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Spelling in Gwoyeu Romatzyh

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The spelling of Gwoyeu Romatzyh (GR) can be divided into its treatment of initials, finals and tones. GR uses contrasting unvoiced/voiced pairs of consonants to represent aspirated and unaspirated initials in Chinese: for example b and p represent IPA [p] and [pʰ]. The letters j, ch and sh represent two different series of initials: the alveolo-palatal and the retroflex sounds. Although these spellings create no ambiguity in practice, readers more familiar with Pinyin should pay particular attention to them: GR ju, for example, corresponds to Pinyin zhu, not ju (which is spelled jiu in GR).


Many of the finals in GR are similar to those used in other romanizations. Distinctive features of GR include the use of iu for the close front rounded vowel spelled ü or simply u in Pinyin. Final -y represents certain allophones of i: GR shy and sy correspond to Pinyin shi and si respectively.

The most striking feature of GR is its treatment of tones. The first tone is represented by the basic form of each syllable, the spelling being modified according to precise but complex rules for the other three tones. For example the syllable spelled ai (first tone) becomes air, ae and ay in the other tones. A neutral (unstressed) tone can optionally be indicated by preceding it with a dot or full stop: for example perng.yeou "friend".

Rhotacization, a common feature of Mandarin (especially Beijing) Chinese, is marked in GR by the suffix -(e)l. Owing to the rather complex orthographical details, a given rhotacized form may correspond to more than one basic syllable: for example jiel may be either ji(n) + el ("today") or ji + el ("chick").

A number of frequently-occurring morphemes have abbreviated spellings in GR. The commonest of these, followed by their Pinyin equivalents, are: -g (-ge), -j (-zhe), -m (-me), sh (shi) and -tz (-zi).

Basic forms

GR introduced several innovations in Chinese romanization. One of these, later adopted by Pinyin, was to use contrasting unvoiced/voiced pairs of consonants to represent aspirated and unaspirated sounds in Chinese. For example b and p represent IPA [p] and [pʰ] (p and p' in Wade-Giles). Another feature of GR surviving in Pinyin was to write words (usually of two syllables) as units: e.g. Gwoyeu rather than the Wade-Giles Kuo2-yü3.

The basic features of GR spelling are shown in the following tables of initials and finals, the latter referring to the basic T1 forms. Many of the spelling features are the same as in Pinyin; differences are highlighted in the tables and discussed in detail after the second table. The rules of tonal spelling follow in a separate section.

In the tables Pinyin spellings are given only where they differ from GR, in which case they appear in (parentheses). The tables also give the pronunciation in [brackets].


Key GR differs from Pinyin alveolo-palatal consonants retroflex consonants


Key GR differs from Pinyin


GR basic (T1) spellings are compared to the spelling conventions of Pinyin in the table below. A separate table, after the tonal rules, compares spellings using all four tones.

Alveolar and retroflex series

The letter j and the digraphs ch and sh represent two different series of sounds. When followed by i they correspond to the alveolo-palatal sounds (Pinyin j, q, and x); otherwise they correspond to the retroflex sounds (Pinyin zh, ch, and sh). In practice this feature creates no ambiguity, because the two series of consonants are in complementary distribution. Nevertheless it does make the correspondence between GR and Pinyin spellings difficult to follow. In some cases they agree (chu is the same syllable in both systems); but in other cases they differ—sometimes confusingly so (for example, GR ju, jiu and jiou correspond to Pinyin zhu, ju and jiu respectively).

This potential for confusion can be seen graphically in the table of initials, where the bold letters j, ch and sh cut across the highlighted division between alveolo-palatal and retroflex.

Other differences from Pinyin

GR also differs from Pinyin in its transcription of vowels and semivowels:

  • GR uses iu for the close front rounded vowel (IPA y) spelled ü or in many cases simply u in Pinyin. (The contracted Pinyin iu is written iou in GR.)
  • Final -y represents the [ɨ] allophone of i: GR shy and sy correspond to Pinyin shi and si respectively.
  • No basic forms in GR begin with w- or y-: Pinyin ying and wu are written ing and u in GR (but only in T1).
  • Other important GR spellings which differ from Pinyin include:

  • GR writes au for Pinyin ao (but see the rule for T3).
  • el corresponds to Pinyin er (-r being reserved to indicate T2). The most important use of -(e)l is as a rhotacization suffix.
  • GR uses ts for Pinyin c and tz for Pinyin z.
  • -uen and -uei correspond to the contracted Pinyin forms -un and -ui.
  • GR also has three letters for dialectal sounds: v (万 in extended Zhuyin), ng (兀), and gn (广).
  • As in Pinyin, an apostrophe is used to clarify syllable divisions. Pin'in, the GR spelling of the word "Pinyin", is itself a good example: the apostrophe shows that the compound is made up of pin + in rather than pi + nin.

    Pinyin comparison: basic forms

    The following list summarizes the differences between GR and Pinyin spelling. The list is in GR alphabetical order (click the button next to the heading to change to Pinyin order).

    Tonal rules

    Note: In this section the word "tone" is abbreviated as "T": thus T1 stands for Tone 1, or first tone, etc.

    Wherever possible GR indicates tones 2, 3 and 4 by respelling the basic T1 form of the syllable, replacing a vowel with another having a similar sound (i with y, for example, or u with w). But this concise procedure cannot be applied in every case, since the syllable may not contain a suitable vowel for modification. In such cases a letter (r or h) is added or inserted instead. The precise rule to be followed in any specific case is determined by the rules given below.

    A colour-coded rule of thumb is given below for each tone: the same colours are used below in a list of provinces. Each rule of thumb is then amplified by a comprehensive set of rules for that tone. These codes are used in the rules:

  • V = a vowel
  • NV = a non-vowel (either a consonant or zero in the case of an initial vowel)
  • ⇏ = "but avoid forming [the specified combination]"
  • Pinyin equivalents are given in brackets after each set of examples. To illustrate the GR tonal rules in practice, a table comparing Pinyin and GR spellings of some Chinese provinces follows the detailed rules.

    Tone 1: basic form

  • Initial sonorants (l-/m-/n-/r-): insert -h- as second letter. rheng, mha (rēng, mā)
  • Otherwise use the basic form.
  • Tone 2: i/u → y/w; or add -r

  • Initial sonorants: use basic form. reng, ma (réng, má)
  • NVi → NVy ( + -i if final). chyng, chyan, yng, yan, pyi (qíng, qián, yíng, yán, pí)
  • NVu → NVw ( + -u if final). chwan, wang, hwo, chwu (chuán, wáng, huó, chú)
  • Tone 3: i/u → e/o; or double vowel

  • Vi or iV → Ve or eV (⇏ee). chean, bae, sheau (qiǎn, bǎi, xiǎo), but not gee
  • When both i and u can be found, only the first one changes, i.e. jeau, goai, sheu (jiǎo, guǎi, xǔ), not jeao, goae, sheo
  • For basic forms starting with i-/u-, change the starting i-/u- to e-/o- and add initial y-/w-. yean, woo, yeu (yǎn, wǒ, yǔ)
  • Otherwise double the (main) vowel. chiing, daa, geei, huoo, goou (qǐng, dǎ, gěi, huǒ, gǒu)
  • Tone 4: change/double final letter; or add -h

  • Vi → Vy. day, suey (dài, suì)
  • Vu → Vw (⇏iw). daw, gow (dào, gòu), but not chiw
  • -n-nn. duann (duàn)
  • -l-ll. ell (èr)
  • -ng-nq. binq (bìng)
  • Otherwise add h. dah, chiuh, dih (dà, qù, dì)
  • For basic forms starting with i-/u-, replace initial i-/u- with y-/w-, in addition to the necessary tonal change. yaw, wuh (yào, wù)
  • Neutral tone (轻声 Chingsheng / qīngshēng)

    A dot (usually written as a period or full stop) may be placed before neutral tone (unstressed) syllables, which appear in their original tonal spelling: perng.yeou, dih.fang (péngyou, dìfang). Y.R. Chao used this device in the first eight chapters of the Mandarin Primer, restricting it thereafter to new words on their first appearance. In A Grammar of Spoken Chinese he introduced a subscript circle (o) to indicate an optional neutral tone, as in bujyodaw, "don't know" (Pinyin pronunciation bùzhīdào or bùzhīdao).

    It is important to note that any GR syllables beginning u- or i- must be T1: in T2, T3 and T4 these syllables all begin with w- or y- respectively. An example in all four tones is the following: ing, yng, yiing, yinq (Pinyin ying).

    Rime Table

    The term Rime, as used by linguists, is similar to rhyme. See Rime table.

    Pinyin comparison: all tones

    This table illustrates the GR tonal rules in use by listing some Chinese provinces in both GR and Pinyin (to switch to Pinyin alphabetical order, click the button next to the heading). The tonal spelling markers or "clues" are highlighted using the same colour-coding scheme as above. Note that T1 is the default tone: hence Shinjiang (Xīnjiāng), for example, is spelled using the basic form of both syllables.

    GR tone key Tone 1 (basic form: unmarked) Tone 2 Tone 3 Tone 4


    Erhua (兒化), or the rhotacized or retroflex ending, is indicated in GR by -el rather than -r, which is already used as a T2 marker. The appropriate tonal modification is then applied to the rhotacized form: for example shell (shìr) and ideal (yìdiǎnr).

    Most other romanization systems preserve the underlying form, but GR transcribes the surface form as pronounced. These are the main principles followed when a syllable is rhotacized in GR:

    1. -el replaces final -y
    2. -l replaces final -i (in -ai and -ei) and -n, but -in becomes -iel
    3. -el is added to -i and -iu
    4. -l is added to all other finals, but -ing acquires an additional -e- to become -iengl.

    As a consequence the one-to-one correspondence between GR and Pinyin is broken, since one GR rhotacized form may correspond to several Pinyin forms. For example:

  • jiel corresponds to both jīr and jīnr.
  • jial corresponds to both jiār and jiānr.
  • Tone sandhi

    The most important manifestation of tone sandhi in Mandarin is the change of a T3 syllable to T2 when followed by another T3 syllable (T3 + T3 → T2 + T3). GR does not reflect this change in the spelling: the word for "fruit" is written shoeiguoo, even though the pronunciation is closer to shweiguoo. Four common words with more complicated tone sandhi (also ignored in the spelling) are mentioned below under Exceptions.


    A number of frequently-occurring morphemes have abbreviated spellings in GR. The commonest of these, followed by their Pinyin equivalents, are:

  • -g (-ge)
  • -j (-zhe)
  • -m (-me)
  • occurs in sherm (shénme), jemm/tzemm (zhème) and tzeem (zěnme)
  • sh (shi)
  • also in compounds such as jiowsh (jiùshi), dannsh (dànshi), etc.
  • -tz (-zi)
  • Reduplication

    In its original form GR used the two "spare" letters of the alphabet, v and x, to indicate reduplication. This mimicked the method by which the Chinese script indicates repeated characters with an iteration mark (々). In GR the letter x indicates that the preceding syllable is repeated (shieh.x = shieh.shieh, "thank you"), vx being used when the preceding two syllables are repeated (haoshuo vx! = haoshuo haoshuo! "you're too kind!").

    This concise but completely unphonetic, and hence unintuitive, device appears in Chao's Mandarin Primer and all W. Simon's texts (including his Chinese-English Dictionary). Eventually, however, it was silently discarded even by its inventor: in Chao's Grammar as well as his Sayable Chinese all reduplicated syllables are written out in full in their GR transcription.


    The following words and characters do not follow the rules of GR:

  • The name Romatzyh (which strictly speaking should be "Luomaatzyh") follows international usage (Roma).
  • The characters 一 ("one"), 七 ("seven"), 八 ("eight"), and 不 ("no/not") are always written i, chi, ba, and bu, respectively, regardless of the tone in which they are pronounced. In other words changes due to tone sandhi are not reflected in GR.
  • References

    Spelling in Gwoyeu Romatzyh Wikipedia