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The "o" and "u" vowels

Although we treated the "a" vowel, the "e" vowel, and the "i" vowel separately, we're going to present "o" and "u" together because, well... these two sounds kind of have a thing for each other, and it makes sense to do it this way.

Pinyin's Main "o" Vowel Sound

The "o" vowel sound in Mandarin can be a little tricky, because you probably expect it to sound like the English word "oh", but that sound is mostly represented by -ou in pinyin. Let's dig into the details.

  • -o actually represents two different sounds in pinyin. The one at the top, o, is the pure "o" sound, although it sounds a bit terse and cut off, compared to the English word "oh". The syllable lo rhymes with o. All the other -o syllables in this column sound a bit different. The syllables bo, po, mo, fo seems to rhyme with the -uo column (coming up later in this section). For these syllables, the -o sound comes across like kind of a "oo-uh" sound, which you should really listen to a lot until you get a feel for it.
  • -ou, as previously mentioned, is easy. It sounds pretty much like the English word "oh". No tricks! Just don't confuse it with -uo.

Pinyin's Main "u" Vowel Sound

  • -u is super simple; it sounds like the English "oo" sound. The only catch is that the syllable at the top is written wu but pronounced "oo" (and not like "woo" as in Homer Simpson's "whoo-hoo" cry of joy). Everything in this column rhymes.
  • -ua is pronounced as expected: pinyin -u + -a (the "ah" one). Remember to write the syllable at the top "wa"; it still rhymes with the three syllables below it: gua, kua, hua.
  • -uai is just -u + -ai (two pinyin sounds you already know). Remember to write the syllable at the top "wai"; it still rhymes with the three syllables below it: guai, kuai, huai.
  • -uei is a tricky one, because all three letters "uei" never occur together in an actual pinyin syllable. At the top, the syllable is written wei, which seems straightforward enough, and sounds like the English word "way". But the rhyming syllables below include the "u" but drop the letter "e", making them dui, tui, sui, gui, kui, hui. Remember that dui (like the others) is pronounced like "dway" and not "dwee"!
  • -uo, as mentioned above, makes a sort of "oo-uh" sound, and not a "whoa" sound. Notice that the syllable at the top is spelled wo. This is an important syllable, because it's used to say the word for "I" in Chinese! Just don't be the one pronouncing this word the same as the English words "whoa" or "woe" . Everything under wo (duo, tuo, nuo, etc.) rhymes with it.
  • -uan is easy. It's just the pinyin sounds -u + -an. The syllable at the top is written wan, and sounds like the English word "wand", minus the "d" sound. Everything under wan in that column rhymes with it: duan, tuan, nuan, etc.
  • -uang is almost identical to -uan, just swiping out the final -n for a final -ng. The syllable at the top is written wang. Everything under wang in that column rhymes with it: guang, kuang, huang.
  • -uen is just pinyin -u + -en, but is also a little tricky in that both letters "ue" never occur together in an actual pinyin syllable. At the top you have wen, and the rhyming syllables below it are written dun, tun, lun, etc. (the "e" is omitted).
  • -ueng is just pinyin -u + -eng, but is a quite rare final. Here, the only one we have is weng, which is also a rare syllable.

Pinyin Chart Fragment

This is just a part of the full pinyin chart, limited to the sounds we've covered so far.

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-a- -e- -o- -o -ou -ong -i- -u- -u -ua -uai -uei -uo -uan -uang -uen -ueng -ü-
∅-
o
[ɔ]
o
ou
[ɤʊ̯]
ou
wu
[u]
wu
wa
[u̯ɑ]
ㄨㄚ
wa
wai
[u̯aɪ̯]
ㄨㄞ
wai
wei
[u̯eɪ̯]
ㄨㄟ
wei
wo
[u̯ɔ]
ㄨㄛ
wo
wan
[u̯an]
ㄨㄢ
wan
wang
[u̯ɑŋ]
ㄨㄤ
wang
wen
[u̯ən]
ㄨㄣ
wen
weng
[u̯əŋ]
ㄨㄥ
weng
∅-
b-
bo
[pu̯ɔ]
ㄅㄛ
po
bu
[pu]
ㄅㄨ
pu
b-
p-
po
[pʰu̯ɔ]
ㄆㄛ
p'o
pou
[pʰɤʊ̯]
ㄆㄡ
p'ou
pu
[pʰu]
ㄆㄨ
p'u
p-
m-
mo
[mu̯ɔ]
ㄇㄛ
mo
mou
[mɤʊ̯]
ㄇㄡ
mou
mu
[mu]
ㄇㄨ
mu
m-
f-
fo
[fu̯ɔ]
ㄈㄛ
fo
fou
[fɤʊ̯]
ㄈㄡ
fou
fu
[fu]
ㄈㄨ
fu
f-
d-
dou
[tɤʊ̯]
ㄉㄡ
tou
dong
[tʊŋ]
ㄉㄨㄥ
tung
du
[tu]
ㄉㄨ
tu
dui
[tu̯eɪ̯]
ㄉㄨㄟ
tui
duo
[tu̯ɔ]
ㄉㄨㄛ
to
duan
[tu̯an]
ㄉㄨㄢ
tuan
dun
[tu̯ən]
ㄉㄨㄣ
tun
d-
t-
tou
[tʰɤʊ̯]
ㄊㄡ
t'ou
tong
[tʰʊŋ]
ㄊㄨㄥ
t'ung
tu
[tʰu]
ㄊㄨ
t'u
tui
[tʰu̯eɪ̯]
ㄊㄨㄟ
t'ui
tuo
[tʰu̯ɔ]
ㄊㄨㄛ
t'o
tuan
[tʰu̯an]
ㄊㄨㄢ
t'uan
tun
[tʰu̯ən]
ㄊㄨㄣ
t'un
t-
n-
nou
[nɤʊ̯]
ㄋㄡ
nou
nong
[nʊŋ]
ㄋㄨㄥ
nung
nu
[nu]
ㄋㄨ
nu
nuo
[nu̯ɔ]
ㄋㄨㄛ
no
nuan
[nu̯an]
ㄋㄨㄢ
nuan
n-
l-
lo
[lu̯ɔ]
ㄌㄛ
lo
lou
[lɤʊ̯]
ㄌㄡ
lou
long
[lʊŋ]
ㄌㄨㄥ
lung
lu
[lu]
ㄌㄨ
lu
luo
[lu̯ɔ]
ㄌㄨㄛ
lo
luan
[lu̯an]
ㄌㄨㄢ
luan
lun
[lu̯ən]
ㄌㄨㄣ
lun
l-
z-
zou
[tsɤʊ̯]
ㄗㄡ
tsou
zong
[tsʊŋ]
ㄗㄨㄥ
tsung
zu
[tsu]
ㄗㄨ
tsu
zui
[tsu̯eɪ̯]
ㄗㄨㄟ
tsui
zuo
[tsu̯ɔ]
ㄗㄨㄛ
tso
zuan
[tsu̯an]
ㄗㄨㄢ
tsuan
zun
[tsu̯ən]
ㄗㄨㄣ
tsun
z-
c-
cou
[tsʰɤʊ̯]
ㄘㄡ
ts'ou
cong
[tsʰʊŋ]
ㄘㄨㄥ
ts'ung
cu
[tsʰu]
ㄘㄨ
ts'u
cui
[tsʰu̯eɪ̯]
ㄘㄨㄟ
ts'ui
cuo
[tsʰu̯ɔ]
ㄘㄨㄛ
ts'o
cuan
[tsʰu̯an]
ㄘㄨㄢ
ts'uan
cun
[tsʰu̯ən]
ㄘㄨㄣ
ts'un
c-
s-
sou
[sɤʊ̯]
ㄙㄡ
sou
song
[sʊŋ]
ㄙㄨㄥ
sung
su
[su]
ㄙㄨ
su
sui
[su̯eɪ̯]
ㄙㄨㄟ
sui
suo
[su̯ɔ]
ㄙㄨㄛ
so
suan
[su̯an]
ㄙㄨㄢ
suan
sun
[su̯ən]
ㄙㄨㄣ
sun
s-
g-
gou
[kɤʊ̯]
ㄍㄡ
kou
gong
[kʊŋ]
ㄍㄨㄥ
kung
gu
[ku]
ㄍㄨ
ku
gua
[ku̯ɑ]
ㄍㄨㄚ
kua
guai
[ku̯aɪ̯]
ㄍㄨㄞ
kuai
gui
[ku̯eɪ̯]
ㄍㄨㄟ
kui
guo
[ku̯ɔ]
ㄍㄨㄛ
ko
guan
[ku̯an]
ㄍㄨㄢ
kuan
guang
[ku̯ɑŋ]
ㄍㄨㄤ
kuang
gun
[ku̯ən]
ㄍㄨㄣ
kun
g-
k-
kou
[kʰɤʊ̯]
ㄎㄡ
k'ou
kong
[kʰʊŋ]
ㄎㄨㄥ
k'ung
ku
[kʰu]
ㄎㄨ
k'u
kua
[kʰu̯ɑ]
ㄎㄨㄚ
k'ua
kuai
[kʰu̯aɪ̯]
ㄎㄨㄞ
k'uai
kui
[kʰu̯eɪ̯]
ㄎㄨㄟ
k'ui
kuo
[kʰu̯ɔ]
ㄎㄨㄛ
k'o
kuan
[kʰu̯an]
ㄎㄨㄢ
k'uan
kuang
[kʰu̯ɑŋ]
ㄎㄨㄤ
k'uang
kun
[kʰu̯ən]
ㄎㄨㄣ
k'un
k-
h-
hou
[xɤʊ̯]
ㄏㄡ
hou
hong
[xʊŋ]
ㄏㄨㄥ
hung
hu
[xu]
ㄏㄨ
hu
hua
[xu̯ɑ]
ㄏㄨㄚ
hua
huai
[xu̯aɪ̯]
ㄏㄨㄞ
huai
hui
[xu̯eɪ̯]
ㄏㄨㄟ
hui
huo
[xu̯ɔ]
ㄏㄨㄛ
ho
huan
[xu̯an]
ㄏㄨㄢ
huan
huang
[xu̯ɑŋ]
ㄏㄨㄤ
huang
hun
[xu̯ən]
ㄏㄨㄣ
hun
h-
-a- -e- -o- -o -ou -ong -i- -u- -u -ua -uai -uei -uo -uan -uang -uen -ueng -ü-

This section has been quite full! Be sure to listen to the audio a lot and get really familiar with these sounds. Then move on to the "c" and "z" sounds.

Sources and further reading