Memory Centre: 拼音的秘密 (pīnyīn de mìmì) Pinyin secrets, part I

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “why is it that the 拼音 (pīnyīn) for this word doesn’t look like what I’m hearing?” That’s because 拼音 (pīnyīn) has secrets! We’ll look at a few today, so don’t fret 🙂

z, c, s, zh, ch, sh, and r all use a different -i final than everything else

There’s only one -i symbol in the pronunciation key, but they’re actually a completely different pronunciation when you see it with z, c, s, zh, ch, sh, and r. Crazy, right? (西) sounds like “she,” [ɕi] but shī (诗) sounds like “shur,” with your mouth barely opening as you say it [ʂʅ] (as you can see from the IPA, [i] on xī is a [ʅ] on shī.)

The upside is this: if you hear a clear -i sound, it can’t be a z, c, s, zh, ch, sh, or r word! For example, it must be jìngrán (竟然) not “zhìngrán,” (起) not “chǐ,” xià (下) not “shià,” and so on. There aren’t even any words in Chinese that have the pinyin “zhing” or “shia.”

j, q, x, and y all play “hide the umlaut on the u (ü)

So when you see words like juǎn, qúnzi, xuéxí, or yuán (卷, 裙子, 学习, or 元,) you have to picture in your mind those two little dots above the u.

The upside is this: that means there are no j, q, x, and y words that are pronounced with a regular u!

-un is actually -uen

Words like zhǔnbèi (准备) are pronounced with a hidden “e,” which can be difficult to distinguish sometimes as it’s elided slightly, but it’s there.

This happens with the -ün finals aswell, so you’ll notice it with words like xún (旬,) too!

-iu is actually -iou

This is the same case as -un: there’s a missing character, that gets pronounced but not written down. Words like liù (六) are pronounced with a hidden “o,” which hopefully you were able to already pick up on!

What’s the upside of the last two … you’ll sound way more authentic 🙂

Stay tuned for part 2!

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