Cantonese Sound System Home

A. Sound Elements - Initials, Finals and Tones
B. Tone Drills
C. Romanization
D. What Cantonese is

A. Sound Elements - Initials, Finals and Tones

A syllable

Initial        +      Final        +      Tone         =      Syllable

Each syllable of Cantonese is composed of three elements:

Initial: the beginning sound element of a syllable
Final: the ending sound element of a syllable
Tone: the relative pitch, or variation of pitch, of a syllable



There are 6 distinctive tones in Cantonese. Traditional Cantonese normally say they have 9 tones. However the last 3 tones are actually the repetitions. Therefore distinctive tones are only 6

Tone No. Tone Name E.g. Meanings
1 HL High Level s poem
2 HR High Rising s history
3 ML Middle Level si to try
4 LF Low Falling sh time
5 LR Low Rising sh market
6 LL Low Level sih matter

Play the six tones continuously
From tone 1 to tone 6 : s, s, si, sh, sh, sih
From the highest tone to lower tone and then the two rising tones: s, si, sih, sh, s, sh
For tone 1, some books call it High Falling and show such as "s " for it. It doesn't matter, just a name for tone 1. Actually for tone 1, people can pronounce it high level or high falling. However nowadays in Hong Kong, high level is much more common than high falling.
For books using traditional Yale system, they subdivide tone 1 into two different tones, one is High Falling
s and one is High Level s. Therefore they say there are 7 tones in Cantonese. However as mentioned above, High Falling and and High Level are tone 1, people can say the way they like and so talking about distinctive tones, there are 6, instead of 7 or 9.

The low level tone mark
h is put right after the last vowel letters: a, e, i, o or u. (eg. yhn: people, kuih: he)
The tone marks
-, / or \ are put on top of the first vowel letters.



There are 19 initials in Cantonese: (All are pronounced in tone 1 HL)
As initials cannot be pronounced by itself, vocal element "a" is added to the initial to form a complete syllable.
For eg., when you click "b" here, actually you the sound played is "ba"

b, p
d, t
g, k
gw, kw
j, ch

s, h, f m
n, l
w, y



There are 51 finals in Cantonese: (If adding "m" and "ng", there are 53 finals, all are pronunced in tone 1 HL)
In Yale, they are divided into eight different groups - the following eight columns.

  aa a X e i o u eu yu
i aai ai ei   oi ui eui  
u aau au   iu ou      
m aam am   im        
n aan an   in on un eun yun
ng aang  ang eng ing ong ung eung  
p aap ap   ip        
t aat at   it ot ut eut yut
k aak ak ek ik ok uk euk  

Cantonese has the final "aa" but doesn't have the final "a". Therefore in the Yale system, final "aa" will be written as "a". But the sound is still "aa".
For example, if you see "fa", the pronunciation should be actually "faa".


B. Tone Drills


C. Romanization

Romanization is the use of English letters to stand for Cantonese syllables. eg. "Hong Kong" itself is a sort of romanization. You may find the way we say "Hong Kong" in Cantonese is somehow similar to the sound an English speaker says "Hong Kong"
A wide range of romanization systems is in use for Cantonese; no standard comparable to the pinyin used for Mandarin, which the Chinese government standardized it as the only system. Moreover new systems continue to appear.

Proper names translated into English
The translation of most proper names of Cantonese into English is actually the romanization of the Cantonese. But you have to note that there are no tones shown on the English translations, the habit is people use High Level for all "translated sounds" when they pronounce them in English.
Besides, the English letters used may be different to stand for the same Cantonese syllables. For example:

Hong Kong Government (no tones are shown as they are expressed in English) The Yale System (tones are shown)
Tsim Sha Tsui Jm S Jui
Sai Kung Si Gung
Chan (a surname) Chhn

The Yale romanization system
The Yale system was developed by Parker Huang and Gerald Kok.
This is the system used in Huang and Kok's Speak Cantonese courses and other materials produced at Yale University.
In Hong Kong, it is the most common adopted system by institutes that provide Cantonese courses for foreigners. It is used at the University of Hong Kong and by the New Asia-Yale-in China Chinese language centre of the Chinese University in its courses. Also it is adopted by some other language institutes.

Our material
The romanization system used in this web site, our material and the dictionary CID is "Yale". (We'll consider if other romanization systems will also be included in later versions of CID.)

Tonal language
Cantonese is a tonal language in which the pitch or the pitch pattern of a syllable is crucial to the identity of a syllable.
It means a sound in different tone levels, means different characters and have different meanings.
It is somehow like English, the verb: dis'count and the noun 'discount share the same sounds but put stress on different syllables - different tonal level then.

Monosyllabic language
Cantonese is a monosyllabic language. It means each character only consists of one syllable.
As you can imagine, there are a limited number of single syllables that people can pronounce. Therefore, people add the characteristic of tones to the syllable to increase the number of distinguishable syllables.
Even though Cantonese add the variety of tones to a sound, the number of syllables is still much less than the number of written characters we use. Therefore most "syllables" actually stand for more than one character.
It means, different characters with different meanings may share exactly the same sound.
For example: "luhk" may mean "six
" or "green ", exactly like English "meet" and "meat" share exactly the same sound but they are different words and with different meanings.

Romanization is the use of English letters to stand for Chinese syllables - it actually maybe Cantonese, Putonghua or other Chinese spoken languages.

For "pinyin", there are two meanings:
1. As a general term, it's a Chinese saying of romanization. It also means the use of
English letters to stand for Chinese syllables. The literal meanings of "pinyin" is "put together sounds".
2. As a proper noun, it's the name of the romanization system for Putonghua in China.
Since there's only "Cantonese" but no "Putonghua" in our material. Therefore "pinyin" won't be used.

(Putonghua and Mandarin are the same . Chinese government named it "Putonghua" since the literal meanings of "Putonghua" is "common spoken language")



D. What Cantonese is

Why do people call it "Cantonese"?
Cantonese is used by the people in the province of Guang Dong and therefore it is called "Gwong D?ng Wa". "Wa" means "speech"

Chinese: it refers to the written characters and the formal written form. It isn't like the spoken form, it is the same in different parts of China.
In China, people from different provinces have their own spoken language/dialect and say things differently. Therefore, maybe they do not understand each other even they are both Chinese.
However, because the written Chinese form is the same, a Chinese has no problem in reading an article from different provinces. Of course there may be some slang words which take specific meanings and may not be understood by other Chinese who are not from the same area.
For example, some Hong Kong people can't speak Mandarin, however they have no problem in reading newspapers from other parts of China

Complicated strokes and simplified strokes
The traditional Chinese characters are what people now call "complicated strokes " or "traditional strokes". The Chinese government found that the traditional strokes are too complicated and so it developed a system to simplify the strokes. This is what people call "simplified strokes ".
Simplified strokes are mainly used in mainland China only. Other places like Hong Kong, Taiwan and south east Asia Chinese still use the traditional one, the complicated one.
Basically the two forms are quite similar, after one has learned one form, it's quite easy for one to learn the other.

Mandarin or Putonghua
It refers to the spoken form of Chinese. In Chinese, different provinces have their own different spoken form. Mandarin or Putonghua is the one mainly used in Northern part of China, and it is also the official language in China. So it is promoted and taught at all schools in China.
Putonghua and Mandarin are the same . Chinese government named it "Putonghua" since the literal meanings of "Putonghua" is "common spoken language"
Similar to English, Mandarin (refers to the spoken form) and Chinese (refers to the written form) are in the same format. It means how people speak and how people write.

Cantonese & Chinese
For English and Mandarin, the vocabulary and expressions in spoken form and the written form are always the same. However Cantonese(the spoken) & Chinese (the written), these are sometimes not the same. The differences may be up to 30%.

Most of the time, the Cantonese and the Chinese are the same:

English beef
Cantonese (spoken form) nguh yuhk 牛肉 (Chinese)
Mandarin nu ru 牛肉 (Chinese)

Sometimes, the Cantonese and the Chinese are not the same:
If a Hong Kong person says "they", he says "keuih deih", however when he has to write down "they" , he has to change to write "t? muhn" instead. Because "keuih deih" is a spoken form only and is not used in written Chinese.

English: they
Cantonese (spoken): kuih deih 佢] (not proper Chinese)
Cantonese (standard written form-Chinese): t mhn 他們 (Chinese)
Mandarin: t mn 他們 (Chinese)


Because Cantonese and Chinese may not be the same, there may be different ways to say exactly the same thing- one is the Cantonese form, one is the Chinese form when it is used in some fixed expressions or Chinese idioms.
For example, "clothes " in Cantonese is "sam", however it is "y" in Chinese. Usually when people talk about "clothes", they say "sam". However, when people talk about "raincoat ", they say: "yuh y" (literally means rain coat) as it's a set expression, they never say "yuh sam (wrong)"

Spoken & written Cantonese
Cantonese is an oral dialect and as mentioned before, sometimes the spoken Cantonese and the written Chinese formats are different. When it comes to the written form, the standard written Chinese is used. And at school, people learn Chinese - the standard written form but not the Cantonese.
However, in casual written passages, such as gossip columns in popular magazines, promotional leaflets and informal personal communication, written Cantonese may be used.
When the Cantonese sounds don't take it's formal character, people will put some other characters which share the same sound to stand for it.
Sometimes people use a character that has a similar sound to it. Sometimes Hong Kong people create their own characters that you could never look up in dictionaries.

Cantonese accent
It's because Hong Kong is so small, there is no different accent for Hong Kong born people. Also Hong Kong shares the same accent as Guangzhou. Therefore if a Guangzhou person comes to Hong Kong, Hong Kong people usually do not know he is not a local Hong Kong person. However occasionally, the terms that Guangzhou people use may not be the same as Hong Kong people. It's similar to English, an American says "cab" while a British says "taxi".

Cantonese is used in Guangdong province (and actually Guangxi provinces). However different areas of Guangdong province have different accents. The capital of Guangdong is Guangzhou and the accent of Guangzhou is considered to be standard. Therefore some people say Cantonese is "Gwng Ju W" where "Gwng Ju" means "Guangzhou" instead of "Gwng Dng W".

Also, some people, if they come from other parts of China, Cantonese is not their first language and of course they have their own accent in speaking Cantonese unless they come to Hong Kong when they were very young.