Chinese Corner

Nine Tones of Hell6 min read

How to be toneful in Cantonese – Rosalyn Shih


Editor’s note: To date, Chinese Corner has almost exclusively focused on Mandarin, the dominant variety of Chinese. It’s time to change that. Rosalyn Shih is here to teach us about Cantonese, the mother tongue of around 62 million people in Hong Kong, southeastern China, and Southeast Asia. The first wave of Chinese immigration to the US in the mid-19th century was predominantly from Cantonese-speaking Guangdong (Canton) Province – Mandarin has only just begun to supplant Cantonese in American Chinatowns. Throughout this post, Rosalyn refers to Cantonese as a language. While many people call it a dialect, it is mutually unintelligible with Mandarin, full of its own regional variety and a great source of pride for its native speakers.

If you are intimidated by the prospect of learning Mandarin because it’s a tonal language, you might as well give up on Cantonese right now. I’ve directed my share of hope-dashing hyperbole towards Mandarin-learning friends, but perhaps the exaggeration is warranted:

“There are tones that the Cantonese use only when they argue.”
“There are some Cantonese tones that only dogs can hear.”

Sinologist Victor Mair once published a blog post on Language Log rather bitterly titled “Is Cantonese a language, or a personification of the devil?

One major source of frustration centers on the number of tones. In an informal and highly unscientific survey also filed by Victor Mair, 12 respondents (mostly native speakers of Cantonese) thought that the number of tones ranged anywhere from five to 11.

One reason why Cantonese can’t seem to agree on the number of tones is because they aren’t emphasized in schools the way that mainland China does for pinyin or Taiwan with zhuyin. Astonishingly, the Jyutping romanization system for Cantonese wasn’t developed by the Linguistic Society of Hong Kong until 1993. To my knowledge it’s mainly used for computer input and teaching non-Cantonese natives. Even then, there are separate textbooks for students who either want to learn how to write Cantonese characters or speak the tones; very rarely are they encouraged to begin with both.

The true number of tones in Cantonese depends on your definition. The four tones of Mandarin are defined by pitch contour – high, rising, low, and falling. In Cantonese, there’s a common saying: gau2 seng1 luk6 diu6調, “nine sounds six tones.” It is said that there are six distinct pitch contours in Cantonese; an additional three are “entering tones” (jap6 seng1聲) that end in one of three short stops:p, –t, and –k. These syllables take less time to pronounce than those ending in -m, -n, -ng, or a vowel. English distinguishes vowel length as well: compare “sigh” and “sight,” or “ship” and “sheep.” Cantonese words that in some romanization systems are numbered seven, eight and nine are identical in pitch contour to tones one, three, and six – just shorter. Jyutping only uses six tones for that reason.

The “nine sounds six tones” saying is widely accepted, but whether you say there are six or nine can sometimes depend on your background, profession, or even pride. Who wouldn’t want to claim to speak a language with more than twice the number of tones than Mandarin?

To outsiders, it seems half a miracle that the native Cantonese have learned to speak properly at all. I spent months puzzled by that miracle when my parents plopped me into Cantonese school for the first time in Grade 2, the fall after we moved to Hong Kong from Toronto in 1996. Maybe they assumed that because they spoke Cantonese to each other in front of their kids, I would pick it up naturally. Nope. I burst into tears in front of the whole class on day one, frustrated and flummoxed by my inability to communicate. I got in trouble for falling asleep in class because I couldn’t understand the teacher.

While English or French speakers can make a guess at pronunciation thanks to romanization, I had no way of knowing how to pronounce the characters in my Chinese textbook unless I memorized what my teacher said out loud. A handheld electronic Longman dictionary complete with speakers and a stylus became my savior. I would trace new characters (assuming I could guess the strokes correctly) into the keypad, and a robotic pronunciation would bleat back at me.

After surviving Cantonese primary school, I switched to an English-speaking international secondary school. Even though I had more or less adapted to speaking Cantonese at home and in class, most local Hong Kongers assumed I went to boarding school abroad.

“So are you back for vacation?” my hairdresser would ask me around Easter time. Cantonese speaking felt like an exclusive club that I was begrudgingly invited to.

While most Hong Kongers I know don’t seem to have learned tones in school, I recently discovered a few exceptions: a theater friend who had enunciation training at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, and more interestingly, my grandmother. She studied at Hong Kong University in the 1940s, and she had taken a Chinese course that taught tones before the Sino-Japanese War broke out. The purpose, she said, was so that they could learn how to compose rhyming couplets according to tone rules. While research shows that tone language speakers have enhanced perception in musical pitch, knowing how to compose classical rhymes seems like a diabolically new level of linguistic superpower.

If it seems nothing short of a Faustian pact is required for outsiders to perfect Cantonese tones, what hope is there for us all? If we take music ability as an example, you don’t have to go through voice training to be able to sing in the shower. The point is, like any skill, there’s a always a wide range of proficiency. Perfect doesn’t need to be the enemy of passable. Perhaps I’ll never speak Cantonese like a native, but I would never give it up – I love it for its wicked humor, devious word play and diabolical tones.

Here’s a quick guide to the six Cantonese tones in Jyutping order:

Diagram of Cantonese tones. The arrows are numbered to represent tones 1-6. Vocal range is marked vertically from lowest (1) to highest (6). (Wikipedia)

Tone 1: High flat. Equivalent to the first tone in Mandarin.

Tone 2: Rising, like you’re asking a question. Equivalent to second tone in Mandarin.

Tone 3: Flat mid-pitch, lower than first tone. Unique to Cantonese.

Tone 4: Low falling. Starts with low tone and drops. Similar to the Mandarin fourth tone.

Tone 5: Low rising. Similar to second tone in Mandarin, but lower.

Tone 6: Low level. Similar to third tone in Mandarin, but lower. ∎

An earlier version of this column originally appeared on the Anthill. Cantonese transliterations are in Jyutping. Header image is by 大崗山吉祥精舍 on Flickr.

Rosalyn Shih

Rosalyn Shih works in education and is co-founder of Beijing Contact Improvisation. She lives in Kunming, is a member of the Hong Kong Writers Circle and has contributed to the anthologies Hong Kong Future Perfect and HK24.