Tones. There are five basic tones, three of which also serve as entering tones. Each tone is described using expanded Chao numbers.
- mid (33)
- high (55)
- low (11)
- low falling (10)
- mid falling (42)
The tone descriptions above are different than the names given in the course. The course presents tones in the context of the four tone groups of Middle Chinese (even 平, rising 上, departing 去 and entering 入) split into two registers (upper 陰 and lower 陽). I’m not a big fan of using these terms in English; I prefer names that reflect the tones’ actual pitch contour. There are some benefits to using the Middle Chinese categories, but these categories can also deceive; for example, the low falling tone is classified as “lower rising” in English (陽上).
The course transcribes the tones with diacritics, as in the examples below with the letter “a”:
- mid: à
- high: a
- low: ā
- low falling: ạ̄
- mid falling: â
This transcription system diverges significantly from others I’m familiar with. Some of these diacritics are the exact opposite of what they denote in Hanyu pinyin. Most glaringly, the grave accent (`) denotes a falling tone in pinyin, but a mid tone in the course book; likewise, the macron (¯) denotes a high level tone in pinyin, but a low tone here. I’m going to have to play around with a more comfortable way to transcribe these tones; for now, I’m inclined to use pinyin diacritics and expand on these as necessary. But that’s all for the tones.
Vowels. The five basic vowel contrasts are roughly the same as those of Latin or Spanish: a e i o u. The course transcribes the u vowel as oo—I am definitely not a big fan of this transcription.
The vowel e never appears in this simple form. As a rhyme of its own, it takes the form of a diphthong: ei (like the rhyme in say). When combining with consonants, it takes the form of ia before u, ng or k (i.e. velars) and ie before m, n, p, t. Similarly, the course transcribes oo as u before ng or k; since I am such a non-fan of oo, I intend to transcribe this vowel as u.
In quality, the o spoken in the course is most like the English o in four, not like the Spanish o. The a is most like the a in father than the Spanish a.
These vowels combine into seven diphthongs by adding either i or u to the end: aai, aau, iau, ei, iu, oi, ooi. From here on out, I’ll intend to simplify them as: ai, au, iau (or eu), ei, iu, oi, ui.
The rounded vowels o and u are never followed by labial consonants m and p. (Whenever you see transcriptions ending with “op” in English, this spelling is almost invariably the transcription of the ap rhyme.)
Lastly, the three plosive consonants (p, t, k) only occur with three of the tones: mid, high and mid falling. In my family’s dialect, the low tone also occurs with the final consonants; I’ll have to keep this in mind as I continue on the course.