Monday, September 29, 2008

Proper Cantonese pronunciation

From the 1980s onwards, the proper Cantonese pronunciation has been much promoted in Hong Kong, with the scholar as the iconic campaigner. The very idea of "proper" pronunciation of Standard Cantonese is controversial, as there is no such a thing as "mispronunciation" in descriptive linguistics.

Origins and influences

The promotion of "proper" Cantonese pronunciation is partly a reaction to the so-called "lazy sound" adopted by the younger generations. The "lazy" pronunciations, or sound changes include:
*merge of initial n- and l-, for example, reading 男 as 藍
*loss of initial ng-, for example, reading 我 as o5.
*omission of the labialisation -w- of gw- or kw-, for example, reading 國 as 角 .
*confusing the final consonants -k and -t, for example, reading 塞 as sat1, or -n and -?, for example, reading 冷 as 懶
*confusing the vowelized consonants m and ?, for example, reading 吳 as 唔

TV and radio programs, including game shows, have been made to promote the proper pronunciation. The campaign has also influenced the local media. Some news reporters and masters of ceremonies in Hong Kong have adopted the "proper" pronunciations.


The "proper" readings promoted by Richard Ho are based on the ''fanqie'' spelling of ''Guangyun'', an ancient rime dictionary reflecting the sounds of Middle Chinese. Ho holds that, Cantonese phonology being the descendant of the ''Guangyun'' system, there are highly regular correspondences between the sounds of Middle Chinese and those of Cantonese. He also holds that the "flat" and "sharp" tonal distinction in Middle Chinese is the most important feature from which Cantonese should not deviate, especially when reciting ancient literature . He allows exceptions in some cases of colloquial speech, but not in any cases in reading ancient literature .

Ho's approach to pronunciation is . For instance, talking about the "wrong" pronunciation of final consonants of the youth, he says:

He expresses his attitude towards sound changes, when talking about the gradual merge of and initials in Cantonese:

A major critic of Ho's approach is Wang Tingzhi , pen name of Tan Xiyong , ''feng shui'' master, astrologist, and Buddhist scripture translator. He calls Ho's prescriptive pronunciations "demonic". One of his concerns is that Cantonese comprises six historical strata, not just the one represented by the ''Guangyun''.

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