Spelling in Gwoyeu Romatzyh

The spelling of Gwoyeu Romatzyh (GR) can be divided into its treatment of initials, finals and tones. GR uses contrasting unvoiced/voiced pairs of consonants to represent aspirated and unaspirated initials in Chinese: for example b and p represent IPA [p] and [pʰ]. The letters j, ch and sh represent two different series of initials: the alveolo-palatal and the retroflex sounds. Although these spellings create no ambiguity in practice, readers more familiar with Pinyin should pay particular attention to them: GR ju, for example, corresponds to Pinyin zhu, not ju (which is spelled jiu in GR).

Many of the finals in GR are similar to those used in other romanizations. Distinctive features of GR include the use of iu for the close front rounded vowel spelled ü or simply u in Pinyin. Final -y represents certain allophones of i: GR shy and sy correspond to Pinyin shi and si respectively.

The most striking feature of GR is its treatment of tones. The first tone is represented by the basic form of each syllable, the spelling being modified according to precise but complex rules for the other three tones. For example the syllable spelled ai (first tone) becomes air, ae and ay in the other tones. A neutral (unstressed) tone can optionally be indicated by preceding it with a dot or full stop: for example perng.yeou "friend".

Rhotacization, a common feature of Mandarin (especially Beijing) Chinese, is marked in GR by the suffix -(e)l. Owing to the rather complex orthographical details, a given rhotacized form may correspond to more than one basic syllable: for example jiel may be either ji(n) + el ("today") or ji + el ("chick").

A number of frequently-occurring morphemes have abbreviated spellings in GR. The commonest of these, followed by their Pinyin equivalents, are: -g (-ge), -j (-zhe), -m (-me), sh (shi) and -tz (-zi).

Basic forms

GR introduced several innovations in Chinese romanization. One of these, later adopted by Pinyin, was to use contrasting unvoiced/voiced pairs of consonants to represent aspirated and unaspirated sounds in Chinese. For example b and p represent IPA [p] and [pʰ] (p and p' in Wade-Giles). Another feature of GR surviving in Pinyin was to write words (usually of two syllables) as units: e.g. Gwoyeu rather than the Wade-Giles Kuo2-yü3.

The basic features of GR spelling are shown in the following tables of initials and finals, the latter referring to the basic T1 forms. [1] Many of the spelling features are the same as in Pinyin; differences are highlighted in the tables and discussed in detail after the second table. The rules of tonal spelling follow in a separate section.

In the tables Pinyin spellings are given only where they differ from GR, in which case they appear in italics below the GR spelling. The tables also gives the pronunciation in [brackets].


Labial Alveolar Retroflex Alveolo-palatal Velar
Nasal m [m]
n [n]
Plosive unaspirated b [p]
d [t]
g [k]
aspirated p [pʰ]
t [tʰ]
k [kʰ]
Affricate unaspirated tz [ts]
ㄗ (z)
j [ʈʂ]
ㄓ (zh)
ji [tɕ]
aspirated ts [tsʰ]
ㄘ (c)
ch [ʈʂʰ]
chi [tɕʰ]
ㄑ (q)
Fricative f [f]
s [s]
sh [ʂ]
shi [ɕ]
ㄒ (x)
h [x]
Liquid l [l]
r [ɻ]
GR differs from Pinyin
alveolo-palatal consonants
retroflex consonants


/i/ /u/ /n/ /ŋ/ /ɻ/
Medial -y [ɨ]
U+312D.svg (-i)
e [ɤ]
a [a]
ei [ei̯]
ai [ai̯]
ou [ou̯]
au [au̯]
ㄠ (ao)
en [ən]
an [an]
ong [ʊŋ]
eng [əŋ]
ang [aŋ]
el [aɚ̯]
ㄦ (er)
/i/ i [i]
ie [i̯e]
ia [i̯a]
iai [i̯ai̯]
iou [i̯ou̯]
ㄧㄡ (iu)
iau [i̯au̯]
ㄧㄠ (iao)
in [in]
ian [i̯ɛn]
iong [i̯ʊŋ]
ing [iŋ]
iang [i̯aŋ]
/u/ u [u]
uo/o [u̯o]
ua [u̯a]
uei [u̯ei̯]
ㄨㄟ (ui)
uai [u̯ai̯]
uen [u̯ən]
ㄨㄣ (un)
uan [u̯an]
ueng [u̯əŋ]
uang [u̯aŋ]
/y/ iu [y]
ㄩ (ü)
iue [y̯e]
ㄩㄝ (üe)
iun [yn]
ㄩㄣ (ün)
iuan [y̯ɛn]
ㄩㄢ (üan)
GR differs from Pinyin


GR basic (T1) spellings are compared to the spelling conventions of Pinyin in the table below. A separate table, after the tonal rules, compares spellings using all four tones.

Alveolar and retroflex series

The letter j and the digraphs ch and sh represent two different series of sounds. When followed by i they correspond to the alveolo-palatal sounds (Pinyin j, q, and x); otherwise they correspond to the retroflex sounds (Pinyin zh, ch, and sh). In practice this feature creates no ambiguity, because the two series of consonants are in complementary distribution. Nevertheless it does make the correspondence between GR and Pinyin spellings difficult to follow. In some cases they agree (chu is the same syllable in both systems); but in other cases they differ—sometimes confusingly so (for example, GR ju, jiu and jiou correspond to Pinyin zhu, ju and jiu respectively).

This potential for confusion can be seen graphically in the table of initials, where the bold letters j, ch and sh cut across the highlighted division between alveolo-palatal and retroflex.

Other differences from Pinyin

GR also differs from Pinyin in its transcription of vowels and semivowels:

  • GR uses iu for the close front rounded vowel (IPA y) spelled ü or in many cases simply u in Pinyin. (The contracted Pinyin iu is written iou in GR.)
  • Final -y represents the [ɨ] allophone of i: GR shy and sy correspond to Pinyin shi and si respectively.
  • No basic forms in GR begin with w- or y-: Pinyin ying and wu are written ing and u in GR ( but only in T1).

Other important GR spellings which differ from Pinyin include:

  • GR writes au for Pinyin ao (but see the rule for T3).
  • el corresponds to Pinyin er (-r being reserved to indicate T2). The most important use of -(e)l is as a rhotacization suffix.
  • GR uses ts for Pinyin c and tz for Pinyin z.
  • -uen and -uei correspond to the contracted Pinyin forms -un and -ui.
  • GR also has three letters for dialectal sounds: v (万 in extended Zhuyin), ng (兀), and gn (广).

As in Pinyin, an apostrophe is used to clarify syllable divisions. Pin'in, the GR spelling of the word "Pinyin", is itself a good example: the apostrophe shows that the compound is made up of pin + in rather than pi + nin.

Pinyin comparison: basic forms

The following list summarizes the differences between GR and Pinyin spelling. The list is in GR alphabetical order (click the button next to the heading to change to Pinyin order).

GR Pinyin
au ao
ch(i) q
el er
iau iao
iou iu
iu u (qu), ü
iue ue (que), üe
iuan uan (quan)
iun un (qun)
j(a,e,u,y) zh
sh(i) x
ts c
tz z
uei ui
uen un (chun)
y (final) i (zhi, ci, shi)