Update: I apologise effusively for writing ɤ instead of ɣ, which I had intended all along.

Preface: I represent the voiceless velar fricative with its IPA phone [x],
and the voiced velar fricative with [ɣ].

  1. Is this phonetic inventory for Mandarin wrong? It excludes [x] and [ɣ], and includes only the voiceless uvular fricative [χ].

2. The Wikipedia page for [x] includes Mandarin, which it exemplifies with (I omit the links):

Chinese  |  Mandarin  |  河/hé  |  [xɤ˧˥]

3. but the Wikipedia page for [ɣ] excludes Chinese,

  1. and similarly Wikipedia's IPA for Mandarin page excludes [ɣ].

Will someone please clarify and explain these contradictions?

  • Though /ɣ/ (the voiced velar fricative) is not really a phonemic initial in standard Mandarin, it is attested as one possible realisation of the null initial, especially after final nasals, e.g. 棉襖 mián'áo. Yuen Ren Chao even wrote a paper on this.
    – Michaelyus
    Oct 30, 2015 at 14:21

3 Answers 3


Voiceless: Pinyin h is standardly the voiceless velar fricative [x], although it is often written [χ] for some reason — Chinese IPA developed its own transcriptional traditions, for instance the use of [ɒ] where [ɑ] might be more usual, in the mid-twentieth century. However, there's no systematic contrast between [x] and [χ] in standard Mandarin, and systematic contrast is the important thing. Besides that, for many speakers, the aspiration of stops is also expressed with the velar fricative rather than pure aspiration: tāng: [tˣɐŋ], kuí: [kˣu̯ɘi], etc.

Voiced: In standard Cantonese, no. And in the major representatives of Yuè ("Cantonese") dialects, as described in Zhān Bóhuì 詹伯慧's Guǎngdōng Yuè fāngyán gàiyào 广东粤方言概要, voiced velar fricative [ɣ] is not attested.

There are some cases of [ɣ] in regional languages. Conservative Wú dialects, for instance, voice /x/ to [x͡ɣɦ] in low-register tones. Hokkien final /-k/ may take on voicing and approximant quality before the noun-suffix á: /sái ha̍k-á/ 'outhouse': [sai₅₅ ha₃₅ ɣa₅₂], and so on, although it is also often heard as a fully voiced stop [sai₅₅ ha₃₅ ga₅₂]. [ɣ] is reconstructed for the medieval initial xiámǔ 匣母 in most environments by most hands, too. But no dialect groups have anything like the degree of standardization we encounter in Mandarin.

  • 1
    Dr. Branner, welcome to Chinese StackExchange. Here, have an upvote! Oct 30, 2015 at 5:35
  • Where did you see the voiced /x/ in Wu transcribed as the complicated [x͡ɣɦ] rather than simply [ɦ], and by the way, I thought /x/ in Wu is really [h].
    – Fan Zheng
    Oct 30, 2015 at 23:57

There are two issues here:

[x] or [χ]?: Who cares? You could pronounce pinyin "h" in a variety of ways without impeding understanding (e.g., [h], [x], or [χ]). I think [χ] is a better description of my experience with pinyin "h", but this isn't a big deal.

[ɤ] is the voiced velar fricative, right? Nope! You're confusing two very graphically similar symbols. [ɣ] is the voiced velar fricative, and [ɤ] is a close-mid back unrounded vowel. Chinese lacks the former and has the latter (it's the "e" in "hē", "kè", etc.).

  • 1
    Really? I think pinyin "h" is [x] at most.
    – user58955
    Oct 29, 2015 at 22:03
  • @user58955 Hence my description "could pronounce... without impeding understanding" as opposed to "the way native speakers pronounce it". Oct 30, 2015 at 5:32
  • I was confused by your next sentence: `I think [χ] is a better description of my experience with pinyin "h"'. I thought you were referring to how it was pronounced by native speakers...
    – user58955
    Oct 30, 2015 at 13:03
  • @user58955 In that sentence, yes. To paraphrase, "you'd be fine saying it any of these ways, but I would describe native speakers as producing uvular voiceless fricatives." Although, TBH, it's probably velar or uvular depending on the vowel. Oct 30, 2015 at 16:13

Standard Chinese does contain voiceless velar fricative [x] but no voiced velar fricative [ɣ]. Actually Standard Chinese has only one voiced consonant [ʐ].

However, many Mandarin speakers especially those from southern China would pronounce [x] as [h], and speakers of northern China would tend to practice [x]. If you take [h] for [x], people will not misunderstand you.

[ɤ] is not a consonant; it's a vowel. It is different from [ɣ]. They are different symbols and represent different entities!

Responses to your questions:

  1. yes. errors occurred.

  2. correct.

  3. Please be careful !!! This page is about [ɣ] but not about [ɤ] (which your post originally confounded with [ɣ]). They are different symbols!!!

  4. no. you missed something. that page does include [ɤ], in the vowel table.

    ɤ | e | roughly like American sir

  • "Only one voiced consonant": but the liquids are all voiced, aren't they? Oct 29, 2015 at 22:50
  • And the nasals. Oct 29, 2015 at 23:05
  • More correctly one should say, "(according to this partiular analysis) a single voiced obstruent, [ʐ]". Then again, this analysis not universally accepted; my guess it's more of a rhotic consonant really.
    – flow
    Oct 30, 2015 at 12:09
  • For many even from northern China, the actual realisation of pinyin "h" depends on the subsequent vowel. The "h" in "ha" is likely to be [h] but in "he" (where the subsequent vowel is [ɤ]) is almost automatically [x]. For those from southern China, if they get the vowel right (such as [ɤ]), the "h" would be automatically [x] as well. But it is always [x] in the standard accent used by state television newscasters.
    – user58955
    Oct 30, 2015 at 13:06

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.