As a native speaker of both languages, Cantonese /gw/ like in 過gwo3 and Mandarin /gu/ like in 过guo4 sounds the same, but I've checked that the Cantonese one is [kʷɔː] while the Mandarin one is [kwo], is there really a difference?

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    What is your basis for claiming that one has [kw] and the other has [kʷ]? E.g. "This book on Cantonese says [kʷ], that book on Mandarin says [kw]". This is almost certainly an indiosyncratic different in author theories, and is not about the languages.
    – user6726
    Commented Sep 30, 2022 at 14:59
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    The only difference which might be worth noting is that HK Cantonese often delabialises [kʷɔ] to [kɔ] in many environments.
    – jogloran
    Commented Sep 30, 2022 at 18:58
  • @jogloran The equivalent is true of Mandarin (before /o/), though. Commented Sep 30, 2022 at 19:21
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    Mandarin Chinese has two alternative phonological analyses, the one where <gu> is /kw/ and the other where it is /kʷ/. See The Phonology of Standard Chinese, 2nd ed., 2007, Oxford, by San Duanmu.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Oct 1, 2022 at 14:06
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    In Chinese phonology, the part between the initial consonant (声母) and the main vowel (韵腹) is called 介音. Some examples in Mandarin are u in 过 (guo) and i in 介 (jie). Cantonese has lost all of its 介音 except the w in gw and kw. So it's more convenient to analysis this w as just a part of the initial consonant instead of a 介音.
    – alephalpha
    Commented Oct 20, 2022 at 6:52

1 Answer 1


In an extremely narrow transcription:

  • [kʷ] is a single sound, a type of [k] with rounded lips. The lips are rounded at the same time as the occlusion starts, and they're unrounded as soon as the occlusion ends (plosive burst).
  • [kw] is a sequence of two sounds. First you get a [k], with unrounded lips; you'll get the occlusion and the burst. Then you get the [w], where the lips are rounded and the tongue gets close to the velum without touching it, as typical for approximants.

In practice... well. Speech does not segment so neatly. More often than not, you'll hear speakers using [kʷ], [kʷw] and [kw] interchangeably, sometimes even for the same word in different utterances. So when you're transcribing a language, there's a lot of room to transcribe all those sounds as [kʷ] or [kw].

Often the decision between one or another will be personal, and up to the author. Sometimes however you'll get people transcribing it as [kʷ] because, for the sake of phonotactics, it behaves like a single unit; while [kw] would behave as two units.

Sorry if this does not directly answer your question, as I don't speak either language. But hope that it helps anyway.

  • You did answer my question, thank you. ^^
    – Gaai Chia
    Commented Oct 1, 2022 at 11:40

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