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Does anybody know why this decision was made in Pinyin, about not writing any hint of the sound /O/ in liu, instead of writing something like liou or liow ?

Because the first reaction of any newcomer to Chinese, and moreover, non chinese speakers, is to say lee-oo instead of lee-ow.

edit: some arbitrary decision seems to have been made by choosing you instead of yu, but with other initials, the choice was: liu, niu, jiu, etc. when the phoneme /ou/ in all cases is the same and one could reasonably expect them to be written the same, or at least to be a good reason as to why it isn't the case.

edit2: Happens something similar to the final -ui which is pronounced -uei

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Ok the best answer I've read is that choosing liu instead of liou was just to save one letter. And that this couldn't be done with you -> yu (or iu) because there's already a yu syllable and that would be ambiguous. –  Petruza Jun 20 at 19:27
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3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

The same happens with other characters with the same "finals":

就 - Jiù
扭 - Niǔ

From this page of Chinesepod.com:

Mandarin's iu sound can confuse you because what is written is actually an abbreviated form of "iou," a straightforward combination of the vowel sounds i and ou. Thus the iu syllable sounds similar to the "yo" of the English word "yo-yo," with a bit more "oo" sound on the end. It is written as you when it stands alone, and as iu when it is preceded by a consonant (for example, diu, niu, liu).

Emphasis and bold are mine.

Edit: I think that the reason why we have "you" and "liu" is due to some important facts:

Chinese syllables are all made of initials + finals. Unlike other languages, not all sounds in Chinese can be both initials and finals. For example the [s] sound never occurs at the end of a syllable in Chinese, but it does at the beginning, etc.

For this reason, we cannot have a stand-alone final1. Finals that stand by themselves need an initial anyway, and, apart from "iou-you", this happens to other finals as well:

  • iou —> you
  • uen —> wen
  • iao —> yao
  • u —> wu
  • etc...

At this point we could write "liou", but like it has been mentioned, this could have been done for a reason of "economizing/saving space". This doesn't happen symmetrically to all syllables, but considering Pinyin is an "artificial" system for romanizations, many choices could be just arbitrary. In any case, if I find some other claim that explains more in depth, I'll make sure to add it.

1: This is not true for all the finals. Check the link for "finals" to see which ones can stand by themselves, under the column Final-only form.

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By the way, I forgot to mention that I was mislead too at first eheheh... :D –  Alenanno Jan 19 '12 at 23:16
Ok, this says it happens, but why or what for is the question. Why liu, jiu, niu and not yu instead of you? –  Petruza Jan 20 '12 at 21:03
It's written in the last sentence: "It is written as you when it stands alone, and as iu when it is preceded by a consonant (for example, diu, niu, liu)." –  Alenanno Jan 20 '12 at 21:09
I don't think it's "certainly related to the phonologic evolution", given that Pinyin was devised in the past century. Most other romanization schemes (e.g., Wade-Giles, Yale, Gwoyeu Romatzyh, etc.) retain the 'o' in the romanization. The answer may simply be for reducing redundancy and increasing conciseness in spelling (i.e., since the -iu sound doesn't exist in Mandarin, it's safe to use it to represent the -iou sound). Other cases where this happens is with -uei -> -ui, -uen -> un, ü -> u after j/q/x, and -uo -> -o after b/p/m/f. –  Claw Jan 20 '12 at 22:44
@Petruza you asked "Why liu, jiu, niu and not yu instead of you?" but it doesn't seem you got an answer? The most obvious thing to me is that, because there is no "liu" sound, only "liou" sound, it was able to be made into shorthand. However, there are both "you" (like 油, yóu, oil) and "yu" (like 鱼, yú, fish) sounds, so it cannot be shortened down. Now then, if it was able to be shortened down, why did they, then making the lettering inconsistent? That could be another carry-over from the old 注音符号 system, possibly. –  Ming Jun 19 at 3:14
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As I said in another answer, I think pinyin was actually developed to help Russian speakers learn Mandarin. It may be that "iu" in Russian is pronounced with an added "o" sound. That question has some other answers with interesting information about the development of pinyin.

In spite of its quirks, I've found pinyin a lot easier to use than zhuyin fuhao. It's a phonetic system that uses symbols instead of letters, often called bopomofo.

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Russian, as far as I know, has two ways to represent "iu": иу and ю. The first has the stress on the "i", the second on the "u". But both are "ee-oo"... I don't remember an "o" sound like the one in "jiu" or "liu" for pinyin. If some russian native speaker passes by, I'd like to have more insight on this. :) –  Alenanno Jan 20 '12 at 9:46
I agree with @Alenanno based on my little knowledge of Russian. –  Petruza Jan 20 '12 at 21:01
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Because pinyin wasn't created by Westerners; it was created by the Chinese government. Also transliteration systems, by nature, aren't perfect analogues to the mother tongue, and you're just setting yourself up for heartbreak if you expect them to be. Relevant: Gwoyeu Romatzyh

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I don't expect Pinyin to be anything, I just study it. And this doesn't answer my question. –  Petruza Jan 20 '12 at 21:01
Pinyin is not a transliteration in any other language. –  gb. May 19 '12 at 7:00
Petruza, the posters are trying to tell you that pinyin doesn't work perfectly, especially for someone who learned to use the alphabet to pronounce a different language, i.e. English. Even in English a lot of spellings are not purely phonetic, but a lot of it –  grayQuant Oct 9 '13 at 1:42
Petruza, your question is unanswerable, pinyin doesn't work perfectly even for native speakers. For someone who learned the alphabet for a different language i.e. English, pinyin makes even less sense. It's just a guide to pronunciation, but Chinese can't be learned entirely through it. –  grayQuant Oct 9 '13 at 1:44
I know Pinyin is not perfect, if such a concept can be defined in linguistics. It's not a question of perfection or even quality of Pinyin, it's about a double standard for you and liu, for example. Both have the same exact vowel pronunciation in chinese but have different spellings in pinyin. You could argue that they may not have the same exact pronunciation, but the difference in spelling certainly doesn't reflect that, anyway. –  Petruza Jun 20 at 19:18
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