20 April 2012

Let's All Learn Chinese

Mists of Pandaria draws heavily on Chinese culture and language to create Pandaria and the races that populate it. Because of that, we are being inundated with fun and excited new words inspired by or taken directly from Mandarin and written in pinyin for English speakers. If my experience growing up in the US is any indication, most people probably don't know how to properly pronounce pinyin. The important thing to remember is that although it uses English letters to represent Mandarin written without characters, it doesn't use the same pronunciation rules as English! I don't pretend to be very good at Chinese - I took two semesters in college and had to quit in the 3rd when I started bombing Japanese tests, but hopefully this small guide to basic pronunciation will help players as they meet their new Pandaren pengyou!

I'm going to shamelessly take pronunciation guides from this very comprehensive page that includes not only the actual IPA symbols for the romanized letters, but also the nonstandard approximation "phonics" that makes phonics turn into "fonix."There are also pronunciation equivalents using English vocabulary on the Wikipedia page. The two guides don't always agree on the IPA for each vowel, so I've made do as best I can. Please feel free to submit any comments or suggestions for better pronunciation!

The good news is that the following initial consonants are pronounced about the same as they are in English (brackets indicate the IPA symbol):
  b, d, f, g, k, l, m, n, p, s, t, w, y, ch, sh
[ b, d, f, g, k, l, m, n, p, s, t, w,  j,  tʃ,  ʃ  ]

Then there are the other initial consonants.

c [tsʰ]: cats
j [tɕ]: itchy ("the blade of the tongue replaces the tip against the mouth roof and the tongue tip is placed against the back of the lower teeth")
q [tɕʰ]: cheer ("the blade of the tongue replaces the tip against the mouth roof and the tongue tip is placed against the back of the lower teeth")
r [ʐ]: (Like "j" and "r" together, as in "pleasure". A retroflex sound; the tongue is similar to the normal "r" but is curled further back in the mouth)
x [ɕ]: she ("the blade of the tongue replaces the tip against the mouth roof and the tongue tip is placed against the back of the lower teeth")
z [ds]: lids (wiki lists this as cats)
zh [tʂ]: merger

And now the extensive list of vowels, dipthongs, and ending consonants.

a [a]: father
ai [ai]: my
an [an]: fond
ang [aŋ]: car + song
au [au]: how
e [ə]: about
ei [ei]: pay
en [ɛn]: taken
eng [əŋ]: hung
er [ɑɹ]: are
i [i]: bee (when after b, d, j, l, m, n, p, q, t, x)
   [ɨ]: (like a swallowed buzzing when after z, c and s)
   [ɝ]: (like an "r" after ch, sh, zh and r)
ia [ja]: yah
ian [jɛn]: yen
iang [jaŋ]: y + can + song
iao [jau]: yow
ie [jɛ]: yes
in [in]: seen
ing [iŋ]: seen + song
iong [joŋ]: yawn + song
iu [io]: yo-yo
o [uɔ]: wet + bore
ong [oŋ]: own + song
u [u]: too (after most letters)
    [y]: similar to cute (after j, q, x and y)
    [ü]: similar to French eu (after n and l)
ua [wa]: wash
uai [wai]: why
uan [wan]: wand (after most letters)
          [wɛn]: went (after j, q, x, y)
uang [waŋ]: wand + song
ue [yɛ]: "oo-weh" (written üe after n and l)
ui [wei]: way
un [ʊen]: book + went (after most letters)
        [yn]: win (after j, q and x)
uo [uɔ]: wet + bore

Phew! That was exhausting. Ready to practice out loud? You can hear the swallowed "i" sounds when she pronounces z, c, s, ch, sh, zh, and r. Listen and repeat:

If you want to apply this to actual things in Mists, you should first read WoW Insider's very good article on the new elementals and the origin of their names. Much of the information was submitted by a Chinese-speaking fan, so there is a lot of interesting native-speaker insight into the word choice.

Next, I'd like to direct your attention to the name of the new race. Pandaren is a combination of panda (actually xiong mao 熊貓) and ren (人), ren being the word for person/people. Making pandaren...panda people! So next time you say that they aren't panda people...well, I'm not saying, I'm just saying...

Now, let's apply what we've learned to some character and place names from the Pandaren starting zone. (Mild spoilers for closeup pictures of NPC/place names and titles.)

Chia-hui (chya hway), Lin (leen), Zhen (juhn)
Dewei (duh-way)
Gao; Dai Lo (die low)
Jaomin Ro
Shang Xi (shang shee)
Shen (shun)
Ren (run)
Deng (dung); Cai (tsai)


  1. I still get kind of nervous how this expansion is going to be perceived in Asia. I just hope we don't end up with a WoW version of Jar-Jar Binks.

    1. I'm right there with you. Beta gen chat is already taking a nasty turn for the racist, but I hope that the actual game is palatable to the culture it's modeling.

  2. Ah, posts like these make me happy. Thank you very much! It's fun to try to pronounce things correctly. Let's see...

    Well, as it turns out, I have been pronouncing stuff fairly close to what they are supposed to be pronounced. Except for a slight mispronounciation on the , my pronounciation of Master Shang Xi was pretty spot on. Then there are more "grave" mistakes on my part like with Shen pronounced as [ʃɛn].
    Interestingly, I seem to have more problems with the vowels (e.g. when an is pronounced [e] or [ə] or what have you).

    Would you say "un [ʊen]" is pronounced a bit like a soft (engl.) "when" (if you make sure not to pronounce it [ʰwɛn])? I come off pronouncing it like that, anyway. Then again, I am in no way an expert for Asian languages and theoretical linguistic knowledge is not all that useful when it comes to actual pronounciation.

    A question out of shere interest: are /l/ and /r/ (as perceived by speakers of "European languages") allophones in Mandarin? I know they are in Korean, where it's pronounced more like [l] at the end of a syllable and more like [r] at the beginning of a syllable. In this case, I would describe the corresponding r-sound as more retroflex and tapped (almost like a [d]) and I am just too lazy to get the 'correct' symbol from IPA. I still hope you know what I mean, though.

    1. Hooray! Linguistics nerds *_*

      I figured that although some of the pinyin letter choice is pretty easy for English speakers to guess, some of them (c, zh, ui) would be a mystery, and I wanted to head it off before everyone got too used to saying Tu Shui as Tu "Shooey."

      As for "un" I would say that yes, I've heard it said (by my teacher) like that. You can try listening to 滾 in google translate to hear it!

      It's been a while since I took linguistics, so I hope I understand your question. As in, are /l/ and /r/ allophones of the same phoneme? I'm not sure, but my initial guess is no. If I'm understanding your description of the Korean [r] it's the same as the Japanese one. For Mandarin, initial /r/ is that buzzing sound like in "pleasure" whereas final /r/ is like "are." /R/ and /l/ do create minimal pairs like "re" and "le" and "rang" and "lang."

    2. That is exactly what I wanted to know. Thank you once again.

  3. I love the idea but I didn't to look at any beta pics so I'm sorry Aka I had to skim a bit, but I like how you've put this pronunciation thing for all those who wonder about the linguistics of chinese.

    1. The only spoilers are the pictures at the bottom of the post, so if you got that far you read basically the whole thing ^_^

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. And "Panda" is "Bear Cat" (熊貓). Bear-Cat-People. And they can't be druids? A slap in the face! ;)

    1. Oh for sure!! As a die-hard druid enthusiast, I would totally love a panda druid. I mean, I got over trolls and even *humans* (well, worgen, but HUMANS) being druids so I could get behind some cuddly pandaren druids!! :)