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Sounds and Pronunciation

Now that you know that Chinese characters have no real way of telling you how it sounds, I will teach you a system that will teach you how to pronounce the characters. This system is called romanisation, or writing out the sounds using a scheme that maps the sounds to specific Latin letters (you know, the alphabet). But writing out the sounds isn’t enough. You also need the tones and the system we will be using also has that area covered.
Just for the record, I want to let you know that romanisation is a tool that, in my humble opinion, should not be relied upon too much. I think learning to read the characters will help in the long run. But if your goal is to learn how to speak and not to read and write, then the romanisation will help up to a certain point. Native speakers will not know this system unless they themselves are linguists, language teachers, etc. Romanisation is also not entirely standardized to the same extent as Mandarin pinyin and Japanese romaji. There are several popular systems today, not including the many personal systems that someone makes up along the way, in use in books and web sites. So just be forewarned if you come across a dictionary that uses a different system than what you’re used to. By the way, the online dictionary I use, which is awesome and the most complete, uses the system I will teach.

Jyutping

The Linguistic Society of Hong Kong (LSHK) devised a romanisation system that uses the Latin alphabet and numbers to stand for the pronunciation and tones in Cantonese. It’s called “jyutping.” Be warned that this scheme might be confusing for you, the Westerner or otherwise, at first.

Letters At Start of Words

b The same as in English; like “back”
p The same as in English; like “pack”
m The same as in English; like “mom”
f The same as in English; like “fog”
d The same as in English; like “dice”
t The same as in English; like “tall”
n The same as in English; like “nut”; nowadays people tend to pronounce this as a hybrid mix between an “n” and an “l” or even just an “l” entirely
l The same as in English; like “lunch”
g The same as in English; like “gas”
h The same as in English; like “hot”
w The same as in English; like “water”
s The same as in English; like “sam”
gw Pronounced as it looks; like “gway”
kw Pronounced as it looks; like “kwan”
k Functions as the hard “c” or “k” sound; like “camp” or “kale”
ng Only appears at the end of words in English. Try to say “sing” then attach an “o” afterwards. As soon as you get the “-ng” part, keep it for a second longer then say “ngo”. You should feel a vibration in your nose and feel some kind of movement in the back of your throat at the top
z It has a sound similar to “j” like “jab” but not exactly the same. Think of it like a “j” but with the beginnings of a “z”. For example, zaa might sound something like “zja”. There is no ‘buzzing’ sound that’s traditionally associated with the “Z” in the English alphabet
c This will always have a “ch-” sound to it. This is similar to the “ch-” sound but I can hear a slight “t” at the beginning. It would sound something like a “tch” as in the ending of “match”
j This will have the “y” sound; like “you”

Letters In the Middle of Words

a Sounds like English “ah”; like “blah”
aa Just like the previous “a“, but it is sounded longer in time. Take the time for you to say “a” and double it. It’s still very short but it should be noticeable
e Sounds like English “eh”; like “best”
i Sounds like English “ee”; like “bleep”
o Sounds a very rounded “oh”. There should be more vibration in the back of your throat rather than the front of your mouth
u Sounds like English “oo”; like “blooper”
oe There is no sound like this in English; try saying “L” but round your lips like you want to say “ooh” while keeping the throat formation for the “L”. Try to say “L” but do not finish that last part where your tongue curls to give that “L” sound. That will be the closest to “oe” as you can get
eo- This sound only appears as “eoi“, “eon“, and “eot“. If you wanted to isolate the sound it would sound something like this: Say the English word “uh” but round your lips like you want to say “ooh” while keeping the tongue and throat formation for “uh”. Now sound it out. This isn’t entirely useful by itself and I will talk more about this later
yu This is similar to the German ü or the Danish ø or the Mandarin u, but with a “y” before it. To say this, try to say “ee” as in the English word “see”, but round your lips like you want to say “ooh” while keeping the tongue and throat formation for the “ee”. This is exactly the sound, but remember to put a “y” sound before it. Note: it’s strange that this uses a ‘y‘ and yet at the beginning of a word the letter ‘j‘ is used for that same sound. Very strange

Letters At End of Words

i Sounds like English “ee”; like “bleep”
u Sounds like English “oo”; like “blooper”
m Sounds like English “m”; like “sam”; Note: this can stand alone as a word
n Sounds like English “n”; like “run”
ng Sounds like English “ng” but with more nasal vibration than normal; like “sing”; Note: this can stand alone as a word, but it’s usually the same as “m”
p Clipped consonant; similar to English “sup” but with no puff of air at the end
t Clipped consonant; similar to English “pat” but with no puff of air at the end
k Clipped consonant; similar to English “suck” but with no puff of air at the end

Combinations of the Sounds
I won’t go over all of the possible variations that jyutping recognizes. This page will give you a complete list. Using the guidelines I just gave you, you should be able to sound out all of the sounds you see. It’s just a matter of meshing the sounds together so that they flow. I will have a video soon that explores all of the combinations.

Practice
* I know I don’t have a video up just yet nor MP3 files but for now, just bear with me and try these words out. There are tones, but don’t worry about them just yet. Just say them in a kind of monotonous voice.

baan kap sam bun dei paak fong jiu nei tiu ngau
syu syut keoi maang hoeng ngo soeng ngaam syun joeng goek
cin yat caak cyun ceoi zaa zeoi zui zek zeng zi

Tones

Remember that I said tones in Cantonese are similar to singing, right? It’s not a difficult thing to grasp once you understand that there are 6 different tones and that all words have a tone. Each tone is unique and should sound different from one another but beginners will often mistake one tone with another and it just takes a while for your ears and mouth to truly understand and appreciate the tonal system of Cantonese.

Just like in English, Cantonese has lots of homophones (two or more different words that sound alike) and this includes both the pronunciation AND the tone. This opens the doors up for even more confusion for beginners but often times, the homophones have different uses so you won’t be misunderstood based on context. It’s important that you get the tonal system right eventually because sometimes there are words that might offend depending on how you pronounce it. So just keep in mind that tones are very important! It’s okay to mess up but you’ll definitely have to make adjustments as soon as your mistakes are pointed out.

The tones are listed in the table below. Tones are based on each individual speaker’s natural range of musical notes. Of course that doesn’t mean great singers should speak the highest tone at their highest point. There’s no absolute range, but there is consistency. Just remember to not exaggerate any of the tones. It makes you sound unnatural. My best advice is to just copy what you hear and remember that you’re doing all this in your speaking voice, not your singing voice.

1 Highest level. It remains the same throughout the word. Interesting note: there is a high-falling tone but it’s hardly ever used anymore and people just use the 1 tone
2 Rising to high level. It rises from tone 3, or maybe a little higher, and goes towards tone 1. The rising isn’t too fast
3 Middle level. It remains the same throughout the word. Could be thought of as your base, monotonous tone
4 Falling from middle level. It falls from tone 3, or maybe a little lower, and goes just past tone 6. The falling is somewhat fast. Sometimes this tone can be mistake for tone 6
5 Rising from low level. It rises from tone 6 and goes towards tone 3 slightly exceeding tone 3
6 Low level. It remains the same throughout the word. Try to make your voice as low as possible without warping your actual voice

Note: I will have a video later demonstrating all of this.

Tone Modification

For the most part, the tones are pretty straight forward. However, there are times when you put two words together and one of the words change their tone simply because they’re in that word compound. An example of this would be 爸爸 baa1*4 baa1 (father) [The * means that 爸 is normally tone 1, but in this case, it’s tone 4]. Normally 爸 is baa1 but putting two of the same words together results in changing the tone of one of the words. There’s no real set rules in how this is all done. Sometimes, tone modifications happen because there’s a need for a sort of tone harmony. Having two words that are similar in tone next to each other makes for a bland and unnatural sounding word. However, that’s not always the reason. There’s more and you can read all about them here. Just remember the golden rule in language learning: repeat what you hear, remember it, and don’t question so much!

Practice

baan1 kap1 sam1 bun2 dei6 paak3 fong4 jiu3 nei5
syu1 syut3 keoi5 maang4 hoeng1 ngo5 soeng2 ngaam1 syun3
cin2 yat1 caat3 cyun3 ceoi1 zaa3 zeoi2 faan6 zek3
tiu4 ngau4 joeng6*2 goek3 jyu5 coi4

Now that you know how to read jyutping, let’s put it to use!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 5, 2010 7:33 pm

    Nice post, it’s good to have all the info on Cantonese pronunciation complete and in one place 🙂

    Buuuuut, I wouldn’t say that k and g, b and p, and t and d have equivalent sounds as in English – it’s something to do with them being unvoiced in Cantonese (pretty sure this is why Hoeng Gong is rendered as Hong Kong in English). Anyway, they don’t have true equivalents in English.

    Oe sound: best advice I’ve heard on this is to stick a pencil in your mouth (as far as I can tell, to make this sound the tongue has to be quite far back)

    yu: partly so that typists don’t have to type umlauts, but also because otherwise you’d end up with odd looking words like jju 😉

    • saywhateric permalink*
      April 6, 2010 12:52 am

      k/g, p/b , t/d are aspirated and voiced sounds, respectively. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantonese_phonology
      港,八, 打 Say these three words and feel your vocal chords. They most definitely vibrate at the very beginning.
      To simplify the learning process, whatever differences between these sounds and English’s are minimal, if not negligible.

      Thanks for the feedback.

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