So Mandarin has a pretty regular syllable construction. Usually, it's consonant-vowel. It cheats a little sometimes in a few ways, like ending on an n or an r or beginning with a w or a y and pronouncing the glide in such a way that it sounds somewhat like a vowel sound. These things make pretty good sense. And one of the first things I learned in my classes on Mandarin was that Chinese syllable construction works in this particular strict way.

And then along comes the numeral 2, which is written as the character 二. In the romanized form, it's written as "èr," which sounds like the English word "are" with a descending tone. That's an unambiguous vowel-consonant syllable, and it uses none of the standard tricks. It seems out of place. Is it a vestige of an earlier form of Mandarin that allowed for more lax syllable construction? Are there more words that break the rules? It's a natural language, so that would make sense. Has someone looked into this?

This might be more of a linguistics question than anything, but I'm curious about it and don't know how to Google it properly. Some answers would be appreciated.


I mentioned how the er syllable came about in my answer to a similar question, but I'll summarize it here too:

These syllables started out with initial palatal nasals /ɲ/ in Middle Chinese, so 二 was pronounced something like /ɲi/. In Late Middle Chinese, palatal initials shifted to become retroflex so /ɲ/ became /ʐ/ (which is the pronunciation of modern pinyin ri). Later on, metathesis occurred which changed /ʐɨ/ to /ɨʐ/ (see 《北京音系解析》, p. 24), which is realized as [əɻ] (pinyin: er) in modern Mandarin.

I also want to note that this metathesis must have occurred before Mandarin lost the final stop consonants /-p/, /-t/, and /-k/ in 入聲 words. For instance, 日 (MC: /ɲjet/) is pronounced ri rather than er in Mandarin, indicating that the final -t originally blocked the metathesis and only got dropped later on.

  • This is exactly what I was looking for. Thank you!
    – Alex Mau
    Aug 3 '17 at 11:13

Just as a remark, it is far from certain whether there 'is' in any meaningful sense a sharp boundary between vowels on one side and consonants on the other; also, a Chinese [-n] is not necessarily the 'same sound' as an [-n] in English (and it is not even clear whether, phonologically speaking, a Ch. initial [n-] is the 'same' as a final [-n], though it is probably wise to identify the two. Bear in mind though that there are only few morphophonemic processes in Mandarin that make sounds swap positions within syllables).

Sure, [pa] clearly starts with a explosive/stop consonant and ends in what is unambiguously a vowel, but in Ch. [pan] the [-n] is reaching far into the vowel, causing it to be nasalized. The syllables ending in nasals have therefore been variously analyzed as 'essentially open'.

As for what is often written [r-], [-r], consider that this rhotaid may be analyzed not so much as the voiced counterpart to Pinyin 'sh-' (a sibilant obstruent), but as something akin to the vowel of PY 'shi, si' (the apical vowel(s)). Indeed, PY 'ri' sounds very much like a single segment, not so much two segments. Let us write this thing @ for the moment, then PY 'shi, si' become /sh@, s@/ (fill in your favorite symbol in place of /sh/), 'rang' becomes /@aŋ/, PY 'er' becomes /e@/, and PY 'ri' becomes /@@/ or maybe /@/.

Seen this way, the mysterious final consonant has evaporated; PY 'nan' starts with a nasal stop and ends with nasal approximation; 'rang' starts with a retroflex thing that is (close to) a voiced sibilant fricative, whereas PY 'er' starts with a zero initial / vowel / glottal stop as the case may be, and ends with retroflex, not very sibilant approximation.


http://www.onlinechineselearning.com/resource/how-to-use-er-and-liang.html “两”and “二” are numerals that denote numbers, and they refer to the same number-“2”.However, the usage is not exactly the same. In daily communication, you often hear people who can't tell the difference between“两”and “二”. Today we are going to learn the usage of them. The meaning of “两”and “二” 1.the basic meaning of “二”

1)The number of nouns-2: 1+1=2 (in the notes and documents, commonly used in the capital "II" generation).eg. 一百零二(102);贰(2)

2)pairs:独一无二(the only one)

3)others:二话不说(Without demur);不二价(one-price) 2.the basic meaning of“两”

1)The number of nouns-2:Generally used before measure word and “个(unit)、半(half)、千(thousand)、万(ten thousand)、亿(billion)”.eg.两本书(twobooks);两个杯子(two cups);分成两半(Divided into two halves);两千块(two thousand rmb)

2)both sides:马路两边(Both sides of the road)

3)Weight-50grams:四两饺子(200 grams of dumplings)

4)Indicates an indefinite number:有两下子(have real skill) The difference between“两”and “二”

  1. when read as numbers or in mathematics, we use “二”insteadof “两”. Eg.这是二不是三。(this is two, not three)

  2. Ordinal numbers, decimals and fractions are used in “二”instead of “两”. Eg.第二(second); 三点二(three point two); 五分之二(Two-fifths)

  3. In the general quantifier, we use “二” in the number of digits Eg.两杯咖啡(two cups of coffee);and we use “两”in the number of digits. Eg.十二个苹果(twelve apples)

  4. In the traditional units of weights and measures, both of them can be used.eg. 二(两)亩地(two acres of land). But pay attention to a special one-两(50 grams), you need to use 二 only. Eg. 二两米饭(100 grams of rice).

  5. In the multi-digit, we use“二” in hundred ,ten but we use “两” in thousand and million and billion.eg. 二十(20), 二百(200), 两千(2000). However,we need use “二” if it is not in the first place.eg. 三百二十(320);两千零2(2002)

  • This doesn't answer the question
    – Hugh
    Jul 31 '17 at 17:05

I would recommend http://www.zein.se/patrick/chinen8p.html which has a lot of useful details. Quote:

In Chinese, each character corresponds to one syllable (which corresponds to a part of an English word, and entire word or more than one word). Chinese syllables consist of three elements: initial sound, final sound and tone. The initial sounds are consonants and the final sounds contain at least one vowel. Some syllables consist only of an initial sound or a final sound.

Still it's not 100% correct as with 儿化音 (erhuayin) we also have a counter example to the above: two characters (X + 儿) which are pronounced as one syllable. (for instance the pinyin for 这儿 is "zher4".)

I think you misunderstood some of your classes; there are many syllables that start with a vowel. No "cheating" is involved. As for "beginning with a w" as you state, that's not quite true: for instance 五 ("five", pinyin: "wu3") is often pronounced "oo", not "woo".

It's a fairly complex topic. I would recommend keeping an open mind and listening closely to spoken Mandarin as much as possible, rather than studying articles about it.

For instance, the following, which seems to be a pretty complete linguistic description of Mandarin phonology, is probably only useful to students with prior knowledge of linguistics: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_Chinese_phonology


There are words which have the same pronunciation with 二 like 儿 而 耳 尔. And there are more vowel-consonant constructions like 昂 肮 盎 pronounced ang. There are even more vowel-vowel constructions like 奥 凹 袄 pronounced ao and 爱 矮 挨 pronounced ai. It is nothing about earlier and I don't know the reason either. But I hear some experts said the ancient Chinese language sounds far more different than now.

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