Spelling in Gwoyeu Romatzyh

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.[1] 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 italics below the GR spelling. The tables also gives the pronunciation in [brackets].


Labial Alveolar Retroflex Alveolo-palatal Velar
Nasal m [m]
n [n]
Plosive unaspirated b [p]
d [t]
g [k]
aspirated p [pʰ]
t [tʰ]
k [kʰ]
Affricate unaspirated tz [ts]
ㄗ (z)
j [ʈʂ]
ㄓ (zh)
ji [tɕ]
aspirated ts [tsʰ]
ㄘ (c)
ch [ʈʂʰ]
chi [tɕʰ]
ㄑ (q)
Fricative f [f]
s [s]
sh [ʂ]
shi [ɕ]
ㄒ (x)
h [x]
Liquid l [l]
r [ɻ]
GR differs from Pinyin
alveolo-palatal consonants
retroflex consonants


Medial -y [ɨ]
e [ɤ]
a [a]
ei [ei̯]
ai [ai̯]
ou [ou̯]
au [au̯]
ㄠ (ao)
en [ən]
an [an]
ong [ʊŋ]
eng [əŋ]
ang [aŋ]
el [aɚ̯]
ㄦ (er)
/i/ i [i]
ie [i̯e]
ia [i̯a]
iai [i̯ai̯]
iou [i̯ou̯]
ㄧㄡ (iu)
iau [i̯au̯]
ㄧㄠ (iao)
in [in]
ian [i̯ɛn]
iong [i̯ʊŋ]
ing [iŋ]
iang [i̯aŋ]
/u/ u [u]
uo/o [u̯o]
ua [u̯a]
uei [u̯ei̯]
ㄨㄟ (ui)
uai [u̯ai̯]
uen [u̯ən]
ㄨㄣ (un)
uan [u̯an]
ueng [u̯əŋ]
uang [u̯aŋ]
/y/ iu [y]
ㄩ (ü)
iue [y̯e]
ㄩㄝ (üe)
iun [yn]
ㄩㄣ (ün)
iuan [y̯ɛn]
ㄩㄢ (üan)
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:

Other important GR spellings which differ from Pinyin include:

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).

GR Pinyin
au ao
ch(i) q
el er
iau iao
iou iu
iu u (qu), ü
iue ue (que), üe
iuan uan (quan)
iun un (qun)
j(a,e,u,y) zh
sh(i) x
ts c
tz z
uei ui
uen un (chun)
y (final) i (zhi, ci, shi)

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.[2]

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

Tone 2: i/u → y/w; or add -r

Tone 3: i/u → e/o; or double vowel

Tone 4: change/double final letter; or add -h

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).

GR u- and i- syllables

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.

Rimes in Gwoyeu Romatzyh
IPATone 1Tone 2 Tone 3Tone 4 IPATone 1Tone 2 Tone 3Tone 4 IPATone 1Tone 2 Tone 3Tone 4 IPATone 1Tone 2 Tone 3Tone 4
[ei̯]eieireeiey [u̯ei̯]ueiweioei

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).[4] 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 Pinyin
Chinghae Qīnghǎi
Fwujiann Fújiàn
Goangdong Guǎngdōng
Herbeei Héběi
Hwunan Húnán
Jehjiang Zhèjiāng
Neymengguu Nèiménggǔ
Shaanshi Shǎnxī
Shanshi Shānxī
Shinjiang Xīnjiāng
Shitzanq Xīzàng
Syhchuan Sìchuān
GR tone key
Tone 1 (basic form: unmarked) Tone 2 Tone 3 Tone 4


Erhua (兒化), or the rhotacized or retroflex[5] 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).[6]

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:[7]

  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.[8] For example:

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.[9] 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.[10] The commonest of these, followed by their Pinyin equivalents, are:

occurs in sherm (shénme), jemm/tzemm (zhème) and tzeem (zěnme)
also in compounds such as jiowsh (jiùshi), dannsh (dànshi), etc.


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!").[11]

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:


  1. See Chao(1948):19-24 and Chao(1968a):20-25 for tables and fuller discussion.
  2. The rules are given, though in a different form, in Chao (1948): 28-30 (synopsis p 336) and Chao (1968a): 29-30 (synopsis p 847). See also Table IX in Simon,W.(1947):lviii.
  3. In diphthongs the main vowel is the vowel bearing the tone mark in Pinyin.
  4. For a complete list of provinces in GR, characters and "map spelling", see Simon,W.(1947): Table XV(1),c.
  5. This is Chao's terminology: see Chao(1968a):46.
  6. The temptation to read these examples as the English words shell and ideal must be resisted.
  7. For a detailed discussion of the spelling of these endings in GR, see Chao(1968a): 46-52 and Table IX in Simon,W.(1947): lix.
  8. Table IX in Simon,W.(1947):lix gives a useful list of the possible plain forms corresponding to each rhotacized form.
  9. In the first eight chapters of Chao(1948) such syllables are printed in italics as a reminder to students (e.g. "shoeiguoo").
  10. These and other abbreviations are listed in Chao(1968a):xxx.
  11. These symbols are introduced unobtrusively in endnotes to Lessons 2 and 4 on pp 131 and 146 of Chao(1948)—the explanation of vx being further hidden in a parenthesis.


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