Wednesday, April 8, 2009

More about Cantonese

We usually refer to the languages spoken in China around the隋, 唐,宋 periods (between 6th and 10th AD) as Middle Chinese (中古漢語). Some modern Chinese dialects still have certain characteristics that are closer to the older pronunciations of Middle Chinese than others. Reading rhyme-based classical literature (文言), especially poetry, in these dialects seems more coherent to the original reading must have been. Such dialects include Cantonese, Southern Min 閩南, and the Wen Zhou 溫州dialect. These southern dialects retain more of the original tones. Not all, but more.

Cantonese has nine tones, Mandarin has four, and the old Middle Chinese (中古漢語) has eight. Cantonese preserves many Middle Chinese’s syllable sounds that Mandarin has lost or merged. For example, the characters 裔, 屹, 藝, 憶, 譯, 懿, 誼, 肄, 翳, 邑, and 佚 are all pronounced "yi" in Mandarin, but they are all different in Cantonese. And the character 學 is another example of what was lost in Mandarin. In Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese, it is “hohk”, "hók", "hak", “học ",”hak”, and "gaku" respectively. The pronunciation in Mandarin is “xue”. Big difference.

I find the best way to decide is through Chinese poetry. Read the poem by the famous Du Fu (杜甫) of Tang Dynasty and you'll find that Cantonese makes them sound better. In Cantonese, we got chum, sum, yum, sum and kum. In Mandarin, we got get xun, sen, yin, xin and qin.


(This poem was rhymed within the Rhyming Group of 侵韻)


  1. JXie of FM:

    The short pronunciation ended with a short p, k, t is called 入聲. It’s all but disappeared in Mandarin but still existed in some Chinese dialects, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese. Researchers often cross-reference to Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese to try to figure out how people in Sui/Tang/Song pronounce certain words. Kind of interesting if you think about it in today’s context, especially given how Chinese are viewed overall negatively in those countries… For that I think Chinese ought to be more introspective.

  2. Bai Ding:

    If I would visit Mainland China one day, it will be Suzhou, Nanjing, Wuhan and Shanghai. There are so many remnants from the Republic. Although the Yellow Crane Tower and the bell of the Cold Mountain Monastery (寒山寺的鐘聲)are no longer the original, I still want to be there. And to visit the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Tomb (中山陵), and the tomb of the famous hero Xie Jin Yuan (謝晉元), who guarded the Four Banks’ Warehouse (四行倉庫)during the Anti Japanese War with only 400 men. And I think about Du Mu’s 『煙籠寒水月籠沙,夜泊秦淮近酒家』. I hope the Qin Huai River (秦淮河)is still flowing as it has been for a thousand years.

    Let me end this article with the following: