Cantonese is a tonal language that can be broken down into syllables. Each syllable can be a complete word in itself or can be combined with other syllables to create compound words. The same syllable can have a very different meaning based on the tonal inflection used. A classic example is the syllable ‘maa’. When pronounced as maa1, it means i.e. mother (媽). Alternatively, when it is pronounced maa5, it means i.e. horse (馬)!
Jyutping (粵拼), pronounced ‘yoot ping’, is a romanisation system developed in 1993 by the Linguistic Society of Hong Kong, and is one of the most popular romanisation systems to date. It is a representation of Cantonese sounds using the international phonetic alphabet. Jyutping breaks down each syllable into the:
- Initial sound
- Final sound
For example, in maa5, ‘m’ is the initial sound, ‘aa’ is the final sound and the syllable is in the 5th tone.
There are six tones in Jyutping, represented by the number at the end of the syllable:
There are lots of useful online resources covering Jyutping pronunciation in detail. These include clear lists of how the initial sounds, final sounds and tones should be pronounced, with accompanying audio files. Here are some useful links:
Jyutping pronunciation charts
- SLA Talkbank also has excellent pronunciation charts with audio files that are very user-friendly
- 粵拼 Jyutping has a lot of technical detail about pronunciation, including where the sounds should originate from in the nasopharynx and finals charts with audio files
- Cantonese Class 101 has a great overview of Cantonese pronunciation that covers consonants, vowels and tones
- Pleco is an excellent, free online Cantonese-English dictionary that is also downloadable as an app
- Cantonese Sheik is a fantastic collaborative resource for Cantonese that is still available but no longer actively maintained
- Words HK is another free online Cantonese-English dictionary in Chinese (the English version is Canto Words)