Pinghua romanization

Traveling in Guangxi, digging a little bit into exotic* Binyang Dialect while taking in the scenery (Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Beijing anymore). I’ve done some cursory searching online but failed to find a romanization for Binyanghua, so I thought it would be fun to try making one myself and put the recordings up for the listening pleasure of anyone else who loves a good voiceless alveolar lateral fricative aka ‘voiceless el’ [ɬ]. Who knew a Sinitic language would have consonant phonology in common with frickin’ [forgive the pun] Welsh!

The goal is utilitarian: I’d like to be able to hear a word and write it down with confidence that I’ve got the basic phonemes right, including the phonemic tones.

How does one do a romanization? Unfortunately I have no academic background here, but I believe the following would be classified as the Empirical Brute Force method. Can’t say how well it’s gonna work, but least it’s a starting point. Got ideas about how to proceed with analysis, samples you’d like to hear, or references I could look into? I’d love feedback!

BYHR = my attempt at a BinYangHua Romanization.

WARNING: This post is just a starting point, and what follows in the numbered sections is more or less a chronological exploration. The BYHR in the first sections is full of inaccuracies and inconsistencies. As I work my way through subsequent sections, I’m revising my hypotheses about what sounds and tones are phonemic. If you want to be boring and skip all the hemming and hawing, you can go to the end of the post to read the running hypotheses. I will try to follow up with future posts, but my time is short and it’s better not to make promises when your previous post was, oh, about two years ago.

Sample 1: “I’m drinking water”

“I’m drinking water” 我正在喝水
OK, this sounds straightforward enough. Not really that far off Mandarin. I’ll try breaking it down syllable by syllable.

Mandarin recording BYHR Notes
wei22 For the record, at this point I’m just kind of winging it on tones, using tone numerals 1-5 where 1 is lowest pitch and 5 is highest.
 sei33 Is it possible there’s a glottal stop at the end here? BTW, pretty sure there’s no s/sh distinction as we have in standard Mandarin, so just using /s/



Sample 2: “Drink it down in one gulp”

“Drink it down in one gulp” 一口喝下去
Yikes. This is sounding a bit more exotic now. Is that something like /bl/ in the fourth syllable? It’s harder to divide the syllables this time, but here’s my attempt.

Mandarin recording BYHR Notes
yet33 It sounds to me like there’s a stop at the end of this syllable that seems to get sort of assimilated into the /h/ of the next syllable. Similar to the assimilation of the ‘t’ in /hat sei/ above.
hou33 /ou/ not quite the same sound as /ou/ in Mandarin, but I’ll ignore that for now.
hep33 Hmm. I’m writing /p/ at the end of this syllable even though it sounds voiced. Guessing it’s just an assimilation because of the /l/ in the next syllable.
leok11 Not a vowel sound I’m familiar with. From other conversations I gather there’s a /k/ stop at the end of the syllable, although it’s not very noticeable here. And the associated hanzi would be 落 instead of 下 as in Mandarin.




Sample 3: One thru Twenty

As long as we seem to have a number (yet = 1) in the sentence above, let’s try listening to a bunch of numbers.


Mandarin recording BYHR Notes
ni52 the /n/ sounds more like [ŋ] than [n], but if there’s no phonemic significance, I’ll just write it as /n/.
hlam24 There’s our first voiceless alveolar lateral fricative [ɬ]. To keep it simple, I’ll try just using ‘hl’ unless the notation ends up looking problematic.
nou21 Again sounds [ŋ]. To my ear, the tone here sounds consciously descending, but low-descending rather than the high-descending of ni52 above
十一  sep11yet33 Phonemes seem right. Tone of yet is definitely higher than sep, but not super 55 high as marked above.
十二 sep22ni31
十三  sep11hlam13
十四 sep11hlei33
十五  sep22nou21  /p/ seems to get assimilated. Nou is still definitely descending, which might require then that sep start a little higher.
十六  sep22lok11 Again not sure of tones. Lok is lower, but it sounds to me like it doesn’t descend in the way that nou does.
十七 sep11cet33
十八 sep11bat22
十九 sep11jiou22
二十  ni42sep11



Interesting. Before starting this numbers exercise I hadn’t thought about how useful numbers might be for understanding the tonal system. I’ll come back to this.


Sample 4: “Make / wrap zongzi”

“Make / wrap zongzi” 包粽子 [supposedly aka “sticky rice dumplings” — good stuff]


Mandarin recording BYHR Notes
 beo13 Is that the same /eo/ sound as in leok above?
zon44 First encounter so far with /n/ at the end of the word. As noted above with ni, it sounds more like [ŋ] than [n], but if there’s no phonemic significance, ‘n’ should be good enough.



Sample 5: “Binyang’s ‘fire cracker dragons’ are really famous”

“Binyang’s ‘fire cracker dragons’ are really famous” 宾阳炮龙很有名 [And pretty cool too. Do an images search for 炮龙]


Mandarin recording BYHR Notes
宾阳 ben44yein11 First /ein/ we’ve had.
炮龙 peo44lon11
很有名 hen44you22mek11 Honestly I don’t hear that /k/ at the end. But my informant assures me it’s there. Maybe it’s interference from Mandarin, maybe it’s just a weird recording.



Sample 6. Days of week


Mandarin recording BYHR Notes
星期一  hlen33gei11yet55 Actually, the first time I went through these I misheard hlen as ‘sen’ — such is the influence of one’s dominant phonemic system.
星期二 hlen33gei11ni42
星期三 hlen33gei11hlam24
星期四  hlen33gei11hlei55
星期五  hlen33gei11nou21
星期六  hlen33gei11lok21 Can’t really figure out the tone on 6. Sounds like 21 in this case, but previously sounded more like 11.
星期日 hlen33gei11net21 Gonna need more samples of 日 to feel confident about that net. Is the [ŋ] at the beginning doing something funny to the vowel, or is it not the same as /et/ in previous words? Sounds like Russian Nyet to me.




 Sample 7. “Today is Sunday”

“Today is Sunday” 今天是星期日


Mandarin recording BYHR Notes
 今天  gam33net21 So apparently this is 今日 rather than 今天.
星期日 hlen33gei11net21




 Sample 8. “My hometown is Binyang”

“My hometown is Binyang” 我老家在宾阳


Mandarin recording BYHR Notes
 我 nou44 or 55?
leo42 Tones are hard to pin down — falling, anyway.
za24 Sounds a bit like a /t/ stop at the end, but that’s just the influence from the next word, zai.
宾阳 ben33yein11 Yein sounds sort of creaky voice like a good solid 3rd tone in Mandarin, no? Not sure if 11 is the right description…



Sample 9: “I’m playing guitar”

“I’m playing guitar” 我正在弹吉他

Mandarin recording BYHR Notes
? Clearly this doesn’t sound the same as 我 above. I even asked about it, but my BYH speaker says it’s insignificant. Just one of the vagaries of speech production — just gonna let it slide.
dan212 Tell me that voice isn’t bottoming out! Even lower than the previous word, zai. Significance TBD.


Mostly I liked this sentence because of how “guitar”ish 吉他 sounds compared to Mandarin!


Sample 10: “Thank you, Teacher”

“Thank you, Teacher” 谢谢老师


Mandarin recording BYHR Notes
 谢谢 sie42sie42 This is the first documented /ie/. Maybe it should be just /i/?
老师 leo11sai24




Working hypotheses

For initials, it seems like we’ve got the following so far and I’m pretty sure there are more. In the Examples column I’m including the tone markings just so you can do a Find in the browser and get to the relevant sample.

initial examples
/b/ bat33, beo13, ben44 (33)
/c/ cet33
/d/ dan212
/g/ gei11, gam33, get44
/h/ hou33, hep33, hu44, hen44
/hl/ hlam24, hlei44(55), hlen33
/ji/ jiou22 [different from /zou/?]
/l/ lok11(21), leok11, lon11, leo42(11)
/m/ mek11
/n/ nou21(44), ni52(42), net21
/p/ peo44
/s/ sep11(22), sei11, sie42, sai24
/t/ ta24
/y/ yet55, yein11, you22
/z/ zon44, zei22, za24, zai11(22), zen44


OK, now the same for finals

final examples
/a/ ta24
/ai/ zai11(22), sai24
/am/ hlam24(13), gam33
/an/ dan212
/at/ hat44, bat33(22)
/ei/ wei22, sei33(11), hlei44(55,33), zei22, gei11
/ein/ yein11
/ek/ mek11
/en/ zen55(44), ben44, hen44, hlen33
/eo/ beo13, peo44, leo11
/eok/ leok11
/ep/ hep33, sep11(22)
/et/ yet33(55), cet33, net21, get44
/i/ ni52(31,42)
/ie/ sie42
/ok/ lok11(21)
/on/ zon44, lon11
/ou/ hou33, nou21, jiou22, you22
/u/ hu44


What about tones? There’s really not enough data yet. My hunches are like this

phonemic category Best examples in this category Notes
Flat high zen44, hat44, hu44, yet55, hlei44, get44 I suspect this will ultimately include all the 33 examples too. Note for example that the number 1, yet, shows up as 55 but also as 33.
Flat low zai22(11), leok11, lok11, sep11 Probably all the 22s belong here. I’m a little confused about whether there might be an even lower tone of some sort — see note about dan212 below.
Rising hlam24(13), beo13, na24, sai24
Falling high ni52(42), sie42
Falling low nou21, net21

Also, possible tone sandhi: two flat-high tones next to each other, the second one is slightly lower, e.g. hat44sei33

Stuff I’m confused about…

I’ve got it 3x in the samples above: wei22, nou44, and [?].
dan212 Not sure if this is a super-low tone or if it’s just another version of flat-low as I’ve got above.


*宾阳话 is a subset of the top level Sinitic fangyan group Pinghua, which is to say Pinghua is parallel to Mandarin, Yue (Cantonese), etc. To paraphrase Wikipedia’s Pinghua entry and Baidu Baike’s 宾阳话 entry, in the past Pinghua was classified as part of Yue, but it was split off in the 1980s. It qualifies as exotic cuz there aren’t many speakers, as Sinitic languages go: total around 2m for Pinghua and 800,000ish for Binyanghua. It counts among its speakers both Han and Zhuang, and there seems to be some serious ethnic mixing according to one genetic study I came across.

5 responses to “Pinghua romanization”

  1. Bruce says:


    I immediately understood a third of the recordings based on the dialect I learned in HK. For me, they are simply speaking a somewhat non-standard but charming Cantonese.

    You can see the impact of Mandarin vocabulary in sentences such as 今日是星期日, where 今日 is still used, but 是 — awkwardly for me — replaces the traditional 系.

    In example 2, it seems that the initial in 去 is that curious in-between sound, similar to what you find in Hunan and Japan, which is not quite “h” or “f”.

    • SYZ / Steve says:

      Great to hear from a canto perspective. I figured there should be a lot of similarities, but I know nothing about Cantonese, embarrassingly.

      I’ll keep an ear out for the h/f sound you’re talking about. Maybe I can get video of a word or two to look at articulation. I’ve got a bunch of recordings ready to round out this post (which is missing some phonemes). Hope to get it up in a few weeks. And beyond that there’s some tantalizing 上 / 下 flipping that I hope to say something intelligent about if I can just get it pinned down.

  2. Zrv says:

    What a fun project!

    It’s fabulous the way you’ve got the audio for each syllable isolated. Really helps.

    Although you say Binyang is classified as a Pinghua dialect, these samples really do sound like Yue in terms of phonology, syntax and lexicon, with some overlay from Mandarin (as Bruce noted). In fact it sounds a lot like a 四邑 dialect. The lateral fricatives are exactly in the same places you find them in Toisan (Táishān). I bet there’s one at the beginning of 先 too. Have you elicited a first-person plural pronoun yet? I’d be curious to know if it differs from the singular by tone only, or if there is a clear plural suffix on it.

    A few other things I noticed. There are velar /ng/ and palatal /ny/ initials, distinct from alveolar /n/. These are typically very hard for English and Mandarin native speakers to notice. The words for ‘five’ and ‘I’ start with /ng/. But ‘two’ and ‘sun’ (as in ‘Sunday’) start with /ny/. I would bet a significant amount of money that you can find minimal pairs for /n/ and /ng/. It’s possible that /ny/ is how /n/ comes out before /i/, but it might be contrastive.

    For 名 in ‘famous’, I heard a definite nasal ending, not /k/. It’s hard to tell if it’s really /ng/ or if it is just nasalization on the vowel. But the syllable as a whole is very similar to Mandarin ‘meng’. I also hear /ng/, not /n/ at the end of 宾阳. Same with 粽. As you say, unless you find a contrast with /n/, you could just use /n/ for all these sounds. But in fact you do have an /n/ in ‘pluck (guitar)’. And you don’t have any other words yet in which we’d expect to hear /n/ instead of /ng/. So keep looking for minimal pairs, like 名 vs. 民 and 正 vs. 真.

    You may find that a modified version of one of the Cantonese romanizations (like jyutping) may serve you better than starting with a pinyin-like romanization. You’ve definitely got a Cantonese-like short-a vs. long-a distinction (e.g. ‘1’ and ‘7’ /a/ vs. ‘8’ /aa/; 子 /ai/ vs. 正 /aai/. Using “e” for the short /a/ may not work because there is also a true /ei/ (in 水) distinct from /ai/ and /aai/.

    Tones are really hard not only because of the possibility of tone sandhi, but because they are seriously warped just by ordinary sentence intonation. The best way to try to isolate them is to set up a “carrier” sentence that will make your speaker say individual words in an identical intonational context.

    For example: give your speaker a word (like ‘water’). Then prompt him with “What word did the teacher say?” and have him respond “The teacher said the word ‘water’.” You can use this template for all sorts of words, and if your speaker is slow, even tone sandhi won’t be a problem. Be aware that you are quite likely to have 8 or 9 distinct tones (if you treat short tones with -p -t -k endings as distinct from the others).

    I hope you keep this up and keep posting. You’ll eventually start having very discrete questions that you can crowd-source (“Do the finals of these two words sound the same or different?”).

  3. Zrv says:

    BTW, I think the h/f sound Bruce was talking about in 去 is just a good old-fashioned velar fricative /x/. But that impression could be influenced by the fact that it comes after a -k at the end of 落. (But that’s what I hear in the full sentence, not in the individual sound you separated out for the syllable. This might be a case where the place you’ve split the audio for the two syllables is misleading, or a case where it is revealing. Need another sentence with 去 in it!

  4. Brian says:

    A couple of observations, mostly about the word 弹.

    First, I hear a very conspicuous “creaky voice” or “glottalization” on all the words that are pronounced in that tone (阳平 — the words are 阳龙明弹) which helps to distinguish it from the tone of words like 在.

    Second, what is the initial consonant of 弹? It’s certainly a “d” not a “t,” which is different from both Mandarin and Cantonese. But this particular 弹 sounds particularly voiced. Is it the same initial as the “d” in a word like 单?

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