unique pinyin combinations

Prelude: This is an off-topic post featuring arcane and obscure information about the Chinese language.

As an engineer / statistician / nerd, I am always classifying, analyzing, and quantifying the world around me. I am fascinated by the underlying structure and logic of all things, even things that are theoretically outside the realm of engineers. I also love tables and graphs.

Therefore, you can imagine my excitement when, on my first day learning Chinese, I discovered the chart of pinyin syllables:

pinyin chart 412

How incredible that all of the possible sounds in an entire language may be represented so simply and logically, and on just one page! Not counting the tones, there are just over 400 possible sounds in Chinese. I’ve forgotten now how many sounds are possible in English, but it’s on the order of tens of thousands.

Very early on in my Chinese study, I became fascinated with the frequency distribution of characters (including tones) within the pinyin chart. Occasionally, the uneven distribution would seem to make linguistic / cultural sense. For example, there is only one common character for the pinyin combination si3, 死, meaning death. Although I’m out of my league in postulating here, one could certainly imagine that as the society developed, the language would be clarified to ensure there wasn’t any confusion about death, hence leaving the word isolated phonetically.

Anyway, over the years, I’ve tracked a lot of unique / unexpected / fascinating things I have discovered about the pinyin chart. And so I thought I’d share some of them here for your curiosity, trivial entertainment, and perhaps aid in your own language pursuit.

First off, here’s a list of pinyin combinations for which there is only one commonly used character. (My unscientific definition of “commonly used” here is that the character is included in my cell phone’s Chinese input system.)

pinyin neng

I’ll start easy:

neng 能
gei 给
zhei 这
shei 谁
dei 得
sen 森
nin 您
ri 日
me 么

I really can’t say why this is so interesting to me, but it is. I mean, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of characters for the pinyin “yi.” How come “neng” only gets one?

Ok, now let’s get a little more obscure. Here are a few less common pinyin combinations for which, again, there is only one common character:

fo 佛
dia 嗲
ei 诶
zei 贼
nou 耨
seng 僧
lia 俩
zhuai 拽
lo 咯

Ok, moving on. Here’s a list of unusual pinyin combinations that, although they do have more than one character, you might have rarely encountered before:

jiong 窘,
miu 谬
pou 剖
cen 岑
beng 泵
pie 撇
weng 翁
zuan 钻
chuai 揣
chuo 戳

Ok, final list for this post. Here’s a few pinyin combinations that technically exist, but are so obscure that my cell phone and even many dictionaries include no characters. Many pinyin tables don’t even include these as possible sound combinations!

tei 忒
kei 剋

Ok, enough for today. Anyone out there know of other obscure pinyin combinations? Lastly, I’ll conclude with some links to more Chinese character esoterica:

This blog:
How many pinyin combinations are there?

Acceptance comes for obscure characters
Problems with crazy characters
Living with an obscure name

56minus1’s excellent Chinese net-speak series:
Chinese net-speak Part 1
Chinese net-speak Part 2
Chinese net-speak Part 3

Laowai Chinese’s post on the pinyin chart.

4 Responses to “unique pinyin combinations”

  1. Blake says:

    I’m always impressed when you bust out your Excel charts and Chinese character/pinyin trivia. That there is only one “neng” character is still mind-blowing.

  2. Gabriel says:

    excellent post!

    I stumbled here when realized there were only one character for “fo” and two for “weng”. I’ve seen “weng” before and I thought it was bad pinyin beacuse i’ve never heard that sound before.
    But now i’m evem more stunned to know there’s only one “neng” and one “gei” !

  3. […] guy (Google-cached here) who knows more than I do comes up with 413. Others count 407 or 409 or 412. Whatever.) By way of comparison, English has 26 letters, 5 (or 6 or 7) of them vowels, but the […]

  4. Ken says:

    Great post. I have lived and studied in China and would consider myself fluent in the language but I never knew the stuff here. I attended a wedding of a cousin who married a Chinese girl, and her surname was Weng. Since I had never seen that pinyin combination before I thought I’d look it up and here I am. And yes the name was 翁.

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