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Tones 聲調

There are 6 different tones in Cantonese. You must rise, maintain or lower the relative pitch of your voice to "sing" each word. For example, in English we naturally use a falling tone at the end of a statement (You came.) and a rising tone at the end of a question (You came?).

To be understood in Cantonese, it is essential that you master the six tones. If you use the wrong tone, you are probably saying a completely different word.

tone chart

       Tone   Pitch Contour   Example
1 1 High Level dzUng1 Chinese
2 2 Low-Mid to High    Rising gon2   speak
3 3 Mid Level ou3 bay
4 4 Low-Mid to Low Falling tsAm4 sink
5 5 Low to Low-Mid Rising mai5 buy
6 6 Low-Mid Level mai6 sell

Click here to hear the six tones!

Tones can be rising, falling or level. In level tones, your voice stays flat at a certain level and maintains the same pitch throughout.

Unlike musical tones, linguistic tones are not set at specific, absolute pitches like do or C flat. Instead, they are relative. If you start your voice high-pitched and keep it high like that during the entire syllable, that's the 1 tone. If you then start your voice at a mid-lower pitch and then rise it to the same higher pitch, that's 2. If you start with a low tone of voice and let it drop a bit, that's 4. And so on.

Instead of numbering the tones from 1 to 6, this website displays user-friendly symbols 123456 to visually represent the tones of Cantonese. Simply rise, drop or maintain your voice according to the relative pitches and contours of the tone lines.

Although English has no tones per se, our intonation naturally rises and falls with the rhythm of various words. Here are some English words whose intonations resemble Cantonese tones.
you2?! (surprised emotion)
yes5... (asking the speaker to carry on)

Tone Number Mnemonics

Because many Cantonese textbooks or dictionaries use tone numbers instead of symbols, it is sometimes useful to convert between the two, e.g. 4 = 4, 6 = 6 . The following mnemonics should help create visual associations between the two systems.

tone mnemonics

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