Mandarin to Cantonese and Back Again (Part 1 - Tones) – Setting a Foundation for Learning Tonal Languages in Asia

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## ไทย ## ## Tiếng Vit
## Who Should Read This
  • Anyone interested in languages J
  • Chinese speakers of one Chinese Language (方言) that would like to learn another
    - (E.g. Cantonese speaker wants to learn Mandarin, Mandarin Speaker wants to learn Cantonese, Hokkien Speaker wants to learn Mandarin etc.)
  • Learners of Chinese that want a better understanding of what’s under the hood of the language that they’re learning
  • Learners / Speakers of Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Burmese etc that would like to understand why things the way they are – e.g. tones, consonant classes, vowel changes etc. Cambodian isn’t a tonal language, but some of the principles do still apply.

Why Cantonese?

I wrote a blog entry about a year ago now about how I approached learning Vietnamese. There have been many comments and emails that have come in since that posting asking for me to go into further detail (as promised in the article) about how I went about memorizing the vocab and getting on top of the grammar and tones. I thought about how I would approach that ‘follow up’ article, and realized how much my ability to grow and affinity with Vietnamese depend on my understanding of the link between Middle Chinese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Thai and other regional languages from China. I love Cantonese for a lot of reasons. It’s a very funky and modern language when it has to be, but at the same time, it preserves many ancient traits from the Tang Dynasty – consonants, vowels, lexicon, tone rules, idioms from the past that are a little more difficult to grasp when using Mandarin as a base. I personally like to think of Cantonese as a dinosaur wearing an Armani suit, shades and a lot’a ‘bling’.

So before I go into how I went about getting on top of Vietnamese vocab, grammar, tones etc, I thought I’d share some of my learnings over the years about the engine that is running beneath the hood in Mandarin, Cantonese, Thai and other 方言 /fang1 yan2/ – regional languages.

Understanding the Tones

Very often when I hear people comparing ‘difficulty levels’ of learning tonal languages like Thai, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese etc, I hear lines like:

***“Cantonese has nine tones where Mandarin only has five – that means Cantonese is more difficult”. …. In my humble opinion… that’s just RUBBISH.

The number of tones in a language doesn’t make it any more difficult than another if you learn it in a natural way where you can experience the rhythms and pitches of the language. Tones just become a natural part of using the language.

Moreover, whether it’s Mandarin, Vietnamese or Thai, I will always try and map the tones where possible in reference to the base tone system of the 9 tones in Cantonese.

Writing the Tones in Text

From now on when I refer to tones and pitch changes, I’ll use the standard of 1 to 5.

  • 1 is the lowest note you can possibly make in your vocal range
  • 5 is the highest note you can make in your vocal range

So if I was to write a pitch change that went from very high to very low, I would write 51.

If I was to write a pitch change that started very high, went very low, then came back up to around the mid range of my voice, I would write 513.

Yin and Yang 陰陽

When people first start learning Mandarin, along with spending the first few weeks or so getting their Pin Yin consonant and vowel sounds right, a lot of time is usually spent on getting the 5 tones down (4 tones + neutral tone).

You’ll probably learn the names of the tones around that time too.

**Tone Number** **Tone Name (Chinese)** **Tone Name (English)** **Pitch Contour**
**1** 陰平 (阴平) yin1 ping2 High Tone 55
**2** 陽平 (阳平) yang2 ping2 High Rising 35
**3** 上聲 (上声) shang4 sheng1 Low Dipping 214
**4** 去聲 (去声) qu4 sheng1 High Falling 51
**5** 輕聲 (轻声) qing1 sheng1 Neutral (light) Varies depending on preceding tone
People might be curious as to where the Yin and the Yang come from? This curiosity is quickly surpassed by the student’s need to master what they sound like rather than pontificate on where the origin of the tone’s name came from.

I find the whole Yin and Yang element of it fascinating though, and it is very useful in understanding the tonal and sound structures in other related languages.

To start with, stare at the following picture for a few minutes and turn it into a Mind Map in your own mind.


**Chinese** **PinYin** **Meaning**
**陰** yin1 ‘Yin’ – feminine side
**陽** yang2 ‘Yang’ – masculine side
**中** zhong1 Centre /Middle
**上** shang4 Ascend
**平** ping2 Level
**去** qu4 Depart
**入** ru4 Enter
### Explanation

I’ll explain this in relation to Cantonese.

  • The tones are separated into Yin tones and Yang tones.
  • The Yin tones (female) are higher in pitch – memory point – ‘Woman is on top – voice is higher pitched than the guy’s’.
  • The Yang tones (male) are in the lower register of the voice. Memory point – guy has the deeper voice.
  • The Entering tone is sometimes called ‘clipped’ – it’s the tone for syllables that end in p’ t’ or k’, where the vowel is killed by the final consonant. In Thai we call these คำตาย ‘kham tai’ – dead words. There are no ‘clipped’ syllables in Mandarin.

You’re going to see in a minute that the ‘Level’ and ‘Departing’ tones in Cantonese sometimes don’t actually just stay level or fall as the departing tone does in Mandarin. Don’t let this confuse you. If you trace these back over the centuries, they morph all over the place from time to time and region to region. The system remains the same though. The main point I would like to get across here is the SYSTEM rather than its rendering in just one language. The reason I’m using Cantonese as a base is because it still preserves all the tones. I’m sure that there are going to be many Cantonese speakers reading this too, so this will help understand how to map Cantonese tones across to Mandarin too.

When I learn words in Chinese, I try to subconsciously (initially consciously) file it away based on the picture above. I’ll tag in my mind whether it’s a 上 平 去 or 入 type tone, and I’ll also shade it in my mind with the Yin or the Yang sign. This is unbelievably helpful later on if you’re looking at learning more Chinese languages …. and consequently Vietnamese too. Even if the new languages have words that have changed their tone categories, I find making a point that certain words have changed tone categories serves as an extra memory enforcer.

Cantonese Rendering of the Yin Yang Tone System

Note that the 陰平 (Yin Ping) tone in Cantonese can be a level high tone, or could be a high falling tone. In Cantonese, these two in most cases are interchangeable – some words would be more commonly heard with one rather than the other. This is one thing that can sometimes help tell whether a Cantonese speaker is from the Mainland or from Hong Kong.

What about the Entering Tones? (入聲)

In Cantonese you can see that they fit nicely into the existing tone pitch contours. Note that in Cantonese, all the entering tones 入聲 are constant pitch tones – High, Middle and Low. In other words, whenever there is a word that ends in a clipped p, t or k in Cantonese, the tone will only ever be a steady High, Middle or Low tone.

Mapping the tones to Mandarin

So you’re probably wondering now whether there is a correlation with the tones of words in Cantonese and Mandarin. The answer is YES. There’s a bit of fuzzy logic sometimes. Over time and geography, the tone category has shifted for many words and many words fall into 2 and sometimes more categories. What this does mean however is that for Mandarin speaking learners of Cantonese, or Cantonese speaking learners of Mandarin, the following relationships will help you turn your Canto-Mandarin into more standard Mandarin, or your flat Cantonese turn into more natural sounding Cantonese.

From Cantonese to Mandarin

Please note that this table isn’t 100% accurate, but it’s a great framework to start with.

**Traditional Tone Category** **Cantonese Pitch Contour** **Mandarin Tone Category** **Mandarin Tone Number ** **Mandarin Pitch Contour**
**平** 陰平 55 / 53 陰平









陽平 11 陽平 2 35
**上** 陰上 35 上聲 3 214
陽上 13
**去** 陰去 33 去聲 4 51
陽去 22
**入** 陰入 55 As there are no entering tones in Mandarin, the tone category may vary. For Mandarin speakers, a hit for reverse engineering the tones – very often syllables with ‘tight throat’ vowels like ‘e’ for example 得 are often clipped syllables (entering tones) in Cantonese – so 得 ‘de’ à ‘dak’.

On another interesting note, characters that have an entering tone in Cantonese are often realized in Japanese 音読み(onyomi) with two or more syllables, and in Korean as clipped syllables.

中入 33
陽入 11
## How can this table be used?

Admittedly, this table is probably a lot more useful to Cantonese speakers that are learning Mandarin than Mandarin speakers that are learning Cantonese. The reason being is that you are going from a manyà one relationship from Cantonese to Mandarin, where as Mandarin à Cantonese is a One à Many, compounded by the fact that there are also entering tones. As you start going through the dictionary though, you start seeing patterns emerge.

  • 花 – flower

  • In Cantonese, this is a 陰平 tone pronounced ‘fa’. This converts to a 1st tone in Mandarin ‘hua’. (Note f -> hu. The changes from ‘f’ between Cantonese and Mandarin are normally – f -> f (e.g. 飯), f -> hu (e.g. 花) or f ->’ku’ (e.g. 快) )

  • 人 – person.
    - In Cantonese, it’s ‘yan’ – yang ping 陽平 tone. You could make a pretty confident bet that it would be a 2nd tone in Mandarin. Note the y -> r change. There are many
  • 好 – good.
    - I know that it’s a 上 (ascending) category tone, so it is probably going to be the same in Mandarin – i.e. 3rd tone in Mandarin.
  • – is
    - In Cantonese, this isn’t the common word for is – but a Cantonese speaker would still know the word. In Cantonese, it is a 去 tone, so that means that it would be a 4th tone in Mandarin.

I am the first to admit that there are many many many more variables than what’s shown in the above tables that we need to take into consideration before we can start to feel confident with applying rules to morph Cantonese into Mandarin or Vice Versa. What I’ve provided here is a fundamental first building block.

Other variables include:

**Consonant Changes

Some of these have been mentioned above. Some of the common ones are:

**Cantonese** **Mandarin**
**f** f



**s** s


**dz** j



**h** s


**Vowel Changes **

Some common vowel changes are:

**Cantonese** **Mandarin**
**ou **


**好 =’hou’)





都= ‘dou’ or ‘du’

**ik **


**識 = ‘sik’,

**知 = ‘dzi’)

i (after s, z, zhi etc

**識 = **‘shi’

知 = ‘zhi’)

**dz (see above ‘ 知’) ** j




**香 = ‘heuang’

**好 – ‘hou’



香 = ‘xiang’

好 – ‘hao’


**你 = ‘n/lei’


你 = ‘ni’


**愛 = (ng)oi


爱 = ‘ai’


**係 – ‘hai’


係 = ‘xi’

Note, when doing these kinds of conversions, it’s often not enough just to separate initial consonants, vowels and finals. It’s a combination of them all. For example – I mentioned that sometimes ‘h’ in Cantonese could turn into an ‘x’ or remain as an ‘h’ – 香 vs. 好. Because ‘heuang’ 香 in Cantonese has a palatalised kind of vowel, it’s not that much of a jump to ‘x’ in Mandarin, so my guess would be that it would be an ‘x’. Something like 好 ‘hou’ however has the vowel set far back – I also know that ‘ou’ often turns to ‘ao’ and in Mandarin there’s no such syllable as ‘xao’, so I would take a pretty good guess that 好 would be pronounced something like ‘hu’, ‘hou’ or ‘hao’ in Mandarin. It sounds very hit and miss, but what I’ve found when learning different regional dialects / languages, is that after a while, you start to build your guestimate accuracy up. In any case, it’s a great exercise for your brain!

**Bysyllabic versus Monosyllabic

In Mandarin, a word feels kind of ‘naked’ if it’s said with just one syllable. In Classical Chinese and Cantonese, it’s very common just to use one syllable words.

Examples would be (Taken From Zeng ZiFan’s book)

**Cantonese** **Mandarin**
**裤** 裤子
**同** 相同
**易** 容易
**盘** 盘子
**知** 知道
**面** 面条
**眼** 眼睛
**Different Characters for Same Common Meanings in Standard Spoken Language **
**Cantonese** **Mandarin**
**識 (to know) ** 知道
**食 (to eat) **
**乜野 (what?) ** 什么
**咁 (how / then / so ..) ** 那么, 怎么, 这么
**講 (to speak) **
**都 (also) **
**係 (is) **
**唔 (no, not) **
**Reversed Word Order **

In Mandarin, you would say


Wo3 gei3(2) ni3 qian2

or more commonly


I – (particle denoting object) – give – you

In Cantonese, you would say

(updated 5 Oct 2008 – Thanks to Cantonese Guru Cecilie Gamst Berg!)


(ng)oh bei chin (n)lei

I – give – money – you

Actually, in Mandarin, you could make a structure similar to the Cantonese structure, but you’d need to through a 把 in before the 錢 ‘money’ – 我把钱给你.

**Loan Words / Transliterations

Cantonese has many more transliterations that we find in Mandarin from the mainland. In Mandarin, it’s usually standard practice to invent a brand new word rather than use a transliteration based on the pronunciation of the original word in English or other source language. The following examples are a mixture of both types. There’s also a difference between many terms used in Taiwan and the mainland.

**English** **Cantonese** **Mandarin**
**Taxi** 的士 出租车
**Sofa** 梳花 沙發
**Guitar** 結他 吉他
**Brandy** 拔蘭地 白蘭地
**Sydney** 雪梨 悉尼
Even more variables include idioms, standard grammatical structures – e.g. the use of the verbs ‘to be’ , ‘to have’, ‘to be able to’ etc, words that exist in Cantonese but not at all in Mandarin, use of measure words, repetition of words, adverbs, suffixes and more. For a great rundown on all of these, I can’t recommend enough the book by Zeng Zifan “Colloquial Cantonese and Putonghua Equivalents”. I’ve had my copy for around 13 years now – the pages are torn, yellowing and crumbling, but it still serves as a great reference between the languages. The examples used from both Cantonese and Mandarin are second to none also, as it’s focusing on colloquial language – not book language.

In future posts, I’ll show how this foundation serves me well in my endeavor to learn Vietnamese and understand other regional languages / dialects.

Cantonese Lessons on Youtube by Cecilie Gamst Berg

I thought that I would include a link here to Cecile’s latest production efforts. For those of you who haven’t heard her Naked Cantonese podcasts – downloadable free from iTunes, Cecilie is now producing learn cantonese video clips currently available on Youtube. You can link to them here.

Cecilie is a Norwegian lady who has lived in Hong Kong for many many moons and speaks (and teaches) fantastic Cantonese. Her sense of humour is amazing and after meeting her in person on a few occasions, I can confirm that she is the real deal!

反切 Fan3 Qie4 and 切韵 Qie4 Yun4

This topic also leads into the wonderful and fascinating world of ‘Qie4 yun4’ – 切韵 and ‘Fan3 Qie4’ – 反切. Back around 601 A.D. Lu FaYan and a bunch of his scholarly mates were having a little get together and heated discussions broke out as to how certain words should be pronounced. Each had his own regional accent. This set Lu FaYan on a labour of love to map out the sound structure of his language at that time through Rhyme. Words were split up into ‘initials’ and ‘finals’ that incorporated the tone. The formula is
(Initial + Tone 1) + (Rhyme + Tone 2) = Pronunciation of the Target Character.

The following is taken from the Wikipedia page on Fanqie:

In Middle Chinese, the tone was represented by the rhyme character. However, owing to sound changes that have occurred since then, a more complicated rule is used today (see tone name for background information):

  1. The yin-yang (陰陽) classification, which arose in some tones due to voicing distinctions in the onset, is determined by the onset character.
  2. The ping-shang-qu-ru (平上去入) classification, which is kept from Middle Chinese, is determined by the rhyme character.


(Onset & Tone-1) + (Rhyme & Tone-2) = (Pronunciation of Character)
For example, the character 東 is represented by 德紅切. The third character 切 indicates that this is a fanqie spelling, while the first two characters indicate the onset and rhyme respectively. Thus the pronunciation of 東 is given as the onset of 德 dé (d) with the rhyme of 紅 hóng (ong), yielding dong. Also, 德 has a yin ru tone and 紅 has a yang ping tone. (In Modern Mandarin, 德 has a yang ping tone, but tonal developments in Mandarin are somewhat complex and therefore yield irregular results.) So the tone of 東 is yin ping.

Gari Ledyard has given this informative example of how an English equivalent to fanqie might look:

To show the pronunciation of an unknown character, one “cut” the initial consonant from a second character and the rhyme from a third, and combined them to show the reading of the first. To use an English example, one could indicate the pronunciation of the word sough by “cutting” sun and now (= sow), or “cut” sun and cuff (= suff) to show the alternate pronunciation. This method was a bit circular in that it required knowledge of the pronunciations of the characters that were “cut,” but it proved to be a workable system and lasted well into the twentieth century.
This was the system used for hundreds of years before HanYu PinYin or any of the other modern systems like Wade Giles or 注音 to denote pronunciation of Chinese Characters.

Language is More Than Just Mechanical Buttons and Dials!

This blog entry looks a lot at just the ‘mechanical’ details of language change. Once this is mastered, it doesn’t mean that you can speak the target language in an intelligible manner. The culture, history, psychology or ‘software’ behind the speakers of the language is a whole new world in itself. Getting the ‘sound’ of the language right is the first step that I take to let me get a peek into the hearts of the people that speak it.

Books Books Books

I try to paint my understanding of the languages in this part of the world based on learnings from all over the region. While I’ve found that trying to find books that that go into detail about the history and linguistics of Thai in Thailand is a futile mission, finding research texts on the topic by Chinese linguists bears much more fruit. The following are a few texts that have helped me pad out my understanding:


Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development – Kam-Tai Institute Central University. (1996). Language and Cultures of the Kam-Tai (Zhuang Dong) Group: A Word List (English Thai Version). Bangkok: Mahidol University.

Ramsey, S. (1987). The Languages of China. New Jersey: Princeton.

ZiFan)(Zeng曾子凡. (2002). 广州话普通话语词对比研究. Hong Kong: 香港普通话研习社出版.

ZiFan, Z. (1993). Colloquial Cantonese and Putonghua Equivalents. Hong Kong: Joint Publishing (H.K.) Co., Ltd.

主國藩何文匯. (2005). 粵音正讀字彙 (_jyt ‘jam ~dzing _duk _dzi _wai). Hong Kong: 香港教育圖書公司.

刘叔新. (2006). 粤语壮傣语问题 (Yueyu ZhuangDaiYu WenTi). Beijing: 商务印书馆.

吴伟雄陈伯辉. (2004). 生活粤语本子趣谈. Hong Kong: 中华书局.

庄初升. (2004). 粤北图话音韵研究 (Yuebei Tuhua Yinyun Yanjiu). Beijing: 中国社会科学.

曾晓渝. (2004). 汉语水域关系论. 北京: 商务印书馆.

李如龙. (2001). 汉语方言的比较研究. Beijing: 商务印书馆.

欧阳觉亚. (1993). 普通话广州话的比较与学习. Beijing: 中国社会科学出版社.



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Written by

Stuart Jay Raj