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I noticed recently that the Hanyu pinyin "i" in chī 吃 and chǐ 尺, aren't the same as the "i" in zi 子 or si 四. I speak English with a standard American accent (grew up in New England), and I could not think of any words I say in English that use this vowel sound. Is it not a sound in English? Is this sound used in English? What is an example? Am I missing something obvious?

I tried poking around online, but I am hopeless with the IPA system, so it's hard for me to understand what I find or if it is relevant. I did find this previous post on this forum describing the difference between the two vowel sounds, but it doesn't answer my question.

For context: I learned Mandarin in Taiwan and from Taiwanese people, so I am pronouncing Chinese words with (my best approximation of) Taiwanese Mandarin pronunciations.

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    "pinyin" does not catch this sound correctly because it misses the need to curl the tongue while pronouncing. Try to pronounce "車" and "train", do you sense the similarity?
    – r13
    Sep 30, 2022 at 19:07
  • I just edited my question because it was unclear. I'm trying to figure out if this sound exists in English. E.g. if there is a word where we use that sound. Sep 30, 2022 at 20:47
  • It is still not clear to me though. Maybe long vs short vowel sounds?
    – r13
    Sep 30, 2022 at 21:12
  • Try 'Chi-ew' from 'chew' maybe not... I was thinking how everyone pronounce greek chi as 'ky' from 'sky'
    – Cheng
    Oct 1, 2022 at 5:52
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiced_retroflex_approximant mentions that Some American accents + West Country English does seem to have this sound in red [ɻʷɛd]
    – Mou某
    Oct 3, 2022 at 6:12

3 Answers 3

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No, the "i" sound of "chi" does not exist in American Standard English (like most Mandarin sounds).

"chi" can be analyzed as either the "close central unrounded vowel" or as a "voiced approximant" (see the first row of this table); I think the difference comes down to regional variation. Neither of these sounds are in American Standard English.

I would also strongly suggest to not try to find the English "equivalent" sounds, as these are at best approximations (and seemingly rather poor approximations at that).

Instead, try to learn the various sounds based on tongue/lip positions. Take the time to learn the basics of IPA - it will save you a lot of grief in Mandarin and any other languages you may learn. If you can, take a pronunciation course (Hacking Chinese, Rita Chinese). If one cannot afford them (I cannot myself), here are some good free resources to start off with:

I also suggest to go through the IPA chart for Mandarin and learn/practise the sounds bit by bit.

Some words of caution, though:

  1. Take pronunciation bit by bit. It can get overwhelming easily because of how many differences from English there are. You don't need to be perfect immediately, instead make learning and practising proper pronunciation a regular part of your language studies.
  2. There are regional variations that native speakers and teachers won't fully realize/address. So, if you have two people saying seemingly contradictory things about pronunciation (and other things like grammar, word choice, etc.), there is a decent chance that it is coming down to a regional variation.
  3. Pronunciation is often taught rather poorly. A lot of teachers don't know the IPA system (which is essentially just a transcription system for mouth/tongue/lip positions). Many people also think that one just cannot learn to speak the sounds properly after a certain age and so won't really teach (or try to learn) proper pronunciation. By "proper", here, I mean pronunciation that the typical native speaker will understand without needing to put conscious mental effort into it. However, proper pronunciation can be learned at any age - it just takes time (and probably less time than you may think).
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  • I consider [zhù yīn] is the better way to learn Chinese pronunciation.
    – r13
    Oct 1, 2022 at 0:34
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    Whether zhuyin or pinyin, what is important is learning the actual pronunciation based on mouth/tongue/lip/throat positions and then recognizing that the pinyin or zhuyin symbols represent that sound (or sounds). Also, actually learning the pronunciation explicitly is important as just hearing the sound is usually not enough; people's brains will typically categorize the sounds based on their native language's categories (and thus usually incorrectly for the new language). Oct 1, 2022 at 21:53
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If you look at the zhuyin, there is no "i ㄧ".

ㄓ zh: 知 (知道 ㄓ ㄉㄠ, zhidao, not ㄓㄧ ㄉㄠ)
ㄔ ch: 吃、尺 (吃飯 ㄔ ㄈㄢ, chifan, not ㄔㄧ ㄈㄢ)
ㄕ sh: 師 (老師 ㄌㄠ ㄕ, laoshi, not ㄌㄠ ㄕㄧ)
ㄖ r: 日 (日子 ㄖ ㄗ, rizi, not ㄖㄧ ㄗㄧ)
ㄗ z: 子 (孔子 ㄎㄨㄥ ㄗ, kongzi, not ㄎㄨㄥ ㄗㄧ)

Check the 中華人民共和國第一屆全國人民代表大會第五次會議關於漢語拼音方案的決議 to verify the above corresponding table. It's on page 297.

If you follow strictly the 注音<=>拼音 corresponding table as shown on page 297 of the aforementioned document, all the "i"s in the above pinyin examples should be eliminated. The reason "i" is added is, I guess, because consonants don't stand alone. There must be a vowel somewhere.

So, what's the "i" sound you are talking about? Frankly, I have no idea. If think "i" in the above examples is just a filler to latinize pinyin.

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  • I think my original question was a bit unclear as to what I was looking for. I want to know if this sound is used in any English words. Sep 30, 2022 at 20:48
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You can find the IPA of PinYin in the following table.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:IPA/Mandarin

ɻ̩, (zhi, chi, shi, ri), ɹ̩, (zi, ci, si)

Those sounds do not exist in English.

I did not know about those IPA symbols until I taught Chinese as a second language. I was just following my parents and my primary school teachers.

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