Creative Education
2013. Vol.4, No.7, 461-464
Published Online July 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 461
Comparison on the Sound Systems between Sichuan Dialect and
English (Part One)
Chuandong Ma1*, Lunhua Tan2
1College of Fundamental Education, Sichuan Normal University, Chengdu, China
2Sichuan Science and Technology University for Employees, Chengdu, China
Email: *
Received May 20th, 2013; revised June 22nd, 2013; accepted July 2nd, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Chuandong Ma, Lunhua Tan. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative
Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium,
provided the original work is properly cited.
This paper analyzes the differences of the sound systems between Sichuan Dialect and English from the
following two aspects: phonemes and sound combinations (We will discuss the other aspects of their
sound systems in another paper). We are convinced that if language teachers have some knowledge of the
transfer theory and if they know clearly the similarities and differences of mother tongue and English, it
would be much easier for them to know the language focuses and difficulties for the learners and their
teaching would be more effective.
Keywords: Sichuan Dialect; English; Comparison; Phoneme; Sound Combination; Language Transfer
What kind of influence would mother tongue has on foreign
language acquisition has long been the concern of linguists and
language teachers. According to the contrast analysis hypothe-
sis which was put forward in the 1950s (Fries, G. & Lado, R.),
mother tongue habits would influence foreign language acquisi-
tion. It is positive transfer if the learner’s native language helps
in learning the second language, otherwise, the negative trans-
fer (Wang Chuming, 1990). Despite the conflicting views on the
significance of language transfer in historical linguistics, there
is a widespread acceptance of the idea that native language in-
fluence could greatly influence second language acquisition (Te-
rence Odlin, 2001), especially when learning the pronunciation.
The differences of two languages are usually the difficult points
for learners (Rod Ellis, 1994).
Most learners in China begin to learn English from the first
year in middle school, so they miss the best time for learning
the second language, which is from 6 to 12. The sound system,
grammatical system and syntax have already rooted in their
knowledge long before they get contact with the second lan-
guage. Some linguists believe that language acquisition is a
process of getting into habits, not that of learning. If learners
drill repeatedly in listening, speaking, reading and writing, they
would gradually master the second language. But the result
goes against the prediction of the theorists. The Chinese stu-
dents in fact spend a lot of time in learning English before en-
tering colleges. They are excellent in listening and reading
comprehension, but very poor in oral English, especially in Si-
chuan dialect area. Due to the negative transfer of mother ton-
gue, students’ poor pronunciation seriously influences their spo-
ken English. In this paper, we will compare the sound systems
of Sichuan dialect and English so as to find out the similarities
and differences of them. We are convinced that if language
teachers have some knowledge of the transfer theory and if they
know clearly the similarities and differences of mother tongue
and English, it would be much easier for them to know the tea-
ching focuses and difficulties for the learners and their teaching
would be more effective.
Mandarin is the common language of the Han people, while
Sichuan dialect is a sub-dialect in the southwest area of modern
Chinese north dialect. However, Sichuan dialect differs to some
extent from modern Chinese in their pronunciation, vocabulary
and grammar. Sichuan dialect usually refers to the official dia-
lect used by the natives in Sichuan Province, Chongqing Mu-
nicipality and nearby areas. According to the classification in
Language Atlas of China (1988/1990), Sichuan dialect belongs
to the south-west official dialect. Besides the official dialect in
Sichuan and Chongqing, there are some other non official dia-
lects, such as, “Tu-gong-dung-va”, another name for “Hak-ka-
va”, and “Old Hu-Guang Words” of “Xiang Dialect” (Cui Rong-
chang, 1996), but the speakers in these areas can easily commu-
nicate with each other in Sichuan Dialect. Sichuan dialect is
characteristically “foreign exclusive”. In its system, the sounds,
vocabulary and grammar are mostly in agreement, and the in-
habitants have little difficulty in communication, but Sichuan
dialect has a large population of speakers in a large range of
areas, there remains some discrepancies. In the three years be-
tween 1956 and 1958, Sichuan University, South-west Normal
University and Sichuan Normal University joined their effort to
have made a key-point investigation on the 150 places repre-
sentative of Sichuan dialect. In 1960, the working team of dia-
lect investigation of Sichuan University published The Sound
System of Sichuan Dialect (1960) (Hereafter called: The
Sound System), in which the researchers listed the brief sound
systems of 150 dialect representative places. The time of inves-
tigation is not very far from present and at the same time,
*Corresponding author.
C. D. MA, L. H. TAN
and in the recent few decades, Sichuan dialect is relatively
steady, especially its sound system, so in this paper we take
The Sound System as the standard and clear up the consonant
table, vowel table and the regular combination patterns so as to
make a comparison with English sound system.
English belongs to Indo-European language family and Chi-
nese belongs to Sino-Tibetan language family, so they differ
greatly from each other in their pronunciation, vocabulary and
grammar. In the following, we will describe the phonetic fea-
tures, the similarities and the differences of the two languages
from several aspects.
Comparison on the Phonemes
There are complete different ways for the two languages to
distinguish meanings, and the analysis of their phonemes re-
flects their distinctive features of the different nationalities. As
far as English syllables are concerned, linguists classify the
vowels and consonants according to the nature and property of
their articulation, on which they summarize the vowel phone-
mes and consonant phonemes. Linguist D. Jones lists 44 pho-
nemes, among which 24 are consonants and 20 are vowels in
his English Pronunciation Dictionary (D. Jones, 2006). They
are as followed:
Consonants: / p,b,t,d,k,; f,v,s,z,,,,,h,r; t,d; m,n,,l;
j,w / ( Some textbooks include/ ts,dz, tr,dr /)
Vowels: / i, i,e,æ; , , ; u, u,, , ai, ei,i,u,au,
i,,u /
Syllables in Chinese consist maximally of an initial conso-
nant, a glide, a vowel, a final, and tone. Not every syllable that
is possible according to this rule actually exists in Mandarin, as
there are rules prohibiting certain phonemes from appearing
with others, and in practice there are only a few hundred dis-
tinct syllables (San Duanmu, 2007).
In The Sound System (1960), linguists generalized 23 “Ini-
tial” (声母 shēngmǔ), in another words, 23 consonants in total.
If we consider the representative places as different “sets” in
math, then, the 23 consonants are the “union” of Sichuan dia-
lect. See the following formula:
{Consonants in Chengdu dialect} {Consonants in Chong-
qing dialect} {Consonants in Zigong Dialect} {Con-
sonants in Leshan dialect} …… = [ p,p, t,t, k,k, ts,ts,
t,t, t,t, m,n,,; f,s, ,, , z,].
In Sichuan dialect area, except for Guanxian, Congning,
Xinfan, Pixian, Xindu and Xichong which have the same num-
ber of consonants with those generalized in The Sound Sys-
tem (1960), the others representative places all have less than
23 consonants, and most of them have 19 or 20 consonants.
If we find out the “intersection” of all the representative
places, we can get the consonants exiting in every place in Si-
chuan dialect area. There are 16 consonants:
{Consonants in Chengdu dialect}{Consonants in
Chongqing dialect} {Consonants in Zigong dialect}
{Consonants in Leshan dialect } ……= { p,p, t,t, k,k; ts,ts, t,
t ;m,n,,; s, , }.
The other 7 consonants [f, z, t, t, , , ] only exist in some
places in Sichuan.
Vowel phonemes are generalized from the 42 finals listed in
The Sound System. There are 10 single vowels in the “union”:
[ a,æ,,o,e,,i,u,y,].
Among the 10 single vowels, 6 of them, [a,o, , i,u,], exist
in the dialect of every places and the other 4, [æ,e, ,y], only
exist in some places (see The Sound System, 1960).
There are 14 diphthongs and 5 triphthongs:
Trip thongs: [iai, uai, uei, iao, iu]
The following seven diphthongs and one triphthong,
[,,,ie,ue,ye,yu, iai ], only exist in some places.
There are 13 nasal finals in Sichuan dialect.
Tables 1 and 2 show the comparisons on the consonants and
vowels of Sichuan dialect and English.
From Tables 1 and 2, we can clearly see the differences of
the phonemes in Sichuan dialect and English. We summarize
their differences as follow:
(1) The manners and the places of articulation for some of
the consonants are different in the two languages. For example,
in Sichuan Dialect, there are two sets of blade affricates:
[ts,ts ,t, t ] and one set of palatal [t,t,,], but in English,
there is a set of post-alveolar fricative [,, t,d] and two den-
tals [,].
(2) In English, there are 8 counterparts of voiceless and
voiced consonants, they are: [p,b], [t,d], [k,], [s,z], [,],
Table 1.
Comparison on the consonants.
Sichuan dialect p p t t k k ts ts t t t t
m n  
English p b t d k
t d m n  l
Sichuan dialect f s z
English f v s z
h j w
Table 2.
Comparison on the vowels.
Sichuan dialect i e æ a y o u
ai ei au u
i i e æ
   u u  ai ei au u 
Sichuan dialect ia ie ua uæue yo ye yu iai iao iu uai uei
English i
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
C. D. MA, L. H. TAN
counterparts of aspirated and unaspirated consonants, they are:
[p,p], [t,t], [k,k], [ts,ts], [t,t]. In English, when a consonant
is pronounced, whether the vocal cord is vibrated or not
( voiced or voiceless ) distinguishes the meaning of words. For
example, put and but are different not only in pronunciation but
also in meaning, because phoneme [p] is voiceless and [b] is
voiced, even if the other phonemes in these two words are
completely the same. In Sichuan dialect, voiced or voiceless is
not a distinctive feature, but whether a consonant is aspirated or
not is very important for distinguishing word meaning. For
example, when we pronounce the word “ bō”, whether we
vibrate our vocal cord or not, the meaning of the word “
does not change, but if the consonant “b” is aspirated, “bō
changes into “pō”, another word with different meaning. In
English, whether a consonant is aspirated or not does not dis-
tinguish meaning. For example, in such words as sky, student
and sport, phonemes “k, t, p” should be voiceless and unaspi-
rated according English pronunciation rules, but even if one
pronounces them as [spt] or [skai] or [stjudent], the others
would not misunderstand him. In Sichuan dialect, most conso-
nants are voiceless, and there are only six voiced: [m,n,,,z,
(3) There are more single vowels in English than those in
Sichuan dialect. In English, there are twelve single vowels and
in Sichuan dialect only ten. The length of articulation and the
degree of tense of the speech organ are the distinctive features
in English. For example, bit [bit] and beat [bit] are two dif-
ferent words, but in Sichuan dialect, in word “
mā”, the
length of the vowel would not change the meaning of word,
while the tone pitch does. Example: mā (
), mǎ (
(4) There are more diphthongs and triphthongs in Sichuan
dialect than in English. There are nineteen diphthongs and tri-
phthongs in Sichuan dialect, and in English there are only eight
diphthongs and no triphthong in the real sense.
Comparison on Their Sound Combinations
Each language has its rules to form its sound combination
and each language has its ways to constitute syllables. Com-
paratively speaking, syllable patterns in English are more com-
plicated than those in Chinese. In English, a word may have
several syllables and the position of each phoneme is free. Of
course, English does not exploit, in the word and the syllable,
all the possible combinations of its phonemes. For instance,
long vowels and diphthongs do not precede final []; [e, æ, , ]
do not occur finally; the types of consonant cluster permitted
are subject to constraints. Initially, [] does not occur; no com-
binations are possible with [t, d, , z]; [r, j, w] can occur in
clusters only as the non-initial element; such initial sequences
as [fs, mh, stl, spw] are unknown, etc. Finally, only [l] may
occur before non-syllabic [m, n]; [h, r, j, w] do not occur in the
type of phonemic analysis here used; terminal sequences such
as [kf, p, l, bd] are unknown (A. C. Gimson, 1972: p. 239).
1. The rules for the sound combination in English
A. C. Gimson (1972) lists 10 patterns of word initial and fi-
nal phoneme sequences: (V: Vowel; C: Consonant)
(1) V: There are ten vowels in English which can constitute
monosyllabic words: [i] E, [] a, [] are, [] or, [] err, [ei] A,
[ai] I, [u] owe, [i] ear, [] air.
(2) Initial V: All vowels occur initially, with the exception of
[u] and [u].
(3) Initial CV- : [] does not occur initially. [] occurs only
before [i] and [i] in some foreign words. The other consonants
generally occur before all vowels, though marked deficiencies
are evident before [u,u, i].
(4) Initial CCV-: This pattern is very common in English: p +
l/r/j; t + r/j/w; k+ l/r/j/w; b + l/r/j; d + r/j/w; g + l/r/j,w; m/n/l + j;
f + l/r/j; v + j; + r/j/w; s + l/j/w/p/t/k/m/n/f; + r; h + j.
(5) Initial CCCV-: s+ p+l/r/j; s + t + r/j; s + k + l/r/j/w
(6) Final – V: All vowels except [e, æ, , ] occur finally.
(7) Final – VC: Only r,h, j, w do not occur finally.
(8) Final – VCC (Omitted. See p.248)
(9) Final – VCCC (Omitted. See p.252)
(10) Final – VCCC (Omitted. See p. 255)
From the 10 patterns listed above, we can see clearly that the
sound combinations in English are very complicated and the
consonants clusters are very common.
2. The rules for the sound combination in Sichuan dialect
The syllable patterns in Chinese are much simpler than those
in English. The syllable patterns are usually fixed, and the posi-
tions for phonemes are simple and regular. If we do not con-
sider the supra-segmental features, then, there are only four
positions for phonemes. We can simplify it as the following
Syllable in Chinese = C (M) + V (E)
(C: Consonant; M: Head Vowel (or glide); V: Vowel; E:
In this pattern, M and E can be missing. As far as phonemes
are concerned, C can also be missing. But strictly speaking,
there is no zero initial in Chinese, in another word, vowels
never appear at the beginning of a syllable. Even when a sound
like a vowel appears at the beginning, there is a consonant or a
semi-vowel goes before it, such as, [, j, w, , ]. That is why
the position for “Initial (声母 shēngmǔ)” is indispensible in
The Chinese syllable pattern “C(M)V(E)” is very steady and
most of the dialects in China follow the rule. There is no excep-
tion for Sichuan dialect. The general rule for the Chinese sylla-
ble pattern is as followed:
C: All the consonants; zero consonants.
M: i, u, y; zero head vowel.
V: All the single vowels.
E: i, u; n,; zero tail vowel.
Based on the general rule, we can summarize the patterns of
word initial and final phoneme sequences of Chinese:
V; MV; VE; MVE; CV; CMV; CVE, etc.
Sichuan dialect, as one of the most important dialects in
China, follows the general rule of the sound combination of
Chinese, but differences exist. In this paper, we focus on the
analysis of nasal finals and compound vowels in order to show
the distinctive features of Sichuan dialect from those in English.
(1) The patterns of nasal finals and vowel + nasal final com-
bination in Sichuan dialect.
Only some single vowels in Sichuan dialect can combine
with nasal consonants [n,], see Table 3:
From Table 3, we can see that there are totally six combina-
tions: [an,n,in,yn,a,o].
Table 4 shows the possibilities of the combination of “head
vowel + nasal final”:
There are seven combinations: [ian, ia; uan, un, ua; yan,
(2) The patterns of compound vowels (diphthongs and triph-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 463
C. D. MA, L. H. TAN
Table 3.
The possibilities of “vowel + nasal” combination.
a o i y Vowel
Nasals final
+ + + + n
Table 4.
The possibilities of “head vowel + nasal final” combination.
Nasal final
Head vowel an n in yn a o
i + +
u + + +
y + +
In The Sound System, linguists generalize 42 finals (韵母)
and they distribute unevenly in the different parts (see Part II:
Comparison on the phonemes). There are 19 compound vowels,
among which, 10 of them are diphthongs beginning with glides
i, u,
y: [ia, ,ie, ua,,ue, ,yo,ye,yu]; 4 of them are diph-
thongs ending in
:[ ai, ei, au, u] and 5 of them are triph-
thongs: [iɛi, iau, iǝu, uai, uei]. Tables 5-7 show the possibili-
ties of their combination.
From the analysis above, we summarize the differences of
the sound combination of the two languages as follow:
(1) The patterns of sound combination in English are much
more complicated than those in Sichuan dialect. In addition, the
positions for the phonemes in English are mostly free, while in
Sichuan dialect, the positions are usually steady and simple.
(2) It is very common to see consonant clusters in English
and most of the consonant clusters can appear at the beginning,
in the middle or at the end of a syllable. Most of the consonants
except for [] can appear at the beginning of a syllable, and
most consonants except for [r,h,j,w] can appear at the end of a
syllable. In Sichuan dialect, there is no consonant cluster. Con-
sonants only appear at the beginning or at the end of a syllable,
but never in the middle. Only two consonants [n,] can appear
at the end.
(3) Most consonants in English can freely combine with
vowels, except for [,,z,] with some vowels. But in Sichuan
dialect, the rules for consonant and vowel combinations are
much more restricted and many consonants cannot be combined
with some vowels. For example, [s,z,,,f,,k,k,ts,ts,t,t ,,]
never goes together with vowel [i].
(4) There is no triphthong in the real sense in English. Five
diphthongs [ei, ai, i, au, u] can be followed by []. Some
linguists consider the compound vowels as triphthongs, but in
fact, they are not phonemes as the diphthongs. [] belongs to
the next syllable (Xu Tianfu et al., 1985). They are completely
different from the triphthongs in Sichuan dialect.
In this paper, we analyze the differences of the phonemes
Table 5.
Diphthongs beginning with glides [i, u, y] in Sichuan dialect.
glide a æ o e u
i + + +
u + + +
y + + + +
Table 6.
Diphthongs ending in[i, u] in Sichuan dialect.
a e ǝ vowel
+ + i
+ + u
Table 7.
Triphthongs in Sichuan dialect.
diphth ong
glide ai ei au ǝu
i + + +
u + +
and sound combinations of English and Sichuan dialect. It is
self-evident that the two sound systems differ greatly, and their
differences will certainly bring a lot of difficulties to the stu-
dents in Sichuan dialect area when they are learning English
pronunciation. If language teachers in dialect areas pay atten-
tion to the differences between English and their dialects, it
would be much easier for them to find the language focuses and
difficult points. We suggest that teachers introduce some basic
knowledge about phonetics to students and make them know
how to correct their pronunciation self-consciously and spend
more time drilling on them.
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