Learn Cantonese

Pronunciation Guide 發音

On this site, we use a straightforward and consistent system to write Cantonese in the Latin alphabet. Each sound of the Cantonese language is always written with the same distinct letter. All you have to do is remember which sound each letter represents. This Romanization was developed by Sonja Elen Kisa.

We have also included IPA transcriptions for those of you who are familiar with the symbols of the International Phonetic Association.

Cantonese also has 6 tones. See Tones for more information.

Click on any Chinese word with a beige background to hear it pronounced.


Consonants

Cantonese has 20 consonant sounds: p, b, t, d, ts, dz, k, g, kw, gw, f, h, l, m, n, ng, s, y and w.

The first 10 come in pairs.

Aspirated Unaspirated
p as in pill, IPA [ph]        b as in bill, IPA [p]
[hear it] bui1 cup
 
t as in tick, IPA [th]
[hear it] teng1 yAt6 tomorrow
d as in dick, IPA [t]
[hear it] dou6 road
 
ts as in tsetse fly or lots, IPA [tsh]
[hear it] tseng2 please
dz as in Godzilla or red zit IPA [ts]    
[hear it] dzou6 to do
(Unlike English, ts and dz occur at the beginning of words in Cantonese.)
k as in con, IPA [kh] g as in gone, IPA [k]
[hear it] ga1 add
 
kw as in quack, IPA [kwh] gw as in Spanish agua, IPA [kw]
[hear it] gwAi3 expensive
 

The consonants in the first column (p, t, ts, k and kw) are pronounced with a heavy puff of air, called aspiration. This is what distinguishes them from their unaspirated counterparts in the second column (b, d, dz, g, gw). Younger Cantonese-speakers use k and g instead of kw and gw for many words.

The remaining 10 consonants are pronounced more or less the same as in English.

f as in fall, IPA [f]
[hear it] fai3 fast
h as in hit, IPA [h]
[hear it] hAi6 to be
l as in lick, IPA [l]
[hear it] lœng5 two
m as in mom, IPA [m]
[hear it] mai5 to buy
[hear it] yAm2 to drink
n as in noon, IPA [n]
[hear it] na4 here you are
[hear it] dan6 hAi6 but
(For younger speakers, the n sound hardly exists in the beginning of a syllable. They use l instead.)
ng as in long, IPA [ng]    
[hear it] ngo5 I
[hear it] tseng2 please
(Unlike English, this sound can appear in the beginning of a syllable. Younger speakers of Cantonese, however, tend to drop the ng in this position.)
s as in sissy, IPA [s]
[hear it] söü5 water
y as in yet, IPA [j]
[hear it] yAt1 one
w as in wet, IPA [w]
[hear it] wong4 yellow

Clipped Consonants

Syllables ending in p, t and k are pronounced faster, with a much shorter vowel. The consonant is "clipped", almost as if you were cutting your breath suddenly in the middle of the consonant at the end of the word, with no audible release (IPA [p] [t] [k]).

p [hear it] sAp6 ten
t [hear it] yAt1 one
k [hear it] dAk1 adverb particle

Syllabic consonants

In Cantonese, the sounds m and ng can form a syllable of their own. For example, the word for no, m4, sounds just like like mmh.


Vowels

Long Vowels

a a long, open ah as in father or as the a used in French, German or Spanish, IPA [a:]
[hear it] sam1 three
e as in English fed or French è, IPA [E:]
[hear it] tse1 car
i as the ee sound in machine, IPA [i:]
[hear it] yi4 ga1 now
o similar to the English vowel in paw, but a bit more closed, IPA [O:]
[hear it] ngo5 I
œ similar to British English murder, French neuf or German öffnen, IPA [œ:]
[hear it] sœng2 to want to
u an oo sound like in cool, IPA [u:]
ü a rounded ee sound as in French tu or German über, IPA [y:]
(Here's the trick: Carefully place your lips as if to say "oo" but then say "ee", keeping your lips in this puckered position.)
[hear it] dzü6 to live

Short Vowels

A
 
a short, near-open uh, as in English what or come, IPA [A]
[hear it] yAm2 to drink
I as in lick, IPA [I]
[hear it] sIk6 to eat
ö  as in Swedish full, somewhat like British English hurt or French le, IPA [oe]
U as in book, IPA [U]
[hear it] lUk6 six

The short vowels I and U (written with a small capital letter) are variants of i and u that occur before k, g and ng.

Diphthongs

A diphthong is when you glide from one vowel to another within the same syllable.

Long Diphthongs

In the following diphthongs, the first vowel is long and the second is short.

ai  as in wide, IPA [a:i]
[hear it] fai3 fast
au as in loud, IPA [a:u]
eu as in Portuguese céu or Esperanto , IPA [E:u]
iu as in Portuguese ouviu, IPA [i:u]
[hear it] yiu3 to want
oi IPA [O:i]
ui   like the word gooey or the French word nouille, IPA [u:i]
[hear it] bui1 cup

Short Diphthongs

In the following diphthongs, both vowels are short.

Ai a short, near-open uh, as in English what, followed by a short y sound, IPA [Ai]
(as in Canadian English white)
[hear it] hAi6 to be
Au a short, near-open uh, as in English what, followed by a short w sound, IPA [Au]
(as in Canadian English about)
[hear it] yAu5 to have
ei as in day, IPA [ei]
[hear it] nei5 you
ou as in American English low, IPA [ou]
[hear it] hou2 good
öü   somewhat like the diphthong in French œil or Dutch ui, IPA [y]
[hear it] söü5 water

Young or Old Speakers?

The pronunciation on this site is based on the modern colloquial dialect. Older speakers may still retain initial ng- in words like ngo5 (I), where most youth nowadays would simply say o5. Initial n has also disappeared, merging with l. A few speakers may still distinguish between löü5 (travel) and nöü5 (female), but young people generally pronounce both as löü5. A final feature of "proper", older Cantonese is keeping gw and kw in words like gwok3 (country), whereas today gok3 is more commonly heard.

On this website, we always show the "younger" pronunciation first. We then show the "older" pronunciation using a book symbol [standard].

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