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Mr. Q

Cantonese romanization

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Mr. Q

Hi folks

I am an Australian who does not speak any Chinese, either Mandarin or Cantonese, so please forgive my lack of knowledge about your languages.

I have a very simple request.

I am a writer who has written a novel, part of which is set in San Francisco in 1870. From my research, it seems to me that most of the Chinese citizens of San Francisco at that time spoke Cantonese, not Mandarin. Within my novel I have several characters who are Cantonese speakers, and I wish to use certain Cantonese phrases within the text. Rather than print them using actual Chinese characters, I would like to write them using pinyin words... however, a Chinese friend told me that there is no pinyin for Cantonese. Is this correct?

An example of what I mean is this:

One of my characters, a young man who cooks food at a roadside stall, says to my main character "“Nǐ xiǎng yào yīxiē ma?”, which I am told means "Would you like some?"

I don't know if this phrase is Mandarin or Cantonese. I need someone who is willing to read over a short list of words and phrases (about 22 of them) and tell the correct way to write them in Cantonese. If you are a fluent Cantonese speaker, this would not take you more than ten or fifteen minutes. I am unable to offer any payment for this service, other than my thanks and and a "thank you" in the Acknowledgements section of my novel and a free copy of it once it is printed.

Is there anyone out there who is willing to do this? I would greatly appreciate it.

Thank you for reading my message.

--Mr. Q

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40 minutes ago, Mr. Q said:

I would like to write them using pinyin words... however, a Chinese friend told me that there is no pinyin for Cantonese. Is this correct?

In short, yes. Hanyu pinyin is the system used to write Mandarin, and it cannot be used to write Cantonese. There are several different systems to write Cantonese, so you should use one of those. Here is a place to start. (There are so many types of Cantonese romanisation that Wikipedia doesn't have one page for it...)


'Nǐ xiǎng yào yīxiē ma?' is indeed Mandarin written in Hanyu pinyin. So you are correct that you need to change something.


Unfortunately, that is about the furthest I can help you, since I only know beginner's Cantonese at best. Hopefully someone else can help. Do ask elsewhere as well (a group for Cantonese speakers on Facebook perhaps?), because we don't have many Cantonese speakers here, we mostly know Mandarin.

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I grew up with both English and Cantonese so I think I can help with your request Mr.Q :) The tricky thing with Cantonese is that what is spoken colloquially and what is written down is usually different, and I mean, it can be VERY different. 


Say for your example,  "Would you like some?", in a more relaxed setting, people usually say "你想唔想要啲呀?" ("nei5 seung2 m4 seung2 yiu3 di1 a3"), and if it's to be written down, they would just write the same as what you have written in Mandarin but just using Cantonese (nei5 seung2 yiu3 yat1 se1 ma1?),  but it is very odd to be spoken out loud during a conversation. Lu's wiki page regarding written Cantonese is pretty spot on about this, you can also go this page for more info about written Cantonese. 


Lu is also right about the different types of romanization in Cantonese. With the different influences, mainland, hong kong, macao, all have their own system, and I'm not sure if there's a standardized way to do this. But so far from what I've seen on the internet, the Yale system with tone numbers seems to be more common, but I could be wrong. 


I also notice your book setting is in 1870. I am not a linguist so I don't know if the Cantonese expressions back then is different from now. But if you don't mind, I'd be glad to help! :) 


** I used this website for the romanization of the Cantonese, using the Yale system and tone numbers 

** For cross referencing, I also used this database from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. 

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Mr. Q

To Lu and phantonym--


Thank you both so much for your replies to my questions. I really appreciate that you took the time to type such informative answers.

It is obvious to me now that I have really stepped in to a difficult area here. As a historical novelist, my priority is to be as accurate as possible in my depictions of the various eras about which I write. This is always a very difficult process, for many reasons and I could not even hope to navigate through the wilderness of unknown areas without the help of people like yourselves.


I'll spend time checking out the links you have shared with me. Once I have done that, I'm sure I'll be back here posting again on this thread with even more questions.


Again, I appreciate your help so much... thank you, and may you be blessed in your way.




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Greetings and welcome, Mr. Q.


Before you get too set on implementing Standard Cantonese, I must inform you of something extremely relevant to your project in regards to your desired level of accuracy and authenticity. To the best of my knowledge, nearly every Chinese immigrant living and working in and around San Francisco (and North America in general) before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (and until that act was ultimately abolished during WWII) spoke Taishanese/Toisanese/Hoisanese/台山話, which is a topolect of the Yue (Cantonese) branch of the Han Chinese language family; it's as different as Peking and Nanking Mandarin, or, if that comparison is lost on you, English and Scots (not Scottish-accented English, mind you).

Below are two good free online dictionaries for this topolect:



The first resource uses a modified form of Broad IPA (not really appropriate to quote in a book as it's a technical script) with each syllable accompanied by an audio sample, whilst the second employs its own proprietary ad-hoc Romanisation. For the scope of a book primarily written in English, an anglocentric Romanisation of Taishanese would be more approachable, and since one of my favourite hobbies is designing such systems, I'd be happy to do so if you'd like.


Mandarin: 你想要一些嗎?

Cantonese: 你想唔想要啲咁多呀?

Taishanese: 你想唔想攞啲多呀?

Taishanese Broad IPA: [ ni˧ ɫjaŋ˥ m˨ ɫjaŋ˥ hɔ˥ nit˥ ʔu˨˩˥ ja˨ ]

Taishanese Anglicised: "nee, thlyang! mm... thlyang! haw! neet! oo..? ya..."

Taishanese Mandarinised: "ni lxiāng mˇ lxiāng hō nīt wǔ ya"

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