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The "i" vowel

Hopefully you enjoyed mastering the different sounds that the "e" vowel could make, because the "i" vowel turns up the difficulty just a bit more.

Pinyin's Main "i" Vowel Sound

You should already be familiar with this "i" sound because it's essentially the same one that you encountered when learning the finals -ai and -ei. This "i" sounds like the English "ee" sound in the word "see".

While making this vowel sound is easy, some of the finals in this section are spelled in a way that can catch you off guard. Pay close attention to how the following syllables are spelled.

  • -i is easy; just note that the syllable yi rhymes with the others; the "y" makes no special sound. It basically just marks the beginning of the syllable.
  • -ia is also easy, but note that the syllable at the top is spelled ya, and this totally rhymes with the syllable lia.
  • -iao is also easy, but note that the syllable at the top is spelled yao, and this totally rhymes with the syllables below it (biao, piao, miao, etc.).
  • -ie is also easy, but note that the "e" is not the "uh" one; it's the "eh" one. So the syllable at the top is spelled ye and pronounced like the "ye" in the English word "yes", and this totally rhymes with the syllables below it (bie, pie, tie, etc.).
  • -iou can throw people off, because: (1) the top syllable is spelled you, but pronounced like the English word "yo" (and not the English word "you"), and (2) all the rhyming syllables under it (miu, diu, niu, liu) are missing an "o" but they are still pronounced as if the "o" were there (rhyming with "yo").
  • -ian is also tricky, because while the "i" sound is consistent, the "an" sound sounds more like an "en" (as in "pen") sound. So the syllable yan at the top sounds like the English word "yen", and all the syllables under it (bian, pian, mian, etc.) rhyme with that. So pian does not sound like "pyawn"; it sounds like "pyen".
  • -iang sounds very different from -ian; with the addition of the "g" at the end, and "a" vowel sound goes back to sounding like "ah" again. So the yang at the top sounds like the English word "yawn" with an "ng" sound at the end (that would be "yawng", rhyming with the English word "song"). The syllables niang and liang rhyme with yang.
  • -in is super easy; the "i" sound is the normal "main" pinyin "i" sound that sounds like "ee". Just remember that the "y" in yin is not pronounced; it sounds like "een", and the syllables under it (bin, min, nin, lin) rhyme with it.
  • -ing is slightly tricky because it is pronounced differently in different parts of China. For example, in southern China, the syllable ying it is often pronounced almost just like yin, but with an -ng final consonant rather than the -n. In northern China, however, the -ing sound is actually an yi sound followed by an -eng sound, producing a sound that we'd probably write as "ee-ung" in English. This latter sound is considered more standard to the Chinese, even though it's not pronounced that way everywhere. All the other syllables in that column (bing, ping, ming, etc.) rhyme with ying, and all -ing finals will be pronounced the same way in a given region of China.
  • -iong is not a super common final; as you can see below, the only syllable representing it in this section is yong. As expected, yong sounds like the English word "yo" with an "ng" on the end. Later on you'll come across other syllables that end in -iong and rhyme with yong.

Please notice that the initials g-, k-, and h- don't combine with any of these "i" finals. Those sounds don't exist in Mandarin Chinese! It's very useful to take note of what sounds do not exist.

Pinyin's Other "i" Vowel Sound

Here's the catch: pinyin "i" can make a totally different sound when it comes after certain sounds. In this section it only appears after the s- sound, in the syllable si:

  • si is a bit different from any sound we have in English, but it probably sounds most like the "si" in the English word "sit". It's definitely not at all like the English word "see".

Be sure to listen to the audio below to get a feel for the syllable si. You'll be hearing this special "i" sound again in future sections.

Pinyin Chart Fragment

This is just a part of the full pinyin chart, limited to the sounds we've covered in this section.

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-a- -e- -o- -i- -i -i* -ia -iao -ie -iou -ian -iang -in -ing -iong -u- -ü-
∅-
yi
[i]
i
ya
[i̯ɑ]
ㄧㄚ
ya
yao
[i̯ɑʊ̯]
ㄧㄠ
yao
ye
[iɛ]
ㄧㄝ
yeh
you
[i̯ɤʊ̯]
ㄧㄡ
yu
yan
[iɛn]
ㄧㄢ
yan
yang
[i̯ɑŋ]
ㄧㄤ
yang
yin
[in]
ㄧㄣ
yin
ying
[iŋ]
ㄧㄥ
ying
yong
ㄩㄥ
yung
∅-
b-
bi
[pi]
ㄅㄧ
pi
biao
[pi̯ɑʊ̯]
ㄅㄧㄠ
piao
bie
[piɛ]
ㄅㄧㄝ
pieh
bian
[piɛn]
ㄅㄧㄢ
pien
bin
[pin]
ㄅㄧㄣ
pin
bing
[piŋ]
ㄅㄧㄥ
ping
b-
p-
pi
[pʰi]
ㄆㄧ
p'i
piao
[pʰi̯ɑʊ̯]
ㄆㄧㄠ
p'iao
pie
[pʰiɛ]
ㄆㄧㄝ
p'ieh
pian
[pʰiɛn]
ㄆㄧㄢ
p'ien
min
[pʰin]
ㄆㄧㄣ
p'in
ping
[pʰiŋ]
ㄆㄧㄥ
p'ing
p-
m-
mi
[mi]
ㄇㄧ
mi
miao
[mi̯ɑʊ̯]
ㄇㄧㄠ
miao
mie
[miɛ]
ㄇㄧㄝ
mieh
miu
[mi̯ɤʊ̯]
ㄇㄧㄡ
miu
mian
[miɛn]
ㄇㄧㄢ
mien
ming
[miŋ]
ㄇㄧㄥ
ming
m-
f- f-
d-
di
[ti]
ㄉㄧ
ti
diao
[ti̯ɑʊ̯]
ㄉㄧㄠ
tiao
die
[tiɛ]
ㄉㄧㄝ
tieh
diu
[ti̯ɤʊ̯]
ㄉㄧㄡ
tiu
dian
[tiɛn]
ㄉㄧㄢ
tien
ding
[tiŋ]
ㄉㄧㄥ
ting
d-
t-
ti
[tʰi]
ㄊㄧ
t'i
tiao
[tʰi̯ɑʊ̯]
ㄊㄧㄠ
t'iao
tie
[tʰiɛ]
ㄊㄧㄝ
t'ieh
tian
[tʰiɛn]
ㄊㄧㄢ
t'ien
ting
[tʰiŋ]
ㄊㄧㄥ
t'ing
t-
n-
ni
[ni]
ㄋㄧ
ni
niao
[ni̯ɑʊ̯]
ㄋㄧㄠ
niao
nie
[niɛ]
ㄋㄧㄝ
nieh
niu
[ni̯ɤʊ̯]
ㄋㄧㄡ
niu
nian
[niɛn]
ㄋㄧㄢ
nien
niang
[ni̯ɑŋ]
ㄋㄧㄤ
niang
nin
[nin]
ㄋㄧㄣ
nin
ning
[niŋ]
ㄋㄧㄥ
ning
n-
l-
li
[li]
ㄌㄧ
li
lia
[li̯ɑ]
ㄌㄧㄚ
lia
liao
[li̯ɑʊ̯]
ㄌㄧㄠ
liao
lie
[liɛ]
ㄌㄧㄝ
lieh
liu
[li̯ɤʊ̯]
ㄌㄧㄡ
liu
lian
[liɛn]
ㄌㄧㄢ
lien
liang
[li̯ɑŋ]
ㄌㄧㄤ
liang
lin
[lin]
ㄌㄧㄣ
lin
ling
[liŋ]
ㄌㄧㄥ
ling
l-
z-
zi
[tsɿ]
tzu
z-
c-
ci
[tsʰɿ]
tz'u
c-
s-
si
[sɿ]
ssu
s-
g- g-
k- k-
h- h-
-a- -e- -o- -i- -i -i* -ia -iao -ie -iou -ian -iang -in -ing -iong -u- -ü-

There has been a lot more to absorb in this section than in previous ones. Be sure to spend some extra time with the pinyin chart and familiarize yourself with these new sounds.

Now let's move on to the "o" and "u" vowels.

Sources and further reading