Consider for example the words 很 (hěn) and 员 (yuán). I constantly hear each term pronounced in at least two distinct ways by native speakers. The issue is really the vowel sound in the finals.

Approximate to English, I hear 很 pronounced as either "mother hen" or "Attila the Hun", while 员 sounds like "innuendo" or "Are you honest?".

I've attempted to look up the "official" pronunciations through Wiktionary, IPA transcripts, Pleco dictionary, etc. but I keep running into discrepancies. So which pronunciations are standard and which are dialectal?

  • 1
    like this? and – Fabricator Feb 20 '16 at 19:35
  • 5
    Vowels tend to shift greatly in all languages. But it is neither ”hen” nor “hun” as pronounced in English. Seeking counterparts in other languages is futile, you should listen to the clips in the above comment and refrain from making comparisons and approximations. And while those clips are representative, they are just one of many variants. – user4452 Feb 20 '16 at 20:23
  • 1
    Don't bother about IPA, listen to as many audio materials as you can, and get used to them. There is no such thing as The Standard Pronunciation in Chinese, some will argue that the Beijing dialect is "The Standard", but you better get used to local varieties and accents of Mandarin. – Drunken Master Feb 20 '16 at 20:34
  • 2
    Another native speaker here. Fabricator's examples do sound different from yours. CCTV broadcasters pronounce the vowel of hěn most close to /ə:/ (while Fabricator's example is like /ə:/ following a very short, slight /e/) and the vowel of yuán more close to "innuendo" you mentioned (exactly speaking the e part should be between /e/ sound and /ɑ/ sound, and your example inclines a little more to /ɑ/ and Fabricator's more to /e/). I haven't read the definitions in the standard, but I think there should be an acceptable deviation in the standard. – Stan Feb 21 '16 at 3:49
  • 1
    As a native speaker from Beijing, I personally find both examples within the range of "standard Mandarin", and Fabricator's examples are probably closer to what's used in CCTV broadcast that is more "open" and bright, but with the unnecessary addition of /e/ sound as @Stan noticed. – NS.X. Feb 21 '16 at 5:35
up vote 3 down vote accepted

@DrunkenMaster's comment is right you will meet many accents of Mandarin. But there is a literally official standard of pronunciation in the PRC, tested by the 普通话水平测试. Set levels of performance are required for school teachers, local tv announcers, national tv announcers and so on. This is probably the most widely understood single accent -- even if no one in China speaks it perfectly!

This explains why the charts in Ringil's answer to When is a 方言 a language and not a dialect show people all across China understand Beijing dialect better than any other except for their own regional dialect -- and in many cases understand it significantly better than their own regional dialect. The Beijing accent is closest to the official one that everyone on China hears on TV.

I know no good source for official phonetic information related to the 普通话水平测. But I take it you still want some good reliable, single source, to take as your speech standard while you learn. Anyway that is what I want, as I think it is important to aim for good mastery of one accent as base, and other local ones if you like on the side or later. That one should be the most widely understood accent (and the best received in business and academic circles if that matters to you).

After trying many different sources, digital and print, I suggest Yen-Hwei Lin The Sounds of Chinese. It gives very careful and clear explanations, and recorded examples. It does discuss variants of many phonemes. But obviously no book is exhaustive on those. And anyway at this point, to learn one reasonably authoritative accent for your own speech, go with the dominant version Lin gives for each phoneme.

I will not repeat what Lin says about hěn, and yuán, but refer you to that book's full account.

  • 1
    Thank you for the suggested reading; I'll consider dedicating it to study. Since you brought it up, I'd also like to know... Are news media and other official PRC outlets in Beijing a good place to familiarize oneself with "standard" dialect? I suppose the distinction between standard Beijing and other accents isn't incredibly important for a secondary learner, so it's mostly a matter of curious interest at this point. – Corellian Feb 21 '16 at 2:36
  • You make me realize I don't listen to CCTV news much, except when it is on the TV in a restaurant. I cannot understand much of it without reading the character subtitles -- and when I read them I hear them in my head with the accent I now have! To improve my pronunciation I need dedicated sources on pronunciation. – Colin McLarty Feb 22 '16 at 15:58
  • As a Chinese live in Canada, I found that the 'H' in 'Hen' is different from the 'H' s in English. I thinks it more like a soft version of French 'R' as in Arret( stop). I hope this helps. – Archeosudoerus Feb 25 '16 at 20:59

The standard pronunciation, I believe, is [ɛ] for yuan and [ɤ] for hen. I do not think there are variants in the vowel for yuan, but many southerners (including myself) may front [ɤ], even to [ə].

Your Answer

 

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

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