Standard Chinese Phonology - Vowels


Under most analyses, Standard Chinese has five or six vowel phonemes:

  1. /a/
  2. /ə/: sounding more like before and after front glides (/j/, /ɥ/), before and after /w/, and elsewhere
  3. /i/
  4. /y/ (a front rounded vowel, as in French or German)
  5. /u/
  6. Possibly /ɨ/ (only after alveolar and retroflex sibilants, where it is often pronounced as a syllabic fricative)

The pronunciation of each of these sounds varies somewhat depending on context. In a very narrow transcription, the following phones may be distinguished:

  1. For /a/:
    • , in Pinyin an, uan, ai, uai,
    • , in Pinyin a, ia, ua, (Depending on whether the sound after it is front or back, some may pronounce it more like or, respectively)
    • , in Pinyin ang, iang, uang, ao, iao,
  2. For broad allophone of /ǝ/:
    • , in Pinyin ei, wei/ui, (Some may pronounce it as a more central )
    • , in Pinyin ie, ian, and an interjection ê
    • , in Pinyin yue/üe, yuan/üan,
  3. For broad allophone of /ǝ/:
    • , in Pinyin ou, you/iu, (Some may pronounce it more central and unrounded: )
    • , in Pinyin uo and an interjection o (Some may pronounce it closer)
  4. For broad allophone of /ǝ/:
    • , in Pinyin e, eng, weng, (Some pronounce this as )
    • , in Pinyin en, wen/un,
  5. For /i/:
    • , in Pinyin yi/i, yin/in, ying/ing,
    • For some speakers, in Pinyin ing (in place of )
  6. For /y/:
    • , in Pinyin yu/ü, yun/ün,
    • For some speakers, in Pinyin yun/ün (in place of )
  7. For /u/:
    • , in Pinyin ong, iong,
    • , in Pinyin wu/u
  8. For /ɨ/:
    • (Pinyin i), after the alveolar sibilants /t͡s t͡sʰ s/ (zi, ci, si)
    • (Pinyin i), after the retroflex sibilants /ʈ͡ʂ ʈ͡ʂʰ ʂ ʐ / (zhi, chi, shi, ri)

Note that Pinyin often has more than one way to spell the same set of sounds. When two variants are given, the first is when the syllable final occurs as a syllable by itself, while the second is the form used following a consonant. Other such variants exist, but are not written:

  • For any Pinyin syllable final list above with only one form and beginning with u or i, substitute w or y (respectively) when it appears as a syllable by itself.
  • The Pinyin letter ü is written u after all but l and n, because it does not contrast with /u/ except after those two consonants.
  • The Pinyin final uo is written o after b, p, m and f.

Interjections such as and, which contrast with the word, suggest that each must be treated as a separate phoneme. In reality, however, most analyses treat these as special cases operating outside the normal phonemic system (similar to the normal treatment of "hmm", "unh-unh", "shhh!" and other English exclamations that violate usual phonotactic and allophonic rules). Examples are – (e.g. the interjections 喔, 哦 and 噢) – (e.g. 饿 "hungry", 鹅 "goose"), (e.g. 夜 "night", 爷 "grandfather") – (e.g. the interjection 哟), (e.g. 乐 "glad") – (e.g. the interjection 咯).

It would also be possible to merge /ɨ/ and /i/, which are historically related, since they are also in complementary distribution, provided that the alveolo-palatal series is either left unmerged, or merged with the velars rather than the retroflex or alveolar series. (That is, and all exist, but there is neither * nor *, so there is no problem merging both ~ and ~ at the same time.) The result is a five-vowel system of /a/, /ə/, /i/, /u/, and /y/.

See syllabic fricative for a discussion of the Chinese phoneme /ɨ/ and its varying pronunciations and transcriptions.

The medials /j, w, ɥ/ can also be merged to the high vowels /i, u, y/ — there is no ambiguity in interpreting a sequence like as /iɑʊ̯/, and potentially problematic sequences such as */iu/ never occur. This results in a minimal system with 19 consonants and 5 vowels.

An alternative and potentially more abstract system that sometimes appears in the linguistic literature (e.g. in Mantaro Hashimoto and Edwin Pulleyblank) uses the opposite approach of analyzing the vowels /i/, /u/ and /y/ as the surface form of the glides /j, w, ɥ/ combined with a null meta-phoneme Ø. In this system, shown below, there are just two vowel nuclei, /a/ and /ə/; various allophones result from a preceding glide /j, w, ɥ/ (or null) and a coda /i~j, u~w, n, ŋ/ (or null; see erhua for the additional sequences afforded by the rhotic coda /ɻ /). (The minimal vowel /ɨ/ is ascribed to the surface manifestation of all three values being null, e.g. would be analyzed as an underlying syllabic /s/.)

Nucleus Coda Medial
Ø j w ɥ
a Ø ä
i aɪ̯ waɪ̯
u ɑʊ̯ jɑʊ̯
n an jɛn wan ɥœ̜n
ŋ ɑŋ jɑŋ wɑŋ
ə Ø ɤ ² wɔ ¹ ɥœ̜
i eɪ̯ weɪ̯
u oʊ̯ joʊ̯
n ən in wən yn
ŋ ɤŋ wɤŋ
~ ʊŋ ³
Ø ɨ~ɨ˞ i u y

¹ Both pinyin and zhuyin have an additional "o", used after "b p m f", which is distinguished from "uo", used after everything else. "o" is generally put into the first column instead of the third. However, in Beijing pronunciation, these are identical.
² Another way to represent this initial is:, which reflects Beijing pronunciation.
³ /wɤŋ/ is pronounced when it follows an initial.

The sequence can be considered to be phonemically either /jən/ or /jan/; likewise could be either /ɥən/ or /ɥan/. Since and become and with the addition of a suffix /ɻ /, the latter interpretation is generally preferred.

Read more about this topic:  Standard Chinese Phonology

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