Cantonese Characters Reborn

So, for those of you that aren’t aware, it’s possible to write down Chinese dialects other than Mandarin using characters specific to that dialect.  Much like dialect spelling in English, it’s not necessarily apparent to an outsider how to read them.

Here’s a random selection of Cantonese ones, courtesy of HouHou: 嗰、噉、咁、嘅、㗎、啦、喇、囉、呢、咩、乜、嘢.

They… are not really fit for purpose.  There are amongst the most common words in Cantonese, yet many of them are difficult to write.  And, all the mouth radicals (口) are an eyesore.

Here’s the catch-all solution I proposed a couple days back on MakMak’s blog:

Personally, what I think would be best would be an IPA-equivalent that’s graphically compatible with “normal” Chinese characters, such that standard Chinese characters and phonetic characters could be freely mixed without the whole thing looking a total mess.

This would save people (especially Cantonese-as-a-second-language-learners) the hassle of having to learn hundreds of characters not used by the vast majority of Chinese-language speakers. A sentence might look like this: 我우日早우린로 (where the Hangul are arbitrary representatives of the proposed phonetic transcriptions in the sentence 我琴日早啲返嚟.)

This system could be extended and adapted for all non-Mandarin languages, with phonetic components used systematically for different dialects. In other words, there would be a vast array of components, only some of which would be used for each dialect – in much the same way as the IPA.

And now, I can also present unto you folks what that’d actually look like, using butchered bopomofo.  I added two new characters, for ‘ng’ (by inverting the one for Mandarin ‘x’) and for the ‘t’ stop (by doubling up the left hand side of the one for ‘er’).

The colours are there because the image I copied the components from had colours.  Characters are read left-to-right and then top-to-bottom.  I figure tone marks can go at the top right of each character.  I’m thinking that a maximum of three components per character would be best, consistent with the initial-middle-final way of breaking down Chinese-language sounds.

The text for the first two lines reads 我係一個人.  The last line is garbage, designed to show how triple components might look.

Personally I like the second line’s style more than the first: what do all the would-be Cantonese-language reformers out there think?



7 thoughts on “Cantonese Characters Reborn

  1. Nice work, the odd numbered component characters look better than I expect. I also like the look of the 2nd alternatives. These are just examples and they are not the “real” design of the phonetic components right?

    One thing that seems kind of out of place are the tone indicators. I did an experiment by hand-writing alignment #2 alternatives several times on a paper. Part of the blame probably lies in my bad hand-writing but what happened was that on my 3rd and more familiar attempt, I tried to write a little faster, which made some of the words look distorted. For example (using alignment #2 as reference), the last phonetic character for 人 started to look like 兮 with the tone mark added. I can accept tone 3 and 6 but 2 and 5 were quite odd as well.

    Personally, I find that squeezing a tone indication inside them isn’t going to be an easy task, considering that even amongst the consistency in component placement within a character space, there’s still a bit of randomness as such is the nature of language phonology. Most of the time this would probably make the tone marks look out of place. What I suggest is this; use a single component to represent the tone of the character before it. Yep this would make it similar to Japanese and perhaps we might need more paper for longer essays, but for the sake of protecting ours healthy eyes (and not so healthy ones), this idea actually doesn’t seem too bad. It’s neat and easier to write in small squares. Don’t forget that we would still be using mostly Chinese characters alongside the phonetic+tones.

    So what do you think?

  2. The idea I was using for the tones actually came from the Japanese は>ば>ぱ (where the extra mark at the top right alters the consonant sound: the three characters are ha, ba and pa)… the tone marker shapes I used were arbitrary, and could be easily modified.

    Having said that, I guess there’s no reason why we couldn’t just use an extra component instead. I agree that their placement and reading may otherwise be tricky.

    The components are slightly modified bopomofo, which is generally used in Taiwan instead of pinyin. You can find all 37 shapes on Wikipedia. They’re generally derived from ancient Chinese characters, which is nice, but doesn’t mean that we’d have to use them if it’s not typologically attractive or convenient. They were just easy for me to copy and paste 🙂

    • Sorry I think my post was kind of vague, I forgot to include the details. What I meant to do with the extra component that indicates the tone is to exist as a single component by itself. Let me explain this in greater detail.

      I’ll just use this random existing Chinese character 丏 to represent one of those phonetic characters. Let’s pretend that makes the sound of “h-oe-ng (hoeng)”.
      Now here are 6 components to indicate tones (aka butchering bopomofo):
      1 – ㄝ
      2 – ㄛ
      3 – ㄎ
      4 – ㄟ
      5 – ㄜ
      6 – ㄞ

      And with that, we get:
      (丏 = hoeng)
      丏ㄝ = hoeng1 = 香、鄉
      丏ㄛ = hoeng2 = 享、響
      丏ㄎ = hoeng3 = 向

      What do you think of this?

      • Yup, I got what you meant and was deliberately vague in my response 😉 I didn’t want to write confusingly or use a sharp 語氣. So, more explicitly:

        1) I think having a separate component for tones is a good idea.

        2) I don’t like the aesthetics of having a whole extra character space taken up by a comparatively small piece of information, so I think it would also be okay to include the tone component as part of the whole phonetic character.

        3) My sense of aesthetics are not the same as everyone/anyone else’s and it may be that most people would be in favour of your two-part system. I haven’t asked anyone else yet, so I don’t know which, if either, would ‘win’.

        In other words, my own aesthetic objections aside, I think your idea might be better than cramming too much information in too small a space, but I don’t know what anyone else thinks – that’s what’s most important.

        In the grand scheme of things, my opinion doesn’t matter too much 😉 I’m just a 學廣東話嘅鬼仔. I have no special authority over Cantonese, or any other language for that matter.


        • Haha I’m sorry, I wasn’t sure if you understood what I said before since it was kind of vague, but I thought it wouldn’t hurt for me to explain things a bit. At least others who come here will find a better explanation (people like me who are lacking in English).

          In my opinion, if there is a clearer or less messy way to include the tone mark/component as part of the whole phonetic character, I will definitely support it. Why don’t you post your ideas at the Cantodict forum?

          • Don’t say sorry la, you’re right, it’s not going to only be me who reads this stuff~ And yeah, I definitely agree, whatever the final system is it has to be simple and easy to read.

            Actually, I did already post something over there but no-one replied… I’ll put something else of there in a couple of days~

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