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I've been searching around for random words. Dragon = long, green = lǜsè, river = he... I can't seem to find any words that start with a vowel.

Do any Chinese words start with a vowel?

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    Yes: 安 = ān = peace. Just go to any dictionary and start typing, and you'll see plenty of suggestions. – Stumpy Joe Pete May 30 '18 at 23:43
  • @StumpyJoePete ān does not start with a vowel, it starts with a glottal stop. The only Mandarin syllables which start with a vowel begin with Pinyin y or w. – droooze May 30 '18 at 23:52
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    @droooze, that's a goofy way to analyze it. In lots of languages (including English), null onsets are realized as glottal stops if the vowel is isolated or sentence-initial (and the glottal stop is not analyzed as phonemic). I will hazard a guess that the OP would consider "apple" to be an English word that starts with a vowel. By the same criteria, ān is a Chinese word that starts with a vowel, even though both of them pronounced in isolation are pronounced w/an initial glottal stop. – Stumpy Joe Pete May 30 '18 at 23:58
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    @droooze I don't quite understand glottal stops you pointed out. I think these words all start with a vowel: 啊,哦,噢,额,... , including 安 as Stumpy pointed out. I'd be very interested to read if you could possibly write an answer with your theory here. Thanks! – dan May 31 '18 at 0:05
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The only cases I can think about are:

  1. 安 an
  2. 饿 e
  3. 耳 er
  4. 啊 a
  5. o 哦
  6. ou 欧
  7. ai 爱
  8. ao 奥
  9. en 恩

All examples may have multiple cases under different tones

  • Seems like a pretty short list. Can those words combine with others to make a more compound noun? Another possibility: are there any vowel prefixes in Chinese? For example, Japanese sometimes adds the prefix "O-" to nouns, to refer to them politely. – DrZ214 May 31 '18 at 15:36
  • @DrZ214 I don't think so since mordern Mandarin is more a "Analytic language"(en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Analytic_language) which means there is nearly no adding prefix on word. I edit my answer to add 2 more vowels. – Archeosudoerus May 31 '18 at 18:06
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    There are a few 'ao's as well 奥,I count 88 on my input method, ibus. – Pedroski May 31 '18 at 21:49
  • @Pedroski thanks! I eddited the answer to include ao – Archeosudoerus Jun 4 '18 at 14:35
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    "en" 恩 en1 is another sound whose pinyin starts with a vowel. This list doesn't include tones. With tones there are many many more examples. Here are a few more: 熬 ao2/ao1; 凹 ao1; 恶 e4/wu4; 矮 ai3 – goPlayerJuggler Jun 4 '18 at 14:48
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There are some Mandarin Chinese Pinyin sequences which consistently start with a vowel. As mentioned in the comments, these have a Pinyin representation which starts with y or w:

  • , Pinyin , IPA /i⁵¹/ (starts off with /i/, the close front unrounded vowel)
  • , Pinyin wán, IPA /u̯a̠n³⁵/ (starts off with a dipthong containing /u/, the close back rounded vowel)

The others which many people think start with a vowel but don't really except in certain (albeit extremely common) circumstances start off with a Pinyin letter a, e, or o. Pronounced in isolation or after the end of a pause, these do not start off with a vowel, but a glottal stop, which is a consonant that requires you to block airflow through the glottis.

For example, consciously take caution of the difference in how you pronounce in the following:

  1. (in isolation)

In (1), must start with the glottal stop consonant (take notice of what you're doing in your chest area when pronouncing this), while not ordinarily in (2), although you can use a glottal stop there sometimes for emphasis.

Without this consonant, you cannot pronounce sequences like 諤諤 or 阿娥 properly (although these sequences aren't common at all). An English example would be the word uh-oh!, which must have the glottal stop at the beginning of the second syllable, else it would sound incomprehensible.

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    It seems to me that the glottal stop is the way in which we pronounce the null-onset words, but isn't a normal phonetic symbol that we use to describe the pronunciation of each character. I figure what OP was looking for was those characters whose pronunciations are described with the normal phonetic symbols which start with vowels. But I do appreciate that you share the definition of the glottal stop and I learnt it! – dan May 31 '18 at 1:51
  • @dan actually, (toneless) Pinyin sometimes uses the apostrophe to mark the glottal stop. For instance, 西安 is tonelessly Romanised as Xi'an, not xian, where「'」indicates where the glottal stop is to be inserted. – droooze May 31 '18 at 8:30
  • Ok, what about the one starting with a 'vowel' like an? Is it something like 'an? In my opinion , the reason why 西安 is put as Xi'an is they mark the word 西安 together, otherwise it should be [xī ān]. So both xī ān and Xi'an are used. – dan May 31 '18 at 8:56
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    @dan Pinyin isn’t written with syllable spaces, it’s written with word spaces. The PRC is written like Zhonghua renmin gongheguo, not Zhong hua ren min gong he guo (see how they write it e.g. in Wikipedia here). Xi’an is written as such because it’s pronounced differently from “xian”, but when you start a word using “a” there is no ambiguity so in Pinyin the glottal stop or other consonant to enunciate what would otherwise be the null onset is not always written. There are languages such as Arabic or Hebrew which always mark the glottal stop. – droooze May 31 '18 at 9:45
  • it could because if you don't put apostrophe in Xi'an, xian could denote some other character. Anyways. – dan May 31 '18 at 9:51

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