Learning Mandarin in Cantonese Land II: Vowel Shifts

In addition to the consonant changes listed in the table in my first post, there are some interesting vowel changes that occasionally occur when Cantonese speakers speak Mandarin.

Example 1: “i”

First of all, a little review about now “i” is pronounced in Mandarin (sounds from here):

  • “chi”
  • “ci”
  • “qi”

As mentioned, the Cantonese (and other Southerners) will frequently mix up the first two (“chi” and “ci”). The only difference will be the initial consonant because those two vowels are roughly the same. But on rare occasions I’ve also heard them actually change the vowel (and the initial consonant).

For example, a fruit seller asked me “吃饭了吗?” which should have sounded like:

  • chī fàn le ma?


  • cī fàn le ma?

But actually became:

If you don’t know that’s possible (and even after you DO), it makes it very hard to guess the meaning of what you’re hearing. It’s basically like a fāngyán 方言.

Example 2: “-an” vs. “-ang”

Remember how the “-n” and “-ng” get mixed up in Cantonese land? It can be a big problem for listening comprehension.

The “a” vowel stays roughly the same in words like:

  • chuán = boat
  • chuáng = bed

These I can usually handle. Similar to the confusion that might arise if someone says in English “Do you like to sin at KTV?”, you can probably guess that she just meant “sing.”

When Cantonese speakers make the same “mistake” in Mandarin, you can usually guess from the context which one they meant (but they still giggle even if a Chinese speaker means to ask “When did you two get on the boat?” and actually says “When did you two get into bed?”).

However, for words beginning with “y / q / j / x”, the “a” vowel is actually different depending on whether the ending is “-n” or “-ng”:

  • yán = salt
  • yáng = sheet / goat

I was talking to one student and was totally stumped when she asked me if I had a:

  • bīnxiān

Her classmate (somehow miraculously knew what she meant and) hit her on the arm and said:

If she had just been asking whether I wanted ice in my drink, and she’d said “bīn” instead of “bīng”, I could have figured it out because the words sound the same except for the “-n” or “-ng”. But the kicker was really “xiān” because the vowels are different from “xiāng.”

  • xiān = first
  • xiāng = box

Ironically, the same student, only a few minutes later made the opposite mistake and asked me what kind of “xiàng” I like in my dumplings (it should be “xiàn” ). I still wasn’t ready for it, but there was only one word it could have been.

The amazing thing about the “xian” / “xiang” experience was that they were so clearly phonemic packages in her mind. “If it’s got an ‘-ng’ at the end it must have such-and-such vowel.” Until I heard that, I thought that syllables in the “y / q / j / x” family would be safe from “-n / -ng” changes because I assumed the memory of the correct vowel sound would prevent any confusion. Or, I thought the vowel would stay unchanged even if the speaker failed to produce the “-n / -ng” correctly. How wrong I was!


Although the changes to consonants (listed here) that occur down here are tough to deal wtih, awareness of the options, practice, and some guessing can get me to where I can still understand what’s being said. On the other hand, the meanings of words that have undergone these vowel changes are nearly impossible to guess except in extremely high frequency words (like “have you eaten”).

2 Replies to “Learning Mandarin in Cantonese Land II: Vowel Shifts”

  1. I was actually really confused the other day when somebody said something that sounded like qī pàn… I just stood there stunned repeating qī pàn until one of his classmates laughed and said chī fàn. Then everybody laughed including the original guy, and he said his mandarin was really bad. I had nothing to do but agree…

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