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Learn Jyutping through International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)

International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a phonetic notation system for all languages in the world.

Since IPA includes vowels and consonants for different languages and it uses special characters for notations, it would be very difficult and inconvenient for us to use it outside academic context.

Jyutping is a phonetic system built with these pain points in mind. It uses IPA as a foundation, yet it takes away vowels and consonants unrelated with Cantonese and use ordinary English characters and numbers for notation.

This way, it will be much easier for people to learn and use the system.

Since Jyutping is created based on IPA, if you have something you don’t understand after you have read our Cantonese pronunciation guide, you can search for the answer yourself in IPA.

In this article, we will help you understand how does IPA work and show you how can it help you understand Jyutping.

Vowels of IPA

IPA uses a model in the structure of our mouth (With your lips on the left and your throat on the right) to describe the following pronunciation features of vowels:

  • Vowel height
  • Vowel backness
  • Vowel roundness

Vowel height refers to the distance between your tongue and the roof of your mouth.

Vowel backness refers to the position of the tongue between your lips and your throat.

Vowel roundness refers the shape of your lips during pronunciation.

The following model marks all vowels in Cantonese with IPA. Since this model is created based on research data, it was affected by vowel centralization, thus it looks slightly different with the model you would see in theory.

Cantonese vowel chart in IPA
Vowels in blue are those with vowel roundness other than unrounded.

For instance, since the vowel height for vowel a is open, vowel backness is front and vowel roundness is unrounded, it is located at the bottom left of this model.

Using these pronunciation features as reference, you should open your mouth wide, put your tongue to the front and relax your lips when you pronounce this vowel.

Converting this model into Jyutping and you will get this:

Cantonese vowel chart in Jyutping
Vowels with a * are not represented as standalone vowels in Jyutping.

By comparing these two models, you should find out that some vowels used in Cantonese are not represented by Jyutping, but only in IPA.

The reason for that is those vowels are only used as part of a diphthong in Cantonese.

Besides, the notations for these vowels in IPA is identical with other vowels in Jyutping, with the exception of ɵ.

For example, the diphthong ei in Jyutping, it is combined by vowel e in IPA (which is the e* in the second model) and vowel i in Jyutping.

If you pronounce it as a combination of vowel e and i in Jyutping, you would not pronounce it correctly.

Side view for Cantonese pronunciation guiding illustration for ei in Jyutping

Consonants of IPA

IPA usually use a table to represent features of different consonants, including their way and place for pronunciation.

BilabialLabiodentalDentalAlveolarPostalveolarRetroflexPalatalVelarLabial-VelarUvularPharyngealGlottal
Plosivep pʰt tʰk kʰkw kʰw 
Nasalmnŋ
Trill
Tap or flap
Fricativefsh
Affricatetstsʰ
Lateral fricative
Approximantjw
Lateral approximantl
Cantonese consonants in IPA

Converting this into Jyutping:

BilabialLabiodentalDentalAlveolarPostalveolarRetroflexPalatalVelarLabial-VelarUvularPharyngealGlottal
Plosiveb pd tg kgw kw 
Nasalmnng
Trill
Tap or flap
Fricativefsh
Affricatezc
Lateral fricative
Approximantjw
Lateral approximantl
Cantonese consonants in Jyutping

Each column in this table represents a place of pronunciation, and each row represent a method of pronunciation.

For the order of places of pronunciation, they are sorted from your lips to your throat.

With this table, we can easily identify differences between consonants. We will take two confusing consonants for Hong Kong as an example.

Difference between Jyutping consonant n and ng

Despite both consonant n and ng being nasal consonant, consonant n is pronounced from the front of your mouth (Alveolar), whereas consonant ng is pronounced from the back of your mouth (Velar).

Difference between Jyutping consonant n and l

Although both consonant n and l are pronounced in the front of your mouth (Alveolar), consonant n is a nasal consonant, whereas consonant l is a lateral approximant consonant.

FAQs

Why learning IPA can help me learn Jyutping?

International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a phonetic notation system for all languages in the world, and Jyutping is created based on IPA. Therefore, you should be able to find answers in IPA for any question you have for Jyutping.

If so, why can’t I learn IPA only?

Since IPA includes vowels and consonants for different languages and it uses special characters for notations, it would be very difficult and inconvenient for us to use it in daily lives.

What is the difference between consonant n and ng in Jyutping?

Although both consonant n and ng are nasal consonant, consonant n is pronounced from the front of your mouth (Alveolar), whereas consonant ng is pronounced from the back of your mouth (Velar).

What is the difference between consonant n and l in Jyutping?

Although both consonant n and l are pronounced in the front of your mouth (Alveolar), consonant n is a nasal consonant, whereas consonant l is a lateral approximant consonant.

Reference

Handbook of the International Phonetic Association: A guide to the use of the international phonetic alphabet. (2014). Cambridge: Univ. Press.

Cantonese phonemic inventory [PDF]. (n.d.). American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

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