When you are learning a new language, one of the first places to start is with its alphabet.
But what if you’re learning a language that HAS no alphabet?
Welcome to Chinese!
Contrary to the headline of this article, Chinese does NOT have an alphabet. Well, sort of. It actually does have a form of an alphabet, but this alphabet isn’t used the same way you use the English alphabet…
Why There is No Chinese Alphabet
Unlike English, the Chinese alphabet helps people with pronunciation ONLY. So it’s really more of a Chinese phonetic system than a Chinese alphabet.
Because actual written Chinese doesn’t use an alphabet at all. Instead, it’s made up of radicals and other complex stuff that we won’t go into right now. Topic for another article.
So if you want to read and write Chinese, you had better start by learning Chinese radicals.
But if you want to speak Chinese, you need to learn the “Chinese alphabet.”
Bopomofo, and Pinyin, and Zhuyin, Oh My!
The Chinese phonetic alphabet is also known colloquially as bopomofo, after its first four letters: bo, po, mo, and fo, just like in English we sometimes refer to the alphabet “the ABCs.”
There are two main systems of writing the Chinese alphabet. The pinyin system, used by mainland China, and the zhuyin system used by Taiwan.
To see at a glance how pinyin and zhuyin correlate, here’s a handy chart for you:
The Difference Between Pinyin and Zhuyin: Which Should You Learn?
The pinyin system uses the same ABCs that English speakers use. And the zhuyin system uses its own symbols.
So you’re probably wondering: Which one should you learn?
Well, pinyin is more common. After all, there are more people in China, and if you’re reading this, you already know your ABCs. So you don’t have to learn a whole new set of symbols to learn pinyin.
However, many English learners struggle to pronounce Chinese accurately exactly because they’re trying to pronounce pinyin the way they pronounce English. They do this subconsciously, out of habit, and habit is hard to change.
There are a lot of similarities between pinyin and English phonetics of course. But a lot of differences as well. So it can be confusing for some people to learn two pronunciation systems for the same written alphabet.
My recommendation? Go ahead and learn pinyin because it’s easy.
But if you have the interest and bandwidth to learn zhuyin as well, that might help you avoid some common pronunciation mistakes.
(And if you ever want to impress a Taiwanese person, you might decide to brush up on your zhuyin too!)
In this article, we’re going to cover both, so either way, you’ll be prepared.
How the “Chinese Alphabet” Works
Chinese “letters” are split into initials, medials, and finals. Initials start the word, medials are in the middle, and finals end the word. For example, here is the word “zhong,” meaning “center, middle,” and the first character in the word “Chinese,” 中文 (zhongwen).
If you’re speaking Chinese, you’ll also need to learn the 4, sometimes 5 tones of the language, but we’re gonna save that topic for another time.
So let’s take a look at the alphabet, starting with the initials.
First, we have the labial initials. They’re called labials, because they use your lips: ㄅ B, ㄆ P, ㄇ M, ㄈ F
So the first one, ㄅ, think of a burger. Now, get rid of the “-urger” and you get “ㄅ” In pinyin, it’s just a “b,” and the zhuyin looks a bit like a mouth facing left, about to eat a burger.
Now we have ㄆ. For this letter, think of a purring cat, get rid of the “-ring cat,” and you have ㄆ. In pinyin, it’s a “p,” and the zhuyin looks a bit like a cat’s face…maybe a one-eared cat with whiskers?
Then ㄇ is the same as “money” without the “-oney.” ㄇ. The pinyin is “m” and the zhuyin looks a bit like an upside down wallet shaking out money.
The last labial initial is ㄈ, as in a “fun game” without the “-un game.” As you can see, ㄈ is represented by an “f” in pinyin, and in zhuyin, imagine a gameboy controller on its side. Next:
Now we move on to the second kind of initials, the dental initials, so named because in order to create these sounds, you have to touch the tip of your tongue to the back of your teeth. And they are: ㄉ D, ㄊ T, ㄋ N, ㄌ L.
So ㄉ is a “duck” without the “-uck.” The pinyin is D, which makes sense, and the zhuyin looks a bit like a duck’s profile, with a wing.
Then ㄊ is like when you say “tough guy,” and get rid of the “-ough guy.” The pinyin is simply a “T.” And as for the zhuyin, Imagine a tough guy flexing his arms. And maybe even holding a dumbbell.
Now, for ㄋ, we have the pinyin “n” as in “nut.” (of course, without the -ut. Just ㄋ) To remember the zhuyin, think of a nut hanging off a branch.
The last dental initial is ㄌ. As in, “lucky 4 leaf clover” without the “-ucky 4 leaf clover.” And no surprise, the pinyin is L. And the zhuyin, looks a bit like a 4-leaf clover, or at least the intersection of 4 leaves? Yes? No? You can use your imagination 😉
Next we have the guttural initials: ㄍ G, ㄎ K, and ㄏ H.
ㄍis pronounced like “gut punch” without the “-ut punch.” The pinyin is “g” and for the zhuyin, imagine two people getting gut punched, and doubling over in pain. That’s kind of what it looks like.
For ㄎ think of a cross person saying “c’mere!” Then get rid of the “-ome here” and you get ㄎ. In pinyin, ㄎ is represented by a K. And the zhuyin looks like an angry face with an open yelling mouth.
Now ㄏ is like honey without the “-oney.” In pinyin, it’s an H. And in zhuyin, imagine a wand dripping honey.
Okay, we’ve come to the the palatal initials: ㄐ J, ㄑ Q, ㄒ X.
ㄐ is like a genie, without the “-nie.” The pinyin is J and the zhuyin looks a bit like a genie with a smokey tail or something along those lines…use your imagination!
Then ㄑ is like the sound of a cheeping bird. “Chee(p) chee(p) chee(p)!” The pinyin is unusual here. It’s a Q. It’s not CH because that represents a different sound that we will get into soon. So whoever invented pinyin decided to use the letter Q instead.
And we finish the palatal initials with ㄒ, as in “she went to the restroom.” The zhuyin is another unusual one. Its an X instead of an SH because, again, SH represents a different sound that we will cover in a few seconds. So remember X = ㄒ. As for the zhuyin, it looks exactly like the English capital letter T, or perhaps part of the female bathroom sign.
Now the retroflex initials are ㄓ ZH, ㄔ CH, ㄕ SH, ㄖ R. In Chinese, they’re called 捲舌音 (Juǎn shé yīn) literally translated, “rolled tongue sounds,” because you kinda have to roll up the edges of your tongue to pronounce them.
But here is where different accents can come into play. Just like British and American English speakers don’t pronounce everything the same, Chinese speakers don’t all pronounce things the same way.
Some people like to really emphasize the tongue rolling, while others have more “flat tongues.” Which can confuse some people because that’s basically how you pronounce the dental sibilant initials which we’re going to cover next.
ㄓ is a bit tricky to say. Here’s one way to think about it. First, try to say “drummer.” Then get rid of “-ummer” and just say ㄓ. Notice you don’t say d-rummer, you say drummer. So, drummer. ㄓ-ummer. The pinyin is “zh,” and the zhuyin (Ha! Notice, zhuyin uses ㄓ as its initial sound) Anyhow. The zhuyin looks a bit like a snare drum on a stand.
Now ㄔ is like when you say “truck” and get rid of the “-uck.” The pinyin is CH, and the zhuyin looks a bit like the windshield wipers of a truck. That’s how you can remember it.
Then we have ㄕ which is like when you say “mushroom,” and get rid of the “mu-” and the “-oom.” So, muㄕoom, ㄕoom, ㄕ. The pinyin is SH, which makes sense, and the zhuyin looks a bit like a leaning mushroom.
Then we have ㄖ which is like all of the previous retroflex initials, cutting off the first part of the sound. So try shushing someone: Shh! Now, vocalize the sound and you get ㄕ (like the mushroom example earlier), now get rid of the SH, and you get ㄖ.
Here’s a good example of how pinyin is not the same as English. In pinyin, ㄖ is represented by R, but you don’t pronounce it “r” or “er” or anything like that. You pronounce it ㄖ. Actually, “er” is a different sound entirely in the Chinese alphabet. We’ll get to it, don’t worry.
Dental Sibilant Initials
Dental sibilant initials. ㄗ Z, ㄘ C, ㄙ S. These are like the skinny cousins of the retroflex initials.
ㄗ is like when a mosquito gets too close to an electric fly swatter or a lamp and it goes DZZZAP! It’s not just zzzz, it’s dzzzzz, like with a d-ish sound at the beginning. ㄗ. The pinyin is Z, and the zhuyin looks a bit like a lamppost.
For ㄘ think of a putz without the “pu-.” Putz is Yiddish for “a stupid guy,” by the way. Now, I know clowns aren’t stupid, but they like to act stupid, so there. And the zhuyin looks a bit like a clown squatting or something and holding his arms out like he’s juggling.
Then here’s ㄙ, as in “snake without the -nake.” The pinyin is S, of course, and the zhuyin looks a bit like a coiled snake rearing its head.
Whew! Those are the initials. Now let’s take a look at the medials. There are 3 of them. 一 I/YI, ㄨ U/WU, and ㄩ Ü/YU.
一 is like someone screaming “eek! I’ve seen a ghost!” and running away as far as their legs can take ‘em. The pinyin is YI if 一 is standing alone or starting a word. Oh yes, by the way, 一 can also act as initial sound sometimes. But if the 一 is serving as a medial, in the middle of a word, it’s just written as an “I.”
And here’s a way to remember the zhuyin: The dash lines of somebody zooming away.
Now, ㄨ is like when you see someone trip and fall on their face and you’re like, “ooh! That’s gotta hurt.” The pinyin is U when the ㄨ is in the middle of the word, or WU when the ㄨ is standing alone.
The zhuyin ㄨ looks kind of like an X. Like the emoticon version of the face you make when you watch someone trip and fall.
Now ㄩ is one of the most difficult sounds for monolingual English speakers to grasp. I hear there’s a similar sound in French, but not English.
But it’s not really that hard once you get the trick. Here’s how to make this sound.
Think of the word “sweet.” Now say it slowly: “soo-weeet.” Now, when you are saying the “ee” part, don’t draw your lips back. In other words, don’t stop saying “oo.” “soo-eeet.” “oo-ee” “ㄩ.”
ㄩ is like a combination of ㄨ and 一 from before. Oo-ee = ㄩ.
The pinyin is YU which is why so many Chinese names get completely mangled. It’s not pronounced “you,” as in “you and I” but ㄩ as in the vowels of the word “sweet,” mushed together. ㄩ
For the zhuyin, think of a sweet cupcake in a cupcake tin.
And that’s it for medials!
Now we get to the finals, and there are quite a few of these.
Okay. First one. ㄚ. Think of a kid who’s just been let out for summer break, going “YAAAAA!” then get rid of the y, and you haveㄚ. The pinyin is A and the zhuyin looks exactly like a newly-freed student raising his fists in victory.
Now, ㄛ is another sound that doesn’t exist in English. Think of someone yawning and not able to form their vowels properly. The pinyin is just an O, and the zhuyin looks a bit like a face yawning, eyes scrunched into a line.
The next letter, ㄜ looks and sounds similar to ㄛ, but it’s different. Think of someone who sees a dead rat and goes, “ugh! What’s that doing there!” Ugh. ㄜ. That’s how you say that sound.
The pinyin is E. Not U because that may make people confuse it with the earlier vowel, ㄩ which is spelled YU or sometimes just U. So to remember the zhuyin, think of a face with an eyebrow cocked up in disgust. Ugh! A dead rat. ㄜ
Next we have ㄝ. Which is also an E in pinyin, sometimes distinguished by italicizing it or adding a caret on top. So for this sound, think of Homer Simpson saying “meh.” The zhuyin looks a little bit like a guy crossing his arms and going meh!
The next final is ㄞ. As in “ice skaters” without the “skaters.” ㄞ. The pinyin is AI and the zhuyin looks a bit like a male skater raising a female skater into the air.
Now we have ㄟ. As in “waving flag,” without the “-ving flag.” ㄟ. The pinyin is EI, and the zhuyin looks like a flag waving in the wind.
Next. ㄠ is like when you skin your knees and you’re like “OW!” ㄠ. Its pinyin is AO, and the zhuyin looks just like the two bent knees of someone who’s just fallen.
Then here is ㄡ. As in the vowel you use to say “bow tie,” ㄡ. The pinyin is OU. And the zhuyin looks a bit like a bow tie in the process of being tied.
Now for ㄢ, there isn’t a very good English equivalent. It’s not “ann” and it’s not “on.” It’s somewhere in between. The best example I could think of is the Spanish word for bread: pan. As in, “panaderia,” bakery. The pinyin is AN, and the zhuyin looks a bit like a baker’s hat.
Okay. Next one: ㄣ. Spelled EN in pinyin. Think of an old person saying of a child, “Look at that cute li’l young’un.” Not “-en,” but ㄣ. And to help you remember the zhuyin, think of the face of a “young’un.”
Next. ㄤ. In pinyin, ANG. It’s kind of close to the word “wrong” without the wr. And the vowel is a little flatter. So it’s not wrONG with an -ong, but closer to -ahng. Like someone going -aaaaahh and then adding an ng at the end. Imagine a figure tapping his foot angrily and going “you’re wrong!” But feel free to come up with your own mnemonics as well.
Okay. ㄥ is close to “dung” without the “d.” ㄥ. So it’s not -ung, but ㄥ. In pinyin, that’s ENG. And the zhuyin looks kind of a like a nose sniffing dung. I know, not a pretty picture.
And now… the last letter of the bunch! This letter is ㄦ. In pinyin, that’s ER. So for the zhuyin, imagine an uncertain person stuttering over his words: “Errr…I don’t know what to say.”
Remember to Practice Your Pinyin (and Zhuyin)!
You did it! You made it through all 36 letters of the Chinese alphabet! Huzzah! You deserve a chocolate milkshake! (Or whatever your favorite treat is)
As a disclaimer, don’t worry if you don’t remember it all right away. You’ll want to hear this several times and go over it repeatedly for it to sink in. That’s also why it helps to sing Chinese, then you get used to hearing these sounds repeated in a non-annoying way.