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Lesson Transcript


Hi, everybody! Olivia here. Welcome to Ask a Teacher, where I’ll answer some of your most common Cantonese questions.
The Question
The question for this lesson is: Some characters have multiple pronunciations, how do I know which one to use?
Many learners would probably agree that the most challenging part of learning Cantonese is how some characters have multiple pronunciations, depending on the context or combination of words. In order to know which pronunciation to use, you should learn character pronunciation in set terms or phrases rather than learning single characters.
Let's get into more details. Why is learning in set terms or phrases better than learning single characters?
A character's pronunciation could be different depending on the word class, meaning, or context. For example, 車 "car" is usually pronounced as ce1, like in 火車 (fo2 ce1) "train" and 單車 (daan1 ce1) "bicycle". However, in some scenarios, it's pronounced as geoi1, such as 車馬費 (geoi1 maa5 fai3) "commuting expenses" and 擺明車馬 (baai2 ming4 geoi1 maa5) "to act in an overt manner". It would be wrong and frowned upon if one used the alternate pronunciation.
Such variation in spoken Cantonese occurs as a result of phonological, morphological, semantic, and grammatical environments. Generally speaking, there are some basic rules or general guidelines on where and how pronunciation changes will occur. But those rules are not hard and fast ones, and there are always exceptions to the rules. It is habitual usages that really matter.
Native speakers won't expect a non-native speaker to use the different pronunciation perfectly, but it'd be very impressive if the learners do. It also means that the learners have greater understanding of the language's background and culture.
As we just mentioned, sometimes the pronunciation of the same character changes when it's used as a different word class. Let’s see an example.
For instance, the character 好 is pronounced hou2 when it's used as an adjective or adverb, "good; ready". But when it's used as a verb, it's pronounced as hou3.
For example, 佢係好人,不過好酒。(keoi5 hai6 hou2 jan4, bat1 gwo3 hou3 zau2.) "He's a good person, but he likes drinking."
Be careful, if you pronounce 好酒 as hou2 zau2, it would be understood that 好 is the adjective "good", hence the meaning will change to "good wine".


How was it?
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"See you next time!", 下次見! (haa6 ci3 gin3!)