I am a Cantonese learner and I speak English.
1 What is Jyutping?
Jyutping is a way to spell out Cantonese words using only letters (a-z) and numbers (1-6). If you already speak English (native or not), you only need to remember a handful of symbols to master Cantonese pronunciation.
In English, the same letter could be pronounced in multiple ways. Look at the most extreme case: -ough. This four letters sound totally different in cough, though, through, thought, borough … You get the idea. English spelling is highly irregular or inconsistent.
Jyutping, unlike English, is a system that is designed to be regular. There should only be ONE way to spell out each sound (phoneme is the technical term), and there should only be ONE possible sound for each letter. In other words, Jyutping provides a set of one-to-one mapping rules from Cantonese sounds to latin letters.
This is a system that helps learners master the language. Bear in mind that Cantonese and English are very different languages. Cantonese is not too difficult pronunciation-wise (contrary to what you might have heard elsewhere), but there are things that you need to work on. Fair enough. Jyutping isn’t that hard, but you need to tackle these three things:
- Odd Spelling: Some letters or spelling conventions may look unfamiliar to you.
- Slight deviation: Sometimes the pronunciation seems straightforward, but you need to fine tune it a bit to sound more native-like.
- New sounds: I wouldn’t say everything is easy. There are sounds that are entirely new to you: weird sounds that you have never heard before (at least not exist in English), distinctions that are completely new to your ears.
Don’t worry. You have this guide.
Unlike conventional textbooks, I am not going to give you a long sound correspondence table (you can still find it here if you like). That is counter-productive. I’m going to break down what you need to learn into the above three different types.
When describing the sounds I will provide the IPA (International Phonetics Alphabet) of them. If you don’t know what IPA is, just skip them. All Jyutping spellings are styled in boldfaces. Listen to the sample sounds by clicking the button and try to imitate the sounds.
2 Odd Spelling
Let’s take a look at vowels first. Cantonese spelling for vowels is quite regular so let’s just go through them one-by-one. They definitely goes to the odd spelling category because they don’t correspond to English spelling.
2.1 Vowel aa & a
aa is the long aa sound. The interjection “Aaaaaaaaaaah!” will be “aa” in Cantonese. Without the h.
a is the short a sound, it sounds similar to the vowel in “sub”. Listen to these examples.
|三 saam1||心 sam1|
|山 saan1||身 san1|
|稍 saau2||手 sau2|
2.2 Vowel i
|詩 si1||識 sik1|
|仙 sin1||星 sing1|
|知 zi1||即 zik1|
2.3 Vowel e
2.4 Vowel o
2.5 Vowel u
|夫 fu1||覆 fuk1|
|姑 gu1||工 gung1|
2.6 Consonant j
Why does Jyutping uses j instead of y to represent this sound [j], making it so unintuitive? That is because if we use letter y to stand for [j], there will be no letter left to represent the sound [y]. See vowel yu for description of this sound.
3 Slight deviation
3.1 Voicing and aspiration
Cantonese lacks “voiced plosives”, so these sounds are a bit softer than their English counterparts: b, d, g. Technically b-, d-, g- in Jyutping, are unaspirated sounds (IPAs are [p], [t], [k]), identical to p, t, k in spy, stay and sky. But don’t worry about the details, just think of it as English b, d, g for now. You will definitely be understood.
On the flip side, Cantonese has aspirated plosives: p-, t-, k-, whose IPAs are [pʰ], [tʰ], [kʰ]. They are identical to the initial p, t, k in pea, tea and key. Listen to the examples below:
|巴 baa1||趴 paa1|
|打 daa1||他 taa1|
|家 gaa1||卡 kaa1|
3.2 Unreleased final plosives
|濕 sap1||失 sat1||塞 sak1|
|接 zip3||節 zit3||脊 zek3|
|集 zaap6||活 wut6||六 luk6|
4 New sounds
4.1 Vowel yu
4.2 Vowel eo & oe
oe is the rounded version of e, the IPA is [œ]. Many speakers say it sounds like ir as in bird, or ur as in fur.
eo is the short version of oe, the mouth opens smaller than oe, the IPA is [ɵ]. Listen to these examples.
If you can’t tell the difference between eo and oe, that’s totally fine. Even many native speakers can’t distinguish them. You will still be perfectly understood if you mix these two sounds.
4.3 Consonant z & c
z is like the “z” in “zip” or j” in “joe”, the IPA is t͡s.
c is like the “ch” in “chick”, the aspirated version of z. The IPA is t͡sʰ.
|知 zi1||詞 ci4|
|借 ze3||車 ce1|
|左 zo2||坐 co5|
|炸 zaa3||查 caa4|
4.4 Consonant ng
You might find difficult to pronounce ng-, but don’t worry. Many native speakers fail to pronounce it as well while still can perfectly be understood.
5 The Tones
This will be a completely new territory for you. Cantonese is a tonal language, so the pitch of the word matters. Using the wrong pitch can change the meaning of a word.
First, let’s take a look at all Cantonese tones in a chart:
There are six tones in Cantonese: high level, high rising, mid level, low falling, low rising and mid-low level. Listen to the examples below:
|Tone 1 (High level)||Tone 2 (High rising)||Tone 3 (Mid level)|
|詩 si1||史 si2||試 si3|
|Tone 4 (Low falling)||Tone 5 (Low rising)||Tone 6 (Mid-low level)|
|時 si4||市 si5||事 si6|
Don’t worry if you cannot distinguish all of them. In real life you can still be well understood. To get practice, check out our page of Tone Exercise, where you can get a comprehensive drill of all Cantonese tones.
Another fun yet effective way to practice Cantonese tones is through the Cantonese songs. Check out our Practice Cantonese tones with Cantonese songs for details.
6 All set!
Now you have gone through all the critical parts of Jyutping. For a full reference of the scheme, check out LSHK Jyutping Scheme, our official reference page of Jyutping.
Some tools for learning Jyutping and Cantonese. First comes the dictionary, where you can find the Cantonese pronunciation in Jyutping for almost any Han characters:
For more Cantonese learning resources, please see Cantonese Learning Resources.
A good way to practice Jyutping/Cantonese is to type Cantonese in Jyutping. Since Jyutping is a phonemic transcription of Cantonese, every time you type in Jyutping, you are essentially practicing speaking Cantonese. Check out our Cantonese Keyboard page to get the keyboards.
Appendix: Example annotated text North wind and the sun
有 一 次 ，北 風 同 太 陽 喺 度 拗 緊 邊 個 叻 啲 。佢 哋 啱 啱 睇 到 有 個 人 行 過 ，哩 個 人 着 住 件 大 褸 。佢 哋 就 話 嘞 ，邊 個 可 以 整 到 哩 個 人 除 咗 件 褸 呢 ，就 算 邊 個 叻 啲 嘞 。於 是 ，北 風 就 搏 命 噉 吹 。點 知 ，佢 越 吹 得 犀 利 ，嗰 個 人 就 越 係 揦 實 件 褸 。最 後 ，北 風 冇 晒 符 ，唯 有 放 棄 。跟 住 ，太 陽 出 嚟 曬 咗 一 陣 ，嗰 個 人 就 即 刻 除 咗 件 褸 嘞 。於 是 ，北 風 唯 有 認 輸 啦 。