Cantonese Tuesdays: Nine Tones of Hell


Ed: Our August season of Cantonese posts, from the lovely Rosalyn S, will be your open sesame to that mysterious and impregnable “other Chinese” (the “funnier sounding” one, according to Russell Peters). We begin with the tricky question of just how many tones it has anyway …

There’s a running joke among Cantonese speakers. If we can’t decide how many tones we use, what hope is there for outsiders?

There are six main tones, from high to low to those that wiggle in between. But there are Cantonese purists who argue there are actually nine tones. See more here, including a full chart of the tones and their curious technical names, such as “dark flat” (陰平), “light rising” (陽上), “dark departing” (陰去) and “light entering” (陽入).

Those in the six-tone camp point out tones 7, 8 and 9 are actually identical in pitch to tones 1, 3, and 6 – they just have shorter syllable durations. This is sometimes distinguished as open and checked syllables. There are even entirely new tones allegedly only heard during the most vicious of swearing matches.

Although Cantonese is one of the official languages in Hong Kong and Macao, local primary school children aren’t taught a standard Cantonese pronunciation system in the same way that Mandarin speakers learn. Since the tones, as in all Chinese dialects, are relative, it’s hard for most people to truly distinguish between the sounds.

Confused? Hong Kong cartoonist Ah Toh (阿塗) has made this mnemonic cartoon to illustrate them. Be warned: it contains devilishly difficult traditional Chinese characters and Cantonese terms! We don’t want to make it too easy for the outsiders …

Rosalyn S is from Hong Kong and lives in Beijing