As the Chinese economy continues to play a more prominent role on the world economic stage, an increasing number of western financial commentators, academics, and ordinary investors are discussing the valuation of the Chinese currency and its effect on world trade. During these discussions the Mandarin Chinese pronunciation of the name of the Chinese currency – the Yuan – is often mispronounced as “wahn” or “yoo – wahn.”
This mispronunciation may lead informed listeners to question the level of familiarity the speaker has with both China and Asia. In addition, when not prefaced by the word Chinese Yuan (e.g. today the Yuan rose against the dollar in early trading), mispronouncing Yuan could lead some listeners to confuse the name of the Chinese currency (CNY) with the name of the South Korean currency, the Won (KRW), or the Japanese currency, the Yen (JPY).
The goal of this article is two-fold: first, to offer advice to non-Mandarin speakers on which English term to use to best match the Mandarin pronunciation of Yuan; second, to suggest using RMB, which is a more official, easier-to-pronounce alternative to Yuan.
For non-Mandarin speakers, the pronunciation of Yuan is very close to that of the abbreviation for the United Nations. Saying “U.N.” without taking a pause between the “U” and the “N” sounds very similar to one way a native Mandarin speaker would say the name of the Chinese currency, albeit with one major exception – a native speaker would add Mandarin’s second tone. While adding the second tone is not necessary when using Yuan in languages other than Mandarin, just as a chef sounds more authentic when using the correct Italian accent when describing the methods for preparing an Italian meal, so too would a speaker sound more worldly and informed if he or she could say the name of China’s currency in a manner similar to a native Mandarin speaker.
Mandarin is a tonal language, and the standard pronunciation of Yuan includes adding the second, or rising tone. The rising tone is the same tone as used for the word “who” when asking “I’m sorry, who did you say left me a million dollars in their will?”
As a more official and widely-used alternative to Yuan, RMB, an abbreviation for Renminbi, or the people’s currency, is also an acceptable way of referring to China’s currency. RMB is pronounced by reading the English letters “R,” “M,” and “B” together without pauses.
When speaking of monetary policy, exchange rates, or large sums of money, the Chinese central bank (the People’s Bank of China), other Chinese government departments, and Chinese finance-related television and radio programs commonly speak and write RMB or Renminbi instead of Yuan. As this is the case, non-Mandarin speakers can both avoid the pronunciation difficulties associated with saying Yuan, while at the same time using the more appropriate term RMB that is used in Chinese banking and finance circles.