Shwa for Chinese

By Chinese, I mean 中囯话 zhōngguóhuà , also known as 普通话 pǔtōnghuà or 汉语 hànyǔ, the national standard language spoken by about three quarters of the Han Chinese in a swath from Manchuria to Yunnan. I don't mean:

Almost every Chinese syllable fits a neat formula: an initial consonant is followed by a medial semivowel, then a vowel, and finally a coda: a consonant or off-glide (the word coda is the Italian word for "tail"). The whole syllable is also spoken with a tone, which we mark on the vowel. Some of these five elements may be missing or hidden in the written form.


In Chinese, there are 21 initials (声母 shēngmu). Here they are, shown with their pinyin romanizations and their IPA transcriptions (in green).

bp dt zʦ zh jʨ gk
p t cʦʰ chtʂʰ qʨʰ k
ff ss shʂ xɕ hx
mm nn rʐ

The sounds in pink are affricates and sibilants. The sounds in the fourth column (zh ch sh r) are retroflex (laminal post-alveolar), while the sounds in the fifth column (j q x) are (alveolo-)palatal. The letters in all three columns have U-shaped bottoms that kind of look like a tongue. This tongue points down for the alveolars, up for the retroflexes, and sideways for the palatals.

It's also possible for a syllable to have no initial.


The medials form a simple pattern: they are all formed high in the mouth - they're the consonant versions of closed vowels. Two are front semivowels, and two are back semivowels. One of each pair is pronounced with lips rounded; the other with lips spread.

Semivowels front back
spread yj ɰ
round ÿɥ ww

The medial is always there, but it's not always written. It's never written when it's followed by the matching vowel, unless there's no initial : bwu is written bu, but wu is written wu. The ɰ semivowel matches a e o, so it's only written when there's no initial : mɰa is written ma but ɰa is written ɰa.


Before considering the vowels, let's look at the codas. There are five of them:

Codas front back
oral -i -u
nasal -n -ng
rhotic -r


Now we're ready to consider the vowels. There are actually only two of them: mid e and open a. What makes it interesting it that the vowel takes on the characteristics of the semivowel before it and the coda after it. The two vowels have one form for when they're front, another for when they're central, and another for when they're back (for which we use round letters, even though they're not very round in Chinese).

Vowels front central back pinyin
mid ɛ ə ɤ e, o
open æ a ɑ a

Here are the rules for which form each vowel takes in the standard dialect, although you don't have to memorize them - write each main vowel as you pronounce it (or hear it), and it will be understood:

It's also possible for a syllable to have no vowel, in which case the semivowel is extended to include its vowel, as in shı, xi, shu and .

The combination of semivowel, vowel and coda is called the final (韻母 yùnmu). Here's a chart showing all the finals of Chinese, in Alphabet gait and in pinyin:

-i -e -ei -ou -en -eng
-a -ai -ao -an -ang
-i -ie -iu -in -ing
-ia -iao -ian -iang
-u -uo -ui -un -ong
-ua -uai -uan -uang
-üe -ün -üong

Pinyin spelling has some variations that Shwa doesn't need :


The only Chinese syllable that doesn't fit this pattern is er, as in the number 2 二 èr.


But when it spells the diminutive suffix 兒 or 儿, it combines with the preceding syllable to produce a rhoticized final: the coda becomes -r and the vowel also changes :

-ir -er -eir -our -enr -engr
-ar -air -aor -anr -angr
-ir -ier -iur -inr -ingr
-iar -iaor -ianr -iangr
-ur -uor -uir -unr -ongr
-uar -uair -uanr -uangr
-ür -üer -ünr -üongr

In Character gait, the -ur finals in the fourth column are written with both finals. The accent is written next to the vowel:

The -ngr finals in the last column are written with the nasal sign written next to the vowel:


Shwa also marks the tone. The tones of Chinese are contour tones: it's the change in pitch that counts, not the pitch itself. The five tones are:

level rising dipping falling no tone
1st 2nd 3rd 4th "5th"

The first and third tones use the same accent mark, but it's written over the vowel in 3rd tone. Here are the five tones applied to the vowel a :

1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th

The dipping (3rd) tone is pronounced differently and written differently when followed by another tone in the same word. If the following tone is another dipping tone, the first one is written as a low rising tone and the second one is written as a low falling tone. Otherwise, the dipping tone is written as a low falling tone.

nǐ hǎo ní hào
mǎi yú mài yú

In Character gait, the rising and falling accents are written with semi-circular tails.

Character Gait

Chinese is normally written in Character gait, in which the elements are arranged to form a square character. The details of Character gait are explained on the Gaits page, so we'll just give you some examples here.

Putting it all together, why don't you try reading a sentence?

知者不言, 言者不知

© 2002-2017 Shwa 15may17