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I am currently learning the difference between zi and ze sound, and it is so hard for me to learn this.

  1. Could somebody tell the difference between them ?

  2. How to distinguish between zi and ze sound ?

  3. Please hear this recording (https://soundcloud.com/reinard-wu/zi-or-ze) and tell me this sound zi2 or ze2 ?

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6 Answers 6

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This used to bug me a lot. It turns out linguists disagree about exactly how to describe this, but the effect is similar either way.

One school says the pinyin syllables zi, ci, si, zhi, chi, shi, ri have a syllabic consonant and not a true vowel. The other school calls i in those syllables an "empty rime", Chinese 空韵 kōngyùn.

Either way there is no vowel sound, only a voiced consonant. That is why i here is so different from in li or qi and so on where i has a vowel sound. Zi sounds like it has a vowel e to a lot of beginners because we think there has to be vowel sound and e is pretty neutral. But there is no vowel sound.

To put it another way: you can say zzzzzz for a long time with no vowel at all. To pronounce zi you do the same thing only for a short time (and of course add the right tone). Same with sssss and zhhhh and shh and rrrr.

On the other hand, ze truly has a vowel sound e.

I think the best explanation is in the excellent Yen-Hwei Lin Sounds of Chinese. She uses the term syllabic consonant.

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Adding to Colins's answer, in IPA, zi is /t͡sz̩/ (basically tszzz), and ze is /t͡sɤ/ (tse).

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  • What you describe is the difference between ci and ce, not between zi and ze.
    – Tsundoku
    Sep 15, 2016 at 18:14
  • @ChristopheStrobbe c is aspirated, z is not. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:IPA_for_Mandarin.
    – Aryaman
    Sep 19, 2016 at 22:12
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Firstly, this is a complicated question if we want to be accurate linguistically, even most native chinese speakers dont't really realize and know how to describe this. I will try my best to be accurate and clear.

In "zi" and many other chinese "i", it is actually a close close central(central-back in some occurrences) unrounded vowel (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Close_central_unrounded_vowel), you can find the same vowel in some languages, like Russian and Romanian...

To pronounce it properly, you can start with the front version([i]), and slowly push your tongue back towards the central part of your mouth, the muscule less tighten:

Here is a video to show the position when we pronounce it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-kf38DDGB_g

Again, this is a vowel that does NOT exist in English, you have to create a new sound not used to

Once you get the i(close central unrounded vowel), you will find easy to tell zi and ze. In ze, the vowel is almost the same in firm(british accent, if you want to be more accurate, it is less opened than "ir", it is a close-mid back unrounded vowel (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Close-mid_back_unrounded_vowel)).

But ATTENTION, the chinese pinyin can be tricky with "i" , in some cases it means the front vowel i (which is e in english), some other cases it is the central one (like in Romanian)

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It will depend on the tone somewhat. In zdic.net you can enter pinyin zi1 or zi2 and so on.

Try here for many zi http://www.zdic.net/z/pyjs/?py=zi2#z

Funnily, there are only 3 zi2 listed.
Then you can click on any character, its page will open and there is a loudspeaker icon for you to listen to it.

Here you can find a lot of ze

http://www.zdic.net/z/pyjs/?py=ze2#z

Personally, I think ze has an errr sound, like when you see something you don't like in English you might say "errr", lips forward, whereas zi the lips are stretched to the sides a bit

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My answer for Q1 ("what's the difference") is to describe subjectively how I go about making these two different sounds. It's a simple technique I found (on internet somewhere maybe?) after around a year studying Mandarin.

When I say zi in any tone, for the "i" part I try to keep my lower jaw still, my lips almost together, and leave my tongue close to where it was when I was saying the "z". It feels like a closed shape.

When I say ze, for the "e" part I drop my jaw, opening the lips and moving the tongue downwards. It feels like an open shape.

This gives two distinct vowel sounds to my ears, and seems to be good enough. It works for zi/ze, si/se and ci/ce.

For Q2 ("how to distinguish between them"), just practice saying zi and ze, using the method above and listening to the differences. For me the main difference can be summarised by "closed/open": zi sounds "closed" and ze "open" to me.

For Q3, it sounds like ze2 to me.

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Easy to distinguish for a native speaker. For example,“I blamed myself for this error.” In Chinese, “我为这个错误自责 (zì zé)”

Just practice,and practice makes perfect.

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