Shanghainese is very rich in vowels. There are 10 long monophthong vowels (not including 2 nasal vowels) and 4 short monophthong vowels in Shanghainese. The short vowels are similar to the English and German short vowels such as in "itch" or the "e" in "gestapo." Not considering the medial, Shanghainese like Japanese has no diphthongs, so it is quite unique amongst the Chinese dialects. Because of letter restrictions in the Latin alphabet, many of the monophthongs will be spelled with 2 letters, as in many Northern European languages with a large inventory of monophthong vowels. The romanization for the vowels and finals will attempt to remain as close to Hanyu Pinyin as possible, while being phonemically accurate for Standard Shanghainese.
1. Long vowels (a, ei, eu, i, ü, u, o, ou, ao)
2. Short vowels (e, ae, oe)
3. Nasal rhymes (an, aun, on, en, in, ün)
4. Syllabic sonorants (er/-l, m, n, gn)
5. Medials (i, u, ü)
1. LONG VOWELS (a, ei, eu, i, ü, u, o, ou, ao)
The "a" is anywhere between the English "ah" and the Japanese a ア.
The "ei" is very similar to the a in English "fate", French ei or ai (treize, mauvais), German e in "geld", although sometimes it can be slightly higher (mouth more closed). There is also an allophone of [ej], probably from Mandarin influence.
There is no English equivalent for this vowel.
It is however identical to the French eu in deux or peu and the German long ö (ökumenisch).
The sound can be approximated in the English by pronouncing "hey" with the lips making a circle (rounded).
Danish, Norwegian and Swedish also have this vowel.
The i (or "yi" when starting a syllable as in Hanyu Pinyin tradition) is cardinal and pronounced just like English "ee" (meet) or French, Spanish and Italian "i" (si), except after consonants s, z, ts, tz.
The i after s, z, ts, tz is pronounced like the Hanyu Pinyin i after s, c, and z. It can also be described as a syllabic continuant. It is typically devoiced (without a vowel), like the Japanese -u (です desu).
The ü (or yu when leading the syllable as in Hanyu Pinyin tradition) is equivalent to the German ü and the French u. English does not have this vowel, although one can form it by pronouncing the cardinal "i" (as in "ee") and allowing the lips to make a circle (rounded). It is also equivalent to the Hanyu Pinyin ü. This vowel only exists for palatals (shu, zhu, chu, ju, cü, nü and yu). As there is no spelling conflict with the u vowel, the umlaut is dropped for sh, zh, ch, j and y similar to Hanyu Pinyin practices.
Most traditional sources represent the u as the rounded /u/, but it is in fact pronounced with the lips rather unrounded and has a [v] quality. Pronouncing it as an English u or Hanyu Pinyin u will lead to an accent, but should have no trouble in comprehension. The unrounded u also explains the devoicing found for words like 水 and 住, romanized with an -i.
The vowel o is identical to the Swedish o (as in ort). It is higher (closed) than cardinal o, though some Chinese sources still use the /o/. Besides the Swedish o, it is also similar to the English u (put), the French au and the German oo. Do not pronounce like English or Mandarin o.
The vowel ou is similar to the English oe (as in toe or shoe) and ou (as in you). Different phonetic descriptions exist for the vowel ou. Chinese sources tend to use the unrounded back monophthong [ɤ]; while Norman in 1988 recognizes it as a central, rounded vowel [ɵ]. Zhu in 1995 analyzed it as an unrounded [ɜɘ]. Characters with this vowel also match the characters that have -ou or -iu endings in Mandarin Hanyu Pinyin, although pronounced differently. .
The rounded vowel ao is identical to the British English pronunciation of au, as in "Australia", "naught". It is also similar to the Japanese long o and the French o in sort. Do not pronounce the Shanghainese monophthong ao like the Mandarin Hanyu Pinyin diphthong ao.
2. SHORT VOWELS (e, ae, oe)
Short rhymes with short vowels all end with "e", they are all more centralized (schwa-like) than their long counterparts. These syllables are also called Rusheng in Chinese linguistics, and classically ended in consonants -p, -t, -k. In Wu dialects today, the -p, -t, -k endings have merged into a single glottal stop (which is for the most part not pronounced at all in between phonological words and barely pronounced when at the end of a word). "e" was chosen so that the schwa may be more directly represented; also because of historical pronunciations of two Rusheng rhymes involving the schwa (ie, üe); and finally to be orthographically more similar with Mandarin Hanyu Pinyin spellings for the same characters. One could also see the "e" as representing the Rusheng ending.
The short e is about half the duration of the long vowels above and is identical to the German e in "bitte", to the English e in "gestapo" or the uh in "uh oh" and also identical to the French e in "ce". In New Shanghainese, this vowel is often pronounced as an open schwa, identical to the High German er, such as in Amerikaner. Like in English, the schwa is also the most common vowel in Shanghainese.
The short ae is similar to the English vowel in "bus". In New Shanghainese, this vowel is often pronounced identical to the short e above as an open schwa, identical to the High German er, e.g. Amerikaner.
Oe is the shorter version of "o", however slightly lower and more centralized. Compare Zowei (society) with Zoeweichi (stick back at).
3. NASAL RHYMES (an, aun, on, en, in, ün)
There is only one nasal final in Shanghainese. The nasal final is represented by n, and can be phonetically palatal after i, e and ü; velar after o; and a part of the nasal vowel after a and aa (all are allophones). Nasal rhymes have the same duration as long vowels.
The an and aun are actually nasal vowels (although New Shanghainese loses vowel nasalization and pronounces the nasal consonant as either a velar or palatal). aun is pronounced similar to the English aun in laundering; while an is pronounced more towards the front of the mouth and more similar to the Japanese an アン (安藤 Ando). In New Shanghainese, there is no phonological distinction between an and aun.
There is no English equivalent for this rhyme. The closest English approximate is the rhyme in "tone". The rhyme is actually the short vowel in oe with a nasal final, and has the same duration as a long vowel. It is also similar to the Japanese on オン (音楽 ongaku).
The rhyme en contains the schwa. en has the same duration as a long vowel; it is the short e vowel plus a nasal final. The rhyme is identical to the English on in Washington or the en in women, it is also identical to most German en's (such as machen).
The rhyme in is identical to the English ean or een (mean, sheen). It is also similar to the Japanese in イン (インド Indo).
The rhyme ün is achieved by pronouncing the in with the lips rounded. It is also similar to the Mandarin Hanyu Pinyin ün (云 yun2).
4. SYLLABIC SONORANTS (er/l, m, n, gn):
Syllabic sonorants are sonorant consonants pronounced with duration of a full syllable.
Shanghainese has 3 syllabic nasals and 1 syllabic rhotic:
5. MEDIALS (i, u, ü)
There are three medials in Shanghainese: i, u and ü. These three medials can combine with some of the vowels or rhymes introduced so far to form a diphthong-like syllable. Syllables with a medial are relatively rare (especially medials u and ü). For zero-initials, the medials are spelled y, w and yu respectively; for all other consonants, the medials are represented by ü/u and the nucleus undergoes spelling simplification based on Hanyu Pinyin conventions (-iou --> -iu; -uen --> -un; -uei --> ui, and -ueu --> -uu, iao --> io). The complete list of rhymes that have a medial is listed below:
Next: Tones and Pitch Accent
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