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Pinyin Pitfalls You Need To Watch Out For (Part 1)

Pinyin Pitfalls You Need To Watch Out For (Part 1)


Julie Tha Gyaw

Spelling sounds

pīn (拼)  “put together; spell”

yīn (音)  “sound”

For most of us, the first step to learning Chinese is learning pinyin. 

The pinyin that I’m referring to here is actually called Hanyu Pinyin.  There are actually several different pinyin systems, but the one that most of us know and use these days, which I’ll just call “pinyin,” was originally created as a tool for helping raise the literacy rate in the “New China” of the 1950s. There are a LOT of different opinions about pinyin from lots of different perspectives, especially as it compares to other systems of Romanization, but I think we can all agree that, for people who are trying to learn Chinese as a foreign language, pinyin is generally a helpful resource.

There are, though, some features of pinyin that are a little tricky and can cause some confusion about how to pronounce certain syllables in Chinese. 

If you’ve been baffled by some aspect of pinyin, let’s see if we can’t clear up your confusion by taking a look at the tricky quirks of this Romanization system.

Tricky Point One:  Same Vowel, Multiple Pronunciations

Some new learners of Chinese (including me, back when I started learning Chinese in the ‘90s) think they can just learn how to pronounce “a” or “e” and then they will know how to pronounce it in any syllable.  For instance, it wouldn’t be illogical to assume like I did that that once you learn how to say “e” in Chinese, such as in the syllable è (饿), which means “hungry,” you know how to pronounce the “e” any syllable.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way!  Multiple sounds are often represented by a single vowel in pinyin. The two vowels that cause the most confusion for beginner Chinese students are the “a” and “e.”

The “e,” for example, appears in nine different finals: e, er, ei, en, eng, ie, uen, ueng, and üe.  The sound represented by the “e” in those finals is NOT the same across the board, so it’s important that you learn each final separately in order to avoid pronunciation mistakes.  (By the way, if you don’t know what I mean when I say “finals” or “initials,” you might want to watch Yangyang’s pinyin lessons.)

Let’s look at some examples of how the “e” sound changes depending on the final it’s in.  Each of the words below has an “e” in it, but the vowel sound is different in each word.

rè      热    “hot”  

fēng   风    “wind”  

jǐe      姐    “older sister”  

wèn   问     “ask”  

Similarly, the letter “a” appears in a whopping 14 different finals, including a, ai, ao, an, ang, ia, iao, ian, iang, ua, uai, uan, uang, and üan (which is actually yuan—more on that later).  The “a” in those finals represents several different sounds. 

Think, for instance, about the differences in pronunciation of vowel sounds in these words:

yǎn      眼   “eye”  

yàng    样    “type/kind”  

mǎi      买    “buy”  

gāo      高    “tall”  

Have you ever wondered why the vowel sound in “men” and “meng” isn’t quite the same?  And why does the “e” in  “fen” and “feng” sound different? If so, then you’ve got to stop thinking of the “e” as a single vowel that you can add “n” or “ng” onto without changing the vowel sound.  Instead, think of “en” and “eng” as totally separate finals, with different pronunciations, even though they are spelled so similarly.

You can see how easy it is to get confused at first.

The key to avoiding pronunciation problems in this area is to focus on how to pronounce each initial and final, rather than singling out the letters.  Look beyond the individual letters within an initial or final and instead view each of them as an individual unit that has its own unique pronunciation. 

You were probably taught to read English phonetically, by first learning the sound that each letter makes, and then putting them together.  C –A –T.  Together those three letters form the sounds of the word “cat.”  Do NOT try to read pinyin in the same way. 

Instead, think of when you started learning that certain combinations of letters form certain sounds, such as “tion” and “ph” and “ing.”  That’s how you ought to think about the initials and finals in pinyin. 

For instance, “e” is one final sound, “en” is another separate final sound, and “eng” is yet another final sound.” 

“A” is one final sound, “an” is another, “ang” is another, and “uan” and “yuan” are totally different too.  So, rather than thinking of the syllable “gei” as G+E+I, instead think of it as the initial “g” + the final “ei.”  And, rather than thinking of “ruan” as R+U+A+N, instead think of it as the initial “r” + the final “uan.” 

Speaking of the syllable “ruan,” have you ever wondered WHY IN THE WORLD is it pronounced so differently from the syllable “yuan?”  Aren’t they both the “uan” final?  Actually, they’re not the same final. 

And that leads me to the next point…

Tricky Point Two:  The Usage of “y” and “w” as separation letters

If you’ve ever wondered why pinyin seems kind of inconsistent sometimes, that’s because it is. Most of those inconsistencies exist due to some spelling rules. 

You need to be aware of those rules, because once you understand them, it might help answer questions like “why are ‘yan’ and ‘wan’ pronounced differently when they appear to have the same final?” 

The first spelling rule that you should be aware of is how “y” and “w” are used at the beginning of a syllable. 

The basic idea is this:  if a syllable begins with “i,” the “i” is replaced with a “y.”  Here’s what that means for the following syllables:

Original spelling

Actual spelling

ia

ya

ie

ye

in

yin

ing

ying

iao

yao

iou

you

ian

yan

iang

yang

iong

yong

Also, when a syllable begins with “ü”, a “y” is added and the umlaut is dropped.  Why is the umlaut dropped?  That is an excellent question and I would love to know the answer!  It really bugs me.  

Here are the syllables that are affected by this rule:

Original spelling

Actual spelling

ü

yu

üe

yue

üan

yuan

ün

yun

Here’s another one:  When a syllable begins with “u,” it is replaced with a “w.”  Here’s how that looks:

Original spelling

Actual spelling

ua

wa

uo

wo

uai

wai

uei

wei

uan

wan

uen

wen

uang

wang

ueng

weng

And finally, when “i” is a syllable by itself, a “y” is added before it.  When “u” is a syllable by itself, a “w” is added before it.  And so you get:

Original spelling

Actual spelling

i

yi

u

wu

Once you know these rules, things start to make a little more sense.  For example, maybe you’re like me and you wondered for ages why “wo” rhymes with “luo.”  Now you know!  Because “wo” is actually “uo!”

You might also be asking, “But, why?  Why not keep the original spellings?  Doesn’t this just add unnecessary complication?” 

Well, actually, there is a good reason for it.  When used like this, the “y” and “w” are called “separation letters.”  Using them helps to avoid ambiguity in words that contain multiple syllables. 

For example, without the “y” added to the word for “aunt,” “āyí” would be just “ai,” which is an entirely different word. 

And here’s another example:  without the “y” and the “w,” the word for English, “yīngwén,” becomes “inguen,” which doesn’t have a clear separation of syllables.  It could even be interpreted as a three-syllable word: “in-gu-en.” 

So yes, those spelling rules actually do make some sense.  In my next post, the rules that I’m going to point out for you, however, are a little different.

Yoyo Resource: Free Video-based Pinyin Chart

Yoyo Chinese also has a free video-based pinyin chart (bit.ly/yoyochinesepinyinchart). It includes video explanations on difficult pinyin like the ones I mentioned above, and audio demonstrations for all Mandarin sounds in all four tones.

I hope that chart and this article helps you with your Mandarin! If you've got any questions, ask them in the comments below!

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JULIE THA GYAW is one of the course designers and script writers for Yoyo Chinese. She has lived in China for more than a decade teaching Mandarin, and holds a Master's degree in Chinese from Middlebury College. Her biggest and most challenging project these days is learning how to teach her one-year-old son both English and Chinese.

Posted on: April 10th, 2014
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