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Sensible Pinyin Course: The Second U – U vs. Ü

This is part of our Sensible Pinyin Course. To see an overview of the course check out this Sensible Pinyin Course homepage

The 6th Vowel

Previously we looked at the basic vowels a, i ,e , o, u.

The sixth and final simple vowel final in Chinese is ü.

Those little dots are an “umlaut” in case you were wondering. I personally like “u with dots” or “dotty u”. Totally not the official terms.

If you speak French the ü sound is easy – it’s similar to the u in tu or rue. If you don’t speak French (quelle domage!) then don’t worry – we’ll cover how make the sound in this section.

How to pronounce ü

To make the ü sound pronounce “ee” as in bee (like i in the last section) but round your lips into the “oo” shape (as in “too). The result is the Chinese ü. Unlike u the ü requires you to tightly curl your lips into a circle.

The reason we left the ü until now is that it gets a little bit messy. The following involved – don’t worry if you don’t get it all now. It’s not expected and frankly the way ü and u are distinguished in pinyin is a bit flawed – so it’s not your fault if you don’t get it at once.

For reference here is the u (not ü!) sound that we introduced in Basic Vowels. You can listen to both to help distinguish the sounds.

Read the following but then just focus on replicating the sounds of natives – the difference between u and ü will become natural with enough practice. If not refer to this section later and it’ll like make a lot more sense.

So…deep breath and…

There are only 6 letters that can be followed by ü.

These are: n, l , j, q, x, y.

We’ll be covering j, q, x, y in the next section so don’t worry. In fact we have to introduce ü so that we can cover j, q, x and y!

Now it becomes a little more complicated. Of the 6 (n, l, j, q, x, y) 2 can also be followed by ü OR u. These are n and l.

Therefore in Chinese both nu and nü, lu and lü exist.

Still with us? Try this for size!

Because j,q,x,y can only be followed by ü and NOT by u we write the sounds jü, qü, xü and yü as ju, qu, xu and yu. We drop the dots because these sounds can only exist with the ü and never with the u. The dots are dropped to make pinyin look neater – but this decision causes a lot of confusion for early learners of Chinese.

Here’s a table that should clear this confusion up a bit:

Initial Consonant

Can it take u?

How it is written

How it is said

n

Yes!

Nu, nü

Nu or nü

l

Yes!

Lu, lü

Lu or lü

j

No!

ju

q

No!

qu

x

No!

xu

y

No!

yu

Sorry about that – this is one of those things that you just need to memorize really. If you want someone to blame his name is Zhou Youguang – he’s the guy who invented pinyin. That said, he’s now 109 years old so maybe go easy on him ok?

Really there are two things you just have to remember here:

1. N and L can take u or ü

I use the nonsensical phrase “Nunü Lulü” to remember this. To me is just sounds funny and got stuck in my memory – see how fast you can say it and this silly little phrase might get stuck in your head too.

For me, Nunü Lulü is like one of those pop songs that gets stuck in your head and you can’t stop singing it. That phenomenon is called a “brain worm” by the way – learn something everyday!

2. J,q,x,y can only take ü

I use the totally silly mnemonic “Jonny Quest XY” to remember these.

Sensible Pinyin Course: The Second U - U vs. Ü

Unfortunately not a real show. Yet! Warner Brothers, call my agent.

Jonny Quest was a kid’s cartoon and Kyle XY a TV program that I watched growing up. “Jonny Quest XY” combines the two and helps me remember J,Q,X,Y.

Try to think of your own mnemonic for J,Q,X,Y as you’ll remember your own memory device much better than one that I wrote!

Typing ü

The u/ü difference is not dealt with very well by computers and phones. There does not appear to be a single solution for how to type this letter.

In some programs you can simply write u for both u and ü and the computer will work out which one you mean. In other programs you’ll need to type v to stand in for ü. Why v? Because there’s no v in Chinese!

Thankfully you’ll very rarely have to actually type the ü symbol. The one exception is if you are a poor schmuck like me writing about the distinction between u and ü …

So why is this important again?

Why did I make you go through this in excruciating detail? Ü is the 6th and final simple vowel sound so we had to cover it eventually.

Also, the distinction between u and ü is vital to understanding some of the more tricky sounds coming up.

A few (like ch/q, zh/j) are mainly distinguished by whether they are followed by u or ü. The difference is that of sounds made at the front of the mouth and those at the back of the mouth – we’ll take about this in later articles.

There will be a lot of practice material focused on this particular distinction. By the time you are through with it you’ll have mastered one of the major tripping points for learners of Chinese.

The quiz attached to this section contains the u and  ü sounds in isolation AND with the initials n- and l-.

When we introduce more initials (consonants) that can be used with ü we’ll have more complicated u/ü sounds to deal with.

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This is part of our Sensible Pinyin Course. To see an overview of the course check out this Sensible Pinyin Course homepage