How does one pronounce the 'iu' sound (as in liu4 = six)?

I have always said it and heard it to end in an [joʊ] sound, as in 'low', 'go', and 'sew'.

But once I was told that it should actually be a 'u' sound, perhaps something like [iu:] as in 'few'. (And from the pinyin, I suppose it would make more sense.)

Is a 'u' sound the proper way to pronounce it? Or is this merely a regional difference in pronunciation (where both are acceptable)?

  • 2
    It ends in that 'o' sound. Sometimes people (e.g., in the US) pronounce the last name "Liu" as something ending with the 'u' sound you are describing. This pronunciation is improper with regard to standardized Mandarin.
    – user2251
    Commented Nov 18, 2012 at 8:37
  • 1
    Are you wanting to knwo how it's pronounced by a nonnative speaker or the way it should be pronounced in standard Mandarin? It has no corresponding vowel in English so looking for an approximation this way has no value. You should either listen to how it's pronounced by a native speaker or by using its IPA. Commented Nov 18, 2012 at 20:18
  • By the way, in English, at leadt the flavour I am used to, both low and few end in the same vowel even though they are two distinct diphthongs. Commented Nov 18, 2012 at 20:23
  • I would like to know the proper way to say it by native speakers, but am open to the possibility of there being multiple, correct regional variants. I'll have to admit, I'm not too familiar with IPA, but I made an edit to include the IPA in the question.
    – cyanos
    Commented Nov 18, 2012 at 21:15
  • [ʊ] is not the sound in "few", it is the sound in "foot". I can't think of any word in English with the combination [iʊ]. The u-sound in "few" is [u] (American style) / [u:] (British style). Commented Nov 5, 2013 at 11:45

6 Answers 6


The short version: I think English "go" is closer to the correct sound than English "few". If you want a non-scientific description which is reasonably accurate, I would use "low" (let's switch to the same consonant) with an added but not emphasised [i] between "l" and "ow".

The slightly longer version: Pinyin -iu is short for -iou, which means that if you stress the syllable and pronounce it very clearly, it rhymes with Pinyin you. For example, listen to the liu (select the third tone, it's longest and clearest) pronounced here.

However, note that the diacritic (tone mark) in liù is placed on the u and not the i, which means that u is emphasised and i reduced. This can be written in several ways, but in Duanmu's The Phonology of Standard Chinese (2007), the broad transcription is [liəu] but in the narrow transcription, the [i] has been reduced to a superscript "j", so [lʲəu]. This reduction is fairly obvious if you listen to natural, connected speech. It's also common to further reduce the [əu]. If you listen to the same sources as above, but select the fourth tone for the same syllable liu, you will hear the difference.

If you're curious about other learner-related problems with Pinyin, such as other cases where one letter stands for many sounds (i is the most obvious example because the sounds are completely different), I've summarised the important ones here: A guide to Pinyin traps and pitfalls: Learn Mandarin pronunciation, which also contains some audio samples.

  • Okay, two other people managed to answer the same question during the time it took me to write the answer. Well spent time indeed. :)
    – Olle Linge
    Commented Nov 19, 2012 at 10:36
  • 1
    Unicode has a superscript j: ʲ that you can copy and paste in if Stack Exchange doesn't let you use HTML superscript. Commented Nov 5, 2013 at 11:50

See also my answer to a similar question.

All characters consonant+iu are pronounced as "ee-ow" and not as "ee-oo". So liu would rhyme, so to speak, with low rather than few.

So when you say:

I have always said it and heard it to end in an [joʊ] sound, as in 'low', 'go', and 'sew'.

You are correct, this is the proper way to pronounce it in Mandarin. Certainly, using English is not exact but it gives you the idea if you already heard it.

But once I was told that it should actually be a 'u' sound, perhaps something like [jʊ] or [jʊ:] as in 'few'.

Who told you that is wrong. Perhaps in some dialect that's the way, but as far as Mandarin is concerned, you should stick to the original way you knew.

  • The similar question you link to (and your answer) was very helpful, thank you!
    – cyanos
    Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 11:02
  • @cyanos Glad to be helpful! :)
    – Alenanno
    Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 11:17
  • ee-ow is indeed a good way to demonstrate the sound.
    – rhughes
    Commented Nov 10, 2013 at 14:44

Actually fefe's answer is a pretty good one (except maybe on the the remark that it is similar to few).

The gist is: iu is the combination i and ou. So you start with the pronuncation is i and then put your lips and tongue together to get the ou.

From the book Mandarin Pronunciation, Explained with Diagrams

/iou/ is the combination of /i/ and /ou/. The /i/ in Mandarin is similar to the English /i:/ as in see, sea. The /ou/ is similar to the English /ou/ as in so, no. The Mandarin /iou/ is an even triphtong. In the production of the sound the jaw opens a little and then closes.

See the link for the picture of the tongue and lip positions.

From http://chinesepod.com/tools/pronunciation/section/8:

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 (see Section 2). 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).

This being said, there is quite some variation on how it pronounces in practice. The correct way is to have an ou sound (this is pinyin notation), however quite often native speakers pronounce it as u (again pinyin notation).


iu sounds like you, learning Mandarin tone is so important to be accurate in Mandarin speaking world, as a Mandarin learner, I found the tones are more frustrating, is there a better way to remember which word is which tone?


To me, the sound would be very similar to the one in "Few".

If you look at the IPA of "iu" in Chinese, which you can find in wiki ([iɤu], with some decorations I'm not able to reproduce here) or SAMPA-C ([iəu], "iu" is spelled as "iou" in the document), you'll see that unlike the [jʊ] in "Few", we used [i], but not [j] and there's another (transitional) vowel in the middle.

'iu' is made up of the 'i' and 'ou' sound in Chinese. (That's why it is spell as 'iou' in the SAMPA-C document, and also in the pinyin "you".) So you can try to produce "iu" from 'i' and 'ou'. Sorry I'm not able to describe how to produce the sound literally. My suggestion, like others have made in the comment, is to listen to how natives say it. And if you can find a native, let him/her correct your pronunciation.

NOTE: The two versions of IPA came from the two sources may come from the variation of how different people produce it, and may come from the notation variations of IPA, or both.

  • I'm not sure how you are pronouncing "few", but it is quite different from liu. For an approximation of how "liu1234" is pronounced, see: translate.google.com/#auto/en/… (click the volume button to listen to the characters being read)
    – user2251
    Commented Nov 19, 2012 at 6:49
  • @B.D I know how "liu" is pronounced, but I'm not I can catch the exact pronunciation of "Few".
    – fefe
    Commented Nov 19, 2012 at 7:19
  • @B.D I don't think the pronunciation given by google translate is very good. And the pronunciation given by google translate for the first character is "liu4" but not "liu1".
    – fefe
    Commented Nov 19, 2012 at 7:23
  • 溜 can can be pronounced as liu1 or liu4.
    – joehua
    Commented Sep 10, 2020 at 13:06

I think there are indeed some people who when speaking Mandarin with the accent of their own dialect end up sounding more like "few". For example, I think some Taiwanese native speakers sound like that when they speak in Mandarin.

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