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 '19 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 '19 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 '19 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 '19 at 13:54
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    @Pedroski aɪ noʊ, ɪf ˈoʊnli wi kʊd ɹid ænd ɹaɪt ˈɛvɹiθɪŋ ɪn IPA – mic Jul 29 '19 at 14:04

Although Wade–Giles uses -ien, Zhuyin (1910) uses ㄧㄢ -ian, Gwoyeu Romatzyh (1926) has -ian for the basic form of first tone, Latinxua Sin Wenz (1931) has -ian, and Yale romanization (1943) uses -yan. Likewise, pinyin's usage of -üan instead of -üen for [yɛn] has precedence in Wade–Giles (1892) -üan, Zhuyin ㄩㄢ -üan, Latinxua Sin Wenz yan, and Yale ywan.

Yale romanization in particular was supposed to be designed to be intuitive for English speakers to pronounce, which suggests that its yan and ywan were not pronounced [iɛn] and [yɛn] at the time, but rather [ian] and [yan].

Alternatively, these could be a holdover from Zhuyin. In Zhuyin, pinyin -ian is represented as ㄧㄢ -ian, and couldn't be represented as ㄧㄣ -ien, because that's used for pinyin -in.

Pinyin also draws inspiration from Zhuyin in other ways, such as the tone accent marks and the spelling of bopomofo (rather than *buopuomoufuo).

Perhaps Zhuyin could have created a dedicated -ên symbol, but overall, Zhuyin is somewhat minimalist in its inventory of finals. For example, it could have made sense to have dedicated letters for -in and -ing, rather than representing those sounds with -ien ㄧㄣ and -ieng ㄧㄥ. In fact, the character ㄣ -en is derived from 乚 yǐn, even though yin and en are different syllables.

Bopomofo letters

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  • ㄩㄥ (same as -iong, but written as -üeng) is also a weird peculiarity of Zhuyin. – gnucchi Sep 24 at 17:15

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.
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  • What does "盐 deflect to yien" mean? – mic Jul 28 '19 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 '19 at 0:54

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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