Plosive Consonants in Mandarin
Learners of Mandarin who are a bit older or have been to Taiwan might have noticed that with some people and place names the English spelling can be inconsistent.
For example, Chairman Mao’s name is sometimes written Mao Ze Dong and sometimes written Mao Tse Tung. This is because pinyin was created in the 1950s and before then Chinese was often romanised using a different system called Wade-Giles, which is now rarely used outside of Taiwan. The romanised spellings are different but the Chinese pronunciations they represent are the same.
Another example is the capital of Taiwan, which is spelt ‘Taipei’ in the Wade-Giles system but ‘Taibei’ in the pinyin system. Many English speakers (and Chinese speakers) mistakenly think they refer to two different ways of pronouncing the city name, but in fact the pronunciation of ‘Taipei’ and ‘Taibei’ is the same in Mandarin.
This is because the sounds in Mandarin are not the same as those in English. The sound represented in by the ‘p’ in ‘Taipei’ and the ‘b’ in ‘Taibei’ is actually a sound that is halfway between an English /p/ and /b/. Similarly, the ‘t’ in ‘Mao Tse Tung’ and the ‘d’ in ‘Mao Ze Dong’ are actually the same sound, which is halfway between the English /t/ and /d/. The letter ‘g’ in pinyin is also represented by a ‘k’ in Wade Giles. Again, the sound is actually something in the middle of the English /g/ and /k/.
So what’s the difference?
In English sounds /p/, /t/ and /k/ are aspirated when they are at the start of a word. That is, your vocal chords force out a puff of air at high speed. The Sounds /b/, /d/ and /g/ are voiced, which means your vocal chords vibrate. However, in Mandarin the pinyin sounds b, d and g (the Wade-Giles p, t and k) are neither aspirated or voiced.
To most English speakers the lack of aspiration means that, when at the beginning of a word, they sound more like the English /b/, /d/ and /g/ but because they’re not voiced they don’t sound as strong or clear, a bit like the person is mumbling.
Most English speakers (particularly in Britain) aren’t as familiar with Mandarin as they are with French, so it helps if you think about the French /t/ in the word ‘taxi’. The French pronunciation often sounds a lot more like ‘daxi’ to an English speaker, but the initial consonant seems a bit quieter and more mumbled. This is the same sound that is in Mandarin.
This unvoiced and unaspirated sound does exist in English, but not as an initial consonant. Consider the /t/ in the word ‘start’. Say it out loud and listen to yourself carefully. The /t/ in ‘start’ sounds a lot like the /d/ in ‘dart’. If you’re not sure try saying ‘start’ and then ‘sdart’ and see if you can hear a difference. Most native English speakers can’t really hear much difference.
In IPA (the international phonetic alphabet, which isn’t the same thing as the English phonemic script) aspiration is represented with the diacritic [ʰ]. This means the first sound in the word ‘tart’ is represented as [tʰ] whilst in the word start it is [t]. However, English speakers struggle to distinguish these two sounds (similar to the way Japanese people struggle to distinguish /l/ and /r/ in English). The result is that the English speakers usually interpret the sound [t] as either being the same as [tʰ] or the same as [d].
To summarise, as an initial consonant English has the sounds [tʰ] and [d]. Mandarin has the sounds [tʰ] and [t]. Similarly, English has [pʰ] and [b] but Mandarin has [pʰ] and [p]. English also has [kʰ] and [g] whilst Mandarin has [kʰ] and [k].
This might seem like a moot point because in both Mandarin and English the important distinction is whether a sound is aspirated or not. This means that for both native Chinese and English speakers the unaspirated [t] in Mandarin usually sounds like the voiced [d] in English.
That said, if you’re academically minded, into linguistics and (like me) a little bit sad then this moot point is at least an interesting one. It also explains the discrepancy between the Wade-Giles and pinyin spellings of people and place names in Taiwan and in old Chinese history textbooks where ‘daoism’ might be written ‘taoism’.