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How many sounds in pinyin (for example, a ai an ang ao = 5)?


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It'll depend which pinyin chart you look at, as there are some fairly obscure sounds where you might only have one or two rarely-used characters and these may or may not be included depending on who is compiling the chart. The one I have handy lists 407. That said, I didn't count very carefully.

An example would be 忒, which (according to the ABC) can be pronounced tè,tēi. It's the only character which comes up in my IME's for tei, and 'tei' isn't included in my chart - but it may be in others. Pinyinput also doesn't let me type tēi when it's set to check the pinyin is correct.

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Dear Realmayo,

Are you counting ‘sounds’ or syllables? From a linguistic point of view, what you have is ‘a’, ‘i’, ‘n’ and ‘ŋ’ (to use the IPA symbols). I don’t know whether ‘ai’ is a diphthong in Chinese (and hence considered a separate ‘sound’ or phoneme) or whether it is merely the combination of ‘a’ plus ‘i’. So, is your question about how many meaningful sounds (phonemes)—as opposed to less important variations—there are in Mandarin; or are you asking how many different syllables (possible sound combinations) there are?


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Thank you very much for your replies.

It is in fact the total number of different chinese syllables as rendered in pinyin that I was after, ie how many entries are there in a pinyin chart. And I wasn't including the tones.

So Roddy's 407 is encouraging, hardly any more than the 401 I had. I don't want to suddenly find an extra 10 or 20 that I hadn't counted on, although I know that they'd be getting more & more obscure at this point.

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In case you're interested why: I'm finally getting around to using a system to memorise how to write characters. In a nutshell, you have to assign every pinyin sound its own "person" and "place". For the "people", you have to write down the names of 10 memorable characters from a film or tv series or whatever that you know well, and do that for about 40 films (hence, just over 400 people, grouped by cast list, for the 400-odd sounds).

The "places" are determined by identifying around 15 buildings you know well (eg places you've lived) each with five rooms or so: and in every room you have a little journey (in a set direction, eg clockwise) which moves around five key places in that room.

So, for example, for the letter A which I reckon begins only 5 pinyin sounds, I might assign the top half of the cast of CSI Miami, and the living room of an old flat I lived in in China: hence:

a ... Horatio ... telephone table

ai ... Frank ... desk

an ... Calleigh ... tv

ang ... Delko ... water dispenser

ao ... Wolfe ... nasty hard wooden armchair

So to recall the character for love ai4 爱, I can first bring to mind the setting of my old desk.

Also: each of the four tones is to be associated with four brand new individuals: say I've chosen Richard Branson (I haven't...) for all fourth tones.

And various radicals and key character components also have their own associations, associated with the "people" if the component is itself a character ("you" for 友, the bottom part of 爱).

So: a version of my "story" for 爱 would take place at my desk in my old room in China. Branson is there, looking in love, holding up a cooked chicken foot (which I'm associating with the radical at the top of 爱) while the "person" I'm associating with 友 is cowering embarassed under a bit hat (which I'm associating with the middle part of the 爱 character).

This method taken from a defunct website called haoyao.com.

I was pointed in its direction by a thread on sinosplice.com -- http://www.sinosplice.com/life/archives/2006/12/13/mandarin-tone-tricks --

to the archived version of the haoyao.com website: http://web.archive.org/web/20001204191300/www.haoyao.com/#body .

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Me too! ... initially.... but the more I thought about it the more I liked it (and I should say I'm not sure if each and every part of a complicated character will get the full treatment from me -- I find often it's enough to remember the radical and the first couple of strokes, or a key component, for the rest of the character to spring to mind.)

The set-up is very easy to learn once you've trawled your knowledge of film & TV and places you've lived and worked in. Using a geographic journey (ie for the "places") is a very standard memorisation technique, (eg for memorising the order of a pack of playing cards) and it's very simple. And the "people", well they come in "casts" ie in a block so that makes that part much easier. And they reinforce each other (each sound has a place and a person).

Also helps you remember two-character vocab (as the plots of the two "stories" interact).

And ... it's fun! :) ... as long as you like that creativity-building-a-silly-story side of it.

To quote the website:

If you are thinking this is too much to memorize then consider for a second that you need to know a minimum of 5000 characters to understand a newspaper. Consider that you need to memorize all the parts of every character well enough to write them out and tell them apart from other characters. Consider you need to know their tones and which tones apply to which meanings and what they mean when put together with other characters to form words. Consider you have to remember exactly how to pronounce them. Then you can begin to see that this system is what separates you from a million pieces of unsorted information. What separates the people who have to put a lot of painful unsatisfying memorization work for only precarious knowledge, and the people who have a firm grip on the situation, have confidence in their knowledge and get great satisfaction from learning as many words and characters as they can because they know they have a spot waiting for that knowledge and that its making the rest of their knowledge more and more solid.

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Personally I'd like to congratulate you on finding a way to make it all more difficult.

More constructively, I'm not sure if your 'starting with a...' arrangement is what you'll actually be doing, but if so, don't. Do something like assign people to all the initials (z,c,s,zh,ch,shi, etc) and a location to the finals (an,ang,en,eng,etc). Should work out a lot simpler. Relatively speaking.

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Roddy you're just bitter cos I smoothly waltzed this "speaking and listening" thread into "reading and writing" territory!! :D

But seriously: look up anything about how those guys remember the sequence of a pack of playing cards. They think of a journey they know well (eg walking to work). Along the way they pick out 52 memorable places (red door, corner shop) and learn these.

They also associate each card with an person (helped by the cards' suits, numbers).

Then to learn the sequence of a pack of cards, they imagine a walk, with a "story" about meeting each "person" associated with each card, at each location.

Perhaps they "waste" a day learning the "set-up": both the journey and the person each card represents.

But after they've done that once, they can memorise the sequence of a pack of cards shuffled one way one day, reshuffled the next day, and so on and so on.

Same with this idea. Delayed gratification! Little bit of pain now for but rewards down the line. At least I hope so -- I've really no idea, will have to wait and see.

Your idea re final/initial: I think if memorising the 400 people and 400 places was too tricky then this would solve that but at the expense of introducting an extra person/place into each story, which could get even more confusing.

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Consider you need to know their tones and which tones apply to which meanings and what they mean when put together with other characters to form words. Consider you have to remember exactly how to pronounce them.
And then with this method, you have to remember all that, plus random movie characters and places that you've assigned to them.

Personally, I think you'd be better off spending your time with a book like this one to get a good understanding of the radicals and their meanings (e.g. that "chicken foot" radical is actually representative of a hand) and then using that information to help you remember the characters.

I find often it's enough to remember the radical and the first couple of strokes, or a key component, for the rest of the character to spring to mind
This happens with me all the time, and all I do to remember a character is break it down into its component parts, and also if possible note which part if any is related to the pronunciation and which part is related to the meaning. For example, a character I came across recently was 溪 xī - small stream. I already knew that 奚 is a surname that is also pronounced xī, and everyone should know that 氵is the water radical. The water radical helps me remember the meaning and the other part helps me remember the pronunciation and how to write the rest of the character. The best part is, it only took seconds to breakdown, combine with my existing knowledge of other characters and then remember.
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They just have to remember a mere 52 pieces of information though, and are trying to do it in minutes. Never mind a journey, you're going to end up creating a an epic alternate reality. Best of luck, of course, and if it works it works. I can't talk anyway, the other day I blanked on how to write . . actually, I forget (sh). But it was a really basic character.

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But seriously: look up anything about how those guys remember the sequence of a pack of playing cards.
Yes, but the one difference is that they are trying to remember a given set of random information. Chinese characters aren't really random (although they might seem so at first), and already contain plenty of information and other cues that can help you remember them, without needing to add a layer of unrelated information to do so. The other issue with this approach is that you have one extra processing step before recognition, which is going to slow down the speed at which you recognise/process characters.
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EDIT: Imron, I was replying to your previous post, though I guess this holds for this one too)

Imron: exactly (up to a point)! the radical, I believe, is claw or hand. there's more than one "hand" in chinese radicals/components. So I need something more memorable. To wit: a claw! a bird's claw .. ah, vile chicken feet ... memorable + creative!

Your idea works up to a point and as you can see I have incorporated the "meaning" of the radical, as you suggest.

But surely there are lots of instances of chinese characters where the meaning of the radical is not so helpful. For example, what is this hand/claw doing in the character for love? if there's a proper answer that is memorable, cool! if it's complicated and not memorable, well, I don't think I can remember it. And if there isn't a reason, well, we're back to just learning arbitrary stuff!

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