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Do Cantonese speakers still understand speech when all syllables are spoken in a neutral tone (similar to the Mandarin's 5th tone)? And to what extent do they understand it?

I spoke to a Cantonese waiter and I was particularly tired at that time so I was unable to articulate my tones and they seem to not understand anything at all.

I heard somewhere that if you forget the tone it's safer to use a neutral tone to avoid saying bad words and the like.

  • i think that the answer is no. one could not "grep" the correct character from syllables without tones. – 水巷孑蠻 Aug 5 '16 at 9:39
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Depends. if you have all tones incorrect, then it's hard to guess what you are saying, but if you have only 1 or 2 incorrect, generally people can understand you. For example, if I say, I duck your mom. You probably get the meaning. but if I say, I duck your nun. you will be confused.

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Since every phoneme has many different tones, the possible permutations get very large very quickly. Each phoneme can have up to 7 possible meanings based on the tone. If you speak a sentence of 5 phonemes for example where each phoneme has 7 possible meanings the number of possible sentences is about 16,000.

Of course the context helps to narrow down the possibilities, so if you are in a restaurant ordering from a menu then a smart enough waiter might be able to figure it out, but in general proper use of tones is essential.

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