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I've recently been taking Cantonese lessons from a Hong Kong native speaker, and as a result I realised that the Cantonese speakers in my family (who are also native speakers, but from Singapore) all pronounce the phoneme /œː/ something like [jɔ]. Does this realisation originate somewhere in China, or is it something that arose in Singapore?

Examples are the word 兩 (loeng5), which I've always heard pronounced roughly like [ljɔŋ]. And the phrase 緊張 (gan2 zoeng1), which has entered general (non-Chinese) Singlish usage, is pronounced [kan t͡ɕjɔŋ]. (This might be a bad example because 緊張 might be borrowed into Singlish from Hokkien and not Cantonese, I'm not sure.) I don't think it's just before [ŋ] as well; to test this I asked my mother how to say "bird" in Cantonese and she said [t͡ɕjɔk] whereas my teacher says [tsœːk] for 雀 (zoek3).

I hope this isn't a dumb question but I couldn't find much online even referring to this sound change as a feature of Singaporean Cantonese, let alone what its source might be, and whether it is perhaps a Hokkien influence that happened in Singapore, or perhaps a vestige of a dialect of Cantonese spoken in China. Thanks!

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    While I don’t know much about Cantonese (you’ll probably want @Michaelyus for that), I can say that out of your three examples, two correspond to Mandarin syllables that have a palatal glide ([j] in 兩 liǎng, [ɥ] in 雀 què), and the third is reconstructed to have had one in Middle Chinese (張 /trjaŋ/, /ʈiɐŋ/, /ȶi̯aŋ/, etc., depending on whose reconstructions you follow). So it would not be unexpected at all if some forms of Cantonese retained /jɔ/ sequences, while others (Hong Kong) merged them into /œ/ through i-mutation. Mar 19 at 13:37
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    That basically is the answer @JanusBahsJacquet!
    – Michaelyus
    Mar 21 at 8:40
  • @Michaelyus Ah, so the [jɔ] pronunciation is (in some sense) the older pronunciation and not a Hokkien-influenced mangling of [œ]?
    – marcelgoh
    Mar 21 at 21:55

1 Answer 1

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香, 兩, 想 all belong to the 陽 final in Middle Chinese, which is reconstructed as having (Baxter) jang / (Wang Li) /ĭaŋ/.

This final regularly became /œːŋ/ in the 廣府 Guangfu region, as we hear across the Pearl River Delta. This passed through a rounding stage first (as with the majority of Middle Chinese instances of /aŋ/ in Cantonese), with /ĭaŋ~jaŋ/ resulting in */jɔŋ/. This underwent some i-mutation, but this is gradual and fairly recent; even by 1856 when Samuel Wells compiles A tonic dictionary of the Chinese language in the Canton dialect (page xxii), the final still includes the glide:

éu as in Capernaum, say 'em ; héung, léuk

Note that in other Yue varieties such as Hoisanese/Toisanese/Taishanese (台山話), the 陽 final is still realised with a glide, and sometimes the vowel retains a more conservative variant, such as /jaŋ/ [in 台城/赤坎] or /jɔŋ/ [in 牛江] or /jœŋ/ [in 白沙].

However, it is not likely that Straits Cantonese draws a direct line of descent from these Seiyap 四邑 varieties. Rather, 19th century Cantonese has been in close contact with Hokkien, Teochew, and Hakka (which have /iɔŋ/, /iaŋ/ and /ioŋ/ respectively) in the Straits; this has likely slowed further coalescence towards the monophthong /œː/ in Malaysian and Singaporean Cantonese. Nonetheless, the prestige and normative power of Hong Kong-based media for the Cantonese-speaking world (and indeed for a lot of the Chinese community in Malaysia and Singapore in general - one example shows how a predominantly Hakka conversation code-switched a few select Cantonese terms) has meant the /œː/ phoneme has now become more common.

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  • Thanks so much for this detailed answer, really cleared it up for me!
    – marcelgoh
    Mar 22 at 4:49
  • Is there either a missing or extraneous palatal in “as with the majority of Middle Chinese /aŋ/ to */jɔŋ/”? Not all /aŋ/ finals became */jɔŋ/, did they? For example, would 湯 (Baxter thang /tʰaŋ/) have become */tʰjɔŋ/ at some stage and then lost the glide again? Mar 22 at 9:18
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I have a parenthesis there, but I can certainly make it clearer!
    – Michaelyus
    Mar 22 at 9:30
  • Oh, I see now – I missed that the brackets stopped after /aŋ/, not after /jɔŋ/! Mar 22 at 10:55

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