Is Chinese Phonetic? (Answered)

All languages are unique and have interesting quirks, but some tend to stand out more than others. One such language is Chinese, a popular and ancient language. There are many things that set Chinese apart from other languages, like its culture and features. This leads many to ask questions about it like:

Is Chinese phonetic?

The various dialects of Mandarin, Cantonese, and others that are commonly lumped together as “Chinese” are not phonetic. The Chinese language is logographic, instead of having a phonetic alphabet. As such one cannot know the pronunciation of a Chinese symbol by its own spelling.

Cultures and languages are inextricably linked. As such if two cultures are very different, so too would their languages be different. When coming from a native English speaker’s perspective, a language like Chinese is incredibly odd. Due to this, what more can we learn about Chinese phonetics?

Is Chinese Logographic Or Phonetic?

What is Chinese exactly? In regards to telling a word’s pronunciation by its spelling, is that possible in Chinese? Some say that Chinese is logographic, one would not be able to do that. As such, we should ask: Is Chinese logographic or phonetic?

The Chinese language is entirely logographic and not phonetic. By being logographic, Chinese uses thousands of symbols in its writing system of Hanzi. Thus, Chinese requires one to memorize the meaning and pronunciation of several thousand symbols to be considered literate.

Hanzi is what the Chinese call their writing system. As it is with any logographic system, Hanzi has thousands of symbols used in daily life. This makes it difficult to learn for someone coming from the very different 26 letter alphabet of English.

One Crazy Fact: Regarding the actual amount of Chinese Hanzi symbols, there are said to be upwards of 50,000! Though in reality, an educated individual might only know around 8,000, and daily life only requires a few thousand.

Being Logographic Affects Chinese’s Relation To Other Languages

Seeing any Chinese text, it is obvious that there are a plethora of individual symbols. Yet, what might be a bit jarring for an English speaker to see is how they’re all clumped together without any real discernible distinction.

As is discussed in this study, the difference between a logographic system of writing and an alphabetical one even affects our eyes when reading. Our eyes adjust differently when reading Chinese script and something alphabetical like English.

If Chinese is starting to seem very difficult, you would be right! In fact, there was a language tool known as Pinyin made to help learn Chinese symbols and pronunciations (we’ll go into more of what that is later.)

With Chinese being difficult, it actually makes Japanese harder too. Both Chinese and Japanese share the same writing known as Hanzi and Kanji respectively (though they’re used differently). Unlike Chinese, Japanese has two other systems that are phonetic, while Chinese has only Hanzi.

I go into both of these languages phonetics, namely how Chinese is not phonetic and Japanese is only partially, in my article: Phonetic Language Meaning And Usage.

One thing some might say is that Chinese is actually pictographic rather than logographic. Is there any truth to this?

Is Chinese Pictographic Or Logographic?

Correctly identifying the definitions for any term is important, otherwise we might unknowingly confuse one thing for another. The same goes for whether Chinese is a pictographic language or logographic one

Since these terms might get muddled together, we should clarify and ask: Is Chinese pictographic or logographic?

Despite some mistaken opinions, Chinese is not a pictographic language, but rather a logographic language. A pictographic language is one where they illustrate what they mean. Whereas a logographic language is one where they place a meaning on a particular symbol of their own making.

These two terms are at times used interchangeably causing confusion. At a glance they might even appear similar, but they do not mean the same thing.

In actuality, there are practically no pictographic languages since they don’t really exist. There are several logographic languages on the other hand, with Chinese and Japanese being the most obvious examples.

The closest we can come to a pictographic language would be cave drawings on a wall, but these would not normally be a fully formed writing system connected to a complete language.

Benefits Of Chinese Being A Logographic Language, And Not Phonetic

If we now have a better understanding when it comes to Chinese not being phonetic, could this be in some way helpful for learning the language or speaking it?

Are there benefits to Chinese being a logographic language instead of a phonetic language?

There can be benefits to Chinese being logographic. Some benefits include: allowing early historical texts to be easier to decipher, having fewer exceptions in regards to the pronunciation of a symbol, and the feeling of accomplishment in achieving fluency in such a difficult language.

Since I gave these three points on how Chinese being logographic might be beneficial, naturally I should talk about them in further detail.

Latin And Chinese Similarities

When comparing Chinese to a language like Latin, we might see one important similarity between them despite Latin being a dead language.

Due to Latin being a stagnant language, namely not affected by the trends of people speaking it anymore (since no one speaks today), it remains the same.

Ancient texts in Latin cannot be affected by modern attempts to redefine meanings of words anachronistically (placing meaning from today on ancient concepts).

This is in a way similar to the Chinese writing system, since it is separated from phonetics. It’s much harder to change a “word” in a logographic language than a phonetic one. There is no vagueness in regards to what someone means, since a particular Chinese symbol only has one meaning.

I actually go into Latin being a dead language, and the few communities that still use it in my article: Is Latin Hard To Learn? And Is It Worth It?

If that is the case then reading older Chinese documents, like a more stagnant language, allows them to be easier to decipher or understand.

Fewer Exceptions In Chinese

While some languages are notoriously known for their constant exceptions (we’re looking at you English), Chinese will have less exceptions with regards to their pronunciation of a “word” or symbol.

Fewer exceptions leads to fewer headaches. Precisely since one of the biggest complaints coming from those who are trying to learn either English or French is their inconsistencies.

Bragging Rights

This might seem silly, and it probably is, but it remains to be said that learning a language that is hard like Chinese can be something to brag about.

Some people learn languages because they love to tell others how they can speak this or that (not the best reason, but certainly a reason). If you’re one such individual, look no further than Chinese.

Though I poke fun at this type of motivation for learning a language, some truly love learning a language and simply learning 3 other Latin based languages doesn’t give them the challenge they are looking for. In this type of situation, bragging rights can be a legitimate motivation as long as it is not the only one.

If you’re interested in more topics relating to language learning, or even phonetics, then I have plenty of other articles to choose from.

Drawbacks Of Chinese Being A Logographic Language, And Not Phonetic

Having discussed what some pluses are to Chinese being a logographic language and not a phonetic one, naturally we should explore some negatives.

What are some drawbacks to Chinese being a logographic language as opposed to being a phonetic language?

Problems emerge with a logographic language like Chinese when discussing its difficulty. A logographic language will inherently be more challenging to learn, due to the vast amount of memorization necessary. Also, its lack of phonetics only adds to this inherent challenge.

When a language like Chinese is logographic instead of phonetic, two major problems reveal themselves:

  • The obvious one being that you cannot tell a word’s pronunciation, or in the case of Chinese a symbol‘s pronunciation, by its spelling.
  • The difficulty of a logographic language for English speakers overall compared to a phonetic one is rather stark.

These two problems are certainly similar, but distinct enough that we should explore both.

The Difficulty Of Learning Chinese

Chinese is one of the hardest languages to learn. If you speak English natively, Chinese is considered to be extremely hard.

Look no further than this study done by the U.S. Department of State on both Cantonese and Mandarin, the two major dialects of “Chinese”.

They concluded that with the highest level of language learning tools and programs available, to the degree of learning a language as if it were your Job (8 hours a day – 5 to 6 days per week), that Chinese would take more than a year and a half to learn.

The two dialects of Chinese were even classified as being super-hard languages (I’m not joking).

Chinese being a logographic language and requiring memorizing thousands of symbols makes it that hard to learn for English speakers.

Chinese Having No Phonetics

This is important for our overall topic because Chinese being logographic both makes it inherently harder and non-phonetic.

Not knowing a symbol’s pronunciation by it alone, and having to be taught the pronunciation of Chinese characters requires tools like Pinyin, makes Chinese difficult and confusing.

Chinese’s difficulty and its lack of phonetics go hand in hand.

All that being said, these problems can be overcome. Chinese has more that billion speakers, and even if it seems implausible in our English speaking point of view, many still learn Chinese.

Why Didn’t Chinese Adopt A Phonetic Writing System?

Discussing the pluses and minuses of Chinese not being phonetic might make some wonder: why didn’t Chinese adopt a phonetic writing system?

Chinese doesn’t have a phonetic writing system due to its unique origin. While most languages adopt their writing system from an earlier language, the Chinese writing system is unique to itself. Throughout centuries the Chinese people used logographs, because that was what they knew.

If you think about it, Chinese and only a few other languages actually completely develop their own writing system. Languages like English are derived from an early Germanic language, while French is derived from Latin. These in turn point back to Greek, and so on.

Yet, Chinese doesn’t have this, which is partly why it has such a unique system using logograms instead of an alphabet.

What Is Pinyin, And Why Does It Matter?

I briefly mentioned Pinyin, but what is it exactly? Is Pinyin its own writing system distinct from Hanzi? Or is it just some sort of language tool to help learn Chinese?

Pinyin is a tool to help both foreigners and natives learn Chinese pronunciation. There have been many reforms to the Chinese language over the last century, one popular product of which is Pinyin. This greatly helps one learn Chinese pronunciation with the use of Latinized characters.

Often mistaken as being a self sufficient writing system, Pinyin is meant to be a tool one uses to learn Chinese script and not replace it.

Pinyin is usually learned before or alongside Chinese characters. Interestingly, it is normally learned by both native and non-native speakers due to the sheer benefits it brings to the table.

With regards to education in China, children tend to learn Pinyin all the way up through primary school. Afterwards it is usually dropped from the curriculum in favor of focusing on Chinese characters.

In the past one hundred years or so, major attempts have been made to simplify the Chinese writing system. Some still use the older and traditional system, but most adopt the simpler form with things like Pinyin making life easier.

What Is Pinyin Used For?

If we have a better idea of what Pinyin is, a tool to help learn Chinese pronunciation with Romanized characters, what more can we learn about the uses of Pinyin?

Pinyin is used in daily life in China when it comes to writing on computers, phones, and other mobile devices. It is also what allows most natives and foreigners to learn the Chinese writing system pronunciations. Alongside the Chinese script, Pinyin is a great asset in daily life.

There was practically no official, or at least common tool, to learn Chinese pronunciation before Pinyin. A lot of it was just passed down through the generations.

Other Romanized tools were developed in the 20th century, but Pinyin outlasted them all.

In fact, before the many changes that took place in the last century, most of the Chinese populace was illiterate.

Pinyin, and a great deal many other things, helped to dramatically increase the literacy rate over the years.

Is Pinyin An Alphabet?

Some might be wondering if Pinyin is an alphabet of its own, using Romanized characters and all. This could even in turn mean that Chinese would have an alphabet as a whole if it is true, right? Is Pinyin an alphabet?

Pinyin is not a writing system, but rather a tool for the Chinese writing system of Hanzi to do what it can’t. It uses the Roman alphabet, allowing language learners to have an easier time in learning Chinese script. Pinyin is not used as a stand alone Chinese alphabet.

Many natives use it when first learning Chinese script early in life too, and continue to use Pinyin with technological devices like phones and computers.

It should be understood that Pinyin has limitations. Though it might be tempting to think of using it exclusively, one must learn Chinese characters. Otherwise you won’t get very far into learning the language as a whole.

Chinese Phonetics Compared To English

One last thing to discuss is how Chinese phonetics compare to English phonetics. It would only be right to compare the two, since most of us reading this article speak English natively or at least well. Thus, we should ask: how does Chinese phonetics compare to English?

Chinese is not a phonetic language, whereas English is phonetically inconsistent language. One cannot know the pronunciation of a particular symbol in Chinese. English on the other hand is inconsistent with its phonetics, meaning there are plenty of exceptions, but has phonetics nonetheless.

Though English is seen as annoyingly inconsistent with its phonetics, most would probably agree that it is still a step above Chinese lack of phonetics entirely when it comes to learning.

The Final Talking Point On Chinese Phonetics…

Chinese does not have a phonetic writing system, but rather a logographic one. A logographic language naturally means one will not be able to pronounce a symbol by its “spelling”. This also leads Chinese to be considered one of the hardest languages to learn.

If interested in more topics relating to phonetics, or language learning, then check out some of my other articles down below.

Jackie Booe

Jackie Booe is a licensed teacher for elementary through high school in 3 states. She is a former adjunct professor at the undergraduate level and certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners. She was a mentor for many education interns, department leader at various levels and organizations, has taught and coordinated professional development for teachers and educators, and professionally tutored in a multitude of subjects.

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