Some brief thoughts on pinyin

The muddy world of transcriptions.
One of the things I forgot to mention about Joe Bennett’s book was the lack of his use of pinyin (拼音) for the few Chinese words he included and his assumption that because it’s not a transparent system of transcription, it’s another instance of oriental obscurantism. It’s true that you can’t know the pronunciation of Chinese from pinyin without first knowing what sound each letter represents and, in the case of some vowels, the context, but it’s also true that you can’t know how to pronounce any language from its writing system, even those in which spelling reflects phonemic-level pronunciation with a high degree of accuracy. English, as we all know, is fairly hopeless because the spelling and pronunciation of the standard language parted company long ago.
With pinyin, as with any language, you have to learn what sound each letter represents. As I said, for some vowels, the context is important because, for example, the i of 四 sì “four”, 士 shì “scholar” and 戏 xì “play” is different in each case. The first two are often described as a prolongation of the consonant, the former sounding like a high central vowel, and the latter like a rhotacised vowel; the third is the only one which is a high front vowel.
It struck me that pinyin is the sort of system of transcription which a structuralist linguist might devise within the constraint that only the letters of the Latin alphabet, as used in English, should be employed to do the job. From an English perspective, although some of the values of the letters are utterly opaque, others such as t and d seem fortuitously cunning because English t is inherently aspirated, while d, in an initial position, is half voiced so that they do sound, roughly, like Mandarin /th/ (t) and /t/ (d) respectively. On the other hand, it doesn’t work with c /tsh/ and z /ts/ because it appears that /s/ doesn’t just suppress the aspiration in /sC/ clusters in English, but also in /Cs/ clusters. While English speakers may hear a contrast between /ts/ and /dz/ as the way in which we pronounce c and z, that’s not how it works in Mandarin. In fact, I find that the pronunciation of c sounds more like /tšh/ (i.e., an aspirated English ch) than the aspirated version of the affricate /ts/.
Once you are familiar with pinyin, you know what you’re doing, but you have to surmount that initial hurdle so that you don’t keep telling everyone, as one of my erstwhile colleagues once did, that she came from “Zizilan” (to be pronounced as in English) because the x’s of xīnxīlán (新西兰 “New Zealand”) are, roughly speaking, palatal fricatives, and not /z/ as we pronounce word-initial x in English.

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