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I got confused because sometimes e is pronounced differently in various words. For example: (的, 地) and ye (也,夜)

Can you explain and give me some tricks to remember? Thank you!

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    Just to be clear, "e" is not a unit of the written Chinese language. The question is really asking about the range of sounds that "e" represents in Pinyin. – dROOOze Feb 9 at 10:49
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    They're written with the same letter in pinyin, but they are different letters in zhuyin. de -> ㄉㄜ, ye -> ㄧㄝ – JLRishe Feb 10 at 8:13
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    Because pinyin is inconsistent and poorly designed. – user3932000 Feb 10 at 8:43
  • Because the second is ie not e. Since, you know, there are only aeiou 5 letters may be used which is not enough. Some tone have to be converted into two letters. ie here for example. And when i used at the beginning, it converted into y. – tsh Apr 27 at 1:08
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Systems designed to represent pronunciation and to be practical at the same time don't have a 1:1 mapping between spoken sounds and written symbols. Or in other words, each sound can be represented using many symbols, or perhaps more commonly, each symbol is used to represent more than one sound. There are countless examples of this in other languages, of course.

The only exception is IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), where the goal is to use one symbol to represent one sound, but this is hardly practical and would never be adopted as the standard way of writing a language for non-linguists.

Pinyin certainly does not have a 1:1 mapping between sounds and letters. Indeed, looking at the individual letters is the wrong way to approach the question, but more about that later. In Pinyin, there are plenty of examples where one letter can stand for numerous sounds, and you have identified one of them: e

e can be pronounced in three different ways (or four if you want to be picky):

  1. First, when it’s the only vowel, it is a close-mid back vowel [ɤ]. This is the sound in 饿 (hungry) or 哥 (older brother), for example.
  2. Second, following an i, such as in lie, die or xie, it becomes a close-mid front vowel [e] instead. This is the sound you're asking about, e.g. 夜 (night). Note that the final -ie is spelt ye when there's no initial.
  3. Third, before the nasals -n and -ng, it becomes central vowel [ə], for example in 冷 (cold). A short version of this is pretty close to the sound used when the syllable is reduced, which is the case in your 的 and 地.
  4. Fourth, in some analyses, the e in e.g. mei and mie are treated as different sounds, with the first using [e] as we have already discussed, and the second [ɛ].

Please note that the spoken sounds of course come first, and the writing of those sounds comes afterwards. Saying "e is pronounced like this" is not really the right way to approach the problem; a better way of looking at it would be "this sound is written using the letter e", which is simultaneously true for a number of sounds (four in this case).

I normally advise students to think of Mandarin pronunciation in terms of initials and finals, which is the traditional way of breaking down syllables in Mandarin. I don't recommend this just because it's traditional, though, but because it helps you stop thinking about how e is pronounced.

There are only roughly 40 finals in Mandarin. Learn that the final -ie is pronounced in one way, and that the finals -en and -eng are pronounced in other ways instead. Those are different finals and should be treated differently. Yes, they all contain e, but that mostly leads to confusion, although it is very convenient to type. Yes, it will take you longer to learn, but it will lead to less confusion and hopefully better pronunciation.

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.

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The way I make sense of it is that "ye" is really "ie", as it would be basically what it would sound like if you took "jie", "xie", etc. and removed the leading consonant. But when you start a syllable with "i" in Mandarin, it kind of turns into a "yi" sound, so in Pinyin they kind of "turn" the "i" in "ie" into a "y", to make "ye".

A similar thing happens in, e.g. "yan", which is basically "ian", like if you took "mian", "bian", etc. and removed the leading consonant, but the leading "i" sound turns into a "yi" sound, and Pinyin turns the "i" into a "y" to make "yan".

However, an exception is sounds like "yi" and "yin" where the vowel is "i" itself and not a compound vowel. Here they add a "y" but still keep the "i" because if they wrote "y" by itself or "yn" that would look weird because it has no vowel letters.

If you look at a Pinyin table, you will see that "ye" is grouped with the "ie" finals, whereas "de" is grouped with the "e" finals.

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