Jyutping Pronunciation Guide

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Jyutping Pronunciation Guide

(see also: Cantonese Tones and Jyutping)
Cantonese, like most languages you may learn, has sounds that do not always occur in one’s native tongue.  For this reason, the romanisation (writing the sounds using the English alphabet) has proved to be a challenging problem over the years.As far as I know, there are three romanisation schemes in common usage.  The first two are Yale and Sidney Lau.

Yale uses diactrics (eg á) to represent tones and the letter groupings are arguably easier for English language readers to understand.  It is probably fair to say that Yale is currently the most commonly used scheme.

Sidney Lau uses numbers to show tones, which has the advantage of being easy to type but does require that the numbers be learned.  This scheme is less popular nowadays but many older textbooks will use it.

The other romanisation scheme is LSHK Jyutping (sometimes spelled “jyutpin”), which is newer and is recommended by the Linguistic Society of Hong Kong. Jyutping uses tone numbers and has a few subtle refinements to certain pronunciations that other schemes do not address.  English language students may find some letters confusing at first (eg ‘j’ is pronounced as ‘y’*).  European students may have less difficulty as their native language may well share the same conventions as jyutping.

Because it is newer there are few printed textbooks that use it, although this will hopefully change soon.  This website uses Jyutping throughout so if you are not familiar with the system please look at the guidelines below:

As noted, western students may find jyutping difficult to read at first, because some of the letter groupings are quite different from English.  Here are some examples of ones that tend to cause confusion (words in red may be clicked to hear how they should sound) :

Letters at the start of words

ng – similar to the ‘gn’ in the English “gnaw” eg: ‘ngo‘ (“I” or “me”) sounds very much like “gnaw”.

– a major source of confusion!  “n” will generally be pronounced “L” by most Hong Kong Chinese.  eg: ‘nin’ (year) would be pronounced like the English “lean”.  Try not to stress the “l” sound though, it should be quite soft. The confusion arises because strictly speaking, the “n” pronunciation is correct and will still be understood by many Chinese (as long as you don’t stress the “n” sound too much).  The “L” variation is a relatively new “accent”.
Listen to ‘naam‘ (south) as an example.

j – at the start of the word, this should be pronounced “y”*.  Jyutping itself is pronounced “yoot ping”.  Another example is ‘ji’ (two), which is prononuced “yee”.
Listen to ‘jau‘ (right) as an example.

c – c only appears at the start of a word and is always pronouced “ch”.  So ‘cin’ (1000) and ‘caang’ (orange) would be pronounced “cheen” and “chaang”.  Note it is not a strong “ch” sound, some people write it like “ts” as the emphasis is slightly on a “t” sound.
Listen to ‘cin‘ (front) as an example.

z – this may be treated as a ‘j’ like in the English “jam” but it is more like a cross between a ‘j’ and a ‘z’.
Listen to ‘zung‘ (center) as an example.

Letters occurring within words

– like the ‘oo’ in the English ‘moon’. eg: ‘fung’ (wind) is pronounced ‘foong’.
– like the ‘o’ in the English “won” or “son” or the ‘u’ in “cup”.  eg ‘bak‘ (north) would be pronounced “buck”.
aa – like the ‘ar’ in the English “harm” or “farm”.  eg ‘saan‘ (mountain) would be pronounced “sarn”.
i – like the ‘ee’ in the English “fee” or “see”.  eg: ‘din‘ (electricity) would be pronounced “deen”.

Letters occurring at the end of words

i – as above, eg: ‘si’ (yes) is pronounced like the English “see”.
– as above, it retains its “oo” sound. eg: ‘jyu’ (fish) sounds like the English “you”.
 – like the the English “oar”.  eg: “do” (many) would be pronounced like the English  “door”.
aa – like the ‘ar’ in the English “star”.  eg ‘faa‘ (flower) would be pronounced “far”.
eoi – a soft sound that doesn’t occur in English.  The closest would be the ‘oy’ sound in “boy” but the emphasis is more on a ‘u’ sound than an ‘o’.  This is a common sound in Cantonese, eg ‘seoi‘ (water), ‘heoi’ (go) and ‘keoi‘ (he or she).
au – like the ‘ow’ in the English “how” or “now”. eg: ‘hau‘ (back) is pronounced exactly like the English “how”.
e – like the English “air”. eg: ‘ce‘ (car) is pronounced like the English “chair”.
ei – like the “ay” in the English “hay” or “may”. eg:  ‘dei’ (ground) is pronounced like the English “day”.
ou – like the English “oh”. eg: ‘mou’ is prononuced like the English “mow”.

Tones in Jyutping

Now that you can pronounce Cantonese words from their jyutping romanisation please read Cantonese Tones to understand the 6 tone numbers that jyutping uses.

Related Links :

  • www.lshk.org – the Linguistic Society of Hong Kong’s official jyutping website.

One final note, I have found the standardisation of Cantonese romanisation extremely useful when creating this website.  I input most of the Chinese characters on the site using Jyutping in conjunction with the excellent NJStar software.

This is an ongoing essay, so if you have any suggestions, corrections or advice, please contact me at cantonese@sheik.co.uk

* Incidentally, many European languages pronounce “j” in this way as does the artificial language “Esperanto”.

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