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The "c" and "z" sounds

Although the sounds that pinyin "c" and "z" make are not actually super foreign to speakers of English, there are two reasons they deserve special attention:

  1. The sounds "c" and "z" make are not the sounds they make in English
  2. Pronouncing the "c" and "z" sounds in Chinese is difficult for some learners

If you find these sounds easy, great! Many learners do. Other learners will need to to work on these sounds quite a bit.

Pinyin's "c" Sound

C-Diagram

Pinyin's c- initial is simply a "ts" sound. It's like the "ts" you hear in the English words "cats" and "Watson" and "robots". The only thing that makes this Chinese sound challenging is that in English the "ts" always appears in the middle or at the end of words, whereas in Chinese it is an initial sound. For this reason, some learners need some time to get used to making this sound.

Pinyin's "z" Sound

Z-Diagram

Very similar to the c- initial, the z- initial sounds very similar to an English "dz" sound (although the "d" is not voiced). It's like the "ds" you hear in the English words "kids" and "loads" and "odds". The main thing that makes this Chinese sound challenging is that in English the "dz" always appears in the middle or at the end of words, whereas in Chinese it is an initial sound. For this reason, some learners need some time to get used to making this sound.

Finals Revisited

In the chart fragment below, there are no new finals. You just need to familiarize yourself with the combinations c- and z- show up in. One thing worth noting, though, is that the -i final, when combined with c- and z-, makes the same vowel sound that it did in si.

  • ci and zi contain an -i sound which is not "ee". It's like the vowel sound in si, which probably sounds most like the "si" in the English word "sit". The syllables zi, ci, si all rhyme.

Pinyin Chart Fragment

This is just a part of the full pinyin chart, limited to the sounds we've covered so far. There are no new finals in the chart below, just new combinations adding in the c- and z- finals, and including the similar s- final for good measure.

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-a- -a -ai -ao -an -ang -e- -e -ei -en -eng -er -o- -o -ou -ong -i- -i -i* -ia -iao -ie -iou -ian -iang -in -ing -iong -u- -u -ua -uai -uei -uo -uan -uang -uen -ueng -ü-
z-
za
[tsɑ]
ㄗㄚ
tsa
zai
[tsaɪ̯]
ㄗㄞ
tsai
zao
[tsɑʊ̯]
ㄗㄠ
tsao
zan
[tsan]
ㄗㄢ
tsan
zang
[tsɑŋ]
ㄗㄤ
tsang
ze
[tsɯ̯ʌ]
ㄗㄜ
tse
zei
[tseɪ̯]
ㄗㄟ
tsei
zen
[tsən]
ㄗㄣ
tsen
zeng
[tsəŋ]
ㄗㄥ
tseng
zou
[tsɤʊ̯]
ㄗㄡ
tsou
zong
[tsʊŋ]
ㄗㄨㄥ
tsung
zi
[tsɿ]
tzu
zu
[tsu]
ㄗㄨ
tsu
zui
[tsu̯eɪ̯]
ㄗㄨㄟ
tsui
zuo
[tsu̯ɔ]
ㄗㄨㄛ
tso
zuan
[tsu̯an]
ㄗㄨㄢ
tsuan
zun
[tsu̯ən]
ㄗㄨㄣ
tsun
z-
c-
ca
[tsʰɑ]
ㄘㄚ
ts'a
cai
[tsʰaɪ̯]
ㄘㄞ
ts'ai
cao
[tsʰɑʊ̯]
ㄘㄠ
ts'ao
can
[tsʰan]
ㄘㄢ
ts'an
cang
[tsʰɑŋ]
ㄘㄤ
ts'ang
ce
[tsʰɯ̯ʌ]
ㄘㄜ
ts'e
cei
[tsʰeɪ̯]
ㄘㄟ
ts'ei
cen
[tsʰən]
ㄘㄣ
ts'en
ceng
[tsʰəŋ]
ㄘㄥ
ts'eng
cou
[tsʰɤʊ̯]
ㄘㄡ
ts'ou
cong
[tsʰʊŋ]
ㄘㄨㄥ
ts'ung
ci
[tsʰɿ]
tz'u
cu
[tsʰu]
ㄘㄨ
ts'u
cui
[tsʰu̯eɪ̯]
ㄘㄨㄟ
ts'ui
cuo
[tsʰu̯ɔ]
ㄘㄨㄛ
ts'o
cuan
[tsʰu̯an]
ㄘㄨㄢ
ts'uan
cun
[tsʰu̯ən]
ㄘㄨㄣ
ts'un
c-
s-
sa
[sɑ]
ㄙㄚ
sa
sai
[saɪ̯]
ㄙㄞ
sai
sao
[sɑʊ̯]
ㄙㄠ
sao
san
[san]
ㄙㄢ
san
sang
[sɑŋ]
ㄙㄤ
sang
se
[sɯ̯ʌ]
ㄙㄜ
se
sen
[sən]
ㄙㄣ
sen
seng
[səŋ]
ㄙㄥ
seng
sou
[sɤʊ̯]
ㄙㄡ
sou
song
[sʊŋ]
ㄙㄨㄥ
sung
si
[sɿ]
ssu
su
[su]
ㄙㄨ
su
sui
[su̯eɪ̯]
ㄙㄨㄟ
sui
suo
[su̯ɔ]
ㄙㄨㄛ
so
suan
[su̯an]
ㄙㄨㄢ
suan
sun
[su̯ən]
ㄙㄨㄣ
sun
s-
-a- -a -ai -ao -an -ang -e- -e -ei -en -eng -er -o- -o -ou -ong -i- -i -i* -ia -iao -ie -iou -ian -iang -in -ing -iong -u- -u -ua -uai -uei -uo -uan -uang -uen -ueng -ü-

Now let's move on to the "ch" "sh" and "zh" sounds.

Sources and further reading