Syllables Starting With Vowels

Focusing more heavily on Hoisanwa lately, I’ve been having trouble distinguishing word boundaries. Maybe it is just a lack of practice, or because I still haven’t made much progress in the lessons. But I have another theory related to the differences between Cantonese and Hoisanwa, specifically syllables starting with vowels.

In Cantonese all syllables start with consonants. I think after 4 years of learning Cantonese, I have subconsciously been conditioned to only hear syllable boundaries when the syllable starts with a consonant.

The only exception to that are a few words that could just as easily start with “ng”, and the “ng” is left off, such as:
歐 au1
我 o23
屋 uk55

To my knowledge, the vowels “e”, “eu”, “i” never begin a syllable in Cantonese.

But in Hoisanwa, syllables can start with any of the vowels. A lot of the syllables that start with a “d” in Cantonese drop that “d” when spoken in Hoisanwa:
dak55 | aak52 | 得
dei11 | i52 | 地
deui33 | ooi33 | 對
dung55 | ung52 | 東
duk11 | uk52 | 讀

NOTE: I think I got some of those Hoisanwa tones wrong, and too tired at the moment to look them up, but you get the idea …

I’m not sure if I really had a point, except that there is a lot more variety to the syllable boundaries in Hoisanwa than in Cantonese. And I think that’s possibly why I’ve had trouble noticing the start of a new syllable sometimes? Any one else feel similarly?


P/T/K Endings and Tones

Most learners are taught that Cantonese has 6 tones:
high-level, mid-rising, mid-level, low-falling, low-rising, low-level

In Cantonese, any syllables ending in p/t/k will always be a level pitch countour.
high-level: 執笠、不、北
mid-level: 鴨、押、百
low-level: 習、沒、樂

The only exception is one of those syllables undergoing tone change to mid-rising, for example as the second syllable in a word.

When some people count the # of tones, they only account for the pitch contours, so 6 tones in Cantonese. The more Chinese way of thinking of tones is to consider p/t/k syllable endings as a separate tone from those other syllables that have the same pitch contour but do not end in p/t/k.

Since Cantonese only has p/t/k syllables in the 3 level contours, they will say that Cantonese has 9 tones.

However, the main point of this post is that in Hoisanwa – although I still haven’t made much progress – I did notice that the “you plural” syllable is “niak” with a high-falling tone. I wonder how many tones there are in Hoisanwa then, if counting syllables ending in p/t/k as a separate syllable?

And I vaguely remember learning somewhere that syllables ending in p/t/k can only ever be level tones … but I guess that must have been a Cantonese-specific rule?

Vocabulary Progress

As many others have said, increasing vocabulary is probably the most important step towards fluency.  Maybe that’s not true for everyone, but I don’t think I really felt comfortable having conversations until I had around 4,000 words in my passive vocabulary.  I still need to move more of those over to my active vocabulary, but that is part of the reason I started this blog (to improve my speaking practice, which I really ought to do more of sometime soon…).

The journey to increase vocabulary is a long, slow, frustrating journey.  So I thought I could share my progress here.  I know it’s easy to feel like you are learning very little.  But when you look back, you’ll see you’ve come a long way.

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Romanization System

I know that the 1960’s course from the Defense Language Institute for 台山話 uses a really old romanization system.  And I know it gave me a lot of trouble at first.  So I made this write-up to:

  • help explain some of the differences between the romanization scheme in this textbook and the Yale and jyutping romanization schemes used in Cantonese
  • help explain some of the patterns I observed in the similarities between Cantonese and Hoisanwa

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Toishanese Audio Uploaded

I have added a new page to the blog to hose the audio for the Defense Language Institute’s 1960’s Toishanese course.  You can find it by going to the menu or following this link.

The audio had been uploaded to many other file sharing sites, but the links on those sites kept expiring.  The files are all in the public domain, so feel free to download them or listen to them from that page. 

A link to the textbook is also available on the same page.

Toisanese 5th Lesson

This is my reading of “Volume 1, Lesson 5” of the 1960’s Defense Language Institute’s “Toishanese” course.
You can find the textbook at by searching for “Chinese-Cantonese (Toishan) Basic Course”.

I’m trying to improve my pronunciation by recording myself every 5 lessons.