When I first began learning Mandarin and was struggling with some of the different pronunciations I heard 2 different representations of the "r" sound in pinyin. The first representation suggested to just treat identically to how you would treat an English "r" and native speakers will understand you well enough, and the other said it was closer to the "s" sound in the English word "measure".

Obviously these are two completely different and contradictory representations, and as an native English speaker I should have just ran with the first, but I grasped the latter almost instantly and have been pronouncing it in that way ever since (to myself in private, the only communication I ever have with native speakers is through text).

This has been fine for me, I've since heard numerous audio samples that use either or, which has lead me to believe that it didn't really matter. I even recall reading somewhere that the latter representation is common in northern dialects (citation needed).

But just now while watching this YouTube video at 0:45 the woman speaking says the word 别人 and then follows it up by saying 人 by itself. The first time she pronounces the "r" sound using the first method, nearly identical to the English "r". The second time she used the method I'm more familiar with, and I corroborate that the way she says it is exactly how I've learned to pronounce it.

So I guess the question I'm asking is, what is the history behind this distinction? Is it a north/south difference or is there more to the story?

  • “Obviously these are two completely different and contradictory representations” not too much different. They're both blade of the tounge touching the palatal, although not exactly the same area – 炸鱼薯条德里克 Jun 13 '20 at 13:08

There have been three major ways of transcribing Pinyin r-:

  • voiced retroflex fricative /ʐ/
  • voiced retroflex approximant /ɻ/
  • voiced postalveolar approximant /ɹ̠/

In English-language pronunciation manuals, the first is closer to English measure, the third is the English red across most accents (with the caveat that it is not labialised in Mandarin Chinese).

There are two reasons why the first one, as a fricative, has become deprecated:

  • Phonologically, it means that Pinyin sh- vs r- becomes Mandarin's one phonemic voicing contrast.
  • High friction leads to a "rather unnatural" pronunciation.

Hence, in the words of Třísková (2008):

[ʐ] can be considered as a free variant

... but also:

Lately there is [an opinion] that [ʐ], [ɻ] are free variants of the phoneme /r/ (we can [observe] a considerable variability of pronunciation).

So what is this variation then? An acoustic study from 王祥灿 (2013) concludes that:

PTH 辅音r变体类型分布较为复杂,易受到具体语音环境的影响,当后接i,u,e高元音时,或音节声调为去声调时,或音素 r 位于双音节中时,多表现为擦音类型,其他情况下通音类型居多。

That is to say, use of the fricative / high-friction variant is more likely:

  • in Pinyin ri, ru, re
  • in falling tone (Pinyin fourth tone)
  • in bisyllables / bisyllabic compounds

I would clarify that last one by saying it's more likely directly after a consonant, e.g. higher friction in 当然 dāngrán than in 偶然 ǒurán.

Dialectal/regional differences are also found for Pinyin r-, but the approximant vs fricative difference is more contextual than regional.

  • :- Quote:- "I tend towards the formal, the elaborate, the precise; pedantic at times, but baroque always". (Spoken with ".....a moderate, generalised inner London accent) You certainly live up to your self-description :) – Wayne Cheah Jun 12 '20 at 11:23

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