In the earlier post, Shurely Shome Mishtake, I talked about how I came to pronounce the Mandarin sounds, zh, ch, sh too far back in the mouth. This is basically not a good thing. But before moving on to just how those sounds ought to be produced, I’d first like to draw your attention to the Chinese dentals.
Many people will be aware that Chinese students of English initially have considerable difficulty with the two English dental fricatives /θ/ and /ð/, the ‘th’ sounds in ‘thin’ and ‘then’. Indeed, many Chinese students are very aware of this, and use the humorous Chinglish abbreviation, 3Q (sān – Q = thank you).
The difficulty with these sounds is not simply that they don’t exist in Chinese. The real difficulty is that there’s a whole bunch of dental sounds in Chinese and some of them are really quite similar to the English sounds. For most Standard Mandarin speakers, the following sounds, written in Pinyin, are dental:
z, c, s, d, t, n, l
Of course, there can be some variation. But z, c, s are generally made with the tongue tip touching (or, in the case of s, near) the back of the lower and upper teeth. These can be classified in straightforward fashion as dentals. The usual description used in Chinese texts is 舌尖前 or front apical.
Have a look at this diagram of /θ/ from Daniel Jones’ An Outline of English Phonetics, page182.
If you try bringing your teeth together as you make a /θ/ (you don’t need to stick your tongue out when you do this), you’ll note that it’s quite hard to stop the sibilance creeping in.
The sounds represented in Pinyin as d, t, n, l are generally made a little higher, usually with tongue-tip contact on the back of the upper teeth and gum. Traditionally, these sounds have been classified as 舌尖中 or mid apical. I guess denti-alveolar is a reasonable description.
One can see that Pinyin d, lacking the plosive force of its English counterpart, might easily sound like /ð/ or possibly /z/.
Now, for the majority of native English speakers, /z/, /s/, /d/, /t/, /n/ and /l/ are made with the tongue tip at the alveolar ridge – no contact is made with the teeth. If an English speaker does make these sounds on the back of the teeth, he is usually described as having a lisp. Or, if you will, a liθp. Theta’s a wonderfully evocative letter, don’t you think?
For English speakers learning Chinese it seems pretty easy to ignore the fact they’re most likely making those seven dentals, Pinyin: z, c, s, d, t, n, l, on the alveolar ridge instead of the back of the teeth. Does it matter? I’d be interested to know how people feel about this. But I intend to argue that English speaking learners of Mandarin should indeed practise making these sounds against the teeth, early in their language studies.
In the next post we’ll look more closely at zh, ch, sh, r.
* The diagrams for Pinyin s and d are from 普通话发音图谱 (Pǔtōnghuà Fāyīn Túpǔ) by 周殿福 (Zhōu Diànfú) and 吴宗济 (Wú Zōngjì), published by 商务印书馆 (Shāngwù Yìnshūguǎn). I hope to post on this beautiful little book at some point.