17. Finals with null initials

By now, you are probably familiar with tones and almost all initials and finals in Pinyin. You already know what sounds the letter i, u and ü represent. Have you ever wondered what sounds the letters y and w represent? When do we use y and w? We will discuss syllables that start with y and w in this module. First, please click the following Pinyin and listen:

Character and PinyinEnglish equivalent
pen
chair
to repair
five

Did you find out that sounds like without the consonant b? And that sounds like without the consonant b?  These syllables do not have to be pronounced with the glide that you hear at the beginning of English words like year.  You may have realized that the syllable written as is pronounced as if it were written just as ǐ. The letter y at the beginning of the syllable does not make a difference in the sound of the syllable. That is, Chinese does not distinguish year from ear the way English does. In syllables with no initial consonant, the letter y is added before the finals i and ü and the letter w before the final u.

Pinyin developers made these spelling rules so that almost all Chinese syllables have the syllable structure: CV(C) where C stands for consonant and V for vowel. This spelling convention also clarifies syllable boundaries in some compound words. In addition to the simple final i and u, when the finals in and ing are not preceded by an initial consonant, y must to be added to the beginning of the syllable:

Character and PinyinEnglish equivalent
cause
silver
secret
mark
ought
win
shadow
hard

These syllables above can simply be pronounced as in and ing with tones.

For other finals starting with i, when there is no intial in the syllable, i is changed to y. These finals include: ia, ie, iao, iou* (iu), ian, iang and iong. In these cases, y is pronounced as [i].

Character and PinyinEnglish equivalent
duck
tooth
elegant
astounded
coconut
grandfather
too
night
waist
rock
bite
medicine
excellent
swim
have
right
center
sheep
keep
manner
hold
forever
use

*iou is spelled as iu when it is preceded by a consonant initial, for example: jiù. See Lesson 13 for more detailed information.

Similarly, when u is not preceded by an initial, w is added before u as shown with above. In other finals starting with u, if the syllable does not begin with a consonant initial, u is written as w. These finals include: ua, uo, uai, uei* (ui), uan, uen* (un), uang, and ueng.

Character and PinyinEnglish equivalent
dig
baby
tile
socks
nest
I, me
lie
askew
sprain
outside
micro
dimension
great
for
gulf
finish
late
ten thousand
lukewarm
literary
steady
ask
a surname
king
net
forget
elderly person
jug

* The sound uei is written in Pinyin as wei when there is no consonant preceding it.  When there is another consonant in the initial position, it is simplified and written as ui. Similarly, the sound uen is written in Pinyin as wen when there is no consonant preceding it.  When there is another consonant in the initial position, it is simplified and written as un. See Lesson 15 for more details.

Now we know that when a final starting with i is used in a syllable that does not have an initial, y is added or i is written as y. However, the following syllables  do not seem to conform the aforementioned rule: the y in these syllables do not seem represent i. Please listen to the following syllables while looking at how they are spelled:

Character and PinyinEnglish equivalent
jade
moon
yard
luck

Did you discover a pattern here? Did you notice that all these syllables start with a ü sound? Yes, Chinese finals ü  and finals starting with ü (i.e. üe, üan and ün) are spelled as yu— when they are used in a syllable that does not have an initial consonant. Look at the following Pinyin syllables and listen to these exemplars to see if you can establish the connection between the sound and the spelling:

Character and PinyinEnglish equivalent
literal-minded
fish
rain
jade
to say
moon
abyss
garden
far
to blame
confused
cloud
to permit
luck

Listening Quiz

Listen to the audio below and select the Pinyin equivalent of the syllable you hear.

Dictation Quiz

Listen to the audio and write down the Pinyin that you hear, including the tone. You can type in your answer with a diacritic mark (mā) or with the tone as the number (ma1).

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