Common Phonetic Spelling

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The Common Phonetic Spelling is the phonetic spelling system devised in 2012 by the British-based Chinese lexicographer Ian Low in his Chinese to English dictionaries.[1]

The purpose of this system was to simplify and clarify understanding of Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations. This was achieved by ironing out inconsistencies in the current spelling systems in both dialects where the same letters are used to represent different sounds. For example, the letter 'e' in Mandarin Hanyu Pinyin spelling is pronounced differently in fēi飛(IPA e sound) and xiē些(IPA ɛ sound). Similarly the letter 'e' in Cantonese is pronounced differently in fēi飛(IPA e sound) and sē些(IPA ɛ sound). The Roman letters in Common Phonetic Spelling are transcribed directly from bopomofo so that there is no variation in the sound of each letter (except for the letter 'i' which is used both for the 'i' vowel and 'y' consonant sounds). Hence, the 26 letters of the alphabet represent the approximate same sound in both Mandarin and Cantonese. Additionally, the same tone numbers (1 to 5 for Mandarin, and 1 to 9 for Cantonese) are used to represent the approximate same pitch modulations in both dialects.

Consonant and Vowel Letters[edit]

The 26 letters transcribed directly from bopomofo are shown in following table.

Common Phonetic Letter Pronunciation Bopomofo Cantonese Example Mandarin Example
A ah 阿a8 阿a4
B buh 巴ba1 巴ba1
C tchuh 曾cang3 曾ceng2
D duh 大daai9 大da4
E er n/a 俄e2
F fuh 飛fei1 飛fei1
G guh 個go5 個ge4
H huh 河ho3 河he2
I yuh and ee 意ii8 意ii4
J djuh 之ji1 幾jhu1
K kuh 區koei4 克ke4
L luh 力lik6 力li4
M muh 馬ma7 馬ma3
N nuh 尼nei3 尼ni2
O or 夥fo2 夥hwo3
P puh 琶pa3 琶pa2
Q dchuh 似qi7 氣qi4
R ruh n/a 熱re4
S suh 思si4 思su1
T tuh 推toei4 推twei1
U uh n/a n/a 思su1
V ü or ue 於iv4 於iv2
W wuh and oo 烏ww1 烏ww1
X tshuh 師xi1 相xiang1
Y air 謝zy9 謝xiy4
Z tzuh 子zi2 子zu3

The 12 bopomofo sounds not represented in the above list, together with their Common Phonetic spelling are provided in the table below.

Common Phonetic Spelling Letter Pronunciation Bopomofo Cantonese Example Mandarin Example
QH chuh n/a 池qhu2
JH jhuh n/a 之jhu1
XH shuh n/a 師xhu1
ER erh n/a 爾er3
ENG erng n/a 曾ceng2
ANG arng 曾cang3 長qhang2
EN ern n/a 很hen3
AN arn 凡faan3 凡fan2
OW oh 澳ow8 歐ow1
AO aow 歐ao4 澳ao4
EI ay 追joei1 追jhwei1
AI ai 拉laai1 來lai2

Tone Numbers[edit]

The nine Cantonese tones are made up of the four musical notes numbered 2, 4, 5, 6 (re, fa, so, la) in the musical scale. If one takes note 2 (re) as the tonic, then notes 4 (fa), 5 (s) and 6 (la) are respectively the minor third, perfect fourth and perfect fifth of 2 (re). From the above 4 notes, one obtains the 9 Cantonese tones through the pitch modulations detailed in the table below. The first five Cantonese tones approximate to the five tones of Mandarin. It should be noted that the tones 1 to 9 in Common Phonetic Spelling correspond to the tones 7, 2, 4, 1, 8, 9, 5, 3, and 6 in traditional Cantonese numbering.

No. Musical Tone Tone Name Cantonese Example Mandarin Example
1 6 (la) high-level 一iat1 一ii1
2 56 (so-la) middle-rising 椅ii2 移ii2
3 2 (re) bottom 移ii3 以ii3
4 64 (la-fa) high-falling 衣ii4 易ii4
5 5 (so) middle-level 客haak5 的de5
6 4 (fa) low-level 日iat6 n/a
7 45 (fa-so) low-rising 以ii5 n/a
8 54 (so-fa) middle-falling 意ii8 n/a
9 42 (fa-re) low-falling 易ii9 n/a


  1. ^ Low, Ian (2012). Dictionary of 10,000 Chinese Characters (Traditional) Goldcrest Publications:ISBN 978-1-908922-01-4, and Dictionary of 6,500 Chinese Characters (Simplified). Goldcrest Publications: ISBN 978-1-908922-03-8.