common newbie errors in Pinyin: YAN

Today’s post is something for those who are relatively new to Pinyin and Mandarin. It covers something I’ve received more than one query about.

Hanyu Pinyin is quite simple. But it still has a few points — beyond the usual caveats about x, q, c, and zh — that sometimes trip up introductory students of Mandarin. One of the most common of these is the syllable yan.

Lots of Mandarin learners tend to pronounce this as if it were yang — but with an n on the end instead of an ng. But it’s properly pronounced much like the English pronunciation of the name of the Japanese currency: yen. Thus, yen for yan is a common misspelling.

Yet yan is a perfectly regular spelling within the Pinyin system. What’s more: Pinyin doesn’t have anything spelled yen.

Remember that when an i comes at the beginning of a syllable, it is written y (or yi, if there is no vowel immediately following). Thus,

yan = ian

I stress this because relatively few people get any of the following related syllables wrong:

  • bian (as in former Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian)
  • pian (as in pianyi / cheap)
  • mian (as in chaomian / fried noodles)
  • dian (as in dianhua / telephone)
  • tian (as in tianqi / weather)
  • nian (as in nian / year)
  • lian (as in buyao lian / shameless)
  • jian (as in zaijian / good-bye)
  • qian (as in qian / money)
  • xian (as in xiansheng / mister)

Now try reading these:

  • yanjing / eye
  • yanjing / glasses
  • chouyan / smoke (verb)
  • yuyan / language
  • yanse / color
  • keyan / scientific research
  • It’s easy!

    further reading:
    combinations of initials and finals in Hanyu Pinyin/span

    5 thoughts on “common newbie errors in Pinyin: YAN

    1. I agree that “yuan” sometimes sounds like it’s spelled, depending on context. “Yan” however always sounds like “yen” and the fact that what should be “tien” is spelled “tian” does not really explain it. When I started learning chinese I learned most of the pinyin sounds really quickly, but for the first week or so I would say “yaan” in class, much to the chagrin of my teachers. It seems like it’s designed solely to confuse foreigners. I guess it’s for consistency; the end of “tian” doesn’t sound like “en” . . . but on the other hand it does sound like “ren”. Another explanation I’ve seen is the “tianr” is pronounced “tiar” (whereas “renr” is pronounced “rer”) and this proves that the “true” underlying medial is an “a”.

      Americans usually pronounce Tiananmen an Tiennemen, so maybe that’s why we’re already familiar with the “ian” business. There are fewer Chinese places/words with “yan” that we know how to say “correctly”.

      Recently I heard someone refer to feng shui and fang (as in snake) shwee.

      The sounds ‘q’ and ‘x’ are fun to listen to people try to pronounce, but not nearly as confusing when learning chinese because the sound the make is so different from what they are in English.

    2. And in 50 years they all might sound different again. Just like in English, one can’t go ripping up the spellings to keep track of the sounds… indeed one doesn’t need to, as e.g., “make” and “bake” will still rhyme anyway, so the man in the street has all the information he needs to know what “-ake” is supposed to sound like.

    3. i always saw it as differentiating between an as a final and ian as a final where yan is really just ian with no initial. that’s the only way i’ve ever been able to justify it.

      yesterday on two separate occasions i found myself in an argument with a native speaker where their position was that the final sound in d?n was identical to that of y?n. even going so far as giving the example “d, an, dan, y, an, yen*” where they erroneously thought they were in fact making identical finals.

      *spelling adjusted for clarify

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