There are 214 (by one count) Mandarin phonemes. How can I learn

  1. Which of those are not shared by English?
  2. Which of the remaining number are in the most common use (assuming they follow the Pareto Principle — 80/20 or whatever — like everything else)?

I'm doing research and need to be pointed in the right direction.

  • If you're looking for some similar research, look at aclweb.org/anthology-new/C/C82/C82-1060.pdf which seems to be spot on. – Mark Beadles Jun 14 '12 at 17:37
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    Who has proposed 214 phonemes in Mandarin? I think it's a slight exaggeration! – Gaston Ümlaut Jun 14 '12 at 21:56
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    Are you sure you're not confusing phonemes with the 214 traditional radicals in Hanzi? The number seems a huge coincidence. – Colin Fine Jun 14 '12 at 23:18
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    Formally, no phoneme is shared between two language, because by definition a phoneme is a set of phones which are indistinguishable (or freely substitutable) within a language (or variety). You can obviously informally identify phonemes in different languages, but if you try to count the correspondences you might get quite arbitrary answers. If one language systematically ignores voicing (like Chinese) and the other systematically ignores aspiration (like English), the number of correspondences will depend how you choose to group them. – Colin Fine Jun 14 '12 at 23:26

I'd say do it by hand. First write down all 214 Putonghua phonemes and convert them to symbol tokens in your universal phonetic alphabet. Now write down all N English phonemes and convert them to symbol tokens in the universal phonetic alphabet. Write it so it's two columns, and if the same symbol is used in the universal phonetic alphabet, then they are shared. That's how you do the first part.

Now for the second part, set up a correspondence between your 214 phonemes and their equivalents in pinyin, then take a largish sized representative Putonghua corpus (a million characters or so should work), convert it to pinyin, then convert it to your 214-phoneme system, then tokenize it. Now cross out all of the ones which were counted as "shared" in part I. Now rank them by decreasing token frequency.

That's it! The only tricky part is in deciding on your universal phonetic alphabet, or put another way, what counts as "the same thing" between English and Putonghua.

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