Monday, September 29, 2008

Standard Cantonese

Standard Cantonese is the standard of the language. It is spoken natively in and around the cities of Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Macau in China. Standard Cantonese is the de facto official language of Hong Kong and Macau, and a lingua franca of and some neighbouring areas. It is also spoken by many overseas Chinese of Guangdong, Hong Kong or Macau origin in Singapore, Malaysia, Canada, United States, Australia, Europe and elsewhere. Historically, Cantonese was the most common form of Chinese spoken by overseas Chinese communities in the Western world, although that situation has changed with the increasing importance of Mandarin in the Chinese-speaking world as well as immigration to the West from other countries as well as other parts of China.

In popular speech, Standard Cantonese is often known simply as ''Cantonese'', though in academic linguistics the name can also refer to the broader category to which it belongs, . Standard Cantonese is also known popularly as Guangdong speech or as the Canton Prefecture speech . To its speakers in Mainland China, Standard Cantonese is called Plain Speech meaning "vernacular Chinese." Outside of Mainland China, Standard Cantonese is called Guangdong speech.


Like any dialect, the phonology of Standard Cantonese varies among speakers. Unlike Standard Mandarin, there is no official agency to regulate Standard Cantonese. Below is the phonology accepted by most scholars and educators, the one usually heard on TV or radio in formal broadcast like news reports. Common variations are also described.

There are about 630 different extant combinations of syllable onsets and syllable rimes , not counting tones. Some of these, such as and , , are not common any more; some such as and , or and which has traditionally had two equally correct pronunciations are beginning to be pronounced with only one particular way uniformly by its speakers thus making the ''unused'' sounds effectively disappear from the language; while some such as , , , have alternative nonstandard pronunciations which have become mainstream , again making some of the sounds disappear from the everyday use of the language; and yet others such as , , have become popularly believed to be made-up/borrowed words to represent sounds in modern vernacular Cantonese when they have in fact been retaining those sounds before these vernacular usages became popular.

On the other hand, there are new words in Cantonese circulating in Hong Kong which use sounds which never appeared in Cantonese before, such as get1 , the sound is borrowed from the English word ''gag'' to mean the act of amusing others by a joke.


are initial consonants of possible syllables. The following is the inventory for Standard Cantonese as represented in :

Note the contrast and the lack of phonation contrast for . The are grouped with the stops for compactness in displaying the chart.

Some linguists prefer to analyze and as part of to make them analogous to the and s in Standard Mandarin, especially in comparative phonological studies. However, since final-heads only appear with , or , analyzing them as part of the initials greatly reduces the count of finals at the cost of only adding four initials. Some linguists analyze a when a vowel other than , or begins a syllable.

The position of the varies from to , with and more likely to be dental. The position of the , , and are usually alveolar , but can be or , especially before the front high vowels, , or .

Some native speakers cannot distinguish between and , and between and the null initial. Usually they pronounce only and the null initial. See the discussion on phonological shift below.


are the remaining part of the syllable after the initial is taken off. There are two kinds of finals in Cantonese, depending on vowel length. The following chart lists all possible finals in Standard Cantonese as represented in :

:Syllabic nasals:
:?Finals , and only appear in colloquial speech. They are absent from some analyses and romanization schemes.

Based on the chart above, the following central vowels pairs are usually considered to be allophones:
: - , - , - , - , and - .
Although that satisfies the minimal pair requirement, some linguists find it difficult to explain why the coda affects the vowel length. They recognize the following two allophone groups instead:
: - and - - .
In that way, the phoneme set consists of seven long central vowels and three short central vowels that are in contrast with three of the long vowels, as presented in the following chart:

:Syllabic nasals:


Standard Cantonese has nine in six distinct tone contours.

For purposes of in Chinese poetry, the first and fourth tones are the "level tones" , while the rest are the "oblique tones" .

The first tone can be either high level or high falling without affecting the meaning of the words being spoken. Most speakers are in general not consciously aware of when they use and when to use high level and high falling. In Hong Kong, the high level is more usual. In Guangzhou, the high falling tone is more usual.

The numbers "394052786" when pronounced in Cantonese, will give the nine tones in order , thus giving a good mnemonic for remembering the nine tones.

It is interesting to note that there are not actually more tone ''levels'' in Standard Cantonese than in Standard Mandarin , only Cantonese has a more complete set of tone courses.

Cantonese preserves the distinction in Middle Chinese in the manner shown in the chart below.

V− = voiceless initial consonant, V+ = voiced initial consonant. The distinction of consonants found in Middle Chinese was preserved by the distinction of tones in Cantonese. The vowel length further affects the Upper Entering tone.

Cantonese is special in the way that the vowel length can affect both the rhyme and the tone. Some linguists believe that the vowel length feature may have roots in Old Chinese language.

Phonological shifts

Like other languages, Cantonese is constantly undergoing sound changes, processes where more and more native speakers of a language change the pronunciations of certain sounds.

Previous shifts

One shift that affected Cantonese in the past was the loss of distinction between the alveolar and the alveolo-palatal sibilants, which occurred during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This distinction was documented in many Cantonese dictionaries and pronunciation guides published prior to the 1950s but is no longer distinguished in any modern Cantonese dictionary.

Publications that documented this distinction include:
* Williams, S., ''A Tonic Dictionary of the Chinese Language in the Canton Dialect'', 1856.
* Cowles, R., ''A Pocket Dictionary of Cantonese'', 1914.
* , ''The Student's Cantonese-English Dictionary'', 3rd edition, 1947.
* ''Cantonese Primer'', 1947.

The depalatalization of sibilants caused many words that were once distinct to sound the same. For comparison, this distinction is still made in modern Standard Mandarin, with the old alveolo-palatal sibilants in Cantonese corresponding to the sibilants in Mandarin. For instance:

Even though the aforementioned references observed the distinction, most of them also noted that the depalatalization phenomenon was already occurring at the time. Williams writes:

Cowles adds:

A vestige of this palatalization difference is sometimes reflected in the . For instance, many names will be spelled with ''sh'' even though the "''sh'' sound" is no longer used to pronounce the word. Examples include the surname , which is often romanized as ''Shek'', and the names of places like Sha Tin .

After the shift was complete, even though the alveolo-palatal sibilants were no longer distinguished, they still continue to occur in complementary distribution with the alveolar sibilants, making the two groups of sibilants allophones. Thus, most modern Cantonese speakers will pronounce the alveolar sibilants unless the following vowel is , , or , in which case the alveolo-palatal is pronounced. attempts to reflect this phenomenon in its romanization scheme, even though most current Cantonese romanization schemes don't.

The alveolo-palatal sibilants occur in complementary distribution with the retroflex sibilants in Mandarin as well, with the alveolo-palatal sibilants only occurring before , or . However, Mandarin also retains the s, where and can occur, as can be seen in the examples above. Cantonese had lost its medials sometime ago in its history, reducing the ability for speakers to distinguish its sibilant initials.

Current shifts

In modern-day Hong Kong, many younger native speakers are unable to distinguish between certain phoneme pairs and merge one sound into another. Although that is often considered as substandard and is denounced as being "lazy sounds" , it is becoming more common and is influencing other Cantonese-speaking regions.


There are several major romanization schemes for Cantonese: Barnett-Chao, Meyer-Wempe, the Chinese government's Guangdong romanization, and . While they do not differ greatly, Yale is the one most commonly seen in the west today. The Hong Kong linguist Sidney Lau modified the Yale system for his popular Cantonese-as-a-second-language course, so that is another system used today by contemporary Cantonese learners.

Early Western effort

Systematic efforts to develop an alphabetic representation of Cantonese pronunciation began with the arrival of Protestant missionaries in China early in the nineteenth century. Romanization was considered both a tool to help new missionaries learn the dialect more easily and a quick route for the unlettered to achieve gospel literacy. Earlier Catholic missionaries, mostly Portuguese, had developed romanization schemes for the pronunciation current in the court and capitol city of China but made few efforts at romanizing other dialects.

, the first Protestant missionary in China published a "Vocabulary of the Canton Dialect" with a rather unsystematic romanized pronunciation. Elijah Coleman Bridgman and Samuel Wells Williams in their "Chinese Chrestomathy in the Canton Dialect" were the progenitors of a long-lived lineage of related romanizations with minor variations embodied in the works of James Dyer Ball, Ernest John Eitel, and Immanuel Gottlieb Gen?hr . Bridgman and Williams based their system on the phonetic alphabet and diacritics proposed by for South Asian languages. Their romanization system embodied the phonological system in a local dialect rhyme dictionary, the Fenyun cuoyao, which was widely used and easily available at the time and is still available today. Samuel Wells Willams' ''Tonic Dictionary of the Chinese Language in the Canton Dialect'' , is an alphabetic rearrangement, translation and annotation of the Fenyun. In order to adapt the system to the needs of users at a time when there were only local variants and no standard -- although the speech of the western suburbs, xiguan, of Guangzhou was the prestige variety at the time -- Williams suggested that users learn and follow their teacher's pronunciation of his chart of Cantonese syllables. It was apparently Bridgman's innovation to mark the tones with an open circles or an underlined open circle at the four corners of the romanized word in analogy with the traditional Chinese system of marking the tone of a character with a circle . , in his "English and Cantonese pocket-dictionary" simplified the marking of tones using the acute accent to mark "rising" tones and the grave to mark "going" tones and no diacritic for "even" tones and marking upper register tones by italics . "Entering" tones could be distinguished by their consonantal ending. Nicholas Belfeld Dennys used Chalmers romanization in his primer. This method of marking tones was adopted in the Yale romanization . A new romanization was developed in the first decade of the twentieth century which eliminated the diacritics on vowels by distinguishing vowel quality by spelling differences . Diacritics were used only for marking tones. The name of Tipson is associated with this new romanization which still embodied the phonology of the Fenyun to some extent. It is the system used in Meyer-Wempe and Cowles' dictionaries and O'Melia's textbook and many other works in the first half of the twentieth century. It was the standard romanization until the Yale system supplanted it. The distinguished linguist, Y. R. Chao developed a Cantonese adaptation of his Gwoyeu romanization system which he used in his "Cantonese Primer." The front matter to this book contains a review and comparison of a number of the systems mentioned in this paragraph. The GR system was not widely used.

Cantonese research in Hong Kong

An influential work on Cantonese, A Chinese Syllabary Pronounced According to the Dialect of Canton, written by Wong Shik Ling, was published in 1941. He derived an IPA-based transcription system for Cantonese, , with many Chinese dictionaries published later in Hong Kong being based on this transcription system. Although Wong also derived a romanisation scheme, also known as , it is not widely used as his transcription scheme.

The one advocated by the Linguistic Society of Hong Kong is called jyutping, which solves many of the inconsistencies and problems of the older, favored, and more familiar system of Yale Romanization, but departs considerably from it in a number of ways unfamiliar to Yale users. The phonetic values of letters are not quite familiar to whom had studied English. Some effort has been undertaken to promote jyutping, with some official supports, but it is too early to tell how successful it is.

Another popular scheme is Standard Cantonese Pinyin Schemes, which is the only romanization system accepted by Hong Kong Education and Manpower Bureau and Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority. Books and studies for teachers and students in primary and secondary schools usually use this scheme. But there is quite a lot teachers and students using the transcription system of S. L. Wong.

However, learners may feel frustrated that most native Cantonese speakers, no matter how educated they are, really are not familiar with any romanization system. Apparently, there is no motive for local people to learn any of these systems. The romanization systems are not included in the education system either in Hong Kong or in Guangdong province. In practice, Hong Kong people follow a loose unnamed romanisation scheme used by the Hong Kong Government.

Written Cantonese

Cantonese is usually referred to as a spoken dialect, and not as a written dialect. Spoken vernacular Cantonese differs from modern written Chinese, which is essentially formal Standard Mandarin in written form. Written Chinese spoken word for word sounds overly formal and distant in Cantonese. As a result, the necessity of having a written script which matched the spoken form increased over time. This resulted in the creation of additional Chinese characters to complement the existing characters. Many of these represent phonological sounds not present in Mandarin. A good source for well documented Cantonese words can be found in drama and scripts. Written Cantonese is largely incomprehensible to non-Cantonese speakers because written Cantonese is based on spoken Cantonese which is different from Standard Mandarin in grammar and vocabulary.

"Readings in Cantonese colloquial: being selections from books in the Cantonese vernacular with free and literal translations of the Chinese character and romanized spelling" by James Dyer Ball has a bibliography of works available in Cantonese characters in the last decade of the nineteenth century. A few libraries have collections of so-called "wooden fish books" written in Cantonese character. Facsimiles and plot precis of a few of these have been published in Wolfram Eberhard's "Cantonese Ballads." See also "Cantonese love-songs, translated with introduction and notes by Cecil Clementi" or a newer translation of these Yue Ou in "Cantonese love songs : an English translation of Jiu Ji-yung's Cantonese songs of the early 19th century" . Cantonese character versions of the Bible, Pilgrims Progress, and Peep of Day as well as simple catechisms were published by mission presses. The special Cantonese characters used in all these was not standardized and shows wide variation.

With the advent of the computer and standardization of character sets specifically for Cantonese, many printed materials in predominantly Cantonese speaking areas of the world are written to cater to their population with these written Cantonese characters. As a result, mainstream media such as newspapers and magazines have become progressively less conservative and more colloquial in their dissemination of ideas. Generally speaking, some of the older generation of Cantonese speakers regard this trend as a step "backwards" and away from tradition. This tension between the "old" and "new" is a reflection of a transition that is being undergone by the Cantonese speaking population.

is, in essence, written Standard Mandarin. When standard written Chinese is read aloud with Cantonese sound values, the result sounds stilted and unnatural because it is different from normal spoken Cantonese. Written Cantonese is spoken Cantonese written as it is actually spoken. Unusual for a regional Chinese language, Cantonese has a written form, developed over the last few decades in Hong Kong, and includes many unique characters that are not found in . Readers who understand standard written Chinese but do not know Cantonese often find written Cantonese hard to understand or even unintelligible as it is different from standard written Chinese in grammar and vocabulary. However, written Cantonese is commonly used informally among Cantonese speakers. Circumstances where written Cantonese is used include conversations through instant messaging services, letters, notes, entertainment magazines and entertainment sections of newspapers, and sometimes s in Hong Kong movies, and advertisements. It rarely finds its way into the subtitles of Western movies or TV shows, though The Simpsons is a notable exception. Cantonese Opera scripts also use the Cantonese written vernacular.

Historically, written Cantonese has been used in Hong Kong for legal proceedings in order to write down the exact spoken testimony of a witness, instead of paraphrasing spoken Cantonese into standard written Chinese. Newspapers have also done likewise to capture more exact quotes. Its popularity and usage has been rising in the last two decades, the late Wong Jim being one of the pioneers of its use as an effective written language. Written colloquial Cantonese has become quite popular in certain tabloids, online chat rooms, and instant messaging. Some tabloids like Apple Daily write colloquial Cantonese; papers may contain editorials that contain Cantonese; and Cantonese-specific characters can be increasingly seen on advertisements and billboards. Written Cantonese remains limited outside of Hong Kong, even in other Cantonese-speaking areas such as Guangdong, where the use of colloquial writing is discouraged. Despite the relative popularity of written Cantonese in Hong Kong, some disdain it, believing that being too accustomed to write in such a way would affect a person's ability to use standard written Chinese in situations that demand it.

Forms of written Chinese in Hong Kong:

# Standard Written Chinese used in Hong Kong SAR post-WWII Vernacular Reformation.
# Colloquial Written Cantonese - currently used in journals, advertisements, etc. in Hong Kong SAR, overseas Cantonese Chinese communities.
# Classical Cantonese Chinese - a reconstructed Neo-Classical written Chinese forms widely used in 1900s-90s Hong Kong in Cantonese opera lyrics, Cantonese Chinese poetic forms and especially in 80s cantopop.
# Classical Chinese known as - a written Chinese form in poems and writings from the dynastic periods.

For colloquial vernacular usage, written Cantonese incorporates an entire range of characters and particles specific to the Cantonese spoken form. This is commonly used in publicity and journalistic writing in Hong Kong and Hong Kong-influenced regions. It reads exactly as Modern Standard Spoken Cantonese.

For literary and artistic reasons , standard literary Chinese, the classical wenyanwan is used.

Records of legal documents in Hong Kong also use written Cantonese sometimes, in order to record exactly what a witness has said.

Colloquial Cantonese is rarely used in formal forms of writing; formal written communication is almost always in standard written Chinese, albeit still pronounced with Cantonese sound values. However, written colloquial Cantonese does exist; it is used mostly for transcription of speech in tabloids, in some broadsheets, for some subtitles, for personal diaries, and in other informal forms of communication such as Internet bulletin boards or e-mails. It is not uncommon to see the front page of a Cantonese paper written in hanyu, while the entertainment sections are, at least partly, in Cantonese. The vernacular writing system has evolved over time from a process of modifying characters to express lexical and syntactic elements found in Cantonese but not the standard written language. In spite of their vernacular origin and informal use, these characters have become so common in Hong Kong that the Hong Kong Government has incorporated them into a special , as the same as special characters used for proper nouns.

A problem for the student of Cantonese is the lack of a widely accepted, standardized transcription system. Another problem is with Chinese characters: Cantonese uses the same system of characters as standard written Chinese, but it often uses different words, which have to be written with different or new characters. An example of Cantonese using a different word and a different character to write it: the Mandarin word for "to be" is shì and is written as , but in Cantonese the word for "to be" is hai6 and is used in written Cantonese . In standard written Chinese is normally used, though can be found in classical literature and modern legal writing. In Hong Kong, is often used in colloquial written Cantonese and therefore actively avoided and discouraged in formal writing; on the other hand, the use of is relatively widespread in both mainland China and in Taiwan, in government publications and product descriptions, for example.

Many characters used in colloquial Cantonese writings are made up by putting a mouth radical on the left hand side of another more well known character to indicate that the character is read like the right hand side, but it is only used phonetically in the Cantonese context. The characters , , , , , , , , , , , }, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , etc. are commonly used in Cantonese writing.

As not all Cantonese words can be found in current encoding system, or the users simply do not know how to enter such characters on the computer, in very informal speech, Cantonese tends to use extremely simple romanization , symbols , homophones , and Chinese characters of different Mandarin meaning to compose a message.

For example, "" is often written in easier form as "" .

Other common characters are unique to Cantonese or deviated from their Standard Chinese usage; these include: , , , , , , , etc.

The words represented by these characters are sometimes cognates with pre-existing Chinese words. However, their colloquial Cantonese pronunciations have diverged from formal Cantonese pronunciations. For example, in formal written Chinese, is the character used for "without". In spoken Cantonese, has the same usage, meaning, and pronunciation as , differing only by tone. is actually a hollowed out writing of its antonym . represents the spoken Cantonese form of the word "without", while represents the word used in formal Chinese writing . However, is still used in some instances in spoken Chinese in both dialects, like . A Cantonese-specific example is the , which means "to come". is used in formal writing; is the spoken Cantonese form.

Cultural role

China has numerous regional and local varieties of spoken Chinese, many of which are mutually unintelligible; most of these are rarely used or heard outside their native areas, and are not used in education, formal purposes, or in the media. Regional/local dialects in mainland China and Taiwan tend to be used primarily within their local region with other native speakers, with Standard Mandarin being used for official purposes, in the media, and as the language of education. Even though the majority of Cantonese speakers live in mainland China, due to the linguistic history of Hong Kong and Macau, as well as its use in many overseas Chinese communities, the use of Standard Cantonese has spread from Guangdong far out of proportion to its relatively small number of speakers in China.

As the majority of Hong Kong and Macau people and/or their ancestors emigrated from Guangdong before the widespread use of Standard Mandarin, Cantonese became the usual and only spoken variety of Chinese in Hong Kong and Macau. Cantonese is the only Chinese variety to be used in official contexts other than Standard Mandarin, which is the official language of both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China. Also because of its use by non-Mandarin speaking Cantonese speakers overseas, Cantonese is one of the primary forms of Chinese that many Westerners come into contact with.

Along with Mandarin and Taiwanese, Cantonese is also one of the few Chinese spoken varieties which has its own popular music . The prevalence of Hong Kong's popular culture has spurred some Chinese in other regions to learn Cantonese. In Hong Kong, Cantonese is dominant in the domain of popular music, and many artists from Beijing and Taiwan have to learn Cantonese so that they can make Cantonese versions of their recordings especially for distribution in Hong Kong. Some singers including Faye Wong and Eric Moo, and singers from Taiwan, have been trained in Cantonese to add "Hong Kong-ness" to their performances In addition, virtually all Shanghai people can speak Standard Mandarin and use Shanghainese only with other Shanghainese speakers. Therefore, Shanghainese is rarely used outside of the city. This applies to many local varieties of Chinese. Hong Kong people do not speak Standard Mandarin and continue to use Cantonese as the only spoken form of Chinese. However, spurred on by the success of Cantonese, some Wu speakers have begun to promote their mother tongue.


Life in Hong Kong is characterised by the blending of Asian and Western influences, as well as the status of the city as a major international business centre. Influences from this territory are widespread in foreign cultures. As a results, many loanwords are created and exported to , and Singapore. Some of the loanwords are even more popular than their Chinese counterparts. At the same time, some new words created are vividly borrowed by other languages as well.

Cantonese versus Mandarin in Hong Kong and Singapore

The so-called "Battle between Cantonese and Mandarin" started in Hong Kong in the mid-1980s when a large number of non-Cantonese speaking mainland Chinese people started crossing the border into Hong Kong during Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms. At that time, Hong Kong and Macau were still and protectorates respectively, and Mandarin was not often heard in those territories. Today Mandarin is often taught as a second language in those areas, but is not used at all in daily life by anyone except immigrants from the non-Cantonese speaking parts of the mainland. Businesspeople from the mainland and the colonies who did not share a common language shared a mutual dislike and distrust of one another, and in magazines in China in the mid-1980s, they would publish polemics against the other's language - thus Cantonese became known on the mainland as "British Chinese" - and Mandarin became known as "流氓話 Lau Man Waa" - literally "outlaw speech" - in the colonies.

In Singapore the government has had a Speak Mandarin Campaign which seeks to actively promote the use of Standard Mandarin Chinese instead of dialects, such as , , Cantonese , and Hainanese. This was seen as a way of creating greater cohesion among the ethnic Chinese. In addition to positive promotion of Mandarin, the campaign also includes active attempts to dissuade people from using Chinese dialects. Most notably, the use of dialects in local broadcast media is banned, and access to foreign media in dialect is limited.
Some believe that the Singaporean Government has gone too far in its endeavour. Some Taiwanese songs in some Taiwanese entertainment programmes have been singled out and censored. Japanese and Korean drama series are available in their original languages on TV to the viewers, but Hong Kong drama series on non-cable TV channels are always dubbed in Mandarin and broadcast in Singapore without their original Cantonese soundtrack. Some Cantonese speakers in Singapore feel the dubbing causes the series to sound very unnatural and lose much of its flavour.

An offshoot of SMC is the Pinyinisation of certain terms which originated from southern Chinese languages. For instance, dim sum is often known as ''dianxin'' in Singapore's English language media, though this is largely a matter of style, and most Singaporeans will refer to dim sum when speaking English. Another result of SMC is that most young Singaporeans from Cantonese speaking families are unable to understand or speak Cantonese. The situation is very different in nearby Malaysia, where even most non-Cantonese speaking Chinese can understand the dialect to a certain extent through exposure to the language.


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