2 0 1 0 年 1 1 月 2 1 日

Unusual Mandarin syllables


Every now and then you come across a new character and realise that you’ve never seen another one with the same pronunciation. Or, you hear a syllable in speech and think you must have misheard it because as far as you’re aware, that syllable doesn’t exist in Mandarin.

Below are two lists of syllables. The first lists syllables that don’t have a lot of characters, even if the characters they do have are fairly common. The second list contains syllables that you come across infrequently because the characters pronounced that way are rare.

Syllables with very few characters

Whilst some of these syllables are heard fairly regularly , they refer to very small groups of characters. I’ve counted simplified versions as separate characters in the count, as sometimes various traditionals have been merged into one simplified character. Dialectical uses are not counted (e.g. tei).

A lot of these syllables not only refer to very few characters, but refer only to rare characters, making them doubly unusual (‘seng‘ is a good example of this).

#10: fo (5 characters)

The character for Buddhism – 佛 (fó) – is fairly common, but the syllable itself is quite unusual, having only five characters.

#9: miu (5 characters)

Another syllable with just five characters attached to it. 谬 (miù) means ‘to deceive’ or ‘to confuse’.

#8: zen (5 characters)

It might be famous in English because of ‘Zen Buddhism’, but in Mandarin the syllable zen is quite rare. Other than 怎 (zěn), there aren’t any common characters pronounced this way.

#7: shei (1 or 2 characters)

This one has a lot of claim to the #1 spot, as there’s really only one character pronounced this way: 谁 (shéi). It does have both simplified and traditional versions though, so there are arguably two characters pronounced shei. They’re extremely common though (meaning ‘who’), so it misses out on a better ranking.

#6: lia (1 or 2 characters)

Like shei above, this one really has just one character: 俩 (liǎ). It also has simplified and traditional forms and is quite common, meaning ‘those two’ or ‘two of’ (it’s like ‘两个’ combined into one character).

#5: seng (2 characters)

There are just two characters pronounced seng, and both of them are first tone (sēng). One of them is 僧 which means either ‘monk’ or ‘Sangha’, a Buddhist monastic order. The other is 鬙, which means ‘unkempt’ or ‘short hair’.

#4: gei (1 character)

There is only one character pronounced gei in Mandarin Chinese, but it’s the incredibly common 给 – ‘to give’.

#3: lo (1 character)

Incredibly, the character 咯 (lo) gets a syllable entirely to itself. It’s an archaic particle used to indicate that something is obvious, or to draw attention to it, a bit like the modern 嘛 (ma).

#2: fiao (1 character)

Another character with a syllable all to itself, and this time the sound is even weirder. 覅 (fiào) means ‘unwanted’ or ‘unnecessary’.

#1: eng (1 character)

The character 鞥 is the only one pronounced eng (it’s first tone), and it refers to the reins for a horse.

Syllables that you rarely come across

This is an ‘honourable mentions’ section. These syllables do have quite a few characters to their name, but those characters are so rare that you rarely hear these sounds in Mandarin.

cen

Ever seen the character 岑 (cén)? It means ‘steep’. There’s also 㞥 (cén), which a lot of dictionaries don’t even list. It means ‘deep in the mountain’.

chuai

揣 (chuāi) means ‘to put into’. It doesn’t appear in the three thousand most common characters, so you some would say you could be considered literate without knowing this character.

nüe

There aren’t any characters pronounced nüe in the top three thousand either. If you want to appear clever, you could learn 虐 (nüè), which is a rare character meaning ‘tyrannical’.

shai

The character 晒 (shài) does sometimes appear in top three thousand lists, usually towards the end (it depends on what corpus was used to compile the frequency list). After that, there aren’t really any common characters pronounced shai.

nen

You might be surprised that there are as many as nine characters pronounced nen – how many have you come across? They’re all quite rare, but the most common is probably 嫩 (nèn) which has meanings like ‘soft’, ‘tender’ and ‘delicate’.

weng

There are actually quite a lot of characters pronounced weng, but you don’t tend to see them a lot. The most common is probably 翁 (wēng), meaning ‘old man’. It’s also a family name.

zei

There are seven characters pronounced zei in Mandarin. You’re quite likely to come across one of them, 贼 (zéi), in Literary Chinese, but otherwise they’re pretty rare.

Do you know any other rare syllables? Do you think that the ones listed here are actually quite common? You’re welcome to share your views in the comments.


Tags

The article 'Unusual Mandarin syllables' has the following tags (click a tag for more articles on that topic):


  • S. O.

    never thought 揣 or 踹 were particularly rare, but apparently you’re right, 贼 is used quite a lot in some dialects.
    Don’t forget 酿 for “niang” and 拴 for “shuan”.
    The pinyin “shai” is also used for “色”.

    more rare ones: “tei” as in 忒, “lo” as in 咯. “run” (润) is also relatively rare, as are “tun” (吞) and “weng” (翁). There are a number of rare pinyins for (geographical) names, and medium-rare ones like “sang” as in 丧 and 桑.

    • S. O.

      just adding that “fo” (佛) and “miu” (谬, 缪) are also missing on your list

    • http://eastasiastudent.net East Asia Student

      翁 was actually what inspired me to create this list, but I found that there were much rarer syllables.

  • S. O.

    just to give an example what Chinese mean by “rare”, something like “fiao” as in 覅

  • http://eastasiastudent.net East Asia Student

    Ah, how could I miss these? I’ve rearranged the list to include them. Thanks a lot!

  • S. O.

    Do you use a script to find the characters? Programming that should be fairly simple, and there’s probably still be quite a number of unusual pinyins, at least if you only count the first 3000 or 4000 characters (te, nang …)

    http://lingua.mtsu.edu/chinese-computing/statistics/char/list.php?Which=MO

    • http://eastasiastudent.net East Asia Student

      I did think about using a script with CCEDICT and a frequency list, but in the end I just looked through a pinyin chart manually, hence the omissions. I’d be interested to see what a script produced. ‘Nang’ seems pretty rare – I can only find 16 characters pronounced that way, and I think ‘te’ only has 14. Still not as rare as the ones in the list, though.

  • http://www.sinoglot.com/wu Kellen Parker

    覅 is actually a contraction of 不要 in dialects that use 勿 in place of 不. 甭 béng for 不用, found in the North, could be another one. I guess technically speaking 覅 isn’t really Mandarin.

    嫩 is used in a subway stop in Shanghai, so while I never hear it used, it’s seen daily.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net East Asia Student

      Yeah I did spot that 覅 was actually a dialect use, and I wasn’t supposed to be counting those. However, it doesn’t seem to be confined to one dialect – as far as I can tell, its use is pretty widespread, it’s just not standard.
      I thought 甭 was quite common, but perhaps not (I’ve always spent time in the North). The syllable ‘beng’ certainly has a lot of characters, though.
      That’s interesting about the subway stop in Shanghai. I guess place names are going to be the source of a lot of weird syllables and characters.

  • http://quij.wordpress.com tim

    I’m surprised, 虐 is not on the list of top three-thousand. I don’t think I know anywhere near 3,000 characters, but I have come across it twice:
    虐待 abuse
    虐杀 torture

    Where did you get this list, I would like to take a look at it.

  • http://quij.wordpress.com tim

    Very interesting post. I’m surprised 虐 is considered such a rare character. I do not think i know anywhere near 3000 characters, but I have come across it twice. Once as 虐待 (abuse) and once as 虐杀 (torture)。 I am curious about this list of 3000 most common characters, what list is it? is it online? I would like to take a look at it to see how many i know.

  • Kaiwen

    How about “den” (扽 扥 in Wenlin), which I have only come across in a Zhang Xianliang book, and never heard spoken.

    Zhuai (拽) is also a sound with just a few characters. I feel like it’s often used to represent a Cantonese sound, but I don’t know.

    Shai also comes across in 筛子, a sieve, and 色子, dice (or 骰子 also read touzi).

  • Harvey

    Don’t forget 給.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net East Asia Student

      Ah of course. It’s easy to overlook as the character is so common. Thanks for the addition

  • Alec

    What about “Biang” as in the noodles?

    • http://eastasiastudent.net 葛脩逺

      Yeah I did consider that, but then it’s not included in the Unicode set. Probably should’ve had an honourable mention.

  • nickzi

    I’d probably throw in “nuo”, “cou” and “ca” for consideration. Using MDBG for a reference, “nuo” has more characters (8, not counting variants) but they are rather an unusual group. “Cou” has three characters, if you discount the “indigenous” Cou/Tsou/Zou people of Taiwan. “Ca” has three characters.

    My impression of the Zein list is that it is probably reliable in general up to around the 1500 mark, and then the list starts to look a bit suspect in terms of relative frequency – I rather doubt that biao(tiger-cub/streak/stripe) should be at 1502, for example.

  • xiaocai

    But you do need to learn all the characters under “Syllables that you rarely come across” in secondary school in China.

  • Zhui Miao

    My surname is a particularly obscure character, three side stacked water radicals makes Zhui, which carries a meaning similar to a vast body of water. Its almost as obscure as Cheng (three sided horses) for which there was a landmark naming law problem in the mainland.

  • Zhui Miao

    and I forgot, the syllable zhui is first tone, and the syllable cheng is second tone

    • http://eastasiastudent.net 葛脩遠

      I don’t think my input method has either of those characters

  • Antimacassar

    Apologies if these have already been mentioned:

    chua 欻, den 扽, dia 嗲, kei 剋 and tei 忒 …

    according to my 现代汉语小词典 cei and rua also exist…

    all pretty rare of course…i think if Chinese used pinyin they maybe they would make more use of them, seems a shame really…