Cantonese community wiki

This is an attempt to write Cantonese phonemically making use of the Vietnamese script (quốc ngữ). Notice that we are not trying to follow the Vietnamese orthography, but only trying to make use of the rich vowel diacritics which happen to meet the need of the Cantonese vowel system.


Initials (or onsets) are initial consonants of possible syllables. The following is the inventory for Standard Cantonese as represented in the proposed script followed by IPA:

Labials Coronals Sibilants Palatals Velars Labial-Velars Glottals
Unaspirated Stops b [p] d [t] z [ts]   g [k] gu [kw] ' [ʔ]
Aspirated Stops p [] t [] c [tsʰ]   k [] ku [kʰw]  
Nasals m [m] n [n]     ŋ [ŋ]    
Fricatives f [f]   s [s]       h [h]
Approximants   l [l]   y [j]   w [w]  


Finals (or rimes) 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 IPA according to traditional analysis:

ɑː ɛː ɔː œː
Long Short Long Short Long Short Long Short Long Short Long Short Long Short
-i / -y ɑːi ɐi   ei     ɔːi   uːi     ɵy    
-u ɑːu ɐu     iːu     ou            
-m ɑːm ɐm     iːm                  
-n ɑːn ɐn     iːn   ɔːn   uːn     ɵn yːn  
-ŋ ɑːŋ ɐŋ ɛːŋ     ɪŋ ɔːŋ     ʊŋ œːŋ      
-p ɑːp ɐp     iːp                  
-t ɑːt ɐt     iːn   ɔːt   uːt     ɵt yːt  
-k ɑːk ɐk ɛːk     ɪk ɔːk     ʊk œːk      

Syllabic nasals: [m̩] [ŋ̩]

Although that analysis can reduce the number of vowel phonemes to eight, as all vowels beside [ɑː]-[ɐ] show complementory distribution, it is difficult to explain why the allophones become short vowels. It should also be noticed that the vowel in [ɪŋ] and [ɪk] is actually more open than the English counterpart, much closer to [ɪ]. The vowel in [ʊŋ] and [ʊk] is also closer to [o]. We therefore adopt an alternative point of view, that there are in fact seven long vowels and three short vowels in Standard Cantonese, and there are three constrasting long-short vowel pairs. The following chart list that view along with the proposed script.

a [ɑː] o [ɔː] e [ɛː] i [] u [] ơ [œː] ư []
Long Short Long Short Long Short Long Long Long Long
-[i] / -[y] ai [ɑːi] âi [ɐi] oi [ɔːi] ôi [ɵy]   êi [ei]   ui [uːi]    
-[u] au [ɑːu] âu [ɐu]   ôu [ou]     iu [iːu]      
-[m] am [ɑːm] âm [ɐm]         im [iːm]      
-[n] an [ɑːn] ân [ɐn] on [ɔːn] ôn [ɵn]     in [iːn] un [uːn]   ưn [yːn]
-[ŋ] aŋ [ɑːŋ] âŋ [ɐŋ] oŋ [ɔːŋ] ôŋ [ʊŋ] eŋ [ɛːŋ] êŋ [ɪŋ]     ơŋ [œːŋ]  
-[p] ap [ɑːp] âp [ɐp]         ip [iːp]      
-[t] at [ɑːt] ât [ɐt] ot [ɔːt] ôt [ɵt]     it [iːt] ut [uːt]   ưt [yːt]
-[k] ak [ɑːk] âk [ɐk] ok [ɔːk] ôk [ʊk] ek [ɛːk] êk [ɪk]     ơk [œːk]  

For the syllabic nasals, since we do not have unicode symbols that provide enough tone marks on "m" amd "ŋ", we tenatively use the vowel that is left "ă" to mark the "null vowel". So the syllable nasals are:

[m̩] and ŋă [ŋ̩]


Standard Cantonese has nine tones in six distinct tone contours.

Tone name Yin Ping Yin Shang Yin Qu Yang Ping Yang Shang Yang Qu Shang
Yin Ru
Yin Ru
Yang Ru
Contour 55 / 53 35 33 21 / 11 13 22 55 33 22
Number 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 (1) 8 (3) 9 (6)

Vietnamese script allows six tones, five diactics plus one unmarked tone. The follow table shows their tone names, tone contours and correspondence to the Chinese tone system according to James Campbell [1]:

Tone name ngang (bằng) huyền sắc ngã hỏi nặng
Tone mark a à á ã
Contour 33 31 35 2ʔ5 214ʔ 21ʔ
Chinese tone Yin Ping Yang Ping Yin Qu,
Yin Ru
Yang Shang Yin Shang Yang Qu,
Yang Ru

Obviously, we had to follow to view to merge the three Cantonese ru tones to other tones of the same tone contours to make the system work. We also found following the traditional corresponding to Chinese tones couter-intuitive for certain tones, for example, "á" may not be a good choice for the Cantonese yin qu (33) tone. So we aim at matching tone contours and shape of the diacritics to make them easier to remember. This is our proposal:

Tone number Contour Diacritics Comment
1 55 / 53 ã The contour of the Vietnamese counterpart is totally off, but this diacritic is closest to the most desirable macron: ā
2 35 á Same contour as the Vietnamese counterpart as well as Hanyu Pinyin.
3 33 a Same contour as the Vietnamese counterpart. Also the most heavily used particle ge can be written without tone marks.
4 21 / 11 à Similar contour as the Vietnamese counterpart: low falling.
5 13 Question mark implies rising, resembles rising part of the Vietnamese counterpart.
6 22 Looks like a lower pitch version of the one without tone mark.


Guóŋdỗŋwá (Cantonese), Hỡŋgóŋ (Hong Kong), Guóŋzẫu (Guangzhou)

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