#10 Learning Tip: Is 你 pronounced "nei5" or "lei5"? (English/粵語)

Most students of Cantonese have probably encountered different pronunciations when it comes to words beginning with an "n" or "l" sound. Why is that? In this episode, Raymond and Cameron take on variations in Cantonese pronunciation and talk about why flexibility can be your greatest friend.


1. 先旨聲明 sin1 zi2 sing1 ming4 (N) disclaimer
2. 專家 zyun1 gaa1 (N) expert
3. 語音學 jyu5 jam1 hok6 (N) phonetics
4. 基本 gei1 bun2 (ADJ) basic
5. 理解 lei5 gaai2 (N/V) understanding / to understand
6. 祖父祖母 zou2 fu6 zou2 mou5 (N) grandfather and grandmother
7. 公公 gung1/4 gung1 (N) maternal grandfather
8. 婆婆 po4 po2 (N) maternal grandmother
9. 爺爺 je4 je2/4 (N) paternal grandfather
10. 嫲嫲 maa4 maa4 (N) paternal grandmother
11. 後生仔女 hau6 saang1 zai2 neoi2 (N) young boys and girls
12. 經典 ging1 din2 (ADJ/N) classic
13. 老實 lou5 sat6 (ADV/ADJ) frankly / honest
14. 無論 mou4 leon6 (CONJ) no matter / whether
15. 懶音 laan5 jam1 (N) “lazy” accent
16. 鼻音 bei6 jam1 (N) nasal sound
17. 舌尖 sit3 zim1 (N) tip of tongue, apex
18. 舌邊 sit3 bin1 (N) side of tongue, lateral
19. 所謂 so2 wai6 (ADV) so-called
20. 傳統 cyun4 tung2 (ADJ/N) traditional/tradition
21. 音變 jam1 bin3 (N) sound change
22. 現象 jin6 zoeng6 (N) phenomenon
23. 報導 bou3 dou6 (N/V) report / to report
24. 電台 din6 toi4 (N) radio station
25. 主持 zyu2 ci4 (N) host
26. 南部 naam4 bou6 (ADJ/N) southern / the south
27. 鄉音 hoeng1 jam1 (N) country accent
28. 特色 dak6 sik1 (N) character, charteristic
29. 性格 sing3 gaak3 (N) personality
30. 廣播員 gwong2 bo3 jyun4 (N) broadcaster, announcer, news anchor
31. 溝通 kau1 tung1 (V/N) to communicate / communication
32. 直接 zik6 zip3 (ADJ) direct
33. 原則 jyun4 zak1 (N) principle
34. 暫時 zaam6 si4 (ADJ) temporary, at the moment
35. 提醒 tai4 sing2 (V/N) to remind, reminder
36. 執着 zap1 zoek6 (ADJ) stubborn, detail-oriented
37. 堅持 gin1 ci4 (ADJ) persistent
38. 究竟 gau3 ging2 (ADV) afterall
39. 情況 cing4 fong3 (N) condition, situation
40. 混亂 wan6 lyun6 (ADJ/N) confused/chaos
41. 強調 koeng4 diu6 (V/N) to emphasize / emphasis
42. 盡量 zeon6 loeng6 (ADV) as much as possible
43. 影響 jing2 hoeng2 (V/N) to affect / influence

ADJ - Adjective

ADV - Adverb

CONJ - Conjunction

N - Noun

V - Verb


Cameron: Raymond, I have a question about a particular set of sounds in Cantonese that actually confuse me a little bit, and that is the “n” and the “l” sound, because sometimes I hear people pronounce the same words with an “n,” and sometimes with an “l,” so,  “nei5”, “lei5,” for “you.” Why is that?

Raymond: 係,呢個係一個好問題,都經常聽到嘅問題。不過呢,我講之前,我想有啲所謂先旨聲明1,即係講我唔係專家2,即係我唔係呢個語音學3嘅專家。噉但係呢我基本4上嘅理解5呢,就係我哋都知道,語言啦,特別係口語呢,其實會一路會有變化嘅,隨住時間。噉以前可能你聽你嘅爸爸媽媽或者你嘅祖父祖母6公公7婆婆8爺爺9嫲嫲10佢哋講嘅廣東話呢,好似同而家有啲唔一樣喎。或者佢哋會話,點解你哋而家講,後生仔女11講嘢同年紀大嘅人,有啲唔一樣呢?其中一個好經典12嘅例子就係話呢,而家好多人講嘢呢,“l” 同 “n” 嗰個音係分唔開嘅,老實13講啦,我啱啱同你傾偈啦,我都話我有啲字其實我都搞唔清楚,係 “l” 定係 “n” 音。

(Yeah, this is a good question, I also hear it quite often. However, I first want to give a disclaimer, as I am no expert on this–I am not a phonetics specialist. But my basic understanding, as we all know, is that language–particularly spoken language–is constantly changing along with the times. So in the past you may have heard your dad or mom, or your grandparents–maternal grandpa, maternal grandmother, paternal grandfather, paternal grandmother–speak Cantonese that is a little different from today’s. Or they might ask, why is it that young people these days say stuff differently from the way it used to be said? One classic example is that today, many people do not differentiate the “l” and “n” sounds. In fact, when I was just speaking with you, I said some words that I also don’t differentiate clearly in terms of having an “l” or “n” sound.)

因爲呢個呢,喺廣東話呢,呢兩個音對於好多人嚟講已經係等於一個音嚟嘅,即係無論14你講 “l” 或者 “n” 呢,對一啲人嚟講係同一個音。噉英文呢,我哋喺語音學會話呢個係一個 merger,即係呢兩個音呢,合成一個音,因爲隨住時間嘅變化。噉所以呢,你亦都會聽到有啲人話“你講嘢呀,”有啲懶音15呀“。噉佢哋覺得話呢個係因爲一個人好懶呀,懶惰呢,就將嗰啲音發得唔清楚。噉但係係咪真係因為懶呢個問題呢?噉我哋真係要去問多啲人,去收集多啲資料,我哋先知。

(Because, in Cantonese, for many people, these two sounds have already become one sound–no matter whether you are saying “l” or “n,” to some people, these are the same sound. In linguistics, we would call that a “merger,” where two sounds fuse into one, as there is an evolution over time. So you’ll hear some people say, “Why you speak, you have a 'lazy' accent." [Some] people think this is because people are lazy and aren’t producing the sounds clearly, but is this really happening because people are “lazy?” We really need to go ask more people and collect some data in order to know.)

噉但係呢,譬如你問我呀,我都發現我經常將好多 “n” 音 ,嗰個鼻音16呢,就會變成 “l” 音,係舌尖17(誤:應為舌邊18)音。噉可能對有啲人嚟講,發音好似會容易啲嘅。我舉個例子啦,噉其實唔係淨係 “n”,“l” 呢個問題嘅。我哋亦都有講到啦,譬如 “ng” 音啦,有啲人會覺得好難發呀。我哋經常講“我”呀,“牛”呀,呢啲字。我舉一個好常講嘅例子就係 “I love you”。噉廣東話點講呀?

(However, if you ask me, I often find that when I make the “n” nasal sound, it becomes an “l” sound produced at the tip of the tongue [CORRECTION: side of the tongue]. So for some people, the pronunciation might seem to be easier. I’ll give an example other than that of the n/l issue. We also talk about the “ng” sound, some people find it very difficult to produce. We often say ngo5 (I) or ngau4 (cow), these words. I’ll give a very common example: “I love you.” Now how do you say that in Cantonese?)

Cameron: “我愛你”。

(Ngo5 ngoi3 lei5.)

Raymond: 哈。噉我都聽到呢,你“我”啦,你就有講 “ng” 啦,“愛”我都聽到你有 “ng” 喎。但係你個“你”呢,你係用 “l” 喎。噉所以呢,你都係有啲呢,係有我哋所謂19即係,一啲傳統20啲嘅正音,一啲呢就係現代啲嘅,噉有人叫“懶音“噉樣。噉你問下好多人即係佢哋話,“哎呀你講嘢有懶音呀”,你問下佢哋點樣講“我愛你”,佢哋係講 “ngo5 ngoi3 nei5” 定係 “o5 oi3 lei5”,定係“ngo5 ngoi3 lei5” 定係 “ngo5 oi3 nei5” 呀?噉其實係每個人講都唔一樣。所以我覺得呢個就係嗰個音變21呢,隨住時間嘅變化,係一個好有趣嘅現象22嚟嘅。

(Ha. I heard for the “I” [ngo5] you used an “ng,” and for the “love” [nogi3]  I also heard an “ng,” but for “you” [lei5] you used an “l.” So you used some of what we would call a more traditional “correct” accent, as well as some of a more contemporary “lazy” accent. If you asked a lot of people they might say, “Aiya, what you are saying has a bit of a lazy accent,” but if you ask them to say “I love you,” would they say “ngo5 ngoi3 nei5” or “o5 oi3 lei5”  or “ngo5 ngoi3 lei5” or “ngo5 oi3 nei5?” Everyone will say it differently. So I definitely think of this as a sound change, a change with the time, and a very interesting phenomenon.)

Cameron: Yeah, and I think it's also actually really fascinating because I know, as a language student, I often want hard and fast answers. I want there to be, “This is the way that things are said,” but we forget that language–like, even English–is constantly evolving and changing, and sometimes when we're learning a language and we notice that things aren't always consistent, it's actually because we're really, we're jumping right in, sort of into the heart of things, and are immediately aware of the fact that things aren't fully standardized. I think it's also maybe a bit challenging if you've been studying another East Asian language, particularly Mandarin, Korean or Japanese, because all three of those languages are incredibly standardised and have government-designed tests that sort of give you a target to study for it that tells you “this is the grammar point you need to know, the pronunciation of this character that you need to know”. But I actually think it's kind of refreshing when you're learning a language like Cantonese where you become a little bit more open to the fact that the language is alive, and that you know, your expectations might not always match what you hear, so you learn to be a little bit more flexible. So yeah, maybe it's not such a bad thing. How do you deal with that though, in the classroom? Like how have you taught students to find flexibility?

Raymond: 係,我覺得你啱啱解釋得好好嘅,因爲好似呢啲我哋啱啱講嘅 “n” 同 “l” 呢啲音呢,合併變成一個音呀,又或者係啲音嘅變化呢,唔係淨係廣東話有啦,你啱啱都講到就甚至英文都有。我最近都睇到一個,即係一個報導23啦,一個人去分享佢嘅經驗呢,佢好似係做嗰啲電台24主持25呀,係呀佢做一個電台嘅主持。噉呢就有啲觀衆就話呢,唔鍾意佢講嘢呢好重嗰啲南部26嗰啲鄉音27呀,英文應該係咪叫 drawl,噉係南部嗰啲發音。

(Yes, I think you explained it well just now, as in the case of the “n” and “l” example that we spoke about before where they become one sound or the sound changes, it’s not only Cantonese that is like this, but even English. I recently saw a report where someone shared their experience as a radio host–yes, they are a radio host. They had some listeners who did not like what they said, saying they had a heavy southern accent–what you call a “drawl” in English, yes? That sort of southern accent.)

Cameron: 哦。


Raymond: 噉就話, “哎呀你講嘢呢,即係所謂 好鄉下”噉樣。噉佢呢最初都唔開心嘅,噉但後來佢諗下諗下,佢覺得,我又唔係做一個新聞報導員,我係做一個我自己嘅節目嘅主持,噉我應該有自己講嘢嘅特色28,我唔應該改變自己嘅。噉你唔似聽一個新聞節目,你唔係想聽佢嘅性格29,或者聽佢嗰個人嘅特點呢,噉佢哋可能會有一定嘅標準。噉所以講返返嚟廣東話呢,即係除非你真係要做一個新聞嘅報導員呀,電台嘅廣播員30呀,報告天氣呀,噉嗰啲人你話要聽得清清楚楚噉樣,噉可能真係有一套標準。噉但係你問下我哋嘅學生,我哋嘅學生唔係,即係多數都唔係要做呢啲嘅工作呢,佢哋最重要就要同人溝通31,係咪?

(That is to say, “Aiya, the way you speak sounds so country.” At first they [the announcer] was not too happy, but later they thought about it and realized, I am not a newscaster, I am the host of my own program, so I ought to have my own quirks, I shouldn’t change myself. It’s not like when you are listening to a news program where you don’t want to hear the newscaster’s character or their idiosyncrasies, as they might have certain standards. So bringing it back to Cantonese, unless you want to be a newscaster on the radio, reporting the weather or the like, the sort of person whose speech must sound incredibly clear, well, then there might be a set of standards. But if you ask our students, for the most part they don’t want this sort of work, so the most important thing is communication, right? )

同埋佢哋反而一個問題就話經常佢哋喺書本學嘅嗰個音,點解同佢朋友,佢去到香港呀、澳門呀、廣州呀同佢朋友傾偈都唔一樣嘅點解,噉就係呢個原因喇。噉所以呢,我哋教嘅時候呢好似 “n”, “l” 啦,我哋都會直接32話俾佢聽,“n”, “l” 而家呢,有人講 “l”,有人講 “n”,我哋唔會扣你嘅分嘅。噉你講邊一個唔緊要。噉但係如果你有興趣,你真係想知呢,噉我哋會話可能 “n” 係比較早期多啲人講 “n”,而家係變緊去 “l”,或者 “n”, “l” 係變成同一個噉樣。我哋會講呢啲原則33嘅。噉就唔係話,你一定要讀呢個音噉。噉但係同埋,噉樣例子又唔算好多好多嘅。最主要我哋講咗 “n”, “l” 啦,噉仲有 “ng”,你發唔發 “ng” 嗰個音啦。其他就,係我而家暫時34都諗唔到好多,係呢兩個我諗係比較多。

(Another question that comes up a lot is about why the pronunciation that they [students] encounter in textbooks is different from what they hear when talking to friends in Hong Kong, Macau, or Guangzhou. So when we teach about “n” and “l”, we directly address this, saying that these days with “n” and “l”, some people say “n” where others say “l,” so you won’t lose points on this [on a test], it doesn’t matter which one you say. But if you are interested and really want to know, I will say that earlier more people said “n”, and now it is shifting to “l,” or “n” and “l” are becoming the same. We will talk about these sorts of principles, but we don’t say, you must use this pronunciation. Yet there aren’t a ton of these sorts of examples [of shifting pronunciation], the main one is really “n” or “l,” and also “ng,” whether or not you create the “ng” sound. However, for now I can’t think of very many, I think these two come up more.)

Cameron: Or maybe also a “gw” versus “g”? I noticed this because I hear people say my own name. I hear “gwok” and “gok”.

Raymond: 係喇,你提醒35咗。係,嗰個 “w” 嗰個音,喺 “g” 呀 “k” 呀後面嗰啲呢。個呢,但係我哋有啲時候,我哋亦都會講返俾啲同學聽,有啲係可以接受,唔可以接受,點解呢,因爲你如果你將 “g” 同 “gw”,即係將佢變成一個呢,噉有時有啲字呢,佢個意思會變咗嘅,或者我會聽錯嘅,係咪?一個人個名你可能你真係會比較執着36呀,比較堅持37。即係話“呢個我個名嚟嘅,你應該噉樣講”。又或者你如果係,我哋知道有香港啦,有廣州啦,噉呀,香港呢,如果你變成一個字呢,噉多數會用個“港”字啦。

(Yes, you reminded me, that “w” sound after “g” or “k.” However, there are also times when we will tell students that sometimes it [dropping the “w”] is acceptable, sometimes it’s not. Why? Because if you take the “g” and “gw” and make them one, there are some words for which their meaning really changes or they can be misheard, right? For a person’s name you might be more stubborn, more strict, as “This is my name, you should say it like this.” Also, we know there is Hong Kong [hoeng1 gong2] and Guangzhou [gwong2 zau1], but for Hong Kong, if you change it to one character [as a demonym], you would usually choose gong2.)

廣州,如果你用一個字去介紹呢,你會用個“廣”字啦。噉如果你“港”,“廣”你兩個字分唔清呢,你究竟38係講緊“我要去香港”呢,定係“我要去廣州”呢?噉會搞錯,例如你嗰啲火車飛呢,可能淨係寫一個字嘅。噉你講錯咗,噉就去錯地方喇係咪?噉所以呢啲情況39呢,會令到嗰個意思會令人混亂40呀,或者搞錯呀,噉呢啲我哋會比較強調41返你要分清楚啲。所以“港”,“廣”呀,“角”, “國”呀,我哋喺某啲情況下多數我地都會盡量42分開,因爲嗰個意思會影響43嘅。但係你話 ”ngo5” 同 “o5” 呢,你講咗呢兩個唔會影響個意思囉,噉所以我哋都,呢個就,解釋咗咩情況下,我哋會比較強調個分別。

(For Guangzhou, if you used one character to introduce it, you would use gwong2. So if you don’t differentiate clearly between gong2 and gwong2, are you ultimately saying, “I am going to Hong Kong” or “I am going to Guangzhou?” This will lead to mistakes, like on a train or plane where maybe only one character is written. If you say it wrong, won’t you go to the wrong place? So this sort of circumstance will cause the meanings to get muddled or mistaken, so we [instructors] will emphasize more that you need to clearly differentiate. For gong2 and gwong2, gok and gwok, in those cases we will try as hard as possible to differentiate, as it influences the meaning. But for “ngo5” and “o5”, these two won’t impact the meaning, so we also explain under which circumstances we need to emphasize the difference more.)

Cameron: I think that's a good point to the idea that you can be a little bit fluid with the sounds but just be aware that sometimes there are cases where if you're too fluid, it'll impact your ability to actually communicate and people will totally misinterpret what you're saying, which is definitely not something you want, but I also think it's worth just also being patient with ourselves and remembering that we have different accents when we speak. I mean, I know someone even pointed out to me recently that when I say Cantonese in English, I often say “Cant’nese,” and that's a reflection of my own, you know, upbringing and where I learned English and how I speak English, so we all say different things. And even the other languages that I mentioned earlier that have sort of a super standardized sort of government version, in general, in daily life, they also have different sounds, different ways they're spoken, so there really is like no one single form of any language, and I think that's one of the beauties of learning languages, it’s sort of embracing that, sort of multiple forms even within what we think is just a single language.