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The right way to pronounce “yuan”—and it’s not like in all those terrible headline puns

A watermelon vendor looks at yuan banknotes at a market in Changzhi, Shanxi province June 21, 2010.
What is this thing called again?
By Nikhil Sonnad
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The International Monetary Fund announced that it will add the Chinese renminbi—or yuan—to its selective basket of reserve currencies. The Nov. 30 decision promises to be a boon to China’s efforts to play a larger role in the global economy.

And to punny headline writers.

The thing is, yuan puns in the English-language media—like “Yuan-way bet” or “Yuan for the money“—are not only terrible, they are based on a mispronunciation of yuan that sounds positively ugly to Mandarin speakers.

Most yuan mis-puns rely on a pronunciation that sounds like “you-on” or possibly “wan.” These are then substituted for the English word “one.” The Economist at one point worried that its own punning of yuan on “one” had gone too far (paywall). Quartz has been guilty of this too (“yuan more time.”)

But “you-on/wan” is not the only mispronunciation out there. The author of “Yuan some, lose some” seems to think it’s ”you-in.” In ”The yuan and the restless“ it seems to be more like the Dutch name “Jan.” Whoever wrote ”China has a yuan for luxury, but not at home?” might have their Chinese and Japanese currency mixed up. And does ”So you still yuan out” mean “won out” or “want out” or “win out?”

If you want to know how to say it right, don’t trust YouTube—many videos that promise to teach it are in fact incorrect.

The correct pronunciation is something like “you-en.” But that’s just to get started. That first “you” part is pronounced with the mouth forward, like the German letter ü. The second “-en” part is really somewhere between “en” and “an”. (You could think of it as like the -en in “broken” or the -an in “Conan.”) Here is a Chinese teacher pronouncing yuan, as well as a few other basic Mandarin sounds.

Another odd thing about yuan in English is that, in Mandarin, the word is not really used to refer to the currency. Renminbi is normally reserved for that purpose, as in this Caixin story (link in Chinese) on the IMF announcement. Renminbi is akin to ”the dollar,” while yuan is more like “some dollars.” In writing, yuan is used to say how much something costs (“500 million yuan spent on infrastructure projects”). A third word, kuai, is the most common in speech (“it’s 20 bucks”). This is the case in Taiwan, too, so it’s not just about the official politics of renminbi, which means “the people’s currency.”

There are not really any English words that work with the correct pronunciation of yuan, but some are closer than others. “When” is probably better than “one.”

Yuan will the puns stop?

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