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Why are words like 天、面、先、盐 romanized in pinyin as tian, mian, xian, and yan, even though the ending is pronounced [iɛn], and would be better represented as -ien? Likewise, why are words like 卷、全、选、元 romanized as juan, quan, xuan, and yuan, when the final is pronounced [yɛn] and would be better represented as -uen? (at least the way northern Chinese people pronounce it – it seems that southern Chinese people pronounce it as [yan])

Is it that those words actually were pronounced with a [ian] and [yan] final in the past? That doesn't seem like a complete explanation, as Wade-Giles uses -ien, and Wade-Giles is from 1892 (although it does use -üan and not -üen).

  • Simply different design, many writing system/language has more than one romanization/latin-based writing solution – 炸鱼薯条德里克 Jul 28 at 3:10
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    This is not an answer, but please note that pinyin -en (本、恩、etc) corresponds to /-ən/ and not /-ɛn/. Basically, whatever combinations of letters you try to use for that rime, you will run into inconsistencies with some other established rime. – droooze Jul 28 at 12:35
  • Before you rail at pinyin, look up a poem called "The Chaos" from Gerard Nolst Trenité and rather rail at English! – Pedroski Jul 28 at 23:24
  • @droooze Pinyin already has a rule that -iê /iɛ/ is written -ie, so it wouldn't add another inconsistency to have -iên /iɛn/ → -ien. – mic Jul 29 at 13:54
  • @Pedroski aɪ noʊ, ɪf ˈoʊnli wi kʊd ɹid ænd ɹaɪt ˈɛvɹiθɪŋ ɪn IPA – mic Jul 29 at 14:04
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It seems /ian/ can be a valid broad transcription of (Pinyin) ian, but [iɛn] and [ian] can be allophones. Pinyin is best thought of as broad transcriptions.

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  1. Some Chinese Pinying scholars indeed say 盐 deflect to yien.
  2. For most chinese, ju,qu,xu can not be pronouced out. Only xü,jü,qü can work. However, writing ü is more labored than u, so u replaces ü when confusion does not occur.
  • What does "盐 deflect to yien" mean? – mic Jul 28 at 17:31
  • The sound of 盐 in Putonghua is indeed close to yien, rather than yan. Some scholars have already stated this in published books – cauckf Jul 29 at 0:54
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Putonghua is based on one typical Northern dialect. Maybe now southern and northern people read the same character differently, as in [jεn] vs [jan] [in IPA symbol], but the romanization is based on the northern pronunciation.

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