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(see also: Cantonese Tones and Jyutping) Cantonese, like most languages you may learn, has sounds that do not always occur in one's native tongue. For this reason, the romanisation (writing the sounds using the English alphabet) has proved to be a challenging problem over the years.

As far as I know, there are three romanisation schemes in common usage. The first two are Yale and Sidney Lau.

Yale uses diactrics (eg á) to represent tones and the letter groupings are arguably easier for English language readers to understand. It is probably fair to say that Yale is currently the most commonly used scheme.

Sidney Lau uses numbers to show tones, which has the advantage of being easy to type but does require that the numbers be learned. This scheme is less popular nowadays but many older textbooks will use it.

less popular nowadays but many older textbooks will use it. The other romanisation scheme is LSHK

The other romanisation scheme is LSHK Jyutping (sometimes spelled "jyutpin"), which is newer and is recommended by the Linguistic Society of Hong Kong. Jyutping uses tone numbers and has a few subtle refinements to certain pronunciations that other schemes do not address. English language students may find some letters confusing at first (eg 'j' is pronounced as 'y'*). European students may have less difficulty as their native language may well share the same conventions as jyutping.

Because it is newer there are few printed textbooks that use it, although this will hopefully change soon. This website uses Jyutping throughout so if you are not familiar with the system please look at the guidelines below:

As noted, western students may find jyutping difficult to read at first, because some of the letter groupings are quite different from English. Here are some examples of ones that tend to cause confusion (words in red may be clicked to hear how they should sound) :

Letters at the start of words

ng - similar to the 'gn' in the English "gnaw" eg: 'ngo' ("I" or "me") sounds very much like "gnaw".

n - a major source of confusion! "n" will generally be pronounced "L" by most Hong Kong Chinese. eg: 'nin' (year)

would be pronounced like the English "lean". Try not to stress the "l" sound though, it should be quite soft. The confusion arises because strictly speaking, the "n" pronunciation is correct and will still be understood by many Chinese (as long as you don't stress the "n" sound too much). The "L" variation is a relatively new "accent". Listen to 'naam' (south) as an example.

j - at the start of the word, this should be pronounced "y"*. Jyutping itself is pronounced "yoot ping". Another example is 'ji' (two), which is prononuced "yee". Listen to 'jau' (right) as an example.

c - c only appears at the start of a word and is always pronouced "ch". So 'cin' (1000) and 'caang' (orange) would be

pronounced "cheen" and "chaang". Note it is not a strong "ch" sound, some people write it like "ts" as the emphasis is slightly on a "t" sound. Listen to 'cin' (front) as an example.

z - this may be treated as a 'j' like in the English "jam" but it is more like a cross between a 'j' and a 'z'. Listen to 'zung' (center) as an example.

Letters occurring within words

u - like the 'oo' in the English 'moon'. eg: 'fung' (wind) is pronounced 'foong'.

a - like the 'o' in the English "won" or "son" or the 'u' in "cup". eg 'bak' (north) would be pronounced "buck".

aa - like the 'ar' in the English "harm" or "farm". eg 'saan' (mountain) would be pronounced "sarn". i - like the 'ee' in the English "fee" or "see". eg: 'din' (electricity) would be pronounced "deen".

Letters occurring at the end of words

i - as above, eg: 'si' (yes) is pronounced like the English "see".


- as above, it retains its "oo" sound. eg: 'jyu' (fish) sounds like the English "you".


- like the the English "oar". eg: "do" (many) would be pronounced like the English "door".

aa - like the 'ar' in the English "star". eg 'faa' (flower) would be pronounced "far". eoi - a soft sound that doesn't occur in English. The closest would be the 'oy' sound in "boy" but the emphasis is more

on a 'u' sound than an 'o'. This is a common sound in Cantonese, eg 'seoi' (water), 'heoi' (go) and 'keoi' (he or she). au - like the 'ow' in the English "how" or "now". eg: 'hau' (back) is pronounced exactly like the English "how".

e - like the English "air". eg: 'ce' (car) is pronounced like the English "chair".

ei - like the "ay" in the English "hay" or "may". eg: 'dei' (ground) is pronounced like the English "day".

ou - like the English "oh". eg: 'mou' is prononuced like the English "mow".

Tones in Jyutping

Now that you can pronounce Cantonese words from their jyutping romanisation please read Cantonese Tones to understand the 6 tone numbers that jyutping uses.

Related Links :

www.lshk.org - the Linguistic Society of Hong Kong's official jyutping website.

CityU scholars develop new Cantonese Pinyin Scheme - a story about the creators of Jyutping

Jyutping learning software - some software designed to help Chinese people learn Jyutping,

One final note, I have found the standardisation of Cantonese romanisation extremely useful when creating this website. I input most of the Chinese characters on the site using Jyutping in conjunction with the excellent NJStar software.

This is an ongoing essay, so if you have any suggestions, corrections or advice, please contact me at cantonese@sheik.co.uk

* Incidentally, many European languages pronounce "j" in this way as does the artificial language "Esperanto".

As mentioned elsewhere in these pages, I find the pronunciation and recognition of the

tones in Chinese to be the most difficult aspect of learning. Perhaps this is because I have

a poor musical ear, it took me several months of playing guitar before I could hear the difference between an E and Em chord!

Unfortunately, the tones are absolutely critical if you are hoping to be understood. You might think that you can rely on the listener being able to interpret your meaning from the context of the sentence but this is not always the case. Many similar sounding words in Cantonese have conflicting meanings which is a great source of exasperation for students

struggling with an already difficult language! Consider, for example, 'buy' and 'sell'. These are pronounced maai5 and maai6. How this doesn't result in total confusion when trading

is currently beyond me but I am living in hope that it will all become clear eventually.

am living in hope that it will all become clear eventually. Interestingly (or infuriatingly!), many words

Interestingly (or infuriatingly!), many words can have identical sounds and tones but mean one of several things depending on the context. A quick glance at an online cantonese dictionary, shows that fo2 has characters that can mean fire, plenty, droplet, colleague and a numerical classifier for trees. It is worth noting that other languages have homophones as well. eg. in English, bow & bough, gilt & guilt, course & coarse, for & four etc.

Another problem is that many common words can mean some fairly offensive swear words if they are pronounced in a

certain tone. For example, there are two numbers between one and ten which can easily amuse or offend your audience if you are not careful.

Of course, if you get several tones in your sentence wrong you will just end up speaking complete gibberish, don't worry, this is all part of the fun of learning the language!

The romanisation system for representing tones and pronunciation on this website is 'jyutping' (sometimes spelled 'jyutpin' or 'jyut ping'). It uses six numbers to represent the tones. They are:

Tone 1: high level flat (or falling) - eg: faa1,bing1

Tone 2: rising to high level - eg: tou2, hoi2

Tone 3: mid level flat - eg: sai3, hei3

Tone 4: low level falling - eg: naam4, wu4

Tone 5: rising to mid level - eg: ngo5, jyu5

Tone 6: low level flat - eg: hai6,din6

Low, mid and high represent the tonal range of the speaker. So, speak tone 6 words as deep as you can whilst still sounding natural. Tone 3 words should be in your normal speaking voice and tone 1 words should be higher. Don't exaggerate these tones though, speaking tone 1 words as if you have inhaled helium isn't advisable!

Throughout the site you will find audio samples of words and sentences containing all the different tones.

Please see Common Tone Mistakes for examples of the pitfalls in using the wrong tone!

If it is any comfort to people who are struggling with learning Cantonese, my current level of ability is to speak using only three tones consciously, normal, high and low! In practise, I probably get more tones than this correct by

unconsciously mimicking my teachers or people I've heard.

My speaking is pretty poor though

This is an ongoing essay, so if you have any suggestions, corrections or advice, please contact me at cantonese@sheik.co.uk

CantoDict Tone Conventions

CantoDict uses the following convention to distinguish between literary and colloquial pronunciations. i.e. Literary are how text books say you should speak a word correctly, and colloquial is how people actually say it in real life. The latter is obviously most useful to a learner, but the former is also useful to know when looking words up etc.

mui6*2 : mui6 = literary; mui2 = colloquial

faa1 sang1 tong4*2 : faa1 sang1 tong4 = literary; faa1 sang1 tong2 = colloquial

As far as I am aware, we invented this convention for CantoDict, as normal jyutping does not show these distinctions.