Cantonese - Pronounciation
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Pronounciation

This page gives a theoretical introduction into the pronounciation of Cantonese, if you look for a guide on how to learn it, please have a look at the course teaching you the basics of Cantonese here.

Many things have been mentioned in the introduction, now you get introduced to those topics related to pronounciation in a little bit more detail.

9 Tones

This is quite a difficult part, no matter how you look at it. What does "tones" actually mean? It means, that one single word as we know it in English, can have several different meanings, depending on how high or low your voice is, or on whether it is going up or down. This makes Cantonese a little bit sound like singing, but if you don't pay attention to it, the word "to be" (low tone) can very quickly turn into a very rude word for vagina (high tone).

Different sources count tones differently resulting in 6 to 9 tones for Cantonese, depending on how you count. The most common way now is to say, Cantonese has 9 tones, 6 open ones and 3 checked ones. What does that mean?

To say it simple (and very unexact), open tones end in a way which is quite easy to pronounce for learners. The 6 open tones are presented in a moment in the next section.

Checked tones end on what is called a "stop consonant" and usually sounds like you are saying a "t" or "k" and stop somewhere halfway.

To make studying pronounciation easier, there are quite a view romanization systems. Jyutping was developed by the Linguistic Society of Hong Kong and is, in my opinion, the best one of the I don't know how many systems created for Cantonese.

Also have a look at Cantonese Tones on Wikipedia

Jyutping

Jyutping can be seen as the equivalent to Pinyin for Mandarin, although it takes a little bit more effort to learn how to use it.


This is, because you need to remember which number relates to which tone. This is annoying in the beginning, but you will get used to it over time. Well, the picture says everything there is to know about tones, words in the category 1 are high, 2 are going from low to high, etc. For more on this, go to the practical pronounciation section of the basic course, there you'll also get examples you can listen to.

What is really good about Jyutping is how checked tones are described, which is by ending words with -k, -t or -p plus a tone from the six above. Having this system makes it feel like you're actually working with six tones instead of 9, taking away some of the complexity. Furthermore it gives you a good impression on the differences of words ending with p, t or k. The difference is often very small, sometimes even Cantonese people can't tell, the letters thereby represent this tiny difference quite well.

Accents

As mentioned in the introduction, Cantonese has quite a range of accents.

广州话 - Guangzhou accent is widely accepted to be the most standard form of Cantonese. Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong (Canton), a big province in the South of China, and, if you will, the capital of Cantonese in Mainland China. Guangzhou people are very proud of their language and will only reluctantly switch to Mandarin (English is easier). So if you think about going to Mainland China to study Cantonese, Guangzhou might be the best place to learn it perfectly.

Another good place for it might be Shenzhen. Compared to Guangzhou, Shenzhen is home to a lot of people from other Chinese provinces who can't speak Cantonese. Although Cantonese is still quite common in Shenzhen, it gets "Mandarinized" if you will, in that a lot of words from Mandarin are used with their Cantonese pronounciation. This is especially common among younger people who grow/grew up with speaking Mandarin a lot more than their parents. Nevertheless, Cantonese is still very common in this vibrant city.

Speaking of vibrant we come to Hong Kong. Hong Kong people's Cantonese has been influenced by English quite significantly and - even though they have been a part of China since 1997 - people there are still very proud of their own way of speaking Cantonese. So if you can speak English, you might actually sometimes understand what people are talking about just from the context, as people might use words like "lunch" or "bus" as part of them speaking Cantonese.

Another big difference is, regardless of the place, the language of young and old people. As with any living language, words change its meaning, pronounciation is subject to trends and changes as well. This results in some words or letters being pronounced slightly differently by young and old people.

Having said all this it is important to state that, even though the differences in pronounciation are quite big sometimes, the impact on you as a learner is quite small. If you manage to get close to one of those accents, you're already a hero to most of the native speakers.

Practicing

Learning how to pronounce words correctly is not easy. The best way, of course, is practicing with a native speaker who can tell you exactly what you're doing wrong and show you how to do it right. But you can also practice by yourself and these tools might be of help to you in doing so:

Listen to all syllables in the proncounciation section, or
Have a look at the basic practical pronounciation course