Phonetic elements in characters, do they work in Cantonese and other dialiects?

September 13, 2012, 06:24 AM posted in General Discussion

I'm curious about something: since I started learning characters, I've learnt that a substantial number of characters have a phonetic element, so they don't give any meaning to the character, they just tell you how to pronounce it.

For example the basic character 元 is pronounced "yuan", and of course means the chinese currency.

There are other characters, for example 远 and 园 which don't have anything to do with the currency, but are both pronounced "yuan".

My question is, given that all dialects of chinese use the same characters, do these phonetic clues also help in those languages? For instance do 元, 远 and 园 all have the same pronunciation as each other in Cantonese or Hakka or Hokkien (albeit different from the mandarin pronunciation)? Or does the system fall apart in these cases, and the characters just have less meaning/give help less?

When Chinese character were first developed, were they developed with putonghua in mind, or all dialects?

I would be curious to see if anyone has some knowledge or insight about this.

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September 13, 2012, 01:01 PM

Let me start by admitting that I don't know any Cantonese. But because I found your question so interesting, I started searching, hoping to keep it on the board until someone qualified comes along.

First I went to this list: ( of cantonese homophones and got the impression that many cantonese homophones are also similar in writing. It was, though, difficult to determine how much this limits to cases where Cantonese words sound alike to mandarin ones. To study this would be easier if you provided me with some Cantonese sounds that are very different from Mandarin ones. "DIFFERENT" BEING A FISHY CONCEPT...

By typing in cantonese sounds different from mandarin ones I found the entries below. Note that I did NOT do more searches which I don't list, but each search seemed to return something interesting.


客 haak3 (Canto)/ ke4(Mandar)

喀 haak3, kaa1 /ka1


剋 hak1 haak1 /kei1

克 hak1 haak1/kei1


麥 mak6 maak6/ mai4

嘜 mak1 maak1/ mai4


勒 lak6 laak6/ lei1 le4

肋 lak6 laak6/lei4

嘞 laak3/ lei5

According to the dictionary these are not just different writings of the same word. Of course nothing serious can be concluded with such statistics. Nevertheless I have the SUSPICION that characters that are written and sound similar where largely developed on the basis of classical chinese. From then on mandarin and Cantonese underwent different evolution, which largely kept similar sounding characters similar. It would be interesting to inspect the same question in Japanese. I would suspect that "Chinese readings" show the same phenomenon, (similar sound, similar look), while nothing such can be said of native japanese ones. Can anyone tell us? Perhaps Changye san?

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September 13, 2012, 01:10 PM

This is a case where I wish I could 'like' something on Chinesepod.

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September 13, 2012, 11:36 PM

I think, the general answer to your question is yes. However, the whole truth is slightly more complex.

First of all, Putonghua is an invention of the 20th century, while the characters were developed more than 2000 years ago. So the people who developed the characters certainly had no putonghua in mind. In addition to that, in former times only very few people could read and write. I don't know if the scholars in those times all spoke the same language/dialect.

The same applies to the simplified characters (introduced in the 20th century). If you want to compare the "original" phonetics of a character across languages and dialects, you have to consider the traditional characters.

Your example of the three characters pronounced "yuan" is not the best one, because they look quite different in their traditional forms:

The simplified characters 元, 远 and 园 are written 元, 遠 and 園, so two of them have a different phonetic part.

You can easily find the cantonese pronunciation of a character on the internet (e.g. on For these three characters the cantonese phonetics are: jyun4, yuhn5 and jyun4. Still similar, but slightly different.

Another (classical) example (mandarin/cantonese):

马/馬 (ma3 / maa5)

吗/嗎 (ma / maa1)

玛/瑪 (ma3 / maa5)

妈/媽 (ma1 / maa1)

骂/駡 (ma4 / maa6)

There are also characters and phonetic elements which have several pronunciations even within putonghua, e.g. the character 行, which is pronounced xing2 or hang2 depending on the context. I am pretty sure that other Chinese dialects have similar things, too. So you always have to be aware of exceptions to the general rule.

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You are right, I should have used traditional characters for this. I wasn't thinking!

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Truth be told, I expected you to good naturedly mock the way I analyzed the question :)

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September 14, 2012, 02:32 AM

I put this question on Facebook too, as I have a few friends from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia on there. So far I've had this response from a Taiwanese friend:

" First of all, cool question! My Taiwanese (which is derived from the dialect in fu-jianprovince) is not perfect. But as far as Taiwanese concern, it fall apart from the rule a bit. The 3 YUAN you gave as example all sounded differently in Taiwanese."