廣東話 Musa for Cantonese
目卅字為廣東話


Over 60 million people speak Cantonese, making it one of the world's 30 most spoken languages. As the language of Guangzhou and Hong Kong, it functions as the prestige dialect of the Yue language family, so many non-native-speakers speak it as a second language in Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. It's also probably the most spoken language in overseas Chinese communities. Despite this evidence of health and success, it is under threat from Standard Chinese, which the Chinese government is eager to promote. Because of this, it is written much less than it is spoken, and written Cantonese is reserved for informal contexts.

Cantonese is now written in Chinese characters - traditional characters in Hong Kong and simplified characters in the PRC - with numerous additional characters that are not used in Standard Chinese. As with Standard Chinese, the problem is very simple: there is no relationship between the written and spoken forms of words, so they have to be learned separately. If a language has good phonetic orthography - a good alphabet and good spelling, like Musa offers - then the relationship between the spoken and written language (the dotted line below) is very simple, and learning to read and write is easy. If not - if the alphabet or spelling is bad or, like Chinese, the orthography isn't phonetic - then learning to read and write is much more difficult.

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In the case of Chinese and Cantonese, the relationship between meaning and the written character has become completely arbitrary, as explained on this page. The character for cat uses the radical for badger, which is at least a small animal. But the rest of the character spells seedling, nothing to do with cats! It's there hinting at the pronunciation, since the word for seedling is miáo. So even the scholars who wrote Classical Chinese were trying to spell pronunciation - they just didn't have an alphabet.

Cantonese has another problem: most writing is done in Standard Chinese, a different language, and one more thing people have to learn before they can read and write! Written Cantonese appears widely in Hong Kong and other overseas territories, but it is suppressed in Mainland China. This diglossia is also true of Arabic and historically was true of medieval Europe: Latin was the only written language before the 1500s. It's a huge impediment to literacy.

There is considerable variation in Cantonese. Many people don't distinguish between n and l, for example, or between the ng and null initials. The affricates are often palatalized before i y. The young people of Hong Kong are said to suffer from "lazy sounds". And of course speakers of other southern dialects like Taishanese may not be intelligible at all. Musa takes no position in these debates: it can write the standard variety of Guangzhou, or it can write everyone's personal dialect equally easily. The rest of this page will focus on how to write standard Cantonese in Musa.


Cantonese words are formed of syllables that each have an initial consonant, a vowel, a tone, and a final consonant. When there's no initial consonant, in Musa we write a Catch (glottal stop). When there's no final consonant, we write a Break. The vowel and tone are always present.

In the charts below, the black shows the Yale romanization, while the green shows the International Phonetic Alphabet, if it's different.

Initial Consonants

Labial Coronal Affricate+ Velar Labialized Glottal
Nasal m n ng /ŋ/
Tenuis b /p/ d /t/ j /ʦ/ g /k/  gw /kʷ/ /ʔ/
Aspirated p /pʰ/ t /tʰ/ ch /ʦʰ/ k /kʰ/  kw /kʷʰ/
Fricative f s h
Approximant l y /j/ w

Vowels

Here are all the vowels (with short vowels in yellow):;

Front Back
Spread Round Spread Round
Short Long Short Long Short Long Short Long
Close i /ɪ/  i /iː/  yu /yː/ u /ʊ/  u /uː/
Mid e /e/  e /ɛː/ eu /ɵ/  eu /œː/ o /o/  oh /ɔː/
Open a /ɐ/  a /aː/

This variety may seem bewildering to native speakers who think that an u is just an u - with no need to spell, for instance, the distinction between the short ʊ of tung or luk with the long of tun or lu. But they sound pretty different! Musa spells sounds as we pronounce them, including the subconscious changes we make as native speakers. And when we try to pronounce foreign words, we appreciate them being spelled as they sound. Musa is an alphabet for native speakers ... but also for everyone else. A linguist would say that Musa is phonetic, not phonemic.

So we spell long and short vowels with different letters, and long vowels with a long mark .

Finals

Labial Coronal Velar
Semivowel -y -i -∅ -w -u
Nasal -m -n -ng
Stop -p -t -k

Rimes

We call the combination of vowel and final a rime. Not every combination is possible; in fact, only the following occur (the ones on yellow feature short vowels):

Finals
Vowels  -i  -iu  -im  -in  -ing  -ip  -it  -ik
 -e  -ei  -eu  -em  -en  -eng  -ep  -et  -ek
 -ai  -au  -am  -an  -ang  -ap  -at  -ak
 -aa  -aai  -aau  -aam  -aan  -aang  -aap  -aat  -aak
 -o  -oi  -ou  -on  -ong  -ot  -ok
 -u  -ui  -un  -ung  -ut  -uk
 -yu  -yun  -yut
 -eu  -eui  -eun  -eung  -eut  -euk

Syllabic Nasals

Cantonese also features two syllables with no vowel other than the nasal onset:

 
m ng

Tones

Cantonese has six or seven tones, depending on the dialect: Guangzhou still preserves the distinction between high falling and high level tones that has been lost in Hong Kong, so we offer accents for both. Note that we don't consider the checked tones to be different.

And here's how they're written in Musa:

3rd 2nd 1st 1st
si sin sik sí sín sī sīn sīk sì sìn
陰去 陰上 陰平 广州
 
5th 6th 4th
(no tone) síh síhn sih sihn sihk sìh sìhn
轻声 陽上 陽去 陽平

The Musa names for the 4th and 6th tones are different from the historical Chinese terminology: we write the Light Flat tone with a falling accent, and the Light Departing tone with a level accent. That matches the pitch contour better.

Cantonese has no syllables without tone, unlike Standard Chinese. But I've shown how to write it, just in case.

Gait

Cantonese is written in fangzi gait, with dots between words but not between syllables within a word.

Samples

Here's a saying:

 
痴痴呆呆, 坐埋一台。

And here's a song verse:



皇后大道西又皇后大道東,
皇后大道東轉皇后大道中。


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