Cantonese Tones

Cantonese, like all other Chinese dialects, is a tonal language. As the name suggests, tonal languages use different tones to distinguish different words.

In this lesson, we will be reviewing all of the tones that are used in Cantonese.

How many tones are there?

In Cantonese, there are six tones that are used:

  1. High level
  2. High rising
  3. Mid level
  4. Low falling
  5. Low rising
  6. Low level

Below is a diagram that shows the different tones and how they relate to each other:

Cantonese tones

In the Jyutping system (Cantonese romanization), each syllable is followed by a number denoting the tone. For example, if you were to see the word gau2 (dog), you would know that the tone used is the high rising tone.

Now, let’s take a look at an example of how different the same syllable can be with different tones:

si1

silk

si2

history

si3

test

si4

time

si5

city; market

si6

yes; to be

As you can see, if you were to use the wrong tone when trying to speak to someone, whatever you were trying to say wouldn’t make any sense. Therefore, it is absolutely essential for you to master all six tones of Cantonese.

How to Practice Cantonese Tones

It’s one thing to be able to recognize the different tones of Cantonese, but they are no use to you if you cannot actually pronounce them correctly. A little bit of practice can go a long way in helping you properly enunciate the different tones.

One of the best ways to practice tones in Cantonese, and even other Chinese dialects, is by using tone pairs. Many words in Cantonese are made up of two or more syllables with differing tones.

Below is a chart that you can use to practice all of the different tone pairs found in Cantonese:

Tones 1 2 3 4 5 6
1

hoi1 sam1

happy

saang1 gwo2

fruit

ni1 go3

this

bo1 lo4

pineapple

syun1 naai5

yogurt

do1 ze6

thank you

2

zou2 caan1

breakfast

zou2 tau2

good night

zau2 dim3

hotel

zou2 san4

good morning

zou2 si5

morning market

caau2 faan6

fried rice

3

gaa3 fe1

coffee

faai3 zi2

chopsticks

fan3 gaau3

sleep

go3 ji4

size

gaam3 laam5

olive

hon3 zi6

Chinese character

4

ning4 mung1

lemon

ping4 gwo2

apple

ngau4 zi3

oregano

ngau4 jau4

butter

ngau4 laai5

cow milk

tou4 syu6

peach tree

5

jyu5 lau1

raincoat

nei5 hou2

hello

mei5 gwok3

America

naai5 caa4

milk tea

taam5 naai5

evaporated milk

ngo5 dei6

we

6

baak6 sik1

white

zeong6 zi2

acorn

laap6 saap3

garbage

hat6 tou4

walnut

sap6 ng5

fifteen

sap6 luk6

sixteen