This is an attempt to write Cantonese phonemically making use of the Vietnamese script (quốc ngữ). Notice that we are not trying to follow the Vietnamese orthography, but only trying to make use of the rich vowel diacritics which happen to meet the need of the Cantonese vowel system.


Initials (or onsets) are initial consonants of possible syllables. The following is the inventory for Standard Cantonese as represented in the proposed script followed by IPA:

Labials Coronals Sibilants Palatals Velars Labial-Velars Glottals
Unaspirated Stops b [p] d [t] z [ts]   g [k] gu [kw] ' [ʔ]
Aspirated Stops p [] t [] c [tsʰ]   k [] ku [kʰw]  
Nasals m [m] n [n]     ŋ [ŋ]    
Fricatives f [f]   s [s]       h [h]
Approximants   l [l]   y [j]   w [w]  


Finals (or rimes) are the remaining part of the syllable after the initial is taken off. There are two kinds of finals in Cantonese, depending on vowel length. The following chart lists all possible finals in Standard Cantonese as represented IPA according to traditional analysis:

ɑː ɛː ɔː œː
LongShort LongShort LongShort LongShort LongShort LongShort LongShort
-i / -y ɑːiɐi  ei    ɔːi  uːi   ɵy   
-u ɑːuɐu    iːu   ou         
-m ɑːmɐm    iːm             
-n ɑːnɐn    iːn  ɔːn  uːn   ɵn yːn 
-ŋ ɑːŋɐŋ ɛːŋ   ɪŋ ɔːŋ   ʊŋ œːŋ    
-p ɑːpɐp    iːp             
-t ɑːtɐt    iːn  ɔːt  uːt   ɵt yːt 
-k ɑːkɐk ɛːk   ɪk ɔːk   ʊk œːk    

Syllabic nasals: [m̩] [ŋ̩]

Although that analysis can reduce the number of vowel phonemes to eight, as all vowels beside [ɑː]-[ɐ] show complementory distribution, it is difficult to explain why the allophones become short vowels. It should also be noticed that the vowel in [ɪŋ] and [ɪk] is actually more open than the English counterpart, much closer to [ɪ]. The vowel in [ʊŋ] and [ʊk] is also closer to [o]. We therefore adopt an alternative point of view, that there are in fact seven long vowels and three short vowels in Standard Cantonese, and there are three constrasting long-short vowel pairs. The following chart list that view along with the proposed script.

a [ɑː] o [ɔː] e [ɛː] i [] u [] ơ [œː] ư []
LongShort LongShort LongShort Long Long Long Long
-[i] / -[y] ai [ɑːi]âi [ɐi] oi [ɔːi]ôi [ɵy]  êi [ei]   ui [uːi]    
-[u] au [ɑːu]âu [ɐu]  ôu [ou]    iu [iːu]      
-[m] am [ɑːm]âm [ɐm]       im [iːm]      
-[n] an [ɑːn]ân [ɐn] on [ɔːn]ôn [ɵn]    in [iːn] un [uːn]   ưn [yːn]
-[ŋ] aŋ [ɑːŋ]âŋ [ɐŋ] oŋ [ɔːŋ]ôŋ [ʊŋ] eŋ [ɛːŋ]êŋ [ɪŋ]     ơŋ [œːŋ]  
-[p] ap [ɑːp]âp [ɐp]       ip [iːp]      
-[t] at [ɑːt]ât [ɐt] ot [ɔːt]ôt [ɵt]    it [iːt] ut [uːt]   ưt [yːt]
-[k] ak [ɑːk]âk [ɐk] ok [ɔːk]ôk [ʊk] ek [ɛːk]êk [ɪk]     ơk [œːk]  

For the syllabic nasals, since we do not have unicode symbols that provide enough tone marks on "m" amd "ŋ", we tenatively use the vowel that is left "ă" to mark the "null vowel". So the syllable nasals are:

[m̩] and ŋă [ŋ̩]


Standard Cantonese has nine tones in six distinct tone contours.

Tone name Yin PingYin ShangYin Qu Yang PingYang ShangYang Qu Shang
Yin Ru
Yin Ru
Yang Ru
Contour 55 / 533533 21 / 111322 553322
Number 123 456 7 (1)8 (3)9 (6)

Vietnamese script allows six tones, five diactics plus one unmarked tone. The follow table shows their tone names, tone contours and correspondence to the Chinese tone system according to James Campbell [1]:

Tone name ngang (bằng)huyềnsắc ngãhỏinặng
Tone mark aàáã
Contour 333135 2ʔ5214ʔ21ʔ
Chinese tone Yin PingYang PingYin Qu,
Yin Ru
Yang ShangYin ShangYang Qu,
Yang Ru

Obviously, we had to follow to view to merge the three Cantonese ru tones to other tones of the same tone contours to make the system work. We also found following the traditional corresponding to Chinese tones couter-intuitive for certain tones, for example, "á" may not be a good choice for the Cantonese yin qu (33) tone. So we aim at matching tone contours and shape of the diacritics to make them easier to remember. This is our proposal:

Tone numberContourDiacriticsComment
155 / 53ã The contour of the Vietnamese counterpart is totally off, but this diacritic is closest to the most desirable macron: ā
235á Same contour as the Vietnamese counterpart as well as Hanyu Pinyin.
333a Same contour as the Vietnamese counterpart. Also the most heavily used particle ge can be written without tone marks.
421 / 11à Similar contour as the Vietnamese counterpart: low falling.
513Question mark implies rising, resembles rising part of the Vietnamese counterpart.
622Looks like a lower pitch version of the one without tone mark.


Guóŋdỗŋwá (Cantonese), Hỡŋgóŋ (Hong Kong), Guóŋzẫu (Guangzhou)

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