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To my English tuned ear, these audio files of people pronouncing 人 sound very different.

My colleague (a native Mandarin speaker) insists they are the same sound, and thinks I am just confused because one speaker has a higher pitched voice. He said something about one speaker having a more feminine voice, but I'm not sure which of the two he meant.

I'm happy to accept that I'm tuning into a non-key part of the phoneme, but to my ear these sounds sound consistently very different from speaker to speaker.

The Wikipedia page on Mandarin phonology has an explanation for the variation:

ɻ (a retroflex approximant) varies as ʐ (a voiced retroflex fricative), depending on the speaker.

I've also heard other speakers where a sound more like the English Y was more prominent. Is this difference something native speakers notice? Is it considered a regional variation, or as my colleague seems to be suggesting that one is more masculine and the other more feminine?

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"I've also heard other speakers where a sound more like the English Y was more prominent." These could have been native Cantonese speakers, who are ill-equipped for Mandarin's /r/ and who natively pronounce it /y/. –  dda Aug 31 '12 at 8:00
    
They are both feminine voice, although your colleague may think the higher-pitched one as "more feminine". –  Siyuan Ren Aug 31 '12 at 10:38
    
You can jist pronounce it as "sion2" –  Chenhao Sep 12 '12 at 16:37

3 Answers 3

I am not an expert in phonetics but here is my observation as a native Mandarin speaker: there are big differences in the pronunciation of PinYin 'r' across different regions of China, however, the difference between the two linked audio files was much less significant than that kind. I'll agree with your colleague that the audio in the first link has a higher pitched voice and maybe "more feminine" but this difference can be safely ignored in practice and it's even not noticed by many native speakers.

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The two speakers sounded like they were both saying with a [ ɻ ]. One's voice was higher pitched and the recording conditions were different though. In practice, you're going to run into pronunciations way more divergent than those. All the people I've met from 青田 say it with a [z] (note: not a pinyin "z"). Also, I've run into a few people who use an [l]!

My advice: Listen to a lot of people, chat with a lot of people. You'll pick up on which distinctions are important, which aren't, and which are regional.

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This. Also, southern accents, which err away from retroflexing, are (at least in Beijing) considered more effeminate. –  Kang Ming Aug 31 '12 at 22:03

In my experience, I would say region is has a big influence on how the r sound is pronounced.

For instance, I know an older aiyi from GuangDong who says yan2. This is due to her being more familiar with Cantonese pronunciation. The younger generation who are educated more in Mandarin from school and TV, say the traditional ren2 with more of an r sound.

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