The Easy Guide to Chinese Vowels in Pinyin: A, E, I, O, U, Ü and Beyond
Did you know that Chinese has vowels too? That’s right, Chinese characters can be translated into a romanized version called pinyin. This spells out the characters in a way that is easier for Latin language speakers to understand.
While pinyin does make pronunciation much easier, it is important to know how the vowels sound as they play an important part in Chinese tone.
Let’s look at how we use vowels in Chinese!
Simple vowels in Chinese are sounds that are spelled with just one vowel to include:
- a — sounds like ah; used in 马 (mǎ) meaning “horse”
- o — sounds like oh; used in 我 (wǒ) meaning “I”
- e — sounds like uh but with a wider mouth; used in 和 (hé) meaning “and”
- i — sounds like ee; used in 力 (lì) meaning “power”
- u — sounds like oo; used in 服 (fú) meaning “clothes”
- ü — sounds like u in “June”; used in 去 (qù)* meaning “go”
Got it? Now we’re ready to move on to compound vowels.
As you might have guessed, compound vowels are made up of two or three vowels. In some cases, they’re paired with special consonants. Adding an initial consonant to a compound vowel forms a one-syllable character.
Compound vowels can contain:
- Two simple vowels
- Three simple vowels
- One vowel + one special consonant (n)
- One vowel + two special consonants (ng)
- Two vowels + one special consonant
- Two vowels + two special consonants
- ao → ah + oh, like in 猫 (māo) — cat
- ai → ah + ee or the word “eye” but less emphasis on the “-ye” sound, like in 菜 (cài) — cuisine or vegetables
- an → ah + n, like in 难 (nán) — difficult
- ang → ah + ng, like in 唱 (chàng) — to sing
- ei → “-ey” in “hey” or the letter “a,” like in 北 (běi) — black
- en → uh + n, like in 闻 (wén) — to smell
- eng → uh + ng, like in 冷 (lěng) — cold
- er → uh + r, like in 二 (èr) — two
- ia → ee + ah, like 下 (xià) — down
- ie → ee + eh, like 別 (bié) — do not
- iu → ee + o, like 球 (qiú) — ball
- iao → ee + ow with less emphasis on the “w,” like 跳 (tiào) — to jump
- in → ee + n, like 因 (yīn) — because
- ing → ee + ng, like 竟 (jìng) — actually
- ian → ee + ehn, like 年 (nián) — year
- iang → ee + ahng, like 两 (liǎng) — two or pair
- iong → ee + ohng, like 穷 (qióng) — poor
- ua → oo + ah, like 瓜 (guā) — melon
- uo → oo + the “who-” in “whoa,” like 火 (huǒ) — fire
- ue → oo + eh, like 月 (yuè) — month or moon
- ui → oo + -“ey” in “hey,” like 腿 (tuǐ ) — leg
- uai → oo + ah + ee, like 快 (kuài) — fast
- un → oo + ehn, like 论 (lùn) — theory
- uan → oo + ahn, like 远 (yuǎn) — far
- uang → oo + ahng, like 光 (guāng) — light or luster
Last, but not least, the finals with ü are:
These compound vowels are actually not normally included in Chinese vowels because they’re pronounced the same as yue, yun and yuan, with ü being the same as yu.
Since they have the same pronunciation, the dots in the ü (aka umlaut) are dropped to avoid redundancy. Thus, even though 云 (yún), the character for cloud, could technically be written with the umlaut, it’s not necessary. The same goes for when these finals are combined with consonants j, q and x.
- 觉 (jué) — to feel → sounds like j + weh
- 裙 (qún) — skirt → sounds like ch + win- in “wing”
- 选 (xuǎn) — to choose → sounds like sh + the word “when”
The only time the ü appears in text is when it must be distinguished from the u sound, like lü and lu, as well as nü and nu. Here are example characters:
- 绿 (lǜ) — green → sounds like l + “u” sound in “June”
- 路 (lù) — road → sounds like the name “Lou” but with a hard “l” sound
- 女 (nǚ) — girl → sounds like “ne” in “new”
- 怒 (nù) — rage → sounds like “nu” in “nude”
Who knew that there was so much groundwork to cover when it comes to Chinese vowels?
Once you’ve got these down, you can move on to practicing the tones, and then from there, pinyin will be a breeze.