“U's On First?” More on the Wacky 十三五 Video

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Yesterday I mentioned a delightfully weird English-language Chinese soft-power / propaganda video, all about “The 十三五 .” As explained earlier, this is about the Communist Party’s 13th five-year plan, rendered in Chinese as “1 3 5,” or 十三五 and pronounced shi san wu.

But why does the video keep saying shi san u rather than wu? What happened to that w? Two readers weigh in. First, from a woman with a Chinese family name:

I have actually been wondering about "woo" versus "ooo" in Chinese for some time!

I've noticed that the /w/ in wu is more likely to be pronounced in mainland China than in Taiwan, where the word is generally pronounced as a pure vowel. To give one example, this children's video teaching the Taiwanese phonetic alphabet pronounces what would be "woo" in Putonghua [standard Mandarin Chinese] as "ooo." The phonetic symbol for 五 is ㄨ, appearing at 0:15.

I wonder about the extent to which native Chinese speakers (especially from different regions) register "ooo" for "woo" or vice versa as a mistake. How jarring or noticeable is it?

When I asked my parents, who were born and raised in Taiwan and came to the United States in their 30s, they weren't really able to distinguish the two sounds, though they pronounce it "ooo." Is this a difference that's more salient to English-speaking ears than Chinese-speaking ones?

Hold that last question in mind for a moment. Now, from a reader with a master’s degree in Chinese literature and language, including linguistics:

I just wanted to point out that the pinyin representation of 五, that is “wu,” does not perfectly represent the sound. It is written that way for aesthetic reasons, because “u” would look awkward standing alone. The actual IPA [JF note: in this context, a reference not to my usual IPA but to the International Phonetic Alphabet]  for the character 五 is [u].

In other words, the Mandarin pronunciation for “wu” doesn’t have the same “w” sound we have in English, and due to the pinyin, people learning Chinese as a second language often pronounce this “w” sound as a result of reading the pinyin. So, although the pronunciation in the video is a little strange, it is actually closer to the way it should we pronounced than if you were to simply read the word “wu.” I hope that makes sense.

It does indeed make sense. The slippery terrain of sound-differences that are crucial in one language, and that speakers of another language don’t even hear, is full of fascination. For instance: it is surprisingly hard for even very fluent Chinese speakers of English to keep he and she straight — “My mother is visiting, he is very happy to be here” — even though no native-speaker of English could imagine confusing them. The pitfalls of pinyin, as a “guide” to English pronunciation, are a whole separate mess. On he/she, pinyin, and related topics, I refer you to the locus classicus, Dreaming in Chinese!


After being off-line much of last week, I have a whole queue of items ready to go. So settle down for a Note-storm in the next while.