Chinese characters are a very old writing system. Along with the even older Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, it is the only writing system among the world's 50 or so, past and present, to represent meaning directly - all the others represent sound, so that you have to know the language to be able to read. That's not true in Chinese; in fact, the same character can be read in many different ways among the numerous languages that use characters and even within a single language. Most characters include an element that represents a partial or former pronunciation, but it doesn't indicate the current pronunciation.
The Chinese believe that characters have important advantages over alphabets: that they're easier to read or easier to understand, but those claims are dubious. The same text in characters is normally about as long - and takes about as long to read - as its alphabetic translation. But characters are definitely much harder to learn! To address this issue, over the last century, the Chinese governments have simplified many characters, to mixed acclaim.
Another reform has been the introduction of an alphabet for auxiliary uses. The current system, called pinyin, is based on the Latin alphabet. It's used to indicate pronunciation, in dictionaries and in the classroom, and also used for text entry, sorting and lookup. In pinyin, every standard Chinese syllable has a unique spelling, although (like English!) it falls short of being a phonetic spelling.
Nor can pinyin be used to write the other Chinese languages like Wu (Shanghaiese), Min (Fukienese or Taiwanese), or Yue (Cantonese); the non-Chinese languages of China like Korean, Manchu, Mongolian, Uighur, Tibetan, Miao or Zhuang; or foreign names of people and places - it's used just for standard Chinese.
The rest of this page will describe the use of Shwa to replace pinyin. For a discussion of why Shwa might replace characters, please visit this page.
Pinyin, developed in the 1950s, is the latest and most successful in long series of romanizations, starting with the Wade-Giles system of 1892. It closely follows the Yale romanization of the 1940s, but adapted for native speakers, not Americans. It uses the English alphabet (with ü and without v) to write similar sounds of Chinese, but uses digraphs and odd readings for other Chinese sounds. For example, q represents a ch sound, while x represents a sh sound. The final -i represents three different sounds, while the finals -ian -iu -ui -un don't sound like they're spelled. Because of these difficulties, pinyin can't be read naturally by readers of any other Roman-alphabet language. But that's also true of English!
One unfortunate side effect of this idiosyncracy is that learning pinyin doesn't help Chinese people learn English or other Roman-alphabet languages. Chinese visitors to Flushing (New York) - the largest Chinatown outside Asia - may be surprised to learn that the borough name Queens doesn't begin with the sound they write que (chüe tɕʰye), but instead with the familiar kw- sound that qu spells in almost every Roman-alphabet language. Another problem with pinyin is that the accents used for tones and the letter ü are not available on most keyboards and fonts - people often use v instead of ü for this reason.
But the main problem of pinyin is not its unusual uses of Roman letters; it's its use of Roman letters! Spelling out pronunciation is a very important function - why should Chinese use an alphabet that is so poorly suited for it? Pinyin requires us to use digraphs like sh ch zh ng, unusual readings like x q c z, ambiguous letters like i, a dieresis over ü, capitalization, and other deficiencies ... to what end? To make Chinese legible to foreigners? To fit Chinese within the limitations of ASCII computers? They achieved neither; they deserve better.
In contrast, the Shwa alphabet has letters for all the sounds of Chinese, including the tones: 22 consonants, 5 semivowels, 11 vowels, and 3 accents. And the same letters can be used to write Cantonese, Zhuang and even English! In Shwa, Chinese is usually written in Character gait, which combines all the sounds of a syllable into one block, like Chinese characters. The arrangement of each block makes these characters easier to distinguish. The rest of this page will explain how it works.
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.
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.
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 back spread semivowel matches a e o, so it's only written when there's no initial : mɰa is written ma but ɰa is written with a visible semivowel.
Before considering the vowels, let's look at the codas. There are five of them:
Now we're ready to consider the vowels. There are actually only three phonemic vowels: close, mid and open. What makes it interesting is that the vowel takes on the characteristics of the medial before it and the coda after it, so that there are 12 phonetic vowels. We use round letters for the back vowels in Shwa, even though they're not very round in Chinese. Here they are, with the mid vowels in pink:
The high vowel always matches the medial, while the low vowel matches the coda: front æ before front codas -i and -n, and back ɑ before back codas -u and -ng. The mid vowel is much more varied in its pronunciation. Here's a description of the variation, but you don't have to memorize it: just write each vowel as it's pronounced:
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:
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 :
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:
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 :
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|
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, but here's a summary of how it's used in Chinese.
Each syllable is written in a square that measures 3x3 "cells" the size of a Shwa vowel. In this square are arranged the following elements :
The Initial + Medial ligature always fills the entire lefthand column, establishing a rhythm. If there's no initial, just the medial is written. If there's no coda, a Break is used in its place, so that there is always a visible coda. The position of the accent, vowel and coda depend on the tone:
The -ur finals in the fourth column above are written with both finals. The accent, with no tail, is written next to the vowel:
The -ngr finals in the last column above are written with a reduced nasal sign written next to the vowel:
Syllables within a word are separated by Breaks, but the Breaks aren't visible in Character gait, except when a coda is missing (as in Sichuan below). Words are separated by spaces. Writing is horizontal, from left to right. Here are some examples:
Putting it all together, why don't you try reading a sentence?
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