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I noticed that sometimes certain finals in Chinese sound differently when combined with different initials. For e.g., what is spelled "u" sometimes is pronounced "ü". Other times, I think the final "i" sounds differently when combined with different initials. Is there a list of rules explaining all of these differences within standard Mandarin?

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I always found the "bopo mofo" phonetic alphabet far better because of reasons like this. There is no duality, 'u' sound is one symbol, and the "ü" sound another one. Also, you won't be tricked into pronouncing anything in an English way (because no symbols are latin letters). –  Lars Andren Dec 26 '11 at 11:24
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When the u is really pronounced ü, as in qu, it's not that they chose a different letter, but just that the diaeresis is droppedfor simplification, because no real qu would happen in chinese, it's a bit confusing yes. –  Petruza Jan 20 '12 at 21:34
    
Personally, @Lars, I found pinyin much easier to use than zhuyin fuhao (bopo mofo). The minor changes in pronunciation took less effort for me to learn than a completely unknown set of symbols. For a learner who didn't already know the Roman alphabet, I could see zhuyin fuhao being easier. –  Don Kirkby Jan 21 '12 at 6:05
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@DonKirkby, that's interesting. I first thought most people would prefer the system that was used to introduce them to Chinese, but it was the other way around for me. I first used pinyin, but when bumping into bopo mofo I found it a lot better. Just as with turn-ons I guess, whatever works for you, is the best ;) –  Lars Andren Jan 23 '12 at 6:28
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4 Answers 4

The pronunciations of finals do not change when used after different finals, with perhaps only one exception: 'i'. It has three variations: 'zi ci si', 'zhi chi shi ri', and all others.

NOTE: Not many Chinese know the differences, but you can compare:

English pinyin
 Lee     li
 she     shi    (the two consonants are also different)
 see     si

The three english /ee/ in the above word are the same, but the three Chinese i are all different.

However, the spellings of the finals do change when used after different initials. The details can be found in 汉语拼音方案 (the Scheme for the Chinese Phonetic Alphabet), which is the official standard for Chinese pinyin.

For the example mentioned by the OP, 'ü' will be written as 'u' after 'j' 'q' and 'x'. ('u' will never be used after 'j' 'q' or 'x')

NOTE2: I don't know whether the full detail of the scheme is appropriate for beginners. There are two links in Chinese: 汉典 BaiduBaike

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Is there a link to that Scheme? –  Petruza Jan 20 '12 at 21:36
    
@Petruza Added to links in answer. They are in Chinese though. –  fefe Jan 21 '12 at 1:16
    
I would replace your second English pronunciation "she" with "sure". It's not exact, but it's closer. –  Don Kirkby Jan 21 '12 at 5:49
    
@DonKirkby I'm comparing the English /ee/ in she and the Chinese i in shi. The three ee in English the the same, but the three i in Chinese are all different. The /sh/ sound in 'she' and 'sure' should be the same. –  fefe Jan 21 '12 at 8:10
    
OK, I misunderstood what you were trying to show. Now that you've added more explanation, it makes sense. –  Don Kirkby Jan 22 '12 at 5:40
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I think one of the reasons is the loss of tone and/or stress in the syllable. But see this table, "Chinese (Mandarin)/Pronunciation of Finals", it provides a good summary of the changes.

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How does "i" sound when placed after the initials "c", "ch", "r", "s", "sh", "z" and "zh"? Is this always the same? –  Village Dec 24 '11 at 12:58
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If you know the pronunciation of "是" (shì), then it's the same in all those cases, look up for example (following your order): 次, 吃, 日, 四, 是, 字, 只. –  Alenanno Dec 24 '11 at 13:01
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One of the easiest ways to hear the different pinyin sounds is to look on YouTube. The trickiest ones for me to learn were the different pronunciations of "i". Here are some videos that explain the differences:

There are lots more YouTube videos about pinyin sounds.

There's also a good chart at pinyin.com with all the changes described. This table at quickmandarin.com will play the sounds for you if you click on one of them. It covers the tones as well.

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For the last point, did you mean the schwa? In that case I think that you should specify that it's "pizza" read in English, because in italian "pizza" sounds different :P –  Alenanno Jan 21 '12 at 10:53
    
Yes, @Alenanno, I meant the schwa. I've replaced "pizza" with "visa", so I hope that's a bit better. I really couldn't think of any English words that use the same vowel sound as "zi, ci, si". Anyone else have better suggestions? –  Don Kirkby Jan 22 '12 at 5:47
    
Maybe the exclamation ugh? The BrE pronunciation, at least... :D It's the closest one I can think of... –  Alenanno Jan 22 '12 at 11:57
    
Note than when you bring up English "sure" that it's a word with very different sounds in American English versus British or Australian English, and that many readers won't be aware of this. Also YouTube links are not usable in China at this time due to the Great Firewall )-: –  hippietrail Nov 5 '13 at 12:06
    
+1, The pinyin.info chart is by far the best source of all the answers, but it is still missing certain things. –  Ming Jun 18 at 1:16
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'U' is pronounced 'Ü' with the initials J, Q, X and the pseudo-initial 'Y'. Otherwise it is always pronounced 'U'.

Something that might help one remember it, is that J, Q and X are also pronounced with the same tongue-position but with slightly varying flow of air. So J, Q and X are basically one pronunciation.

I like to think that the inventors of pinyin wanted to save some trouble, and decided to spare the writers of pinyin the hassle (and ink) of writing the umlaut above the 'U', when it is not absolutely necessary. (It does pose a challenge for learners though).

Some pinyin charts can help you remember it by visualization. On the chart below you'll see the 'Ü' pronunciation is grouped regardless of how it is written ('Ü' or not)

Standard Mandarin pinyin chart

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