I'm currently hitchhiking through Yunnan, China and I've noticed that the city Kunming usually sounds more like "Kuiming" or "Kweeming" or "kwəming". Even Google Translate produces the last when you get it to speak aloud.

To my unaccustomed ear it seems that the "u" is acting as a semivowel and the "n" is acting as some kind of vowel in the region of /ə/ to /i/.

Is this due to a phonological process in Chinese?
Or is it one of the quirks of pinyin, which isn't so transparent for a newcomer?
Or could it be a Yunnan pronunciation quirk due to Mandarin/Standard Chinese not being people's native dialact down here?

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I'm surprised that neither of the current answers makes reference to what exactly the Pinyin phonetically transcribes.

The name of the city, romanised in Pinyin as kun1ming2, is pronounced [ku̯ən˥ miŋ˧˥]. As hippietrail correctly notes, there is a semi-vowel in medial position in the onset.

hippietrail's transcription of 'kweeming' reflects the semi-vowel in the onset, plus the assimilation of the [n] in the first syllable to the following [m].

The reason for the confusion is that Pinyin rimes aren't meant to correspond directly to English orthography. This is why a Pinyin syllable like yuan is mispronounced by virtually every English speaker, where a correct transcription might be [yɛn].

In particular, there's a quirk of Pinyin regarding syllables with the nucleus [u̯ə]. In Pinyin, this diphthong is transcribed un (kun, sun etc) except when the initial is zero, when it's transcribed wen. This quirk of Pinyin may be responsible for your question — perhaps its pronunciation would be less surprising if Kunming was instead transcribed Kwenming, as would be the case if this quirk didn't exist!

To sum up, you've encountered one of the quirks which make it hard for a naive English speaker to approximate Mandarin based on the Pinyin; although Pinyin uses Roman letters, the values diverge considerably.

  • 2
    LorraineLin's answer simply says "the standard mandarin pronunciation is KUNMING", as if that string of letters unambiguously indicates a pronunciation, and MattSeidholz simply claims that '昆, is unambiguously pinyinized as Kūn'. Neither answer makes reference to what 'kūn' actually corresponds to phonetically, which is the critical thing. – jogloran Nov 3 '13 at 11:29
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    Not quite; the [ə] is not epenthetic. Pinyin u in this environment simply corresponds to the diphthong [u̯ə]. I'll mention a quirk of Pinyin regarding syllables with the nucleus [u̯ə] which should clarify things. When the initial of such a syllable is zero, the Pinyin becomes wen rather than un. This quirk of Pinyin may be responsible for your question — perhaps its pronunciation would be less surprising if Kunming was instead transcribed Kwenming, as would be the case if this quirk didn't exist! – jogloran Nov 3 '13 at 14:47
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    Furthermore, when the initial is a palatal consonant (jun, xun, qun, yun), u represents a different vowel altogether: [y]. This is because in Mandarin, palatal initials are in complementary distribution with back vowels. Again, this is a quirk of Pinyin which one could rectify by writing the syllables jün, xün and so on, by analogy with , and so on. However, that's not the system we have. – jogloran Nov 3 '13 at 14:54
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    Good to hear. I'll append it to the answer in the morning. As for whether there's a more phonetic romanisation, Wade-Giles, the romanisation system used historically in the ROC seems to correspond better to naive English pronunciation. Check out the table of finals on the Wiki page. Two suggestions: if you know IPA, you can work out the correspondences from transcriptions. Otherwise, I seem to recall seeing somewhere on the Internet recordings of all the Mandarin rimes. – jogloran Nov 3 '13 at 15:02
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    By the way, the yun/kun rime distinction is quite clear in Bopomofo, the non-Roman system used in the ROC. And in Gwoyeu Romatzyh, the transcription system featuring tonal spelling, kun1 would be ‘kuen’. This suggests that Yuen Ren Chao, who designed GR, knew what he was doing. – neubau Nov 4 '13 at 2:32

this could be a regional dialect problem. As you know, the standard mandarin pronunciation is KUNMING. I would not regard this as a phonological process because dialectal influence varies a lot among people in different places. If this is a phonological process, there should be only one standard form of pronunciation. Nice trip there.

  • Actually I don't know if it's the standard pronunciation or not. Pinyin is very opaque and I don't have a grasp of it yet. I just tried getting Google Translate to read it aloud and it sounds like /kwəming/! – hippietrail Nov 3 '13 at 2:59

I'm fairly certain it's not a quirk of Pinyin. The first character of Kunming, 昆, is unambiguously pinyinized as "Kūn". I speak some Mandarin, and I would never pronounce that like "Kwee", and nor have I ever spoken to a Chinese person who would. When I travelled in Yunnan, I never encountered the pronunciation that you've described.

That said - you might be in a different part of the province. You could be encountering some regional dialect changes to standard Mandarin.

One feature of Yi (a local minority ethnic group)-influenced dialects of Mandarin is a lack of distinction between /n/ and /ŋ/.

Maybe what you're hearing comes from the combination of the first tone, and the distorted, slightly nasalized /n/ in Kūn, when pronounced by Yunnan speakers.

  • I've just learned that even Google Translate's speech synthesis pronounces it as /kwəming/, so now I'm doubting the regional hypothesis. – hippietrail Nov 3 '13 at 3:01
  • I crossed the border from Boten, Laos into Mohan, Yunnan then proceeded to Mengla, followed by Ning'er, Jincheng, and now I'm in the centre of Kunming. I've been aware of what I'm describing from Mengla onwards. – hippietrail Nov 3 '13 at 3:08
  • Is it pretty consistent? Are you hearing that from every speaker you encounter? Or is it a once-in-a-while thing? And, I mean no offense when I ask, but do you have any experience with Chinese? A naive-to-Chinese listener might have very different perceptions from someone who has studied it for a while. – Matt Seidholz Nov 3 '13 at 3:12
  • I think it's consistent. I must say I'm faring much worse than usual at trying to comprehend and speak a bit of the language on my travels, so I don't trust my senses. I expected the tones to be the tough part but so far it's the phonology and romanization into Pinyin. It's all hums and buzzes instead of vowels (-: I did much better with Lao. No offense taken, I'm just an armchair linguist with no training except I left my armchair for the field (-: – hippietrail Nov 3 '13 at 3:21
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    Oh yeah - my early experience with Mandarin was just like that. I misheard everything. The tones, for non-native speakers, can affect consonant perception (I remember reading that somewhere...), and they always mess up the vowels. Keep listening and you'll pick it up! And by the way your trip sounds fantastic. – Matt Seidholz Nov 3 '13 at 3:27

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