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The Cantonese Alphabet

a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u (v) w (x) y z æ ø

The Cantonese Alphabet was created in 1967 by the Xrírámpur Sinologist Khristján Paulsen Mitra (閔劼人 Mân Kitjăn), then employed by the Cantonese ministry of education, after the Cantonese parliament had passed a language law, seeing how neither the traditional Chinese written language nor the Beijing-based literary language that developed during the last centuries of the Empire were suitable for speakers of the Cantonese language. According to this law a new written language based on educated Cantonese speech and written in the Roman alphabet was to be created. Dictionaries and teaching materials were prepared in the new language and script were prepared and from 1975 they were made mandatory as the medium of primary education.

The new alphabet met with some resistance from the outset. While many Cantonese opposed the introduction of the Roman alphabet as such, others resisted the official scheme, advocating either another Roman-based scheme or some non-Roman phonetic scheme similar to Japanese cana or Corean Hangyl. For this reason traditional character writing remained much in use wherever the new system was not mandatory, and especially for decorative purposes and in advertising. There were also a large faction which was politically loyal to the Federated Kingdoms and Australasia who opposed the use of an alphabet based on the Xrirampur Romanization system for Indian languages, and thus ultimately on Danish and Icelandic letter values. For this reason a competing system was put into use in Hong Kong, based on more familiar English letter values, using letters rather than accent marks to indicate tone, and in tended to be used beside characters rather than replacing them.

Thirty years later the net result is that both Canton and Hong Kong use Characters and Roman side by side but not mixed, and with two different Roman systems too, so that written intercommunication between HK and Canton is best executed in Characters anyway. The radical Canton language law of 1965 and its enforcement in 1975 weren't successful, but the controversy largely settled down when the first generation actually literate in both systems had grown up. It was realized both that Characters had not gone away *and* that the Yutlomazi had come to stay for purposes of communicating with foreigners, for annotating Characters and for computing. Although the first years of education in Canton are still executed entirely in Roman instruction in Characters has been reintroduced into the state school system, and is begun as soon as pupils have achived fluency in Roman, in practice from the third grade.


Plain Aspirated Nasal Fricative Approximant
Labial b p m f
Dental d t n l
Sibilant z c s j
Velar g k q h
Labiovelar gw kw w


a e i o u ø y m q
ai æi ei oi ui øi yi
au æu iu ou
am æm im øm ym
an æn in on un øn yn
aq æq eq iq oq uq øq yq
ap æp ip
at æt it ot ut øt yt
ak æk ek ik ok uk øk

Syllabic /ŋ/ and /m/ are written as yq and ym, since /yŋ/ and /ym/ don't actually occur and it was felt that a vowel letter was needed to hang the diacritics on. It is often claimed that Kh.P. Mitra took the inspiration for this from the way Sanskrit syllabic /r/ is written ry in the Xrirampur Romanization to distinguish it from Sanskrit /ri/ or /ru/, with either of which is has fallen together in the modern Indian languages. Dr. Mitra himself has never commented on this claim. In Hong Kong 'ng and 'm are written followed by the appropriate tone letters.


Tone Diacritic Diacritic description HK spelling
High-level ī macron iz
High-falling ì grave accent iv
Mid-rising í acute accent ir
Mid-level i (unmarked) i
Low-falling ĭ breve or wedge ihv
Low-rising î circumflex ihr
Low-level ĩ tilde ih

Nowadays the distinction between high-level and high-falling is in fact seldom observed, both being written with the mark for high-falling in both Canton and Hong Kong.

Main spelling differences in the Hong Kong system

Hong Kong j ch y ng aa a eo eu 'ng 'm
Canton z c j q a æ ø y yng ym