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pinyin chart

Here in the south (mainland) ün has a similar pronunciation to the English -ean as in 'wean' or even the -een in 'ween', though it seems like northerners pronounce it more like -uin in 'ruin'.

jün, qün, xün, yün like the chart above have completely different pronunciations from lun, dun, tun, kun, qun, hun, zhun, chun, shun, run, zun, cun, sun.

Northern pronunciation doesn't seem to differentiate very much between the two though - their pronunciations seem rather close.

Am I right in my theories?

Is there a reason for these differences?

Is one considered more standard than the other?!

  • I would say it's closer to -een, the only difference being that ü is a rounded vowel. I am not really aware of the difference you mentioned between northerners and southerners, as a southerner I have never had difficulty understanding this particular sound of the northerners, so I have never paid much attention to it. Perhaps you can post some audio clips? – user58955 Aug 12 '14 at 7:20
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    btw, aren't wean and ween homophones? At least they are to me – user58955 Aug 12 '14 at 7:23
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    Native speakers of the Shanxi [山西] dialect (specifically Jin 晋语) are known for pronouncing the diphthongal final -un /u̯ən/ into a monophthongal [ʊn] or even [un]. Native speakers of Minnan, whether it's Hokkien or Teochew, are known for lacking the vowel /y/ in their native speech and so merge -ü into -i. This as far as I see is not replicated across the rest of Fujian or Guangdong. – Michaelyus Aug 13 '14 at 17:10
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First and foremost, I think it's very dangerous to try to approximate Mandarin sounds with parts of English words, partly because we all pronounce English slightly differently, and partly because some sounds just don't exist in English. There is no "ü" [y] in English, so trying to use English here will just trap students and never really allow them to learn the sound. It also makes answering your question impossible, because no matter which English words you choose, none of them will contain [y].

In order to straighten out pronunciation in the case of "j/q/x + u", we need to first look at basic spelling rules in Pinyin. There are two distinct vowel sounds in Mandarin, spelt "u" and "ü". They are very different, although they look similar, and are mispronounced by a large number of English native speakers. The first is a close back rounded vowel, the second is close front rounded vowel. Don't think of "ü" as being anywhere close to "u" because it isn't; these are two very different sounds in Mandarin.

The problem (for learners) is that the dots are only written when there is ambiguity, which is only the case for "lü" and "nü", because "lu" and "nu" also exist in Mandarin. In all other cases, the dots are left out, and we just write "u". This happens for all syllables starting with j/q/x, so "ju" is really "jü", "quan" is really "qüan" and "xue" is really "xüe". There are no "lün", "zhün" or "chüan" and any such pronunciation is definitely not standard.

So, to answer your question, the "u" after j/q/x (and in "yu", "yun) should be "ü" and is pronounced completely differently than a normal "u". In IPA, this sound is written [y] or perhaps more accurately as [ɥ] in glides.

The other sound, Pinyin "u" (the one that never had any dots to start with), is written in many different ways in IPA depending whom you're asking, but [u] and [ʊ] are the most common.

These two sounds never overlap (except after "n" and "l" as mentioned above), they are in what's called complementary distribution. This means that deviating pronunciation is less problematic than it might seem at first, because if you get these finals right (i.e. the following vowel sounds), you can get away with other pronunciation oddities, such as mixing zh/ch/sh with j/q/x (which is common), since the former can only be followed by "u" and the latter only by "ü", listeners will still know what you're trying to say even if you pronounce e.g. "zh" and "j" the same way.

While I'm at it, I should also mention that all "un" that aren't preceded by j/q/x are actually "uen", which makes the pronunciation even more distinct from "jun/qun/xun" (which is just [yn]). How pronounced that "e" is depends on the syllable, the tone and the speaker. It seems to be most prominent for third tones where it's very easy to hear and least prominent in fourth tones.

Regarding different dialects or regional accents, I'm afraid someone else will have to step in. What I have written above is the standard, but there might be places where people don't pronounce things like that. However, I've lived in Taiwan for many years and have spoken with lots of people from Beijing, and I have not observed the north/south difference you mention. Take this as a personal observation; I haven't done much research into locally accented Mandarin (except the Taiwanese variety, which isn't relevant here).

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    Some anecdotal data points: My friends from Guangxi do pronounce 'ün' much closer to 'in' and I think that's the 'wean' sound OP was referring to. When it comes to 'un', however, their pronunciation is only slightly 'thinner' than Putonghua. Given that, the way they pronounce those two sounds are indeed more divergent than in Putonghua or Northern dialects, although I wouldn't call the pronunciations in latter case 'rather close'. On the other hand, my Taiwanese friends pronounce those two sounds just like Putonghua, which is consistent with your observations. – NS.X. Aug 13 '14 at 8:54
  • Very nice and useful answer. I have one question, though. How is the second half of "un" after j/q/x/y pronounced? You mention that "un" not after j/q/x/y is like "u" + "en". Is "un" after j/q/x/y like "ü" + "en" in standard Mandarin? Or, is the second half also different? – 2ndQuantized Apr 20 at 17:55
  • The "un" after j/q/x is just [yn], nothing fancy, nothing extra! I added this to the answer as well. – Olle Linge Apr 21 at 6:43
  • What about narrow transcription? E.g. even e is a diphthong [ɯ̯ʌ]. I'm no IPA expert but I sometimes definitely hear qun more like [tɕʰyɪn]. Something about approaching the n as a vowel with an intermediary stage from [y]. – gnucchi May 13 at 23:22
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    @gnucchi Yes, I know what you mean, and it's quite common (but not standard). I don't have any references for this, but I think your explanation makes sense. Since [y] is rounded and a normal [n] is not, there's a transition between the two. If you stop the rounding early, before the vowel is finished, the end of the [y] will turn to something closer to [i], giving rise to the phenomenon you describe. – Olle Linge May 15 at 7:21
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Actually jun/jün can be pronounced the same. it's just matter of writing style. Same case to qun/qün, zhun/zhün, and others. You can get same pronunciation.

The only cases that make difference between u and ü is: nu VS. nü, and lu VS. lü. Most northern can pronounce these correctly. But for many south mainland, nü and lü will be a big challenge.

  • nu VS. nü

    • nu , 怒(angry), pronounced like [nu] in nook (also ref /u/ or /u:/ in zoo, noon, noodle -- Thanks great help from @NS.X.)
    • nü, 女(female), it's hard to pronounce this in English. Found this video , you can check the pronunciation at 0:50 in the video.
  • lu VS. lü

    • lu, 鹿lu4, pronounced like [lu] in Luke
    • lü, 驴lü2](donkey), similar to nü. You just change "n" to "l"

A easy way to test this is trying to say "鹿在骑驴子" (The deer is riding the donkey), or "那个女子发怒了" (The women got angry).

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    Try reading the question again, please & thanks. – Mo. Aug 12 '14 at 7:10
  • I believe null is pronounced /nʌl/ in both BrE and AmE, isn't it? – NS.X. Aug 12 '14 at 20:07
  • @NS.X. yes, it's not as similar to Chinese pronunciation as Luke does. Any other candidate can better fit in? – dumduke Aug 12 '14 at 20:24
  • @CaffHuang What about 'zoo'? – NS.X. Aug 12 '14 at 20:44
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    Isn't "nook" pronounced like "book", and thus not like "zoo" or "noodle"? (At least in Canadian English) – 2ndQuantized Apr 20 at 17:42

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