In this lesson
- Understanding what syllables are
- Dividing Cantonese words into syllables
- Learning components in Cantonese syllables (initials, finals and tones)
- Learning different types of Cantonese syllables
This lesson covers some important concepts about Cantonese pronunciation. We will look at Cantonese syllables and their components. Throughout the lesson, you will be introduced to some terminology. Make sure that you know what the terms refer to as we’re going to use them a lot later in the course.
What are syllables?
Before looking at Cantonese syllables, it would be helpful to have an idea of what syllables are. We can understand what syllable are easily by looking at some examples.
If we cut the word Cantonese into smaller pieces like this: CAN-TON-NESE, we are dividing the word into three syllables. Listen:
Similarly, we can divide the word pronunciation into five syllables: PRON-NUN-CI-A-TION. Listen:
So syllables basically are a unit of sounds and we can divide a word into syllables like the examples above.
Dividing Cantonese Words into Syllables
Now we are going to divide some Cantonese words into syllables like the examples above. The skill in dividing words into syllables is important because, as you will see very soon, we Romanize Cantonese speech syllable by syllable. So let’s do some practice!
Listen to the following Cantonese words. Divide each word into syllables and count how many syllables there are. Then, click “Check the answer” to see the answers.
From this practice, we can observe that a Cantonese word can be made up by one, two, three or even more syllables, as summarized in this table:
|No. of Syllables||Example|
We can also observe that in written Chinese, each syllable is represented by one Chinese character. For example, the word giraffe in Cantonese has three syllables and we will use three Chinese characters (the text at the bottom) to represent the three syllables:長頸鹿←
We Romanize a Cantonese word syllable by syllable like this (the text on the top):長頸鹿
Components in Cantonese syllables
Now that we have an idea of what syllables are, we can look inside the Cantonese syllables.
Syllables are formed by different types of sounds. We can group sounds in a language into two types: vowels and consonants. Basically vowels are the sounds represented by the vowel letters: a, e, i, o and u. Consonants are the sounds represented by other letters, such as p, t, s and n. These two types of sounds are glued next to each other to form a syllable. A syllable usually has a vowel as the center, and consonants appearing before and/or after the vowel.
Cantonese syllables are formed by different combinations of vowels and consonants. Most Cantonese syllables have a beginning consonant and a vowel, as in 樹 (the first syllable below), and sometimes the syllables also have an ending consonant, as in 熊 (the second syllable below):
|Beginning Consonant||Vowel||Beginning Consonant||Vowel||Ending Consonant|
Chinese teachers use special names to label the vowel and consonants in a syllable:
- The beginning consonant in a syllable is called the initial.
- Everything after the initial, including the vowel and sometimes an ending consonant, is called the final.
In addition, a tone is applied to a syllable. A tone is basically a pitch pattern. It can be steady, rising or falling. We will discuss tones in more detail later in this course.
Putting these ideas together, we can see that a Cantonese syllable can be divided into three components, namely initial, final and tone:
|Beginning Consonant||Vowel||Ending Consonant|
Let’s look at the word 西芹 as an example:
|Beginning Consonant||Vowel||Beginning Consonant||Vowel||Ending Consonant|
This word has two syllables. In the first syllable 西, s is the initial and the proceeding vowel ai is the final, and the tone mark ¯ represents the tone. In the second syllable 芹, k is the initial and everything after the initial, including the vowel a and the ending consonant n, is the final, and the tone mark ´ represents the tone.
Different Types of Cantonese Syllables
There are five types of Cantonese syllables, each with a different combination of consonants and vowels, as summarized in the following table:
|2||Beginning Consonant||Vowel||Ending consonant||山|
Types 1 and 2 are the most common types of Cantonese syllables.
Type 1 (Beginning Consonant + Vowel): This type of syllables has a beginning consonant as the initial and only a vowel as the final. For example, in the word 沙, the initial contains the beginning consonant s, and the final contains only the vowel a. Listen:
Type 2 (Beginning Consonant + Vowel + Ending Consonant): This type of syllables has a beginning consonant as the initial and a vowel plus an ending consonant as the final. For example, in the word 山, the initial contains the beginning consonant s, and the final contains the vowel aa plus the ending consonant n. Listen:
The other three types of syllables do not have an initial. Types 3 and 4 are less common, but you will still see them from time to time.
Type 3 (Vowel): This type of syllables has has no initial but only a vowel as the final. For example, in the word 愛, there is no initial, and the final contains only the vowel oi. Listen:
Type 4 (Vowel + Ending Consonant): This type of syllables has no initial but a vowel plus an ending consonant as the final. For example, in the word 鴨, there is no initial, and the final contains the vowel aa plus the ending consonant p. Listen:
Type 5 is really, really rare. But you will hear them quite a lot because two frequently used Cantonese words belong to this type of syllables.
Type 5 (Syllablic Consonant): This type of syllables has no initial and has only a consonant, not any vowels, as the final. A consonant that works as the center of a syllable alone without any vowels is called a syllablic consonant. For example, in the word 五, there is no initial, and the final contains only the syllablic consonant ng. The letter h presents a low tone. We will discuss this in more detail later in this course. Listen:
Throughout the course, there will be “When Cantonese Varies” boxes like the one below. These boxes illustrate pronunciation variation observed among native Cantonese speakers that is related to the topic we are discussing. This time we will look at a situation when an initial is added to syllables which originally do not have any initials.
When Cantonese Varies – Adding an initial to syllables without initials
As we have just seen, Types 3 (Vowel) and 4 (Vowel + Ending Consonant) do not have any initials. When pronouncing these two types of syllables, some speakers will add the initial ng at the beginning. For example, when saying the word 鴨, instead of saying aap3, they will say ngaap3. Listen:
And for the word 愛, instead of saying oi3, they will say ngoi3. Listen:
Similar pronunciation variation is very common in Cantonese. Different native Cantonese speakers pronounce the same syllable or word in different ways, and even the same speaker may pronounce the same syllable or word differently! Throughout this course, we will make you aware of such pronunciation variation so that you are prepared for communicating with different people in the real world.
As you may notice later from our recordings, we sometimes do pronounce the same syllable or word in different ways. And we are intentional not to avoid such pronunciation variation. It is because exposing you to Cantonese with variation, as how Cantonese is actually spoken, prepares you better for real world communication than exposing you only to the so-called dictionary pronunciation.
Now let’s see if you recognize different types of syllables.
Listen to the following syllables. Which syllable type does each of them belong to?
This syllable has the beginning consonant ch as the initial and the vowel a as the final.
This syllable has only the syllabic consonant m as the final.
This syllable doesn’t have an initial but it has only the vowel ai as the final.
This syllable doesn’t have an initial but it has the vowel aa and the ending consonant n as the final.
This syllable has the beginning consonant ch as the initial, and the vowel aa and the ending consonant n as the final.
Before this lesson ends, let’s have a quick challenge!
Listen to the following sentence and count the total number of syllables:
That’s all about syllables. See you in the next lesson!