So I think I’ve found it …

… the most difficult syllable to pronounce in Chinese. My vote? lüè (as in 略). Individually, none of the sounds are so bad. The /l/, so far as I know, is just like English [l] (though I’m sure someone will come along and tell me otherwise–and yes, for the phoneticians among you, I do know that it’s a bit misleading to say English [l] and leave it at that). The /ü/ is like German ü. The /e/ in this context is, I think, somewhere between [ɛ] (like ‘bet’) and [æ] (like ‘bat’). The tone is falling, which I think is the easiest one to pronounce. You can hear a slowly and clearly enunciated example of the syllable on this page, second column, third row. (Please don’t take that as an endorsement of their website–I can’t say one way or the other because I haven’t looked at it beyond the page I linked.)

I know what I need to do, I think. Just take those sounds and squish them into one syllable. It doesn’t seem so horrible. I can pronounce, at least passably, all sorts of other words ending in [üe]. No one complains much about my xue or yue or jue. And no one has ever complained about my ‘l’s. But this one, for some reason, I just can’t get.

Update: about that [l]. I thought maybe my problem was that it’s not in fact an apical [l] like I was using, so I made my husband pronounce his Chinese [l] for me. Sure enough, it’s a laminal dental. So was his English [l], incidentally, even in a word like ‘leaf’. The tongue/lip gymnastics seemed easier to me this way, so I tried it again, but no luck. My husband tells me he doesn’t even hear an [l] when I attempt the syllable, he hears an [n]–and he’s a northerner, not a native speaker of one of those dialects of Chinese that doesn’t distinguish [l] and [n].


6 Responses to “So I think I’ve found it …”

  1. 1 Dave May 17, 2010 at 4:46 am

    Got to say that I agree with you on that one. 略 used to give me a lot of trouble and it’s a very useful word too: 戰略,策略。The ‘l’ or ㄌ is just like English 沒錯,and the rest of the word exactly like the pronunciation of 月。
    The ㄩ/ü words in general seem to cause a lot of pain to Chinese learners. I always remember my sister trying to pronounce 女 and the ü/ㄩ just came out like the u/ㄨ in 五, very funny.

  2. 3 Syz May 17, 2010 at 6:27 am

    My agreement with the 略 verdict is documented in the long intro to this Beijing Sounds post. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had my daughter repeat that syllable for me. I almost think she just likes watching my facial contortions.

    [do you have an extra “not” in that last sentence?]

    • 4 Katie Tang May 17, 2010 at 8:35 am

      Ha! Too bad I wasn’t reading your blog then. It would be pretty lame of me to try to participate in the comments now, but reading through them, I am amazed at how strongly I find myself agreeing with some of them.

      I don’t think I have an extra ‘not’ in the last sentence, but maybe I’d better edit it, because rereading it, I’m confusing even myself.

  3. 5 Carl Gene Fordham July 25, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    I find rāng harder. It hurts the jaw. Many native speakers get lazy and just pronunce it as rān.

    • 6 Katie Tang July 26, 2010 at 8:23 pm

      Interesting. I think I actually find rang easier than ran–fewer gymnastics of the tongue involved. Then again, I think I make ran easier by letting my my n’s be pretty retroflexed in syllables that start with zh/ch/sh/r. Not sure if native speakers do the same thing.

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