pinyin standard (Language menu under Preferences).
  • Option to show tone sandhi on grey background (Language menu under Preferences).
  • Full support of standard pinyin orthography in capitalization and spacing.
  • Automatic glossary building.

Some programs, such as Popup Chinese’s “Chinese converter,” will take Chinese characters and then produce pinyin-annotated versions, with the Pinyin appearing on mouseover. Key, however, offers something extra: the ability to produce Hanzi-annotated orthographically correct Pinyin texts (i.e,, the reverse of the above). If you have a text in Key in Chinese characters, all you have to do is go to File --> Export to get Key to save your text in HTML format.

Here’s a sample of what this looks like.

B?n bi?ozh?n gu?dìngle yòng? Zh?ngwén p?ny?n f?ng’àn? p?nxi? xiàndài Hàny? de gu?zé? Nèiróng b?okuò f?ncí liánxi? f?? chéngy? p?nxi?f?? wàiláicí p?nxi?f?? rénmíng dìmíng p?nxi?f?? bi?odiào f?? yíháng gu?zé d?ng?

Basically, this is a “digraphia export” feature — terrific!

If you want something like the above, you do not have to convert the Hanzi to orthographically correct Pinyin first; Key will do it for you automatically. (I hope, though, that they’ll fix those double-width punctuation marks one of these days.)

Let’s say, though, that you want a document with properly word-parsed interlinear Hanzi and Pinyin. Key will do this too. To do this, a input a Hanzi text in Key, then highlight the text (CTRL + A) and choose Format --> Hanzi with Pinyin / Kanji-Kana with Romaji.

In the window that pops up, choose Hanzi with Pinyin / Kanji-kana with Romaji / Hangul with Romanization from the Two-Line Mode section and Show all non-Hanzi symbols in Pinyin line from Options. The results will look something like this:

GIF of a screenshot from Key, showing an interlinear text with word-parsed Pinyin above Chinese characters. This is an image of the text after being pasted into Microsoft Word.

This can be extremely useful for those authoring teaching materials.

Furthermore, such interlinear texts can be copied and pasted into Word. For the interlinear-formatted copy-and-paste into Word to work properly, Key must be set to rich text format, so before selecting the text you wish to use click on the button labeled RT. (Note yellow-highlighted area in the image below.)

screenshot identifying the location of the button that needs to be pressed to make the text RTF

iOS app for writing Pinyin with tone marks

Those of you who, unlike me, own an iPhone, an iPad, or an iPod Touch may find the new Pinyin Typist Mac application of use.

Taffy of Tailingua had a look at this for me.

I’ve had a play with the Pinyin application and I’m generally quite positive about it. It’s clean, unfussy, and gets the job done. The automatic positioning looks to be flawless (i.e. typing zhuang1 gives you zhu?ng, not zh?ang)…. Overall though I like it, as it does what it set out to do without any showboating or unnecessary steps (excepting apostrophes).

Although I wish the apostrophe and hyphen were right there on the main screen instead of on a secondary one, the program allows people to do what they need to do: type Pinyin with tone marks.

It sells for US$3.99 US$2.99.

[Headline changed from “Mac app for writing Pinyin with tone marks”]

The where and why of missing second tones

image of 'zhong' written with 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th tone -- with the 2nd-tone one in light gray instead of black textMy previous post mentioned that not all tonal permutations exist in the real world. For example, modern standard Mandarin has zh?ng, zh?ng, and zhòng, but doesn’t have zhóng. I did not, however, get into any of the reasons for the absence of second-tone zhong.

Fortunately, my friend James E. Dew, who is much more qualified than I to discuss such fine points of linguistics, was kind enough to send in the explanation below. Jim used to teach the Chinese language and linguistics at the University of Michigan; and for many years he directed the Inter-University Program (a.k.a. the Stanford Center) in Taipei. He is also the author of 6000 Chinese Words: A Vocabulary Frequency Handbook and coauthor of Classical Chinese: A Functional Approach.

Most simply stated, Mandarin syllable shapes with unaspirated occlusive initials and nasal finals don’t occur in second tone. This can be restated a bit less opaquely for those who have not studied Chinese historical phonology, as follows:

Syllables that begin with unaspirated stops b, d, g, or affricates j, zh, z, and end in a nasal n or ng, as a rule don’t have second-tone forms. There are a few exceptions, such as béng ( / “needn’t”) and zán ( / “we”), which were new words formed by contraction — from búyòng and zámén, respectively — after the tone class split described below took place.

This came about because when Middle Chinese (of Sui-Tang times) píngshēng 平声/?? split into yīnpíng 阴平/?? (modern Mandarin “first tone”) and yángpíng 阳平/?? (M “second tone”), syllables with aspirated initials went into the new yángpíng class, while those with unaspirated initials all fell into the yīnpíng (M first tone) group, thus leaving no unaspirated syllables with nasal finals in the modern Mandarin second tone class.

An interesting corollary to this rule is that among Mandarin “open” syllables (those that end in a vowel) with the above-listed initials, almost all of the second-tone syllables derive from Middle Chinese rùshēng 入声/??, and their cognates have stop endings in the southern dialects that preserve rùshēng, as illustrated by the Cantonese examples given below.

For those who like to pronounce what they read, Cantonese rùshēng syllables have level tones, either high, mid or low. In the Yale romanization used here, high tone is marked with a macron (e.g., dāk), mid tone is unmarked, and low tone is signified by an h following the vowel. A double “aa” sounds like the “a” in “father,” while a single “a” is a mid central vowel. Thus baht sounds like English “but” and dāk sounds like English “duck.”
  Mandarin Cantonese
bái baahk
báo bohk
別/别 bié biht
敵/敌 dihk
閣/阁 gok
國/国 guó gwok
極/极 gihk
夾/夹 jiá gaap
結/结 jié git
節/节 jié jit
覺/觉 jué gok
決/决 jué kyut
雜/杂 jaahp
澤/泽 jaahk
閘/闸 zhá jaahp
zhái jaahk
zhé jit
執/执 zhí jāp
zhí jihk
zhú jūk
濁/浊 zhuó juhk

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 Zhōngguó does not lack zhōng … or zhǒng 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 ā, á, ǎ, à, ē, é, ě, è, ī, í, ǐ, ì, ō, ó, ǒ, ò, ū, ú, ǔ, ù, ü, ǖ, ǘ, ǚ, and ǜ. (Even though Ī, Í, Ǐ, Ì, Ū, Ú, Ǔ, Ù, Ü, Ǖ, Ǘ, Ǚ, and Ǜ 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. ǖ b. ǘ c. ǚ d. ǜ

Have you made your choice?

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

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

But even though I didn’t find an example of ǖ, 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