Cantonese Phonology
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Cantonese Phonology

The standard pronunciation of Cantonese is that of Guangzhou, also known as Canton, the capital of Guangdong Province. Hong Kong Cantonese is related to the Guangzhou dialect, and the two diverge only slightly. Yue dialects in other parts of Guangdong and Guangxi provinces, such as Taishanese, may be considered divergent to a greater degree.


A syllable generally corresponds to a word or a character. Most syllables are etymologically associated with either standard Chinese characters or colloquial Cantonese characters. Modern linguists have discovered that about 1,760 syllables are used in Cantonese and cover the pronunciations of more than 10,000 Chinese characters. Therefore, there is an average of six homophonous characters per syllable.

Phonetically, a Cantonese syllable has only two parts: the sound and the tone.[1]


A Cantonese syllable usually consists of an initial (onset) and a final (rime/rhyme). There are about 630 syllables in the Cantonese syllabary.

Some of these, such as /?:?/ and /ei?/ (?), /po/ (?), /k?e/ (?) are no longer common; some, such as /k?ek?/ and /kek?/ (?), or /k?a:/ and /k?/ (?), have traditionally had two equally correct pronunciations but are beginning to be pronounced with only one particular way by its speakers (and this usually happens because the unused pronunciation is almost unique to that word alone), thus making the unused sounds effectively disappear from the language; some, such as /k:k?/ (?), /p?u:i?/ (?), /ts?i?/ (?), /ka:?/ (?), have alternative nonstandard pronunciations which have become mainstream (as /k:/, /pu:i?/, /j?i?/ and /k:?/ respectively), again making some of the sounds disappear from the everyday use of the language; and yet others, such as /fa:k?/ (?), /f/ (?), /t?p?/ (?) have become popularly (but erroneously) believed to be made-up/borrowed words to represent sounds in modern vernacular Cantonese when they have in fact been retaining those sounds before these vernacular usages became popular.

On the other hand, there are new words circulating in Hong Kong which use combinations of sounds which had not appeared in Cantonese before, such as get1 (note: this is nonstandard usage as /?:t/ was never an accepted/valid final for sounds in Cantonese, though the final sound /?:t/ has appeared in vernacular Cantonese before this, /p:t?/ - notably in describing the measure word of gooey or sticky substances such as mud, glue, chewing gum, etc.); the sound is borrowed from the English word get meaning "to understand".

Initial consonants

Initials (or onsets) refer to the 19 initial consonants which may occur at the beginning of a sound. Some sounds have no initials and they are said to have null initial. The following is the inventory for Cantonese as represented in IPA:

Note the aspiration contrast and the lack of voicing contrast for stops. The affricates are grouped with the stops for compactness in the chart.

  1. ^ a b c In casual speech, many native speakers do not distinguish between /n/ and /l/, nor between /?/ and the null initial.[2] Usually they pronounce only /l/ and the null initial. See the discussion on phonological shift below.
  2. ^ a b c d Some linguists prefer to analyze /j/ and /w/ as part of finals to make them analogous to the /i/ and /u/ medials in Mandarin, especially in comparative phonological studies. However, since final-heads only appear with null initial, /k/ or /k?/, analyzing them as part of the initials greatly reduces the count of finals at the cost of adding only four initials.
  3. ^ Some linguists analyze a /?/ (glottal stop) in place of the null initial when a vowel begins a sound.

The position of the coronals varies from dental to alveolar, with /t/ and /t?/ more likely to be dental. The position of the coronal affricates and sibilants /t?s/, /t?s?/, /s/ is alveolar and articulatory findings indicate they are palatalized before the close front vowels /i:/ and /y:/.[3] The affricates /t?s/ and /t?s?/ also have a tendency to be palatalized before the central round vowels /oe:/ and /?/.[4] Historically, there was another series of alveolo-palatal sibilants as discussed below.

Vowels and terminals

Chart of monophthongs used in Cantonese, from Zee (1999:59)
Chart of diphthongs used in Cantonese, from Zee (1999:59)

Finals (or rimes/rhymes) are the part of the sound after the initial. A final is typically composed of a main vowel (nucleus) and a terminal (coda).

A main vowel can be long or short, depending on vowel length. The vowels /a:, ?/, /?:, e/ and /?:, o/ are each long-short pairs with corresponding formants on acoustic findings,[5][6] while the vowels /oe:, ?/, /i:, ?/ and /u:, ?/ are also phonologically analysed as a long-short pair. The vowels of Cantonese are as shown:[7]

A terminal can be a semivowel, a nasal consonant, or a stop consonant. The semivowel /i/ is rounded after rounded vowels.[8] Nasal consonants can occur as base syllables in their own right and these are known as syllabic nasals. The stop consonants (/p, t, k/) are unreleased ([p?, t?, k?]).

The following chart lists all the finals in Cantonese as represented in IPA.[7][9]

Main Vowel Syllabic
, , , , ,
Terminal Monophthong a: ? ?[note] ?: ? oe: ? ?: ? i: ? u: ? y: ?
a:i ? ?i ? ?:y ? ?y ? ei ? u:y ?
a:u ? ?u ? ou ? ?:u ?[note] i:u ?
Nasal a:m ? ?m ? ?:m ?[note] i:m ? m? ?
a:n ? ?n ? ?:n ? ?n ? ?:n[note] i:n ? u:n ? y:n ?
a:? ? ? ?:? ? oe:? ? ?:? ? ? ? ?
Checked a:p ? ?p ? ?:p ?[note] i:p ?
a:t ? ?t ? ?:t ? oe:t[note]?t ? ?:t[note] i:t ? u:t ? y:t ?
a:k ? ?k ? ?:k ? oe:k ? ?:k ? ?k ? ?k ?

Note: a b c d e Finals /?:u/,[8] /?:m/, /?:n/, /?:p/ and /?:t/ only appear in colloquial pronunciations of characters.[10] f g Final /?/ is used in transcription of elided characters and final /oe:t/ is used only in onomatopoeia.[11] They are absent from some analyses and romanization systems.

When the three checked tones are separated, the stop codas /p, t, k/ become allophones of the nasal codas /m, n, ?/ respectively, because they are in complementary distribution, the former three appearing in the checked tones and the latter three in the non-checked tones.


Relative fundamental-frequency contours for six Cantonese tones with examples and Jyutping/Yale tone numbers (modified from Francis (2008))

Like other Chinese dialects, Cantonese uses tone contours to distinguish words, with the number of possible tones depending on the type of final. While Guangzhou Cantonese generally distinguishes between high-falling and high level tones, the two have merged in Hong Kong Cantonese and Macau Cantonese, yielding a system of six different tones in syllables ending in a semi-vowel or nasal consonant. (Some of these have more than one realization, but such differences are not used to distinguish words.) In finals that end in a stop consonant, the number of tones is reduced to three; in Chinese descriptions, these "checked tones" are treated separately by diachronic convention, so that Cantonese is traditionally said to have nine tones. However, phonetically these are a conflation of tone and final consonant; the number of phonemic tones is six in Hong Kong and seven in Guangzhou.[12]

Syllable type Open syllables Checked syllables
Tone name dark flat
dark rising
dark departing
light flat
light rising
light departing
upper dark entering
lower dark entering
light entering
Description high level,
high falling
medium rising medium level low falling,
very low level
low rising low level high level medium level low level
Yale or Jyutping
tone number
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 (or 1) 8 (or 3) 9 (or 6)
Example ?, ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?
Tone letter si:?, si: si: si:? si:, si:? si: si:? sek? s?:k? sek?
IPA diacritic sí:, sî: s?: s?: si?:, s: si?: sì: sék s:k sèk
Yale diacritic s?, si sìh síh sih s?k sek sihk

For purposes of meters in Chinese poetry, the first and fourth tones are the "flat/level tones" (), while the rest are the "oblique tones" (). This follows their regular evolution from the four tones of Middle Chinese.

The first tone can be either high level or high falling usually without affecting the meaning of the words being spoken. Most speakers are in general not consciously aware of when they use and when to use high level and high falling. In Hong Kong, most speakers have merged the high level and high falling tones. In Guangzhou, the high falling tone is disappearing as well, but is still prevalent among certain words, e.g. in traditional Yale Romanization with diacritics, sàam (high falling) means the number three ?, whereas s?am (high level) means shirt ?.[13]

The relative pitch of the tones varies with the speaker; consequently, descriptions vary from one sources to another. The difference between high and mid level tone (1 and 3) is about twice that between mid and low level (3 and 6): 60 Hz to 30 Hz. Low falling (4) starts at the same pitch as low level (6), but then drops; as is common with falling tones, it is shorter than the three level tones. The two rising tones, (2) and (5), both start at the level of (6), but rise to the level of (1) and (3), respectively.[14]

The tone 3, 4, 5 and 6 are dipping in the last syllable when is an interrogative sentence or an exclamatory sentence. "really?" is pronounced [ts?n? h?i].

The numbers "394052786" when pronounced in Cantonese, will give the nine tones in order (Romanization (Yale) saam1, gau2, sei3, ling4, ng5, yi6, chat7, baat8, luk9), thus giving a mnemonic for remembering the nine tones.

Like other Yue dialects, Cantonese preserves an analog to the voicing distinction of Middle Chinese in the manner shown in the chart below.

 Middle Chinese  Cantonese
Tone Initial Nucleus Tone Name Tone Contour Tone Number
Level voiceless   dark level ?, 1
voiced light level , ? 4
Rising voiceless dark rising 2
voiced light rising 5
Departing voiceless dark departing ? 3
voiced light departing ? 6
Entering voiceless Short upper dark entering ? 7 (1)
Long lower dark entering ? 8 (3)
voiced   light entering ? 9 (6)

The distinction of voiced and voiceless consonants found in Middle Chinese was preserved by the distinction of tones in Cantonese. The difference in vowel length further caused the splitting of the dark entering tone, making Cantonese (as well as other Yue Chinese branches) one of the few Chinese varieties to have further split a tone after the voicing-related splitting of the four tones of Middle Chinese.[15][16]

Cantonese is special in the way that the vowel length can affect both the rime and the tone. Some linguists[who?] believe that the vowel length feature may have roots in the Old Chinese language.

There are also two changed tones, which add the diminutive-like meaning "that familiar example" to a standard word. For example, the word for "silver" (?, ngan4) in a modified tone (ngan2) means "coin". They are comparable to the diminutive suffixes ? and ? of Mandarin. In addition, modified tones are used in compounds, reduplications ( kam4 kam4 cheng1 > kam4 kam2 cheng1 "in a hurry") and direct address to family members ( mui6 mui6 > mui4 mui2 "sister").[17] The two modified tones are high level, like tone 1, and mid rising, like tone 2, though for some people not as high as tone 2. The high level changed tone is more common for speakers with a high falling tone; for others, mid rising (or its variant realization) is the main changed tone, in which case it only operates on those syllables with a non-high level and non-mid rising tone (i.e. only tones 3, 4, 5 and 6 in Yale and Jyutping romanizations may have changed tones).[18] However, in certain specific vocatives, the changed tone does indeed result in a high level tone (tone 1), including speakers without a phonemically distinct high falling tone.[19]

Historical change

Like other languages, Cantonese is constantly undergoing sound change, processes where more and more native speakers of a language change the pronunciations of certain sounds.

One shift that affected Cantonese in the past was the loss of distinction between the alveolar and the alveolo-palatal (sometimes termed as postalveolar) sibilants, which occurred during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This distinction was documented in many Cantonese dictionaries and pronunciation guides published prior to the 1950s but is no longer distinguished in any modern Cantonese dictionary.

Publications that documented this distinction include:

  • Williams, S., A Tonic Dictionary of the Chinese Language in the Canton Dialect, 1856.
  • Cowles, R., A Pocket Dictionary of Cantonese, 1914.
  • Meyer, B. and Wempe, T., The Student's Cantonese-English Dictionary, 3rd edition, 1947.
  • Chao, Y. Cantonese Primer, 1947.

The depalatalization of sibilants caused many words that were once distinct to sound the same. For comparison, this distinction is still made in modern Standard Mandarin, with most alveolo-palatal sibilants in Cantonese corresponding to the retroflex sibilants in Mandarin. For instance:

Sibilant Category Character Modern Cantonese Pre-1950s Cantonese Standard Mandarin
Unaspirated affricate ? /tsoe:?/ (alveolar) /tsoe:?/ (alveolar) /t?i/ (alveolo-palatal)
? /t?oe:?/ (alveolo-palatal) /t/ (retroflex)
Aspirated affricate ? /ts?oe:?/ (alveolar) /ts?oe:?/ (alveolar) /ti/ (alveolo-palatal)
? /toe:?/ (alveolo-palatal) /t?/ (retroflex)
Fricative ? /soe:?/ (alveolar) /soe:?/ (alveolar) /?i/ (alveolo-palatal)
? /?oe:?/ (alveolo-palatal) // (retroflex)

Even though the aforementioned references observed the distinction, most of them also noted that the depalatalization phenomenon was already occurring at the time. Williams (1856) writes:

The initials ch and ts are constantly confounded, and some persons are absolutely unable to detect the difference, more frequently calling the words under ts as ch, than contrariwise.

Cowles (1914) adds:

"s" initial may be heard for "sh" initial and vice versa.

A vestige of this palatalization difference is sometimes reflected in the romanization scheme used to romanize Cantonese names in Hong Kong. For instance, many names will be spelled with sh even though the "sh sound" (/?/) is no longer used to pronounce the word. Examples include the surname ? (/s?:k?/), which is often romanized as Shek, and the names of places like Sha Tin (; /sa:? t?i:n?/).

The alveolo-palatal sibilants occur in complementary distribution with the retroflex sibilants in Mandarin, with the alveolo-palatal sibilants only occurring before /i/, or /y/. However, Mandarin also retains the medials, where /i/ and /y/ can occur, as can be seen in the examples above. Cantonese had lost its medials sometime ago in its history, reducing the ability for speakers to distinguish its sibilant initials.

In modern-day Hong Kong, many younger speakers do not distinguish between certain phoneme pairs such as /n/ vs. /l/ and /?/ vs. the null initial[2] and merge one sound into another. Examples for this include ? /nei/ being pronounced as /lei/, ? /:/ being pronounced as /?:/, and ? /k:k/ being pronounced as /k?:k/.[20] Although that is often considered substandard and denounced as "lazy sounds" (), it is becoming more common and is influencing other Cantonese-speaking regions (see Hong Kong Cantonese).[]

Assimilation also occurs in certain contexts? is sometimes read as [t?o :?] not [t?ou :?], is sometimes read as [s?:k? ki] not [sy:t? ki], but sound change of these morphemes are limited to that word.

See also


  1. ^ While most linguists state that Syllable = Sound + Tone, a few prefer to state that Tonal Syllable = Base Syllable + Tone. For the sake of simplicity, this article uses the former statement.
  2. ^ a b Yip & Matthews (2001:3-4)
  3. ^ Lee, W.-S.; Zee, E. (2010). "Articulatory characteristics of the coronal stop, affricate, and fricative in Cantonese". Journal of Chinese Linguistics. 38 (2): 336-372. JSTOR 23754137.
  4. ^ Bauer & Benedict (1997:28-29)
  5. ^ Zee, Eric (2003), "Frequency Analysis of the Vowels in Cantonese from 50 Male and 50 Female Speakers" (PDF), Proceedings of the 15th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences: 1117-1120
  6. ^ Bauer & Benedict (1997:46-47)
  7. ^ a b "Cantonese Transcription Schemes Conversion Tables - Finals". Research Centre for Humanities Computing, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Retrieved 2019.
  8. ^ a b Zee, Eric (1999), "An acoustical analysis of the diphthongs in Cantonese" (PDF), Proceedings of the 14th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences: 1101-1105
  9. ^ Bauer & Benedict (1997:49)
  10. ^ Bauer & Benedict (1997:60)
  11. ^ LSHK (2018-12-01). "Updates of the Jyutping Romanization System(?)" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2019-12-16. Retrieved .
  12. ^ Bauer & Benedict (1997:119-120)
  13. ^ Guan (2000:474 and 530)
  14. ^ Jennie Lam Suk Yin, 2003, Confusion of tones in visually-impaired children using Cantonese braille (Archived by WebCite® at
  15. ^ Norman (1988:216)
  16. ^ Ting (1996:150)
  17. ^ Matthews & Yip (2013, section 1.4.2)
  18. ^ Yu (2007:191)
  19. ^ Alan C.L. Yu. "Tonal Mapping in Cantonese Vocative Reduplication" (PDF). Retrieved 2014.
  20. ^ Baker & Ho (2006:xvii)


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