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. Aug 5 '16 at 9:39

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.


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.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.