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The Cantonese romanization scheme that I know is Yale Romanization, which to me makes the most sense and is the easiest to read of any that I've seen. It seems to give a very good idea of how to pronounce things and is easier to read than, say, trying to remember which number goes with which tone. I'm aware, however, that there are others out there. Is Yale the most common and if not, what is? What schemes do you all use? Should I take the time to learn another?

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...and what is the best system to type Cantonese? –  tbaums Dec 18 '11 at 6:53
@tbaums - Your comment is a separate question and is also off topic for this site as asking for the best of something is subjective. –  xiaohouzi79 Dec 19 '11 at 1:46

2 Answers 2

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This will give you a good background into each of the systems:

Cantonese romanization systems are based on the accent of Canton and Hong Kong, and have helped define the concept of Standard Cantonese. The major systems are Barnett–Chao, Meyer–Wempe, the Chinese government's Guangdong Romanization, Yale and Jyutping. While they do not differ greatly, Yale is the one most commonly seen in the west today.

I think it's all personal preference. As you mention the Yale system makes most sense to you, then I would stick with that.

Each system is about providing you a tool, but they all have the same aim. To enable you to understand Cantonese. To this end, there is no benefit in learning two of them thoroughly.

Another point is that romanization systems are limited in the benefit they provide for learning a language. They are covering a very minute amount of knowledge. So most students (in China) learn pinyin as a first step and then discard it. It is studied in the first month to become familiar with the sounds and letters and then it is only used for reading for a year or two after that. So don't rely on this as the cornerstone of your learning or as a regular tool for reading, use it as the most basic of tools, it is essentially just a 2 or 3 letter representation along with a tone to teach you pronounciation.

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The two most common systems are Yale and Jyutping, the latter was invented as late as 1993. I think both are included alongside pinyin in Unicode's a perhaps other Chinese lookup tables.

My own experience is that hardly any native speakers are even aware of these systems, especially in mainland China where they don't learn their own language at school at all. I have heard though that natives tend to use Jyutping, while Yale is used in nearly all English teaching material for Cantonese and is thus more popular among foreigners.

Then there is a third, obscure system with no tone information, that nobody uses, that unfortunately the HK government has officially romanized all place names, personal names, and so on, with. So neither system is good for reading romanized signs, maps et c! Sigh... :)

I'd recommend learning and using Jyutping over Yale, for a few reaons:

  • It's recommended by the Linguistic Society of Hong Kong, who invented it. (Not a big reason perhaps.)
  • It is based on pinyin and uses the same letters for the same sounds. I think this is good for a Cantonese romanization system because many, many, many more people know pinyin and it's better to make Cantonese more accessible by being compatible with it and avoiding confusion.
  • I think this "pinyin-model" is more consistent and give better information about the sounds (but this is subjective). In any case, Jyutping distinguishes more sounds and is more accurate.
  • Jyutping gets tones right. It has a straight-forward, consistent model where other systems are just confusing.
    The alternatives are: the 9-tone model that scares away potential learners, while the last 3 aren't actually separate tones at all; the official romanization which ignores tones entirely; Yale that only seems to give limited tone information and is inconsistent, using tone marks for some tones, nothing for others, and sometimes uses double a:s or h:s to mark tones.

Yes, it's hard to get used to those 6 tones, but tones aren't optional. Believe me, it's much more frustrating when you eventually speak the language well and you're trying to read signs with unfamiliar Chinese characters and the romanized text totally lacks tone data. What are you supposed to do, read all permutations and ask a native which one makes sense? If you really want to make a wild guess, you can just ignore the number at the end...

  • If you learn Jyutping you can use it to input characters especially in Linux-systems, but also in Windows and perhaps Mac OS X, I think, by using commercial software.
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Definitely familiar with the romanization used on signs in HK as I lived there for two years. In my mind, there's no way you could ever learn to speak Cantonese using that method. I actually already know Yale, so Jyutping would be learning a new method for me, and honestly looking at it I feel like Yale is actually more intuitive and that the double 'a' or the 'h' for tones makes it quite easy to read quickly. The point that it is based on Pinyin is well taken, though, and I may take the time to learn Jyutping at some point if only for that reason. –  Zannjaminderson Feb 3 '12 at 16:31
Reason #2 is not completely true! "j" in Jyutping is "y" in Pinyin and Yale. But "c" and "z" in Jyutping are the same in Pinyin but in Yale they are "j" and "ch". –  Apprentice Queue Oct 31 '13 at 17:50
Reason #4 is not correct. The Jyutping numeric tone markings are exactly the same as Yale's. Yale also has non-numeric tone markings which are similar to Pinyin and very intuitive: ā,á,a,àh,áh,ah which represent high, high rising, neutral, low falling, low rising, and low. –  Apprentice Queue Oct 31 '13 at 17:56
@ApprenticeQueue Thank you for your comments, those are valid and good points. Perhaps it is just more common that people or books claim to use Yale, but then omit tone info (except 'h') because they don't know better. Jyutping tends to be correct when it's used (?). But if used as you suggest, I agree that Yale would work just as well. –  gaidal Nov 1 '13 at 19:52

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