Cantonese Sounds and Tones
Lesson 1

This first sounds and tones lesson will concentrate on the basics of the Cantonese sound system, the basic tone system, and discuss phonological rules that are seen in the first language skill first grammar lesson.

This website uses the Yale romanization system, altered to accommodate certain restrictions that using HTML documents imposes.  The Yale romanization system is discussed in more detail on the Cantonese Romanization page.

Sounds

Cantonese morphemes are mostly monosyllabic. They consist of an initial consonant sound, a final sound, and a tone.  Cantonese sounds have some significant differences with both English and Mandarin.

Morpheme initial final /hou/
Sound h ou
Tone

/mid rising/

The initial "ng" sound introduced in the first grammar lesson can be difficult.  This sound is produced as a voiced velar nasal, represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet as.  This is the sound the occurs at the end of the word "swing" in English and at the end of "" in Mandarin.

This sound is gradually being dropped as an initial in the language, with more and more younger speakers omitting the initial on words where it occurs.  For example, for some people:

/ngoh/

becomes

/oh/

 

-ngaam-

-aam-

Some native speakers will insist that including the "ng" is the correct way to speak, while others may say that using the initial is somewhat archaic.  I suggest learning to pronounce words with the initial "ng" unless it proves too great of a difficulty.

The second difficult initial introduced in Lesson 1 is the initial /n/.  The problem is not that the sound is difficult to make, but rather that it is subject to an unfamiliar phonological change.  Initial /n/ sounds can become /l/ sounds.

Originally, the two initials were easily distinguishable in Cantonese, however this has been gradually changing.  Generally, words beginning with an "n" can be pronounced with either an "n" or an "l" with most native speakers pronouncing it as an "l" in normal speech.  The reverse, however, is not true.  Words beginning with an "l" cannot be pronounced as an "n".

Tones

Level

High Falling

High Level

Middle Rising

Middle Level

Low Rising

Low Falling

Low Level

Website
Symbol

\tone\

-tone-

/tone/

tone

/tohne/

\tohne\

tohne

Yale
Symbol

tone

tohne

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Cantonese has seven tones distinguished by tone level.  Of these seven, the High Falling tone has become increasingly indistinctive to the point that most native Cantonese speakers do not even pronounce it except in a few exceptional words.  For those speakers who do generally pronounce the falling tone, it falls very little and is difficult to hear.

While this website will separate the high falling and high level tones, they can be pronounced identically.  Students should consider tones marked \tone\ and -tone- to be one and the same for pronunciation.

Additionally, students should pay special attention to the tonal symbol "h".  Except when it is part of the initial sound, the "h" always denotes a low tone and is not pronounced.  It is a tone mark, not a sound mark.

Learning Helps

Practice and re-practice these sounds and tones.  Simply seeing them on paper or hearing them once will not help you.  Pay particular attention to specific differences between tone levels and similar sounds.
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