Jyutping or Yale? How to Write Cantonese in the Roman Alphabet

In late August, when Hong Kong protesters began writing Cantonese in the Roman alphabet, it started as an attempt to thwart online trolls. Soon it became a cheeky way to express Hong Kong’s unique identity. Apple Daily got in on it, splashing its 18 August front page with a mix of Cantonese and English that people often call Kongish. In Causeway Bay, a protester held up a hand-written sign reading, “Heung gong yan yiu jaang hei ga yau.” 

That was easy enough to decipher – “Hong Kong people must keep up the fight.” But not far away, a patch of graffiti left passersby stumped. “Even the locals next to me had difficulty deciphering the bottom word in the second line,” tweeted reporter Andrew McNicholas. They eventually realised it was a message to those who had attacked protesters and MTR commuters in Yuen Long on 21 July. 

Cheung Kwan-hin was nonplussed. For years, he and his colleagues at the Linguistic Society of Hong Kong (LSHK) have been promoting Cantonese romanisation, but “when we look at romanisations of this type we have a hard time deciphering it,” he says. 

Luckily, there’s an alternative. In 1993, the LSHK unveiled jyutping, which is widely acknowledged to be the most accurate way to write Cantonese in the Roman alphabet. Even if the name is unfamiliar, you have probably seen it before: jyutping is how Zolima CityMag romanises Chinese characters in articles like the ones in our Pop Cantonese series. Once you learn the basics, jyutping is like cracking a code – the first step to understanding a language whose tones and sounds can prove frustratingly difficult for many foreign speakers.jyutpingAnd yet it is nowhere near as widespread as you would expect. Whereas Mandarin-based hanyu pinyin is widely accepted as the global standard for romanising standard written Chinese, jyutping has been slow to spread beyond academic circles. And the reason has to do with the precarious state of Cantonese, which is deeply rooted in Guangdong, almost universally spoken in Hong Kong and common throughout the Chinese diaspora – but which currently enjoys no official status in any jurisdiction. 

Cantonese is part of a family of languages and dialects known as Yue Chinese, which flow along the Pearl River and its tributaries from the hills just east of Guangzhou all the way to the river city of Nanning in Guangxi. When Westerners first came into contact with Cantonese, their attempts to render it in the Roman alphabet were completely arbitrary, which is how many of the region’s most enduring place names came to be, including Kowloon (gau2 lung4 九龍), Hong Kong (hoeng1 gong2 香港) and of course Canton, which is derived from the Portuguese word for Guangzhou, Cantão (gwong2 zau1 廣州).

The first attempt to create a formal system came in in 1828, when Robert Morrison published A Vocabulary of the Canton Dialect, although it lacked tone markings. The next effort was Standard Romanisation, which was was developed by Christian missionaries in Guangdong in 1888. It quickly spread, even to the Hong Kong government, which continues to use a modified version of it to this day.

Over the course of the 20th century, more and more systems came into existence, each with its own particular goals. Some were primarily academic, like the system introduced by Cantonese scholar Wong Shik-ling in 1941. Others were educational. In the 1970s, teacher Sidney Lau developed a system that was meant to teach Hong Kong’s expatriate civil servants how to speak Cantonese. Outside of the government, many of those learning Cantonese were helped along by the Yale system, which was developed in the early 1950s by Gerard P. Kok. 

The problem with all of these systems is that none of them truly capture the full spectrum of sounds in Cantonese. The Hong Kong government’s system flattens out the difference between the drawn-out faat3 (發, “to issue”) and the clipped fat6 (佛 “Buddha”) – both are simply rendered as Fat. And don’t even bother looking for help with the tones: there is none, even though Cantonese is a language with six phonetic tones, each one changing the meaning of a single word.


Photo by Nicolas Petit

Yale has been widely used to teach Cantonese around the world. But it under-differentiates between some sounds, over-differentiates between others and uses a complicated system of accents—along with the letter h—to distinguish between different tones. Learning Cantonese is challenging enough for someone who isn’t familiar with a tonal language; the ambiguities present in Yale and many other systems arguably make the learning process all the more difficult. 

It was during a seminar on romanisation in 1992 that Cheung Kwan-hin and other LSHK members decided that something needed to be done. “None of the existing systems were good enough, so we decided to devise one of our own,” he says. For more than a year, the linguists held monthly meetings and hashed out the new system. “There was a lot of discussion and debate,” he says. 

Much of it hinged on details that would be mystifying to anyone lacking a background in linguistics. “We talked about a differentiation of two distinct nucleus vowels, now represented as oe and eo in jyutping,,” says LSHK member Caesar Lun Suen, who is an associate professor in City University’s Department of Linguistics and Translation, along with Cheung. “In all other systems they are just one. We deliberately made them two in our system.” 

The result—jyut6 ping3 (粵拼, “Yue spelling”)—was unveiled in 1993. Cheung and Lun say it is more precise than any of the systems that preceded it, hewing more closely to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) that represents the sounds of different languages. One example is the IPA vowel /j/, which is heard in the very first part of words like “you” and “year.” In Yale, it is represented with a y; jyutping uses j, which frees up the letter y to more accurately render the /jy/ sound that is common in Cantonese words like jyu4 (魚, “fish”). 

Jyutping is also alphanumeric, using numbers to represent tones. “[It] is the smallest set of characters with universal representation and thus lend themselves to foolproof 100 percent transmission on the web,” says Cheung. That didn’t necessarily translate into wider use. There are still no Cantonese input systems that come standard with any computer or mobile operating systems; many who want to write Cantonese in Chinese characters use Mandarin pinyin, handwriting or stroke-based input systems, although there are jyutping input systems that can be downloaded.

As a result, jyutping has not spread as quickly as its creators wished. And just as the ad hoc romanisation used by protesters indicate, the average Hong Kong person still isn’t familiar with jyutping. Why aren’t they taught in schools? “Because in schools they aren’t learning Cantonese – they are learning Chinese,” says Lun. “They lack this kind of fundamental education that familiarises them with their native language systems. This is missing in our educational system but that’s the policy of the government.”

Photo by William Furniss

It goes back to a familiar misconception which is that Cantonese is one of Hong Kong’s official languages. In fact, only “Chinese” is an official language, without specifying exactly what kind of Chinese. For years, the government promoted a policy of “biliterate and trilingual” education, giving Hongkongers skills in Cantonese, English and Mandarin, which is also known as Putonghua. But the political pressure to promote Mandarin over Cantonese has grown since the handover in 1997. Today, about 70 percent of primary schools in Hong Kong teach at least half their Chinese language classes in Mandarin.

“The government may be afraid to promote Cantonese which they mistake as a sign of promoting Hong Kong independence,” says Lun. “Whatever the reason, they want to promote Putonghua first over Cantonese. But minority students need to learn Cantonese in Hong Kong and jyutping is an easy way for them to learn. If it becomes more popular there’s more of a chance the government will adopt it.”

Progress may be gradual, but jyutping is definitely making inroads. It is thriving on the web, thanks to its prescient use of alphanumerals, and it has gradually become the dominant system used in teaching Cantonese as a second language. And it has even made its way into the wild. “Nowadays you see more and more of it in advertisements,” says Cheung. “A lot of slang words, a lot of slogans have made use of jyutping.”

Lun is quick to note that it isn’t always used accurately. He gives the example of sing1 le1 (升呢), which is a recently-coined slang term that means “level up,” as in a video game. It is often improperly transcribed as sing1 ne1 because the character 呢 can be pronounced differently depending on context. It’s just one of the challenges of pinning down a language as fluid and fast-changing as Cantonese. 

Luckily, there are plenty of resources for people to learn. Cantodict is a Cantonese-English-Mandarin dictionary that uses jyutping; online converters allow you to turn Chinese characters into jyutping; and online communities such as /r/cantonese bring together Cantonese learners and enthusiasts. There’s even a quirky 8-bit game, Cantorocks, that uses jyutping to test your ability to recognise words and tones.

Cheung sees a long road ahead before jyutping becomes as common and as well known as Mandarin pinyin. “It’s not going to be easy,” he says. “But there is always a bright side. We’re not particularly worried about the progress of jyutping. Hanyu pinyin was devised in 1957 but it only became common in the world 30 years after its birth.” 

He hopes to see a similar progression for jyutping – and by extension, the Cantonese language. As someone in the streets might say: zang1 hei3 gaa1 jau4 (爭氣加油). Keep up the fight! 

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