Cantonese Sounds and Tones
Lesson 3

Tone Distinctions

Some tones are difficult to distinguish between because of similarities in their features.  The purpose of this lesson is to help you differentiate between these tones and to become familiar with the tone marks used on this site (and in Yale romanization).

One thing to keep in mind is that the tones are not absolute.  They vary in range from speaker to speaker and from utterance to utterance.  The important thing is that high tone is above mid tone and mid tone is above low tone, etc.

Low rising vs. Mid rising

Low Rising and Mid Rising can be very difficult to distinguish since both rise. Low Rising starts at the Low level and rises up to about Mid level.  Mid Rising starts at Mid level and rises up almost to High level.

Mid Rising

Low Rising







Low tone, Mid tone, High tone

These tones can be difficult to distinguish in casual speech.  Beginning speakers often do not do a good job keeping High Tones higher than Mid and Mid Tones higher than Low when they are combined in the same sentence.  Often, beginning speakers will use the Mid tone instead of either High or Low when High and Low are together.

Low Tone

Mid Tone

High Tone










Note that the High Falling tone presents the same difficulty in distinction as High Tone.

High Falling vs. Low Falling

Mistakes can also be caused by the use of diacritic marks.  Many people forget that the "h" is a tone marker in Cantonese unless it is in the initial of the word.  The only distinction between High Falling and Low Falling is the "h".  Many Cantonese learners also make the mistake of emphasizing the falling in the High Falling tone.  Most modern Cantonese speakers speak the High Falling and High Level tones exactly the same, and for those who do not, the tone does not fall far at all.













Note how the sound "\pei\" has a distinctly falling sound.  There are a few characters (particularly particles used to express emotion and aspect) where the falling sound is pronounced by most native speakers.  This is the exception rather than the rule, however.  Most High Falling sounds fall only a little (if at all) and are hard to distinguish from the High Tone.

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