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Cantonese and Pinyin Pronounciation Guide
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Brief Introduction to Cantonese Pronunciation

  In pronouncing a syllable in Cantonese, three elements must be taken into account, namely, an initial, a final, and a tone. The initial includes whatever is before the main vowel, the final includes the main vowel and whatever follows it and the tone is the voice pitch of the syllable. For the syllable ngak, the initial is ng, the finial is ak and the tone is high-rising.
Initials - An initial is the starting-off sound of a word.
  Of the nineteen initials in Cantonese, ch, p, t, ck, and kw are aspirated while b, d, g, gw, and j are unaspirated. The aspirated ch is articulated between the English ch and ts. Two terms may need explanation: aspirated and unaspirated. Aspirated consonants are pronounced with a puff of air, as in the English p in pan and lip. In some cases, such as, in English, after s (span, spill), the same consonants lose the puff of air and are unaspirated. At the end of a word they may not even be completed: the lips close to form the sound but do not open again to make the sound explode. Such sounds are termed unaspirated.
 
Aspirated stops: Non-aspirated stops:
P T
CH
B
G
GW
K
KW
D
J
Nasals: Fricative and Continuants:
M N
F
H
NG
L
S
Semi-Vowels
Y W  
 

Finals

A finial is the concluding sound of a word and there are fifty-one of these. The main vowel is the key part of the Cantonese final. The vowels may be either long or short and this affects the pronunciation. The vowels in the underlined finals are shorter. The endings are P T K are pronounced without any burst of air (unreleased).
  Finals starting with "A"
A AAI AAU AAM AAN AANG AAP AAT AAK
  AI AU AM AN ANG AP AT AK
 
Finals starting with "E"
E ENG EK EU EUNG EUK
EI EUI EUN EUT    
 
Finals starting with "I"
I IK IM IN IP IT IU
ING
 
Finals starting with "O"
O OI OK ON OT ONG
OU
 
Finals starting with "U"
U UN UT UI
UK UNG
 
Finals starting with "Y"
YU YUN
 

Tones

In pronouncing Cantonese, be aware of the importance of tones in conveying meaning. Basically, there are seven tones which, in the Yale system, are represented by the use of diacritics and by the insertion of h for the three low tones.
 
The following chart illustrates the seven tones:
 
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
High
Falling
High
Rising
Mid
Level
High
Level
Low
Falling
Low
Rising
Low
Level
Chng Bai Cháng Báai Chang Baai Chng Bai Chhng Baih Chhng Baih Chahng Baaih
 
Below is a chart describing the relative differences between the seven tones:

 

The sound system of Cantonese

Note that the Yale system is not the only system generally found in official transliterations of personal and place names, where there has been little standardization over the centuries.
 
Below is a list of various sounds of Cantonese, as they are transcribed in the Yale system.
 

Consonants

Yale Description of sound
b resembles the (unaspirated) 'p' in 'span', 'spill'; to an unaccustomed ear, an initial unaspirated p can often sound like 'b' in 'bill'.
d resembles the (unaspirated) 't' in 'stand', 'still'.
g resembles the 'qu' in 'squad', 'square'. There is some evidence that this sound is becoming simplified over time, and words transcribed with gw may actually be heard, in the speech of some native-speakers, as beginning with g.
j an unaspirated sound something between 'ts' in 'cats' and 'tch' in 'catch'.
p in initial positions the (aspirated) 'p' in 'pat', 'pin'; in final position, that is, at the end of the syllable, 'p' in unreleased.
t in initial positions the (aspirated) 't' in 'top', 'tin'; in the final position, the 't' is unreleased.
k in initial position resembles the 'k' in 'kick', 'kill'; in the finial position, 'k' is unreleased.
kw A strongly aspirated plosive, resembles 'qu' in 'quick', 'quill'.
ch resembles the (aspitated) 'ch' in 'cheese', 'chill'.
f resembles the 'f' in 'fan', 'scarf'.
s resembles the 's' in 'sing', 'sit'.
h (only in initial positions in the syllable) resembles the 'h' in 'how', 'hand'. (after a vowel, 'h' is used to denote one of the low tones.)
l resembles the 'l' in 'like', 'love'.
m resembles the 'm' in 'man', 'stem'.
n resembles the 'n' in 'now', 'nice'. There is a widespread tendency, particularly amongst the younger generation of Cantonese speakers, to replace an initial n by l, and there is consequently some variation in pronunciation: many words, which are transcribed with an initial letter n in this book may be heard beginning with l. For instance, nih 'you', may be heard as lih.
ng resembles the southern English pronunciation of 'ng' as in 'sing' (that is, without pronouncing the 'g' separately). This sound occurs only after vowels in English, but in Cantonese it can also occur at the beginning of syllables. However, many native speakers do not pronounce this sound initially. And, just as in English, a final -ng, particularly after the long vowel aa, is often replaced by -n, although this variation does not have the social connotation it has in English (i.e. runnin' and jumpin').
y resembles the 'y' in 'yes', 'yellow'.
w resembles the 'w' in 'wish', 'will'.
 

Vowels

 
Yale Description of sound
a resembles the 'u' in the southern English pronunciation of 'but'.
aa resembles the southern English 'a' in 'father'. When this sound is not followed by a consonant in the same syllable, the second a of the aa is omitted in writing: fa is pronounced as if it were 'faa'.
e resembles the 'e' of 'ten'.
eu resembles the French 'eu' as is 'feu', or the German 'o' as in 'schon'. It is pronounced like the 'e' of 'ten', but with rounded lips.
i resembles the 'ee' of 'deep'.
o resembles the 'aw' in 'saw'.
u resemebles the 'u' in the southern English 'put'.
yu resembles the French 'u' as in 'tu', or the German 'u' as in 'Tur'. It is pronounced like the 'ee' of 'deep', but with the lips rounded instead of spread.
 

Diphthongs

 
Yale Description of sound
ai a + i, a combination of 'a' plus 'I', a very short diphthong, much shorter than the sound of 'y' in 'my'.
aai a + i, resembling the 'ie' in 'lie'.
au a + u, resembling the 'ou' in 'out'.
aau aa + u, resembling a long 'ou' in 'ouch!'
eui eu + i, a combination of 'eu' plus 'i', something like the hesitation form 'er' in English (without the 'r' sound) followed by 'ee': 'e(r)-ee'.
iu i + u, a combination of 'i' plus 'u', something like 'yew' in English.
oi o + i, resembling the 'oy' in 'boy'.
ou o + u, resembling the 'oe' in 'foe'.
ui u + i, resembling the 'ooey' in 'phooey'.
 

Brief Introduction to Chinese Pronunciation in Pinyin

Over the centuries several Romanization systems have and are applied to the Mandarin Chinese Language, which is now the standard for the whole country. The most popular current system is the Pinyin Romanization and to date it has provided one of the most conductive to the learning of Chinese Pronunciation. It has been the United Nations standard since 1977 and is the ISO standard since 1982.

A syllable in Pinyin consists of three elements (1) an initial or the beginning sound, (2) a final, the ending of a syllable, (3) a tone which characterizes the whole syllable (much like the above Cantonese).

 

Initials

Of the twenty-one initials in Mandarin, b, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, s, and t sound the same as the letters pronounced in English. The letters c, q, x and z are pronounced in a modified manner compared to English. The letters r, ch, sh, and zh do not have an English equivelent.
 
Pinyin Description of sound
b as in book
d as in dad
f as in fork
g as in good
h as in horse
j as in jeep
k as in kite
l as in look
mas in moon
n as in noon
p as in paper
s as in see
t as in tea
 
Pinyin Description of sound
c like ts in its
q like ch in chip
x like sh in sheep
z like ds in hands
 
Pinyin Description of sound
r like r in rule when it is before u or -ong; otherwise, it sounds like the s in pleasure
ch like ts in its, but with the tongue retracted (the tip of the tongue is turned up and back to touch the roof of the mouth
sh like s in see, but with the tongue retracted
zh like ds in hands, but with the tongue retracted
 

Finals

A finial is the concluding sound of a word and there are thirty-six of these. The main vowel is the key part of the Cantonese final. The vowels may be either long or short and this affects the pronunciation. Some words end in only one vowel (simple finals), some end in two or three vowels, and some end in nasal sounds like -n or -ng (compound finals).
 
Simple Finals
      There are six of these:
Pinyin Description of sound
a as in father, with the mouth open
o like aw in saw
e like u in cup but after y like the e in yes
i like in ski, except after c, ch, r, s, sh, z, zh, when it is like
u like the u in super, except after j, q, x, y, when it is like
sound made with tongue in position of i (ski) with lips rounded
 
 
Compound Finals
      There are twenty-one of these:
 
Pinyin Description of sound
ai as in aisle or the I in bike
an like the a in father plus the n in in
ang like the a in father plus the ng in long
ao like the ow in now
ou like the o in home
ong like the aw in saw plus ng in long
ei as in eight
en like the un in under
eng like the ung in lung
er as in term
ia like the ya in yacht
ie like the e in yet
iao start with the ee in see and end with ow in now
in as in tin
ing as in sing
ian like yen
ua like the u in put plus the a in father
uo like the u in put plus the aw in saw
uai like why
un like the u in put plus the n in fun
n start with the tongue in position of i (inn) with lips rounded and end in -n
please note that due to font limitations, throughout this website we make use of the two dots as an indication of high, level tone.
 

Tones

In pronouncing Mandarin, be aware of the importance of tones in conveying meaning. Basically, there are four tones which, in the Pinyin system, are represented by the use of diacritics.
 
The following chart illustrates the four tones:
 
1st Tone 2nd Tone 3rd Tone 4th Tone
High Level Mid Rising Low Falling High Falling
M M M M
D D D D
 
Below is a chart describing the relative differences between the four tones:

 
- please note that in most Pinyin writing utilizing diacritics this tone is noted with a small bar across the vowel. We are limited in character selection and are forced to use two dots to represent the bar. Any vowel with two dots on top should be read as high, level tone.
- please note that in most Pinyin writing utilizing diacritics, this tone looks like a small v on top of the vowel. We are limited in character selection and are forced to use an upside down v with our fonts.
 
Important Rules for Spelling and Pronunciation
1) In writing, w is used for a word whose sound begins with the vowel u; y is used for i or .
2) The dots above the are dropped when it is preceded by j, q, x, or y.
3) In writing, iu is a short form for iou, and ui for uei.
4) In writing, the tone marks are on the main vowel, the one pronounced the loudest and with the mouth open widest.
5) In a sentence or phrase, some words do not carry their tone marks because they are unstressed in that group of words.
6) When two third tones are in succession, the first one changes into a rising tone, the second tone.

 
 
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