The use of the letter “i” in pinyin can be confusing. Pinyin is the use of the ABC’s, such as is used in English, to symbolize sounds in the Chinese language. Sometimes the pinyin sounds are fairly similar to the English sounds, and sometimes they are quite different.
When saying some words, the single pinyin “i” has a sound more like the traditional English long “e” pronunciation. For example,
雞 ㄐㄧ (jī)❶
七 ㄑㄧ (qī)❷
The tones in any of the examples are incidental. I just chose common words. (Translation are below according to the number by the word.)
In other uses, the single pinyin “i” sounds more like an English short “i”. This is the case in words like
是 ㄕˋ (shì)❸
日 ㄖˋ (rì)❹
Fortunately, there is a pattern to this
Looking at bopomofo can help. If you look at the chart I made when I wrote A Simple BoPoMoFo Chart Helps Me Learn Chinese❺, you will notice the last two rows of initial (beginning) Chinese sounds are the types of initials that use the short “i” sound with a pinyin “i”. If a pinyin “i” is used with any of the other initials, the long “e” sound is the result. (click on photo to enlarge)
The bopomofo can help in remembering this. You will notice that in bopomofo the short “i” sound does not require any other notation. Only the initial symbol is used. However, when the long “e” sound is part of the word, there is a specific bopomofo finals (ending) symbol to show that sound.
When an “i” is gets together with other letters
A couple of the pinyin sounds use an “i” in combinations. Oddly, when the letter combination of “ai” is used, it basically stands for a long “i” sound. To get a sound similar to a long “a” the combination “ei” is employed.
Consider these words:
來 ㄌㄞˊ (lái)❻
累 ㄌㄟˋ (lèi)❼
Being true to the Chinese pronunciation
Of course, in neither case is the sound strictly like the English sound I am comparing it to. The short “i” sound is much briefer in the Chinese. It basically exists to give some structure to the softer, less formed beginning sounds represented by the zh, ch,sh, r, z, c, and s.
The other beginning sounds are either more distinct or only used with other vowel-like ending sounds that sufficiently set them off. All of this helps explain why “chi” and “qi” can be visually confusing to a new learner, but are clearly different sounds in Chinese. Compare them in bopomofo here
Keeping tones in mind
The long “e” sounds vary according to the tone appropriate for the word used. It can also be somewhat altered depending on other ending sounds added after it such as
平 ㄆㄧㄥˊ (píng)❽
心 ㄒㄧㄣ (xīn)❾
Making pinyin as useful as it is meant to be
Being aware of the differences in how an “i” is used in pinyin can make it easier for you to be thinking of the Chinese sounds, rather than the English ones. Of course, there is nothing that will help as much as hearing a native speaker pronounce Chinese.
You can listen to my tutor in the audio attached to most of my blog posts. There are also many videos on YouTube for listening practice. As my Chinese tutor says, “it will tune your ear” to hear Chinese sounds more easily. And if you can hear them, you can get closer to pronouncing them correctly!
❶ 雞 ㄐㄧ (jī) “chicken”
❷ 七 ㄑㄧ (qī) “seven”
❸ 是 ㄕˋ (shì) “to be, is”
❹ 日 ㄖˋ (rì) “day”
❺ Here is a printable pdf: bopomofo color coded chart
❻ 來 ㄌㄞˊ (lái) “to come”
❼ 累 ㄌㄟˋ (lèi) “to be tired”
❽ 平 ㄆㄧㄥˊ (píng) “flat, calm”
❾ 心 ㄒㄧㄣ (xīn) “heart”