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The letter "w", like "y" (y-), is not considered an initial in pinyin. Why?

There are two main cases where the letter "w" is used, and in neither case does it represent a unique sound:

Case #1: "w" replaces "u"

When a syllable has no initial (linguists call this the "zero initial") and the first letter is "u", it gets changed to a "w":

Why do these? Because it would make pinyin a lot harder to read a lot of the time. Take these examples:

  • "laowai" would become "laouai". (So is that "lao-uai" or "la-ou-ai" or "la-o-u-ai" or...?? etc.)
  • "weiwan" would become "ueiuan". (I think you know where we're going with this... And just look at it!)

So the "w" makes it much easier to pick out syllables when there is a cluster of vowels in a word.

Case #2: "w" starts the syllable

When -u has no initial (linguists call this the "zero initial"), a "w" gets added on to the front of the syllable:

  • wu: "w" is added to the "u" in -u

This is done for the same reasons as Case #1 above, but in this case rather than "replacing" a "u", it's just a silent marker of the beginning of the syllable.